I’ve been married for almost 12 years now and can remember that intoxicated feeling of being with her. I would go out of my way to see her, call her often, and naturally do things to impress the hell out of her. I didn’t give much thought about the responsibilities of being in a long term relationship...everything just FELT right. Then I bought the ring, proposed, got married, and had two children. Welcome to reality. I wouldn’t change any of it for the world but things did change.
Often in wedding ceremonies there is the symbolic gesture of the couple taking two separately lit candles to light the one candle in the middle; two lives becoming one. Sure, two people share their lives together but they are still separate people with different backgrounds, personalities, emotional baggage, and needs. And so the picture and ideas that was created during the dating years are put to the test.
When women drag their significant other into therapy (most times it’s the woman who make the appointment and the man who is dragged in) the complaint is about not being heard, loved, or respected. On the man’s side the complaint is that “she nags too much”, she gets upset for no reason, or that she doesn’t respect his time and space or appreciate what he contributes. The conversation around needs turn into a battle for territory and their defenses go up.
There are many good therapeutic techniques for couples available including Harville Hendrix’s Imago therapy, the Gottman method, Gary Chapman’s “Love Languages”, and knowing and establishing relationship boundaries as written by author Henry Cloud in his book, “Boundaries.” There is also a lot of information on acknowledging the differences between men and women and the ways they communicate differently. These methods all have one key component- the ability to communicate one's needs to the other.
Communicating needs is not easy to do because sometimes it is difficult to define one’s own needs let alone someone else’s. Needs could be buried under years of resentment ( i.e. “he should know what my needs are!”), repressed after being shut down so many times, or mixed in with self-esteem issues (being undeserving). It seems that men have more difficulty identifying and expressing their needs. Men are often brought up to be self-reliant and think that they “do not need anything.” They sometimes try to fulfill their needs outside the relationship with either work, drugs, or other women. When your needs are not being met you’re less likely to want to respond to the other’s needs.
Some basic needs identified by Marshall Rosenberg in his book “Non-Violent Communication” include the need for autonomy, integrity, acceptance and physical nurturance. Similarly Gary Chapman identifies five “Love Languages” which include receiving gifts, quality time, words of love and affirmation, acts of service and physical touch. These authors work with couples to clearly hear each other’s needs and to practice the art of giving to one another. Usually it is just one main need the person is looking to fulfill and only one person is needed to initiate this process.
In therapy, once a couple gets past the arguing and engaging their egos, they could eventually recognize that the fighting is just a symptom of un-acknowledged needs and the past being played out. The sessions becomes a competition of who can talk the loudest or what fires to put out. It is important for the couple to hear each other and to be able to express themselves clearly and without judgment. Once a judgment is made, defensiveness comes out and listening ceases. I often tell my couples to use ‘I’ statements and to avoid using the finger pointing ‘You.’ It is also important to speak about how one felt about a situation as opposed to making a list of what the other person did. When engaging in this process it is important not to flood the other person with requests. I know for me I need small doses at a time to be able to digest.
Boundaries are also imperative for a successful long term relationship. Boundaries are one’s personal space including body, personal property (i.e. diary or phone), personal conversations, friends, family and interests. As mentioned earlier, we are still those individual candles in a relationship. If someone gets too enmeshed in the other’s space there will be a sense of crowding and a need to pull away to get back their individuality. My own boundaries include my different accounts (i.e. e-mail, personal banking, phone and social media) and my work.
So communicating needs is important as well as respecting difference and honoring boundaries. As in Imago therapy, couples need to find some time to relax and take turns expressing how they are feeling and what their needs are. A time limit may need to be set for each couple to express feelings and needs to avoid flooding and to make sure there is a turn for both people. The next part is to request feedback from the other person to make sure the message was received. Sometimes words are heard differently as we all process things differently. Finally, a couple needs to come up with solutions or compromises. Sometimes there are no solutions, so disagreements may need to be accepted or individual actions need to be taken. Being in a relationship can be hard work and it takes patience, tenderness, and dedication to maintain and possibly thrive. If both people are committed to the relationship- anything is possible.
Men and Depression