On Psychology

Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2000 / 5 Elul, 5760

Following "The Rule" for a Better Marriage

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: Two good, loving people I know have given up on their marriage. It's all very civilized, but the husband claims he didn't have a clue while the wife is asking, "What more could I have done?"

I'm not talking about the wife giving hints to the husband that the relationship is in trouble. She entered both individual religious counseling and individual secular counseling to try to save the marriage. For years, she has shouldered the responsibility for the deteriorating relationship, but now she is empty and wants a divorce.

The husband, on the other hand, believes he has done everything right. He's provided for the family, loves his children and has been faithful to his wife. Indeed, his refusal to enter counseling is precisely because he believes he has done everything right and so the problem must be with her.

This isn't the first time I've seen this pattern: wife playing martyr and husband being oblivious. Each time it has ended in divorce. Can you address the tendency of men to deny the need for counseling until women just don't care anymore?

A: Unfortunately, this is all too common a pattern in marriages today. The wife begins to feel the marriage is in trouble. She tries to talk to her husband about her feelings, but he discounts her concerns. This only makes her feel worse.

She asks him to go to a marital therapist. He refuses, saying things are going just fine. So, she enters individual counseling. The counselor soon develops a therapeutic alliance with her, thereby validating her feelings of marital unhappiness.

One day, she wakes up and decides it's all too much for her to bear. She tells her husband she wants a divorced. He is stunned. He has been a good provider. He loves his children and still loves her. He is not an alcoholic or a drug addict, and doesn't run around with other women. What did he do that was so wrong?

Desperate, he asks her to go into marital counseling. This time, she refuses. She is done trying to save the marriage, she says. She is exhausted. She just wants out.

This all too familiar chain of events stems from a basic difference between men and women. Men tend to be results-oriented; they care about the externalities of family life, whether, for example, the bills are paid. Women, on the other hand, tend to be process-oriented; they care about the internalities of the family, how everyone in the family is feeling.

This gender difference frequently is reflected in the parenting styles of moms and dads. When young children have trouble staying in their bed at night, moms tend to wonder why. Dads just want the kid to stay in the bed. With older children, moms tend to worry more about how their children feel about school. Fathers tend to focus on grades.

While this gender difference can form a nice complimentary when it comes to parenting, it also can be the cause of marital discord. Since wives are more focused on the process of marriage, they are usually first to sense something going wrong in the marital relationship. So, when a wife approaches her husband about her concerns, he frequently reacts with genuine surprise that she would think there is a problem.

When such difficulties emerge, the worst thing a wife can do is precisely what too many wives do: She enters individual counseling.

Rather than improving the marriage, individual counseling often makes the situation worse. That's because an unhealthy alliance can develop between the therapist and the wife against the husband. As a result, the counselor may give subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, encouragement for the wife to leave this cad of a husband who is causing her so much misery.

To avoid this downward spiral, husbands need to spend more time listening to and appreciating their wives' feelings, and wives need to spend more time acknowledging and showing their appreciation for his contributions to the household.

This seemingly obvious advice is easier said than done. Cross-training is hard work, but doing so is also habit forming. That's because the more a husband listens to his wife, the more she is willing to show her appreciation for all he does for the family. And the more she shows appreciation for all he does for the family, the more willing he is to listen to her feelings.

Of course, the gender differences I have just described are not universal. In some families, the husband who is oriented toward process, and the wife is oriented toward results. But just because there are exceptions to the rule, doesn't mean there isn't a rule.

And the rule is this: In happy marriages, wives express their appreciation for their husbands, and husbands listen to their wives. It's a rule too many couples find out too late. My advice: Play by the rule. The marriage you save, may be your own.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn