Revised on August 11, 2023, Dr. Burford is a Christian minister practicing science-based couples therapy through Couples Therapy Inc. He works with all couples with a specialization on couples wanting a biblical perspective.
In restaurants, you can tell the dating couples from the married couples. The dating couples are talking to one another; the married couples frequently are not. Why is this?
As with most marriage-unfriendly behavior, the reason for silence is self-defense. Defense against what? For women, it is often defensiveness against feeling unloved when she does not receive empathic, listening, supportive connection from her husband. For men, it is often defensiveness against feeling disrespected when he does not receive acknowledgment of his point or feels that his ideas or efforts are met with criticism, dismissal, or a takeover. Neither partner sets out to make the other feel disconnected or disrespected; they’re just doing and saying—or not doing or not saying—what comes naturally to their own gender, who would not take offense.
Research from the Gottman Institute identifies a relevant principle underlying happy, long-lasting marriages; it is that of “accepting influence.“ Decades of data shows greater marital satisfaction among couples where men accept influence from their wives. This corresponds to the tendency of women to have their “heart heard” by husbands in order to feel loved, honored, and respected. The chapter in Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that elucidates this principle seems imbalanced in favor of women, compared to the parity of the other principles. As such, it runs the risk of fomenting as many relationship problems as it solves. It is certainly true that marriages are happier when men accept the influence of their wives more than might be a man’s natural tendency; however, the chapter is very light on whether women need adjust their own natural tendencies, as men are called to do. The truth is, couples are more likely to talk to one another if both genders adjust their natural tendencies—men welcoming conversation as a way to empathize and connect with their wives, rather than to fix or to correct, and women looking for ways to acknowledge their husband’s point and appreciate their efforts to help, rather than criticize or reject. In this way, both partners wind up feeling connected and respected, having influence in the matter-at-hand, each yielding to offer what the other needs.
There is another noteworthy book that commends this balanced acceptance of influence; it precedes Dr. Gottman‘s book by about two millennia. I like to call it the New Testament. In it, Paul pens: “…submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Ephesians 5:21) and “…husbands love your wives; wives respect your husbands.“ (Ephesians 5:25). Here, both husbands and wives are called to equally adjust their natural tendencies. It was for good reason that Paul did not say, “…husbands respect your wives; wives love your husbands.“ He was asking men and women to do the opposite of what comes naturally to them, in order to meet the relational need of their spouse. This prescription recognizes that women tend naturally to extend love; while men tend naturally to bestow respect. It is the language each knows best; it is how they communicate with their own. But it doesn’t work as well in inter-gender relationships. What seems perfectly clear is a foreign language to one’s spouse. Women long for love; men long for respect. Scripture calls men and women to yield to how the other gender typically feels valued in relationship. Marriage is a journey of discovery into exactly what the alien gender means by the words “love” and “respect,” and how they feel them.
Typically, a woman feels cared for, honored, and loved when her husband empathically listens to her. She is more likely to engage in conversation over the dinner table if she has a husband willing to hear what she has to say, without finding fault in what she says, or impatiently offering fixes in order to be done with the subject. And for the man? Is there anything a woman can do to help him be more conversational? Yes. The most common complaint I hear from men in unsatisfied marriages is that their wives are “critical and controlling.“ Women want to offer ideas, make suggestions, ask devil’s advocate questions, and generally have influence in decision-making which he, longing for respect, hears as a lack of confidence in his intelligence, competence, strength, or ability to handle things on his own (i.e., without her help). Obviously, these are directly in conflict with one another at all times, and quickly become conversational barriers. What we have here is a perpetual problem, and thus a couple’s learning opportunity. Men want to competently make decisions that will heroically fix things, and thus protect and serve their wives and families. Women want to participate in issues at hand, not because they doubt their husband’s competence, but because problems are opportunities to draw close; to connect; to practice mutual dependence and thus foster togetherness.
What this looks like in everyday conversation is that a woman will bring up some thought or idea, and the man—instead of hearing her heart—will key in on some logical inconsistency in what she said, or voice some financial, mechanical, or scheduling impediment to her idea, or even on an error in her syntax. In a woman’s world, this is highly unloving. A woman would disregard a syntax problem and affirm the heart of her sister’s idea, using kind, emotional words. Her focus would be on connecting, and discussing the challenge-at-hand together as a bonding experience. Only incidentally and later might she ask about problems with the ideas. When a man fails to do this, it feels to her like a lack of support and a failed emotional connection. So, she shuts down. Then there is the opposing scenario common to the male experience. When he brings up an idea, his wife—in an effort to come alongside—will ask questions of his plans, pose devil’s advocate scenarios, and wonder out loud about things that might hinder the success of his idea. She may suggest modifications or alternatives that bear little resemblance to his original proposal or decision. To a man, her effort to connect feels to him like criticism and control. The male mind interprets her input as questioning his intelligence, doubting his competence, and overtaking his idea with her own. When a man feels this way, he misunderstands the advice to “allow his wife to have influence” and he hears instead the call to abdicate his authority, give her her way, and let her “wear the pants” in the marriage.
