About a year ago I received a call from a woman who was interested in couples counseling. There was one problem: her husband refused to come to a counseling session. I gave her some pointers about how to help her husband become more amenable to coming and I even recommended a book. A year later she called me and told me that although the book was helpful, he was still disinterested, and she was fed up. I stressed that until her husband was ready, her only solution was to look at what she was bringing to the relationship and how she could be the best spouse she could be.
I also recommended a book entitled How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About it by Drs Patricia Love and Steven Stosny. While it seems this book would put me out of business, as much of what I do is teach couples how to talk about issues in a way that brings them to a closer connection, I thought this book would provide her with some insight into her relationship and help it improve given their inability to come to my office.
I was shocked when she called me a few weeks later and told me her that her marriage had drastically improved. While they were still not ready for counseling, her marriage went from intolerable to better than ever almost overnight. What great secret did this book reveal? One of the main contributions of the book is the theory that couples disconnect due to fear and shame. An example, men and women fear homelessness equally, though in different ways. If you were to ask a woman, her main fears would be harm, isolation, and deprivation. Most men would say that the most difficult part would be feeling like a failure. While safety may be an issue for men, the utter shame of being on the street, unemployed, etc… is the primary concern.
This gender distinction is key to establishing and maintaining connection in marriages. Men must be conscious not to trigger their wives’ fears and women must be conscious not to shame their husbands. This is especially challenging in our community where many couples get married while they are still in school. Many of the men may not yet be gainfully employed or even have a career path. This can be very scary for women who are relying on their husband to support. At the same time it can be a shameful experience for men in that position.
I have heard numerous stories of young couples where male shame is exacerbated by female fear around employment issues and vice versa. In fact, fear and shame become a cycle where her anxiety causes his shame and his shame causes her anxiety. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to be attentive to each other’s vulnerability.
Another classic example of a potentially shame producing setting is talking about the relationship. While many women feel that talking helps them feel better, men dread it. This is why many men do not want to come for counseling sessions. They aren’t “good at” expressing their emotions and talking about their feelings. Therefore, a counseling setting can be a shaming experience for a man, turning a seemingly benign encounter into yet another opportunity to fail. When couples come to see me, I often remind them to avoid blaming language in sessions. I will tell the “blaming” spouse- he really wants to hear what you have to say and understand you so that you can improve your connection. He is going to have a hard time if he feels he is being accused or criticized and will feel even more disconnected. Try sharing your feelings in a way where you take ownership.
The book gives countless examples of ways in which both men and women cause more disconnect in their relationship. The authors also provide many suggestions for relating in a way that promotes connection, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for you by revealing them all. When couples become aware of what triggers one another and learn how to relate they get into less fights and they make more room for positive energy in their relationship. As the wife told me, “we fell in love again but now it is much deeper.” It is my hope that you will find How to improve your marriage without talking as helpful and transforming as that couple did!
With best wishes for your relationship success,
Shlomo and Rivka Slatkin