Guys and Letting It Go

man.letting.goOne of the big goals in relationship work is to help shift people who are intimately bonded from a place of defensiveness and anger to one of connection and safety.  It’s a process and requires patience, but it is a goal many have achieved.  One of the steps along the journey occurs when one partner will shift, if just for a moment, from that hard, self-protective, space and reach out to the other.  The gesture may be a glimpse of vulnerability, or word of tenderness.  It is what Gottman calls a “repair attempt” and when a couple is clicking, these repair attempts are acknowledged and reciprocated and the temperature lowers to safe levels.

However, one thing I have noticed over time is that men, more than women, tend to respond to the softening from their partner with a continued recitation of old hurts and past insults.  I often wonder at this tenacious grip on earlier pains in the face of (what seems to me at least to be) ardent attempts by their partner to reach out.  It seems to me that what these men are saying is that they still don’t think their partners really, deeply, understand the pain they experienced (and if my partner doesn’t understand the depth of the pain I experienced, how can I believe and trust that they will not strike out again).  This dilemma points to one important goal in any successful couples therapy, which is to help the partner understand that when he brings up these old wounds it is not because he wants to continue fighting.  He just desperately needs assurance that his partner is safe for him and she gets how their conflict just knocks him off his feet.  He needs to hear that she does not want to hurt him so deeply and will be very careful – even if she is, herself, hurt or frightened.   It may be a slow, halting process, but once that trust begins to settle in he will almost always find himself free to be who he has always wanted to be in this complex, rich, intimate dance.

Couples Counseling and the High Funtioning Woman

Many (most) women who come into my office with their partners  to work on their troubled relationships are quite high functioning.  At least from my observations, these woman really display a skill in multi-tasking.  Sometimes, this remarkable functionality keeps her busy – so busy that I get the impression that she’s racing to keep ahead of something.  While I am not a fan of long dissections of our childhood to get at what is going on now, I also believe its impossible to understand that now without some flavor of the past.  Our families of origin are where we learn our earliest and most indelible lessons.  True or false – here is where we first learn about ourselves in the world.   Are intimate relationships safe?  Am I worthy of love?  How do others really see me?

The highly effective woman will often come into my office with the most poignant, powerful dilemma.  On the one hand, she has gotten it done throughout her life – often in the face of an utter absence of love and support from her important caretaker(s).  She grew up believing that there was nobody she could ever really lean on.  In fact, the idea of really leaning on anyone is so frightening – What if they can’t or don’t want to be there for me.  What if my need is an imposition or a reason for them to judge and dismiss me as not worthy of love.  Better I take care of myself.

Yet that is exactly what a close, bonded, adult attachment relationship is – Knowing that you will be there to catch me if I fall.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be taken care of.  There are lots of ways that can happen for us.  Guys need it in their ways.  He may think of it in terms of sex or as being okay and still loved even if he screws something up.  She may just need to know that she can collapse every once in a while – to be exhausted or overwhelmed or scared and it’ll be okay.  She will be okay.  She will still be seen as strong, worthy, desired – still be loved.