What is at issue here is the different meaning men and women ascribe to the sharing of ideas. Dr. John Gray says that women share ideas in order to connect; men share ideas in order to compete. To women, the sharing of ideas and the asking of questions is a way to show caring. To men, to share ideas and ask questions is to challenge whether another man knows what he is doing. It is questioning his intelligence and competence. Men, of course, don’t see their comments as a rejection of connection; and women do not regard their input as critical or controlling, or demanding their way. But such is the interpretation of their partner; it is one reason that married couples sit in silence. The woman fears that whatever she says will be met with some “ridiculous” objection or demeaning comment. The man fears that what he says will be met with questions and competing ideas, resulting in a hostile takeover. Neither has the energy for that conversation, so communication ends before it starts.
What is the answer to this stalemate? Step one is simply to recognize it. Women and men cannot expect their spouses to communicate in the same manner as members of their own gender. Translation is necessary. Pausing and considering the needs of the other is always necessary in relationship, and especially true when relating to a gender with which we have no direct internal experience. We need to adjust our natural tendencies. Men need to hear their wives, allowing women to “think out loud“ more than men typically do. He needs to come alongside and listen to her like a friend. This is not debate class. Surrender the grammar police badge. Let her share her thoughts and be with her, not against her. Likewise, wives can respect their husbands by scaling back the devil’s advocate questions, alternate ideas, and voiced doubts, instead granting him—at least first of all—what a man yearns for from his girlfriend – confidence, admiration, and encouragement. Neither men nor women want critics or managers; both want a cheerleader and a romantic lover, but to different degrees.
This understanding and mutual yieldedness will get us through most days. But how do we handle marital gridlock, where yielding to the other’s need for love or respect doesn’t get us past self-canceling desires, such as one spouse wanting another child and the other not. Or one spouse wanting to move to another state upon retirement and the other wanting to stay put. What then? Even in gridlock—perhaps especially in gridlock—a woman needs to feel empathy and be support; and a man needs to be understood and feel respected. In addition, three other things enter in when gridlock threatens a united decision.
The first, Dr. Gottman identifies as "becoming a dream detective." Rather than spouses rehearsing their own viewpoints back and forth until exhaustion sets in, the wisdom here is to stop, identify, and articulate the other’s hope, value, dream, and desired outcome. This can stop a conflict in its tracks as the tone changes from self-defense to other-defense. One reason fights persist is that parties have not felt understood by each other. That’s why they keep explaining their point of view and desires over and over again. The way out of this gridlock is to articulate to the other’s satisfaction what we understand is important to them in the matter at hand. Identify and concentrate on the larger areas in which you agree, rather than upon the isolated areas in which you disagree.
Secondly, remember that relationships live on the level of attachment needs and primary emotions. In partnerships, the bottom line (attachment needs) includes feeling accepted, secure, safe, respected, affirmed, love, nurtured, comforted, and protected. When these attachment needs are met, we are at peace in the relationship, even when in conflict. When these needs are not securely met, negative primary emotions surface, such as fear, hurt, sadness, and shame. Our view of our spouse becomes negative and that negativity overrides our sentiment toward and interpretation of everything he or she says or does. So, in other-centeredness, step one is to understand the source of primary emotions (hurt, sadness, fear, shame, joy and peace) that are being masked as secondary emotions (anger, frustration, irritation, jealousy, etc.). What attachment need is its source, and how can that attachment need be met by me as spouse to my partner? If I can defend that, then my partner may be able to let go of self-defensiveness.
This brings us to the third point with respect to gridlocked issues. Ask yourself, “Is this issue important enough to divide us as a couple?” Maybe it is, but hopefully such issues are few and far between. If we can take our eyes off of winning the argument, or getting our way, and focus instead on protecting one another and on the relationship as victor, then we can relax on most issues. Can we pause and switch sides - defending our partner’s position for a moment, rather than our own? If we are protecting each other as diligently as we would protect ourselves, then we have a safe relationship in which conversations happen more easily. What if a couple spent their time vying for what was important to the other rather than to oneself? Wouldn’t that be a refreshing fight? This is Dr. Gottman’s approach to overcoming gridlock when he suggests the afore-mentioned “becoming a dream detective.” When each partner is intent on discovering what is important to the other, and defending that, then we trade self-defensiveness for other-defensiveness and a vast array of new options open up to us. We become focused not on “my way,” but on “our future” that incorporates both our dreams.
The invitation here is for couples to change their view of what constitutes a “win” in marital discussion. If discussion is a debate or a contest wherein one partner walks away the “winner” by having the last word, or emerging superior in debate skills, or getting his or her way while the other feels defeated, then the relationship has lost. We do well to change our view of the “win“ such that is is measured by whether the conversation drew us closer. Was it a tool for connection? Did it make “deposits” into the relationship, rather than withdrawals? Did it improve the overall ratio in the marriage of feel-good to feel-bad interactions? Did positive emotions outnumber negative emotions? Were the attachment needs of both spouses recognized and protected, no matter the topic of discussion? Did other-centeredness prevail rather than self-centeredness? These are the things that make conversation safe. These are the things likely occurring at the table where the dating couple sits. These are things that can be practiced by the married couple, as well.