Don’t Let Gender Expectations Ruin Your Marriage
Strong Women, Strong Love is thrilled to be featured at The Good Men Project with an excerpt from Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage. Click HERE to read more about how you can make your marriage better by understanding what you’ve been taught about men or read the excerpt below:
Men and women can have better relationships, but we need to start by critically examining the messages all of us have been given about what it means to be a man or woman in American society. This chapter sheds some light on the ways both sexes are socialized and how such experiences commonly affect how they behave in relationships. It offers effective relational strategies for reducing tension that arises from gender differences.
Are we from Mars, Venus, or Planet Earth?
The topic of differences between the sexes is highly complex and emotionally charged. Even in academic circles, people have very strong opinions about whether differences between men and women are biologically based or stem from learning. If you start exploring the possibility that one sex might be better at something than the other, things get heated even faster. John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, has been ostracized professionally for exaggerating sex differences, although he continues to be extremely popular with the public.
Please note that in this chapter, I speak in generalities, not because I think people fit into neat little boxes, but because boxes sometimes help us organize and understand information. I will be discussing the most common ways men and women behave, not the only ways. The research literature clearly shows that there are many more differences within groups of men and within groups of women than between the sexes, which is why it is inaccurate to say ALL women are like this or ALL men are like that. Remember that there is tremendous variability among people and that not everyone fits my descriptions (e.g., think of role reversals). Also, even if a person is born with certain natural tendencies, it does not mean that they cannot learn how to behave in new ways.
So, as we move forward, I encourage you to consider whether my descriptions fit your individual situation. Sweeping statements made about men or women may be highly inaccurate when applied to your partner because other factors, such as cultural upbringing, personality, or level of education also influence development. Details matter tremendously when relating effectively to the person you married.
Understanding how your partner learned to be a “real” man
Men are commonly exposed to some distinct messages about masculinity. Awareness of these messages can help you understand frequent ways men interact in relationships, thereby reducing your misinterpretation of their behavior in relationships.
According to psychologist Dr. William Pollack in Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, males still clearly receive the message that they must never be perceived as weak. Pollack says the “Boy Code” essentially teaches them, “Be a man, be strong, be brave, don’t be a sissy, don’t show your feelings.” In other words, don’t ever show your vulnerability, and whatever you do, never be perceived as feminine. Think of how rare it is, even these days, to find a parent who is comfortable allowing their son to play with dolls, cry profusely when he is hurt, or tell everyone his favorite color is pink, and you can see how “The Boy Code” is still alive and well.
Although humans by nature are interdependent, men are asked to function in a largely self-sufficient manner. The traditional world of men is highly competitive, placing tremendous pressure on men to perform and appear strong at all times. Competence, emotional control, rationality, and the ability to overcome challenges independently are revered qualities. Expressing feelings, seeking reassurance, or acknowledging difficulty may be perceived as signs of weakness that place men at risk of being ridiculed, criticized, or shamed by others. The status of being a “real” man is something earned, not something given to a man simply by virtue of his sex. Men must demonstrate that they can hold their own to be respected by others.
Men who attempt to take on less traditional roles may experience considerable confusion and frustration. The expectation that a man provide financially for his family is still prevalent, and men are often judged negatively if they depend on their wives for financial support. Think of the challenge a full-time, stay-at-home-dad faces. Although society encourages him to be an involved, loving father, he is not considered to be a “real man” if being a full-time father interferes with his ability to bring home a paycheck.
Shame is a powerful tool used to socialize men into traditional roles. The normal human reaction to excessive shame is to pull away from others and hide vulnerability. Out of necessity, men frequently appear tough, and some of them have become so adept at walling off their emotions, that expressing feelings actually feels strange. Psychologist Dr. Ronald Levant notes that some men cannot even identify what they are feeling, something he calls “normative male alexithymia.” All too often, men attempt to escape intense feelings through the use of alcohol or drugs, or they physically exit the situation generating strong emotions. Research shows that men tend to be much more emotionally isolated than women and have higher rates of suicide and chemical addiction.
The only emotion that men do not have to suppress is anger, as American society does not consider anger to be an indicator of weakness. From what I have seen, some men definitely have an intact ability to experience a wide range of emotions, but don’t always feel safe enough in their relationships to do so. Even in a therapist’s office, where one of the explicit goals is transparency, the vulnerability associated with such an endeavor can be disconcerting for many men.
Psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister openly questions how “good” men really have it. In a 2007 speech to the American Psychological Association entitled “Is There Anything Good about Men?” Baumeister discusses both the social rewards and costs of being male and the dangers of assuming one sex always has it better than the other:
When I say I am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually “How can you say culture exploits men when men are in charge of everything?” …The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too. Who’s in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Who’s homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? U.S. Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men.
The broader culture reinforces roadblocks to men’s full engagement in relationships, by portraying them as immature, incompetent, and emotionally unaffected (i.e., think Homer Simpson, Al Bundy,or most men in sitcoms). No doubt, we have all heard that:
- Men are little boys.
