Earlier this week I met with a woman who was having a lot of difficulty in her relationship. After 20 years of marriage, her husband had just moved out. She had originally asked him to move out not because she wanted to separate but because she just couldn't live with the unresolved issues that had plagued their marriage for years.
Like many couples, she and her husband were at a loss when dealing with conflict. She would get angry about something he was or wasn't doing, feeling that if he really 'loved' her he would know what she needed. They would argue and debate about who was right but never really get to the real issue. While things sometimes got better for a period of time, eventually things went back to status quo. Each time this happened, the distance between them widened.
I asked her about what things she had asked him for over the years and how she felt and reacted when he had tried to give her what she needed. She shared that even when she got what she wanted, it didn't seem to mean much because he hadn't thought of it himself. She didn't want to have to tell him what she needed. It reminded me of the scene from the movie The Break-Up when the female character was angry that her boyfriend, though willing to do the dishes, didn't really want to do the dishes. "I want you to want to do the dishes, " she said angrily. He looked at her, totally perplexed, and responded, "Why would I want to do the dishes?"
The truth is, our guys may not want to do the dishes, but they do want to make us happy. Remember, what makes a guy feel like he is succeeding as your partner? He needs to see that smile! And he needs you to tell him that his actions are making you happy. So if he does do the dishes, or takes you to dinner, or anything else that is important to you, remember to use that positive reinforcement. Once a man knows he's doing a good job with us, then he will keep trying. If he tries to make us happy, he will feel like a failure and stop trying. This is just one of the many ways that men and women are different. You're going to need to communicate that he's doing a good job very clearly, and without reference to past missteps. Otherwise, he'll stop trying and get quiet because he's really confused.
In his mind, you've asked him to do something, he's done it, and you're still mad at him. This simply does not compute for most men. His brain is saying. "Danger, danger. Something is happening that is not making any sense to me." His central nervous system is telling him to shut down until the danger passes and that is exactly what he is going to do.
Remember, male brains interpret and process information very differently than female brains. Silence and withdraw is threatening to women and we react by attempting to connect. Silence and withdraw are comforting to men and help create more dopamine which he needs to feel good. Trying to connect with him when he feels he is in a dangerous situation simply does not occur to your guy. It is counter-intuitive. So, do you try to change the system or learn to work with the system?
Even though the couple is separate they do have two children and a house that they will continue to manage together. I suggested to my client she consider thanking her husband when he did the things that were important to her. Her response was interesting. She was appalled at the idea of thanking him for something "that was his responsibility." She went on to spend a large part of our session arguing the merits of her opinion, all of which were completely valid and none of which were going to restore her marriage. When we argue the merits of our limitations, we limit the life experience we are capable of creating.
I asked her if she would be willing to try it anyway, even though it was uncomfortable, just to see if it had any effect on him. She wasn't willing, at least not at this time. Without realizing it, she is currently more invested in being right than in rebuilding a relationship with him. That may change as the reality of the separation sinks in and her angry cool a bit. I hope so!
I'm not suggesting that saying thank you a few times will repair all years of hurt and resentment. I do believe that kindnesses, such as appreciations and acknowledgments, go a long way to keeping our hearts open to creating lasting change. What matters more; that he want to do the dishes or that he does them to make you happy?