by Barry Kerr and Kristine Gay
When is the best time for couples to ask for professional help? The simple answer is: as soon as possible. In fact, we would recommend to anyone single and looking for love to add to your list of “must haves” in a partner the willingness to ask for outside help when either partner feels the need. Why wait until years later, after the relationship has developed inevitable challenges, to find out your partner is just unwilling to seek help. Such stubbornness is probably reflective of just how much this partner is unsuitable for attaining the level of vulnerability and intimacy you long for in your life. So, why not talk about that at the beginning of the relationship. If your potential lover is agreeable to the idea at the start, then you can know that if and when you reach a point of feeling lost or stuck, you can agree to ask for help.
Unfortunately, most couples don’t talk about this possibility until there are severe problems. By then, their lives have merged deeply, sharing a home, finances, children and families. The stakes are high.
In heterosexual relationships, it’s typically the woman who, after repeatedly trying to talk about their problems and running in circles of argument and emotional stress, first considers asking for professional help and then presents the idea to her man. Men typically resist the idea, at least at first.
There are various reasons why men are slow to agree to counseling or coaching. In general, men have been conditioned to be self-contained. It’s a warrior stance. One doesn’t show feelings and vulnerability to strangers or anyone who might turn against you, which includes just about everyone, even one’s wife.
Now this certainly isn’t true for all men, and with each generation, there are more and more men discovering the freedom and peace that comes with emotional expression and vulnerability. However, it’s still a minority of men. And even amongst those who have gained more emotional intelligence, there is an available default mode of withdrawal and silence that society still accepts as normal for males.
For many couples, the roles are reversed in this regard. It’s the woman who is more withdrawn and resistant. In gay and lesbian couples, either party play out either role. But, in general terms, it’s typically men who fit the pattern.
When men do choose to come to us for relationship coaching with their wives, we are always cognizant of this dynamic and do our best to create a safe environment for them, allowing time for them to observe our attitudes, how we talk about problems, whether we assign blame or take sides. They need to know that we will understand a “male” point of view, not make assumptions from a strictly female perspective and not talk “about” him.
Men often experience females in rapid-fire discussions about the men in their lives, in ways that leave men feeling slow and left out. It’s well known that women tend to be quicker with emotional awareness and expression and men tend to need time and patience. This is one of the advantages of how we, as a male and female couple, bring balance and trust to the couples with whom we work. It’s a very different experience for a husband to have another man in the room as compared to facing off alone in a counseling room with two women. And the same is true for wives, by the way.
Many men feel they have tried to explain themselves to their wives, only to be misunderstood and have what little they have vulnerably shared be thrown back in their face, distorted from the intended meaning. The heightened emotions of the moment often rob from the patience and objectivity it can take to communicate accurately. In this emotional turmoil, men typically feel lost and confused while women feel frustrated and righteous. This creates lack of trust for men, both toward their wives and toward vulnerability and intimacy in general.
This is one reason that we, Barry and Kristine, offer ourselves in service as a couple. Having both a male and female counselor present can restore trust in the process more quickly. When a wife is having a difficult time hearing her husband accurately, it can be helpful for her to hear her husband’s thoughts interpreted by another woman or by another man or both. When a husband experiences his wife actually receiving an accurate version of his personal truth, he will feel motivated to share more, and will welcome the help he may have resisted at the start.
Another reason men resist counseling is that they often perceive their wife as seeking a professional to validate the complaints and blames they hold against their husbands. Why would a guy want to step into that land mine? Especially if he’s not feeling at fault.
And the truth is that many women do enter couples counseling thinking they are totally right, their husbands are wrong, and their husbands need to hear a professional point that out. Unfortunately, there are some counselors who will do just that. We believe that is counterproductive.
In our experience, love relationships are symbiotic. Whatever is going on, and however it may look one-sided on the surface, there is a mutual responsibility for having created the dynamic. Typically, each partner feels victim, and is oblivious to their own subliminal behaviors that feed into attracting the reciprocal behaviors from their partner. Partners who want to blame are often surprised to discover their own contributions to the problems. Some don’t come back.
It’s not unusual for us to see a wave of relief pour over a husband’s face when we address this concept. In our experience, men typically are not afraid of accepting responsibility for relationship problems once it is established that neither party is solely at fault. Rather, each has some contribution that needs addressing. The work is in discovering what those pieces are, how they relate to each other and how each person can change their own inner patterns that fuel the behaviors.
When couples reach this level of mutual understanding around their relationship dynamics, an egalitarian energy is created which can grow into a new excitement about themselves and their lives. They can re-discover the flame that initially inspired their attraction and restore their feelings as individuals who are learning, growing and evolving into more fulfillment. We have witnessed men who enter relationship counseling with trepidation, and whatever the outcome of the relationship, emerge with a newly discovered excitement about personal growth and relationship potential.