Most of the calls I receive in my office for marriage help come from women who are tired of doing all the work in their marriage. They have asked their husbands, over and over again, to get into gear and take more responsibility for the relationship. The response they get is, “Why? There is really not much wrong here; and anyways, we can fix it on our own, without help”. (By the way, most men who come into counseling after their wife has left them say, “I don’t know what happened. I thought everything was okay”). Does this sound familiar?
Men typically don’t seek outside help for their relationships for much the same reason that men won’t ask for directions. They hate not being able to figure something out on their own. Men, by nature, are trained to be independent and self-sufficient. They would rather learn from doing than from discussing.
Think about this the next time you’re watching children’s at a playground. The boys are rarely sitting around talking. They’re doing something active. The girls on the other hand spend time walking around chatting or hanging out and talking. Do you know any men who love to talk on the phone with their best friend? It is just not in their nature. I know this may sound stereotypical, but it is a general rule. Of course there are always exceptions.
On top of this, the typical husband learns to tune out the cries for more involvement until the requests get really serious. Even then he’ll usually just change a few things for a little while to get the pressure off, and then gradually slip back into old habits. The reason the change doesn’t last is because he hasn’t really understood the reason for the change in the first place. He reacts to the pressure by switching into “solve” mode.
So what does a frustrated, at wits end, spouse do? You still love him and you don’t want a divorce. How do you get his attention?
1. Reframe the problem.
Leading marriage psychologists, Andrew Christianson and Neil Jacobson, asserts that one of the major relationship patterns is that one of the spouses is pursuing and trying to get closer to the other. This usually results in a polarization effect where the one being pursued actually moves away.
This is called a closeness-distance conflict. It usually occurs when one partner desires more intimacy and closeness, (usually the wife), and the other, (usually the husband), desires to maintain an optimal amount of distance. This is essentially simply a difference in the definition of an ideal relationship. But instead of seeing this as being just a difference of definitions one partner starts to want to eradicate this difference and sees it as a major problem. The difference is seen as a deficiency in the other person. Closeness seekers see the other person as afraid of intimacy and distance seekers see the other person as too dependent and needy.
The first step in getting more of what you want is to stop attaching value judgments on differences. The partner may be distancing because he misunderstands your need of closeness as an attempt to control and smother, rather than to enjoy mutual company. Not all differences need to be intolerable, problematic or distressing. For all you know your husband’s attempt at keeping his distance is more of an ingrained personality trait than an attempt to stay away from you. He also may simply lack the skills or has very little ability to articulate his fear of losing his independence. There is no need to take this personally.
Relaxing and accepting that you both have a different view of intimacy creates a space for conversation rather than conflict. A different definition of the problem gives you the ability to realize your husband’s distance as simply a neutral difference of styles.
2. Stop trying to get their attention - that usually gets their attention.
Have you ever been looking intently for something you lost and when you finally stop looking for it somehow magically appears? This principle works the same way. When you relax, stop pursuing your spouse and simply get on with your own agenda, a magical thing occurs. The distancer stops running and begins to move into the space you created as you moved out of it. They finally feel the freedom to come towards you and the relationship. When making the decision to let go it is often best to state it to the other. “ I am going to stop chasing after you and give up my personal time and energy when it just seems to push you away. I love you very much and I want to be closer. I hope this gives you the space you need.”
After saying this you must act on it. Stop checking up on them, doing stuff for them, and giving up things you want to do for your self. If he was supposed to be home for supper at five and he decides to stay out later, don’t hold supper; go out and enjoy yourself. Stop organizing your life around the other person. This is not a quick fix and takes time and patience, but it will happen that they feel the gap and start to move into it.
Do something different. Whatever you were doing wasn’t working anyways. Most marriage counselors agree that just doing something different, no matter what it is, creates opportunities for change. What have you got to lose?
1. Jacobson, Neil S., Christiansen, Andrew: Acceptance and Change in Couple Therapy;
W. W. Norton & Company; (September 1, 1998)
Darren has worked professionally with families for 15 years. His successful marriage therapy practice is now dedicated to coaching couples who are looking for a deeper relationship but seem to be unable to get there as fast as they would like. Darren’s own marriage has been made extraordinary through helpful coaching 8 years ago and he now enjoys 16 years of marriage with five children.