The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

The Most Important (and Surprising) Marriage Rule for Men!

Hey, you husbands! Here's how (and why) to get your voice back.

It’s women who flocked to “assertiveness training” workshops, and who have long been considered the more accommodating sex.

Yet when it comes to  marriage, I’ve observed that it’s more frequently the man who lapses into silence and distance, telling himself, “It’s not worth the fight”, or “You don’t know my wife,  She’s impossible to deal with!“  It's women who are more likely than men to move into the frey.

Some things really aren’t worth the fight, and it can be an act of maturity to let things go. But if you’re a peace-at-any-price kind of guy, you need to practice speaking up. You need to do this not only to restore your sense of self-regard, but also to give your marriage the best chance of succeeding.

You don’t need to jump off the high dive in order to practice having a strong voice in your marriage. Move slowly and think small. This will allow you to observe the impact of each new behavior on your relationship, and to see how you sit with the anxieties that change evokes. Can you stay on track and deal with your partner’s countermoves, without getting angry and defensive and without returning to the old pattern?

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So, how and where to begin?

Let this example from Marriage Rules serve as your roadmap to finding your voice with your partner. Like all things worth doing, having a voice (read, having a self) requires lots of practice. