What Wives and Husbands Have In Common

Last week I saw two couples who were both having their wedding anniversaries. The younger couple was celebrating year 4 and the older couple was celebrating year 40. They had two more things in common. They are both in marital crisis caused by unfaithfulness and they both stated in a matter of fact way that "everyone knows that men are from Mars and women are from Venus". As if to say, because they are so different something bad was eventually going to happen.

I responded that I saw it differently. I suggested that perhaps their stereotypic assumptions about men and women helped  create the distance that then lead to an affair. Trust me there is plenty of evidence in their marital history to support this belief. The response from the young couple was almost instantaneous as they cried and said no one had ever explained their affair this way. The older couple responded differently with looks of doubt and smirks. They verbalized that they wished they could see my point but years of living together had taught them that the opposite sex could not be understood or trusted. Two very different responses to say the least! But the truth is it's not too late for either couple to change their faulty thinking. Yet, I must admit my job seems easier with the two who just had their 4th anniversary. Old habits don't die easily for couples who have been married a long time and grown synicall.

So what do wives and husbands have in common you ask? We are both human with real emotions that must be identified and expressed in order to feel close. It is this emotional intimacy that both men and women desire. 

I believe this basic assumption must be recognized if a marriage is to be healthy. Having hobbies in common are helpful but not necessary. Wives don't need to watch football on the weekends with their husbands and husbands don't need to be excited about how the house is decorated. These things help but they aren't essential. It's something much deeper.

Men tend to internalize their emotions. They often aren't aware what to share since they haven't even taken the time to identify how they are feeling.

Women tend to externalize their emotions. But just because they think out loud doesn't mean they know the feeling that is causing them to react a certain way.

But to complicate things this can be reversed as well. Husbands can be externalizers and wives can be internalizers.

So what we have in common is that both men and women are often unaware of the feelings behind our reactions. This is because most of us were never taught to examine what is happening on a heart level. Growing up in dysfunctional homes we were taught instead to deny our feelings as a way to cope with life's difficulties.

In a perfect world we would learn how to identify and express our feelings from our parents. They would be our psychological mentors. Instead those of us who are aware of our emotions usually learned how to identify them after leaving home. We became conscious as the result of some kind of psychological or spiritual education. This is why both therapy and mindfulness practices are essential for so many today. Gratefully both are becoming a normal part of living as many young adults in our culture see the need to become healthy before marriage.

In order to build intimacy in a relationship both men and women must accept that they come from the same planet. We are both human with emotions. When we learn how to identify these feelings and express them to each other the result is intimacy. This is what we both desired all along but were too afraid to believe it could become a reality.

Contrary To Public Opinion: You Are From The Same Planet

Diane and I celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary last month. I am extremely grateful to have shared my life with her all these years. The history we have collected together over these years are filled with both great joy and disappointments. But it is our story and we have grown closer with every twist and turn. The result is a deep love and respect for each other. Yes, she is my life partner.

At the same time, I never want to hold up our marriage as a perfect example of wedded bliss! I see too  much arrogance on the part of some couples who are still married after many years. I never want to add to this attitude. The way I see it, if you have been happily married to someone for many years, just be grateful. Life and marriage are complex and challenging and there are no guarantees for any of us.

As a matter of fact, the two couples we enjoy spending the most time with these days have both been married before. So even though we have the good fortune of only being married once we have a great deal in common with these wonderful friends on their second marriages. What we have in common is love and respect for our partners. 

After 30 years of doing marriage counseling I firmly believe that the only type of relationship that can be healthy and satisfying for men and women in our world today is a partnership. One of the core beliefs of all partnerships is that men and women are more similar than different.

You heard me right. We have more in common than our differences. This is where we must begin if we are to grow a partnership. Too much time is spent by "experts" telling women that if they just understood how men are wired they will have a great marriage. In the same way, too many books and men's retreats tell men that they only way they can have a happy marriage is to study her differences. I believe this pervasive message to men and women is dangerous and only adds to the distance we may already feel with our spouse. John Gray you haven't done us any favors! 

Now don't get me wrong. Men and women do have some gender differences. My point is to not focus here. Once we start getting specific about this we shoot ourselves in the foot with false assumptions. "Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus" has given thousands of couples around the world permission to focus on where we are different. It has provided false security and made us feel miles apart from our spouse. Even to the point where some believe they are married to an alien!

We need to leave our differences to mystery and focus on what we have in common to build intimacy. Then we will begin to see our partners as originating from the same planet again. Maybe then we can drop the macho facade and female manipulation games and start to feel like friends again. What we knew in our guts from the first time was accurate. We are friends with some sexual chemistry mixed in. Start growing your marriage again by focusing on what we have in common and leaving the differences up to mystery.

Is This Normal?

Originally posted October 1, 2011

A fifty year old man came in recently to process his personal and professional future. He has achieved success in his career but no longer feels the same kind of satisfaction that he once did. It’s good work and it pays the bills well. Do I even have the right to desire something more, he wonders? His soul is not satisfied like it once was. He has grown tired of what he must do each week to meet his obligations. He asks me if what he is going through is “normal”. I wait for one very long moment before I respond to his important question. I then respond by telling him that what he is going through is normal but not “typical”. What kind of double talk is that? Is this the kind of thing therapists say when they are stumped and buying time? The truth is I was being sincere and my comment was meant to provoke further conversation. Conversation that I believe will eventually give him direction. His coming to see me is an act of courage and his ability to ask the question is unusual. By the way, my client is a professional in church ministry. Having doubts in his line of work is seldom seen as acceptable.

“One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” – Carl Jung

The afternoon that Jung speaks of is the second half of your life. For many this begins at forty, for some it may arrive a decade later and for a few old souls a decade earlier. When the second half begins is unimportant. What matters is that the old ways of viewing and relating to life often stop working. In the first half we gain our security and idenity primarily from our accomplishments. These successes act like a container that holds our life together, making us feel secure in a complicated world filled with external pressures. But in the second half this container becomes less important and we may begin to doubt all that we worked so hard to accomplish. We may even doubt the basics that we always knew to be true. Beliefs about the purpose of life and how God fits may change drastically. Jung believes that this is necessary to live the second half of your life with any sense of real meaning. I agree with him wholeheartedly. But sadly there are few voices in our current fear filled culture that agree or see any of this as even relevant. Many see this as crazy, impractical or even sinful. Stick to what you know and the second half will go just fine they tell us. We hear this and are afraid to share our changing sense of identity with almost anyone. We internalize our new desires and deny our intuition. We may even feel incredibly guilty.

If you are in the second half of your life and you can relate to my client or Jung’s words resonate with where you are at then stop feeling guilty. Your changing beliefs and new desires are evidence of the fact that you are alive, growing and not dead! Rather be concerned and check your pulse if the following is true.

- If you turn fifty and your politics are the same as when you were a young adult, my guess is you have grown more rigid.

- If you are in midlife and your holy habits are limited to church attendance on Sunday you are probably afraid to call God your friend.

- If you have been married more than two decades and you still think loving your wife means understanding how women are different than men, my guess is she is not your partner.

- If your children are young adults and you still believe that parenting is about protecting them, my guess is they seldom call you just to hang out.

Is it normal to doubt what you believed in the first half of your life? Is it normal to have dreams for the future that challenge what worked in the first half of your life? My answer is still the same, it’s normal but not typical. Good for you!


Finding Your Center

Originally posted August 20, 2011

When my clients are at the end of their rope and looking for direction they often ask me to recommend a book. I usually hesitate since most of us are hoping for easy answers to complex questions when our backs are up against the wall. Yet when the questions are spiritual and suffering is the issue I often send them to “Everything Belongs.” In my opinion this book by Richard Rohr should be subtitled an introduction to adult faith and suffering. It’s a wonderful primer for Christians who grew up believing that if they lead a faithful life God will protect them from bad things. Although most of us would be embarrassed to admit this was our paradigm, our security blanket, it’s often what we cling to until life as we know it stops working. For most of us this happens around mid-life.

Rohr begins his book with, “We are a circumference people, with little access to the center. We live on the boundaries of our own lives confusing edges with essence, claiming the superficial as substance. Perhaps the greatest sin of our time is superficiality.” I couldn’t agree with him more.

