"She does this a lot," he says. "She's rushing around doing stuff, and then she starts fussing at me and complaining. Its like she's trying to start a fight. I don't know what she wants from me and I don't like being griped at."
This man and his wife are sitting on my couch and we're in the middle of a couples counseling session. I've already met with them on several occasions, and unlike many of the couples I see, they aren't so distressed that they're ready to call it quits. They're trying to navigate some typical difficulties related to having time for each other, communication, and expectations. They're seeking healthy ways to manage the time and energy depletion that goes along with having young kids, dividing up household tasks, keeping track of finances, work responsibilities, and maintaining relationships with family and friends.
Neither of them have been married before and neither has had an affair. No one is being abused, and no one is addicted to anything. Any of those additional complicating factors would make my work with them more of a challenge, so its nice to mark those off my list of possible issues. They're not in constant conflict or "crisis," which makes it easier for all three of us to work together in counseling. They still love each other and want to keep it that way.
"What do you do when she starts fussing at you like this?" I ask him.
"Well, usually, I tell her that she's being ridiculous and could at least say things more nicely," he says. "I remind her what you said about us speaking in 'I messages' and how you told us not to use words like 'always' and 'never.'"
"So, what happens then?"
I'm pretty sure I know what he's going to say, and his response is exactly what I expected to hear. "She gets even more mad and starts crying and says I don't understand and that I'm not supportive and shuts herself in the bedroom."
"I know that's not the best way to handle it," his wife admits. "He's just sitting there and being so calm and I'm all flustered trying to get so many things done."
I wonder if she expects him to know what she wants him to do and take the initiative for himself. Many women will deny that they need or want help, or say there's nothing their husband can do, when in fact, they just don't feel they should have to spell it out. He should "just know," they say. Wives often complain that there husbands don't do "enough" to help them and then feel overburdened and resentful. They both work full-time, but she's the one who's supposed to cook, clean, and take care of the kids. If he does do something, its because she had to nag and beg and complain
For their part, men worry that they'll do "the wrong thing" and get fussed at anyway. Or, they say they're criticized if they don't perform a task exactly the way their wife would do it. She wants it done a certain way, and if it isn't, she'll go behind him and redo it. He figures it would be best to just let her do it so its "right" the first time.
Such patterns are common. I have a hunch that's not the case with this couple, though, based on previous conversations. She's one who is pretty clear about her needs most of the time and they have a pretty organized "who does what" system worked out. "So, its not about you being mad that you're doing everything and he isn't being responsible for his fair share," I say, for the purpose of clarifying. . "If there is something specific he could help with, you'd ask him?"
"Yes, I would,." she agrees, "But its not about the chores." "
"So, you're not mad about the housework," he says. "Okay, then, what are you mad about?"
"I'm not really mad," she says. "It would be nice if you asked, just so I know you want to help me and realize I'm upset."
"Okay," he says slowly, "Its not about the chores and you don't really want my help doing anything, but you still want me to ask if I can do anything." This guy knows he has his faults and is doing a pretty good job of owning them and being open to making changes. He knows his wife is usually a pretty reasonable woman. He's genuinely confused about why she acts like this.
"How can we help him understand what's going on?" I ask her. I'm pretty sure I know already, but I want to see if she understands this for herself.
"Its not you really," she tells him. "I mean, I'm not mad at you. I just don't see how you can be so calm when I'm almost in a panic. I get so frustrated and overwhelmed at everything I have to do. I get upset and I lash out at you because I want you to know and care about how I'm feeling."
"That's what its really about," I say. "You feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and trying to reach out to him for support."
"Yes," she says. "I know I'm being impossible when I'm like that. I know I need to try and calm down and be able to say how I feel rather than yelling at you. Most of the time, when that happens, I don't realize what's going on at the time."
"What happened the other day would have gone totaly different if you'd talked like that then," he says. "I just figure you're busy and I don't want to interrupt or bother you so I stay out of your way. What else can I do? How do I show you I'm being all sensitive and supportive the way I'm supposed to be? I know I'm not supposed to just sit there and I'm not supposed to remind you about communication skills or tell you how silly you're acting."
"Hug her," I suggest. "Get up off the couch, walk over, put your arms around her, and tell her you know she's overwhelmed and frustrated and that you think she's amazing and that you love her."
"Let me vent and be mad at the world for a few minutes," she says. "I just want you to listen and rub my back and tell me you care about how I feel. Once I can talk about it for a few minutes, then I can calm down and be more rational again."
"But it doesn't work when I tell you to calm down and be more rational," he says.
"I'm sure it doesn't," I agree. "She's got to get some of the feelings out and then she'll be ready to do that. If you say that when she's not ready to be calmer yet, that's probably when you get accused of being insensitive and unsupportive."
"It is," they both say.
"When men get upset, it takes them longer to calm down," I explain. "Men's bodies react so strongly to feelings that, a lot of times, they're too overwhelmed by how their emotions make them feel physically and shut down rather than wanting to talk. We're different."
"I don't get upset like she does," he says. "For me to be that upset, it would have to be something really big."
"I know," I say. "That's why it may seem like you don't care about her feelings because you're not getting upset, too."
"One of us needs to be calm," he says reasonably.
"Be calm but be fully there with her," I advise.
"You mean, just hug her?"
"Yes," I say.
"If I feel like you understand my feelings, I don't feel like I'm carrying them by myself," she says. "I feel better when you're sweet instead of mean., even if I'm mean first."
"The more you can be aware of how you feel and what you need, the less likely you are to start yelling at him," I say. "You can name the feelings and ask him for what you need emotionally. Obviously, that makes it a lot easier for him to feel okay about approaching you. Yelling and lashing out is more likely to make him want to either respond the same way and fight, or to shut down and flee."
"If I know its about how you're feeling and not about me, that will help me to not get defensive," he says. "I'll want to help instead of just wanting to protect myself."
"I'm going to work on knowing how I'm really feeling so I can telll you," she says. "I'm not good at apologizing. I'm going to start saying 'I'm sorry' more often when I know I'm taking stuff out on you."
I'm about to share my enthusiasm for sincere apologies and repair attempts, but her husband is already responding. "Apologies are nice," he says. "But what I really like is make up sex."
His wife and I both laugh. This guy sincerely cares about his marriage. He wants to be there for her and make her happy. He's a modern man who doesn't mind helping around the house and enjoys helping care for their children. He knows that "hungry" and "tired" and "I have to pee" aren't the only feelings one can experience, but he's still a guy. If he's responsive to her feelings and shows her emotional support when she needs to express them, his chances of more sex (make up and otherwise) will improve drastically.
"You're on the right track," I say. "When the emotional connection is good, women often feel much more inclined to want to connect physically."
His eyes light up. "So, all that is more likely if I just hug her?"
His wife is nodding as I emphasize those three little words I can't remind men of often enough, "Just hug her."