- Men are unemotional.
- Men are clueless about women and children.
- Men have a one-track mind.
“Who needs a man? They are good for nothing” is a prevalent attitude. Sometimes people jokingly count the husband when tallying up how many children are in a family. Male bashing among female friends is even a legitimate form of bonding. Needless to say, all these ideas are ultimately destructive to intimacy in relationships because they erode respect and trust. Rather than create an environment that allows men to become more familiar with emotional intimacy, American society assumes men lack the innate capacity to relate well and promotes incredibly low standards for men in relationships.
What women unknowingly do that triggers most men to get defensive
The male mandate to conceal vulnerability often leads men to become highly defensive and uncomfortable when women push them to be more transparent and to engage at a more intimate level. When women openly point out mistakes in an attempt to be honest, men often get their feelings hurt and respond by becoming irritated or retreating into silence. Women often have no idea how sensitive and vulnerable men often are under the surface.
Because they are under constant social pressure to be competent and have all the answers, men often take complaints very personally. Psychologist Dr. David Wexler notes that relationships serve as a mirror, reflecting back how we are perceived by others. Many men fear looking in the mirror and seeing a highly flawed reflection. For most men, their partner is the most potent mirror, so feedback from her has the emotional capacity to injure him deeply. Men fear looking in the mirror and seeing an unhappy wife who sees him as weak and incapable.
Even if you are just trying to be “open” and let him know you have unmet needs, if he believes you are miserable, he may feel he has failed you. As corny as it may sound, he wants you to see him as a hero and needs to know he can make you happy. He has been taught to use your happiness as a measure of his success in a relationship, and much of what motivates him is the desire to meet your needs.
I can recall numerous marriage therapy sessions in which a wife attempted to build intimacy by disclosing all the ways her husband was not meeting her expectations, while he sat and listened in complete silence. From a male point of view, her publicly noting his weaknesses (and so many of them at once!) is an act of aggression and disrespect. His response of silence is simply an attempt to retreat from what he perceives as an “attack.” Having seen this pattern many times, I often intervene quickly to move the couple into a more constructive stance by acknowledging both his position and positive intentions. I usually say something like:
I can see by the fact that you are here that you must love your wife deeply. You seem like a really competent, smart guy, but here’s the deal: Most men are told they need to keep their wives happy, but are simply not given the tools to accomplish that. It takes guts to come in here and openly discuss the ways the two of you are struggling so that you can figure out how to make your marriage stronger. I really admire you for that. The good news is that you already have the most important part down—you care. All we are doing here is fine-tuning.
I find the average wife is surprised to learn her husband is actually upset when he is quiet because she was fooled by his appearing so emotionally composed. She is usually quite relieved that his behavior is not due to a lack of caring and approaches him with much more compassion and realistic expectations, once she understands what is happening. So, the lesson here is to be careful about assuming a man is emotionally unaffected just because you don’t see an obvious display of feeling. There is still a human being on the inside who can be terribly hurt by cruel words, even if he has learned not to show it.
Given the tendency of most men to act tough, you may think that women love men who are actually comfortable with emotional expressiveness and vulnerability. Although the party line is that men should be more open, the response to such transparency is not always positive. Surprisingly, many women say they are turned off by a man who is “too feminine,” and feel most attracted to the strength and confidence of a more dominant man. So, the double bind for men is that women may actually reject them if they seem too vulnerable. The current social environment is truly confusing for everyone.
What about you? How much of a woman are you?
As women, we face our own fair share of pressure to conform to society’s expectations of what constitutes a “real woman.” Dr. Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power, points out that men are treated as “success objects,” while women are often treated as “sex objects” by our society. The ideal woman is physically attractive, emotionally supportive, and a good listener. She can have a husband, children, and a career, but must successfully juggle all these roles, so no one is inconvenienced by her choices. A woman can do anything a man can do, but has subtle pressure to always be mindful of her partner’s ego, making sure she is not too outspoken, competitive, or perceived as more successful than him. Society says a real woman is adaptable and eager to put the needs of others, especially her children, ahead of her own.
If her marriage is struggling, kids are misbehaving, or house is not well-kept, the woman will be judged, not her partner. Many high-achieving women fear falling short of social expectations and spend all their time trying to live up these unrealistic standards. This can cause considerable strain in a marriage, especially when her husband does not understand her pressures and may not be so “cooperative” when she asks for his help in achieving goals he considers unnecessary.
Tapping the power of diversity
In addition to individual expectations of men and women, there are also some new mandates for relationships. We have all been challenged to become more “equal” partners in our marriages. I personally believe that the term “equal” is often misunderstood in the context of relationships. There is an assumption that for a woman to be equal to a man, she must be just like him. Equal has become equated with “same.” As a result, many women feel pressure to actively reject traditional feminine ideals such as being sensitive, accommodating, or gentle in favor of traditional male qualities like independence, dominance, and competitiveness, especially since these behaviors are revered in the workplace. Women were historically trapped by the expectations of traditional femininity; now, they are often bound by the pressure to be more like men. In the end, most people are not exercising real choice about how they define themselves.