We are unprepared for life when it smacks us in the face. We really thought we would be different from the rest. We superficially thought we could escape suffering if we adopted the status quo and kept our heads down. As a result we are not acquainted with our Center. We don’t know who we are separate from what others expect of us and we believe that God is out there controlling the universe. The last time I checked the world is too evil and in too much pain for me to believe that he’s in control of everything. But I do believe God is at our Center. Our churches have taught us what to “believe” and how to live moral lives. But they have seldom taught us how to pray. The only way I see people connect with their Center is through prayer, love, or suffering. When you don’t know how to pray and the family you grew up in didn’t love you very well you are left with suffering as your teacher.

What if we had the courage to listen to what wisdom teachers have to share about life and suffering? Rather than forgetting to read the part in the Gospels where Jesus says to “live for today because tomorrow has enough problems of it’s own.” We are too “Christian” to benefit from Buddhist teaching that always begins with life is suffering. We shy away from books like “The Road Less Traveled” because Peck’s first words are “life is difficult.”

Now is the time to prepare yourself for suffering. The best way is by finding your Center. Few of us were taught how to do this so you are not alone. Take some time to walk in nature. Find the time to sit with a journal and honestly write about how you “feel” about your life. Take a yoga class and listen to what your body is telling you. Find a therapist and heal the wounds of your past that keep you from befriending your Center. Most of the world lives on the edges with little access to the Center. Choose to live your life differently. Be prepared!

Nervous and Naive

Originally posted August 2, 2011

I referred to my wedding anniversary in my first blog. We will celebrate 33 years this Friday. I shared how fortunate we are to still be best friends after all these years. Many of you liked what I had to say and agreed that friendship in marriage is essential but rarely taught or modelled well by the people who matter in our lives. Now just in case you think I’ve always been so smart about matters of the heart I should tell you a story about the early days. I shared this with my Men’s Therapy Group this Spring. They had been boosting my ego with comments about how wise I was when it came to marrige and the opposite sex. I thought I’d normalize things by telling a story about a nervous and naive twenty two year old.

So we are on our way to a wedding where my fiancee, Diane, will be singing. Driving along in the truck she looks at me and asks me to stop at the drug store. As we pull in she tells me she has cramps and that it is her time of the month. I feel bad for her but didn’t anticipate what came next. She asks if I could go in and pick up some sanitary napkins, the ones with “wings.” Now you need to understand that I had never seen one of these flying objects, let alone purchased them! But being the devoted husband-to-be I made my way into the store with much fear and trepidation. Standing there in the check out line the box in my mind was enormous. The kind you buy at Costco for a family of six sisters. Needless to say, I was embarrassed.

As we arrive at the church I can’t stop thinking about what just happened and that I am soon to marry a real woman with real female needs. What have I gotten myself into? We are now sitting in the second row of the church waiting for the ceremony to begin. She now turns and says she forgot something and could I “go get them.” Did I actually hear her right? Leave the church and go to the truck now? She looks miffed and says under her breath to hurry before the wedding starts. As I approach the truck I am trying to figure out how to get one of those flying objects into the church without everyone seeing me. I then remember that I am wearing a suit and this is the reason God created that inside pocket for such occasions. So I rip open the box and pop one large sanitary napkin with “wings” in my inside pocket.

I return to my seat and descretely sit down next to my beautiful girlfriend. For the first time since the drug store I’m finally feeling pretty good about myself. Mission accomplished. Then she anxiously looks at me and says she needs them now! So I reach into my inside pocket and begin to pull out the flying object. She looks at me in horror and asks what in the world are you doing?! Where are my glasses? I have to sing any minute now. You actually thought I wanted that? And what am I supposed to do with it sitting here in front of God and everybody! The term “idiot” was never verbalized but I’m pretty sure that was her word bubble. Still to this day I don’t remember if she ever got her glasses before she sang.

Fortunately we still got married later that summer. You can’t say I didn’t give her fair warning. She doesn’t scare away easily. Now 33 years later I’m much less anxious and only occasionally naive as it relates to matters of the heart. I suppose that wedding experience has become a metaphor for our marriage. She still shocks me with her honesty and I still screw up. So what’s the point you ask? The point is that we all start married life both nervous and naive. You aren’t alone. The remedy is simple but harder to apply. Give it time, be quick to apologize and most importantly never lose the ability to laugh at yourself.

