“I had no idea things were that bad. When she left it was such a shock.”
Was it really? Because I’m sure there were signs lonnnnnng before the bags were packed and a trail of smoke led out your front door. This is a common feeling for men; that we didn’t know she was going to go, till she did. We didn’t hear her all of those times when she cried and didn’t feel heard or understood. We didn’t understand just how unhappy she was, and now we clearly do as she’s no longer in our life.
Don’t shoot the messenger, the research supports what I’m saying; women initiate divorce far more than men do. It’s not like this is a shock right?! A lot of the clients I work with have male partners who aren’t interested in attending coaching with their partner. Women have a more attuned emotional barometer to the relationship. And men, although not happy that their partner is dissatisfied with the relationship, are okay with the relationship just continuing as it is.
I’m guilty of this naive ignorance. I remember when I was in my early twenties talking to my dad once and telling him about my frustrations with my then-girlfriend. She had expressed to me some things that she needed for me to do better and I responded with, “If it’s so bad, why don’t you leave? You have it so good.” Wow. What an arrogant and poor response. It hurts me to even type it because I’m sure, in that moment, I completely devastated her emotional safety and told her that her needs weren’t important. What a message to send.
When I told my dad this story and what I said, he was appalled (for good reason). He said sternly to me, “Wow Mark, she’s telling you how to love her.”
Eff. In that moment my heart descended into my stomach. I needed to be better. That wasn’t how I wanted to love. And that definitely wasn’t how I wanted my partner to feel in being loved by me. There are many moments in relationships where we are being invited to love our partner. We often think these are the big things like the anniversaries, the birthdays, and the holidays. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our invitation to love others is always in the many moments in between the ones we think are important.
John Gottman, who’s a relationship guru that studies marriages, calls our invitations to connect with our partners “bids”. This could be something as mundane as one person reading the paper and declaring out loud, “Hmmmm. That’s interesting!” They’re not just making a remark. In that comment is a request to connect. In that moment we have a choice, to either “turn towards” or “turn away” as Gottman calls it.
Just how important is responding to these bids?
In the research these interactions have an incredibly powerful effect on how our relationships fair and whether or not they will last. Couples who only turned towards bids 33 percent of the time were divorced in a six year follow up. The couples who were still in magical bliss after that same six year period responded to 87% of bids.
Wow. This is profound. Gottman can predict, just by observing a couple’s interactions, whether a couple will divorce with over 94% accuracy. This is regardless of sexual orientation, whether they have children, or their socio-economic status. So, in essence, our words and how they’re delivered, literally do shape our world.
I don’t know about you, but as a man, and a human, knowing just how powerful my words and actions are and how much they can transform the world, I’m not okay with being mediocre. I want to take responsibility for my actions, the words I choose, and how I operate in all relationships, not just romantic. As men (and women), we need to be better. We need to be committed to learning how to communicate how we’re feeling so that we don’t demonstrate those unheard feelings with anger, withdrawing, frustration and words that scathe.
Of course the challenge is that we (men) have been generally cultured and socialized to not share our feelings and frustrations. We’ve been told to not use language to communicate our fears and feelings because only pussies and sissies do that. When we engage in emotional conversations, we don’t have a toolbox filled with as many words and as much emotional fluency that can articulate the range of things we’re feeling. But, the best thing about all of this is, we can learn how to.
It takes admitting that our relationship may not be so good and that we can, in fact, get much better at communicating and understanding how to have our partners feel heard. You know how women generally want to talk about the SAME thing over and over and over and over? That doesn’t happen when they feel loved, appreciated, heard and understood. And the truth is, if you love a woman like that, she will almost always give you that same love right back.
Now, of course it would be simple if women always communicated effectively and told us what their ACTUAL needs and feelings were. So women, you’re not off the hook. You’re in a relationship with a man. And as Alison Armstrong says, “Men are not hairy women.” You need to learn how to speak his language. You need to learn that men are not broken humans who don’t have any emotional intelligence and aren’t capable of hearing you. We are different, and you also need to understand how the male brain works and that we process emotions differently (due to socialization). It’s actually on you to communicate your needs, fears and thoughts clearly. Your partner doesn’t have a google maps to your brain and heart, or even better yet, your vagina. (Although all of those things would be nice)
So, man or woman, straight, gay, whatever…We all need to begin to realize that behind every tantrum, frustration or complaint, is always an unmet emotional need. So, for example, it’s not about the fact that we left the toilet seat up AGAIN (it is funny when they fall in at 2am), it’s what leaving the toilet seat up means about them (the message they receive): they aren’t important, they’re not a priority, their needs don’t matter… etc. We need to learn how to understand what this need is and see that she (or he) is not just trying to play catch when she throws her shoe at you. She has a hurt, a wound, a fear, and what is happening is triggering that pain point. This is why communication is paramount to successful relationships.
I write this to men mainly because the emotional impact of a breakup/divorce is greater on us. This is clear in the research, as we see that men are generally more emotionally dependent on their partners. When men were asked who they would go to if they were feeling depressed, 71% of men selected their wife whereas only 39% of women selected their husband. When we lose our partners, in a lot of ways we lose our support system. Our happiness and the health benefits of relationships are also larger for us…so when we lose our relationship, often those emotions go out the door with her.
Of course hindsight is 20/20, but it doesn’t have to be.
We don’t see just how important she is, till she no longer is…with us. We don’t see how much love actually matters to us because we’re too busy watching the game. Our needs matter too, but we have to love her always, not just when we’re about to lose her. Not just till we get her back. Not just in the moments we think matter, because all moments matter.
Love and relationships require effort. We might not always understand her, but she just wants to know that we’re trying. She wants to know that our efforts match our words. She wants to know that her well being matters as much as our own. She wants to feel safe in our arms. She wants to feel loved always, not just when it’s convenient.
So love her before she leaves you. (and him too ladies).