Equality in relationships is not about men and women having the exact same characteristics; it is about each individual having the same worth. We need to stop aiming to be cookie-cutter replicas of one another and embrace the differences that will inevitably exist between any two human beings, regardless of their sex. Diversity is strength. We need all the qualities human beings can express, from dominance to vulnerability or from independence to connection. The more diversity we embrace, the greater flexibility and choice we all have in defining ourselves. Having a range of ways we can respond increases our effectiveness in relationships.
Protecting your marriage from gender expectations
In the midst of all the changes in men’s and women’s roles, what I see in my office is increased fear, competition, and confusion in relationships. Couples are often lost in power struggles, aggressively vying for control and demanding love in an attempt to get their needs met. Insecurity is prevalent, while deep trust is conspicuously missing. Loneliness and a sense of failure exist on both sides of the relationship.
Women hoping to successfully engage men must remember that underneath the composed exterior of any person is the vulnerability that is simply part of being human. Everyone fears being judged when they let the world see who they truly are underneath that layer of protection. Because of socialization, the stakes may be higher for men, yet the most emotionally-rich marriages are ones where it is safe for both men and women to be real with one another.
If you seek to improve your marriage, I challenge you to keep your own ego in check and to draw on traditional feminine qualities, such as gentleness and emotional sensitivity to approach your husband. For him to fully engage, he needs to feel you believe in him, are generally happy, and want to improve the marriage, not place blame on him. Consider some of the following strategies for facilitating connection:
- Assume the best. Remember that at one point this was the man you loved enough to want a lifelong commitment. Start with the assumption that he loves you and look for common ground, responding kindly and generously whenever you can.
- Embrace differences in styles of relating. We all grew up hearing different messages about how we should relate, so don’t assume that because your husband’s style is different from yours, that it needs “fixing.” One approach is not “superior” to the other. Get curious and learn more about your individual styles. The larger the difference, the more open, respectful, and flexible both of you will need to be.
- Turn complaints into requests and directly negotiate for what you need. Minimize how much you complain and dare to directly ask for what you actually need from your husband. Remember that he wants you to be happy, but cannot read your mind. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t love me anymore,” try, “A big hug from you right now would really lift me up.” If something feels unfair, negotiate with him to change that. If you are clear and motivated to create a win/win for both of you, he will be more responsive to you. So, instead of wishing he would help with the dishes, say, “I find it really helpful when we can share the task of washing dishes. How about we take turns every other day? That would really lift some stress off me.”
- Make sure there is space for him in your life. As the list of responsibilities grows, it is all too easy to relegate your husband to the bottom of your “to do” list. Spending too little time with your husband, or engaging him only when you need help with other priorities can lead a man to feeling like he is only a means to an end, an observer in your life, or simply dispensable. It is important to convey how your husband’s presence and actions add value and meaning to your life, and keep him high on the priority list.
- Understand that his priorities and timelines may not be the same as yours. Men face different pressures from women. This means you will need to be direct in helping him understand why something is SO important to you and why it needs to be done right now. Even then, remember that he is an adult and has the option to say “no” after you make your request.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that you abandon your own needs and absolve your husband of his responsibility to work with you to strengthen your marriage. Men are not children and should never be treated as such. I am encouraging you to factor in whether gender differences are possibly the reason behind some of the difficulties you may be experiencing in your marriage.
If you are seeking emotional intimacy and find yourself consistently running into barriers, you must realistically assess whether your partner will be able to meet your needs. If you are married to a man who has exhibited emotional vulnerability in the past, but has merely distanced from you, it may be possible to reengage him. If your spouse is the stoic cowboy type whose whole identity centers on this persona, you may need to readjust your expectations.
Being well-versed in the common pressures both men and women face puts you in the position of being able to develop more realistic expectations for deepening the emotional connection with your partner. As I said earlier, it helps if your default is to believe that your partner’s intentions are positive, and that his love for you is real, especially when misunderstandings occur. I have personally witnessed hundreds of situations in which a woman assumed her partner was intentionally withholding what she needed, and it turned out he was just completely unaware and did not mean to upset or hurt her at all.
The larger the differences between you and your spouse, the more mindful you will need to be about potential miscommunication. When misunderstandings do occur, the same kindness and respect you would extend to a close friend become vital tools for preventing a rift from developing.
Men and women are much more alike than different inside. Anyone can appear invincible on the outside, but none of us, including men, are immune to the self-doubt or worry all human beings experience. These vulnerabilities are present within each of us and will either be revealed when communication is good, or hidden when it is not. So, be constructive on your end by treating your spouse with compassion, understanding, and respect. Always remember to clearly ask for what you need, and generously extend good will to each other.
All of us have a need to be understood, appreciated, and cherished.
Men and women may seem quite different from one another. Although there is much confusion about gender roles and whether men and women differ in their capacities for engagement at a more intimate level, remember that we are all human and have similar core emotional needs.