What Keeps A Marriage Together?

Originally posted July 24, 2011

I’ve never written a blog before. I’ve wanted to for the last couple of years since I started reading the blogs of others. I found myself thinking that I might actually have something to contribute to the game, something to put out there to the universe. After all, I sit with clients for over thirty hours each week and hear both wonderful and tragic stories. As a result, I do a great deal of reflecting about life. But, because these moments are confidential and I am primarily the “listener,” these reflections stay with me for the most part. Really the only exception to this rule would be my dear wife. She is the lucky recipient of my many musings. As a result she has been known to say, “John- remember the OVER examined life is not worth living!” I don’t think she and Socrates would have gotten along very well. She’s more of a St. Francis kind of girl. Lucky for me, she lives life more through her heart than her head. Consequently, I’m the one sitting here wanting to write my first blog entry.

Here we go. For the last eight months I’ve been seeing a thirtysomething male client who is a month away from his divorce being final. He is relieved that this painful experience is almost over, but he is also very sad. He’s grieving the marriage that he wanted to have, the one that he wishes they would have had together. By the way, this tells me he is dealing with his divorce in a healthy manner. I never trust anyone if they tell me they have no sadness about their marriage ending and that they are simply glad that it is over. Marriages are investments and we are always sad when an investment goes belly up.

So he sits down a couple of weeks ago and right off the bat tells me that he has a question that he desperately needs answered. He tells me that his future depends on it and that he is afraid because he isn’t able to answer this question. He asks me what “type” of love keeps a marriage together since their kind obviously didn’t do the trick. I remember sitting for a couple of minutes before answering. In that time I considered my own marriage of almost 33 years, the countless couples I have seen as a therapist, what messages the Church and my upbringing taught and the dozens of books I’ve read on the subject over the years. I surprised myself by sharing with him the following ideas.

First, I told him that I used to think that agape was the most important kind of love for a marriage, but no longer. This Greek word suggests that a spiritual love is the number one priority. A love that is sacrificial and focused on commitment more than feelings or your own needs. After all, haven’t we all heard more sermons than we could count where this was the bottom line? Don’t get me wrong, I told him, agape is very important in keeping a marriage together. But not the “most” important kind of love. Many couples have intact marriages but no relationship at all and are living under the stoic belief that happiness isn’t even a possibility.

Secondly, I said that eros is really wonderful but that it doesn’t “keep” a marriage together either. We all love passion. We all want there to be chemistry. We all dream about great sex that will keep us interested over the years. Our culture is so sex obsessed that we are easily convinced, especially early in a marriage, that the lucky ones can’t stay out of the bedroom and this is the secret to a long relationship. Don’t get me wrong, “feeling” in love with your partner is very critical. Too many accept a relationship that is boring and no longer has any passion. Eros can be restored and must be worked at over the life of a marriage.

By this time he knew where I was going. I found myself telling him that based on my marriage and the successful ones I’ve seen over the years that “philia” was most important. Committment and chemistry are ingredients you don’t want to leave out of the recipe but without friendship you can’t bake the cake. To be friends with your mate means you respect her. You treat her like your equal when your upbringing and your own selfish ways try to convince you otherwise. You talk about how you feel and think about the good and bad of your life together. You even risk conflict by being more honest than you are comfortable with because it builds intimacy into your marriage. You plan and dream together because life is too complicated to just wing it. In other words, you treat your partner like your best friend.

Sadly, like so many people, what my client never had with his former wife was friendship. He said nobody ever told him it was the most important thing. In fact they even had the other two ingredients the majority of the time. As our session continued a big smile came over his face as we continued to talk about how exciting it could be to have a best friend in your wife. He said he was growing hopeful as he sat there thinking about this new possibility for the future. I hope what I told him is realistic and not too pie in the sky. All I know is that next month I will have been married 33 years to my best friend. Thank God for friendship! Socrates and St. Francis wouldn’t have a chance without it.