Marriage — and how people feel about it — has certainly changed in the last fifty years. Even though I work with marriages every day, this didn't hit home with me until I watched the first season of Mad Men. Don't get me wrong; I thought it was well done and captured the era perfectly. But it was exactly that aspect that left me stunned. The rigid structure that women were forced into left me feeling as suffocated as the characters on the screen. My therapist blood ran cold as I watched Betty Draper's psychiatrist report on her sessions to her husband Don. After all, he was entitled to know because he was paying for them — and what's her's was automatically his.
I am a grateful recipient of the women's movement and the subsequent freedom to live my life and use my talents in a way not available before. Being shackled as either a man's property or patronized as "the little woman" are experiences I'm elated I never had to endure. This freedom for women may have come at an unexpected cost for men; is it possible the confining relationship pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.
About 90 percent of young people still say they want to be married, and while some of these relationships will be same-sex ones, the majority will be heterosexual. Marriage, and relationships in general, has changed drastically from "the good old days" and that's mostly a good thing. But there are some current trends that give me pause: leaving out the thoughts and feelings of half of the people in these relationships strikes me as one of the most problematic.
Much of the shift in marriage has benefitted women. It has freed them from the traditional role of homemaker and nurturer to an expanded role outside the home. It has also asked men to do all they traditionally did and give more in return. To quote from Terry Real's The New Rules of Marriage, "The new marriage takes the stability, the building of a life together, that was the whole marriage a generations ago, and grafts onto it the expectations of a lifelong romance — deep talks, exciting times, and great sex."
I'm sure many men are all in for the great sex, but given the other criteria, they may not have figured out a way to actually have it. In addition, men are often criticized for their inability to "get" women and relationships. This focus on men's failings can serve as an echo chamber for women and their supposed relationship superiority. While women struggle with "having it all" and the whole "Leaning In" debate, here are some examples of what men regularly encounter:
When popular professor of pornography and famous "male feminist" Hugo Schwyzer recently resigned, he admitted that his model of challenging men to be what women "so desperately wanted" wasn't really his goal. He threw his fellow men under the bus so as not to be "patronizing and offensive" by challenging women, but rather to gain their acceptance. Books, such as Jim Hamilton's It's All About Her, are positive attempts to help men be more relationship focused. However, the title still implies a woman's happiness in a marriage is the primary factor — and the man is an afterthought.
This uneven treatment is even more biased in the title of Charles J. Orlando's book and blog The Trouble with Women... is Men. I don't disagree with his focus on helping men step up in relationships, and I acknowledge I am one of his thousands of followers on Facebook. But my guess is most of the people reading his posts are women who are looking for support for their existing beliefs about men's relationship failings. Like Hugo Schwyzer, I don't think his preaching to the female choir about how men are the entire problem is the best way to invite them to improve their relationship performance either.
These critical views of men may be at the heart of men's reluctance to seek professional help to improve their selves and relationships. Sharing deep, emotional experiences with a male professional can seem threatening. Going to a woman is equally challenging, as they may fear being ganged up on by their partner and the therapist. Judging by the experience Gerald Rogers shared with Alisa Bowman of Project Happily Ever After, it's not an unreasonable position. His concerns were not given fair consideration and his wife's behavior went mostly unquestioned. Divorce was the predictable result, thought not his choice.
Frankly, I'm tired of men, as a group, bearing the brunt of relationship failures. I've known good men, both personally and professionally, who love their wives and want to have successful family lives. Men approach relationships differently than women, but it is disrespectful to dismiss their perspective. Yes, women tend to be more attuned to what's happening in real-time in a relationship. But just because they are better at it doesn't mean they have it mastered. 80 percent of divorces are unilateral, meaning only one party wants it; 67 percent of divorces are initiated by women. The overlap in these groups imply that there is room for women's growth as well.
Relationships aren't between generic men and women. They are between two specific individuals, each with their own expectations and baggage. Relationships are reciprocal, and each partner bears responsibility for what it looks like. You each put stuff in and take stuff away. If your marriage isn't what you want it to be, yes, your partner is playing a part. Guess what: so are you. But, as my mother said, when you point your finger, there are four pointing back at you.
Instead of playing the blame game, why not acknowledge that no one, man or woman, has a monopoly on relationship skills... not even the experts. The best plan is to listen respectfully to each other, value each other's perspectives, and work together to create a marriage that honors you both.
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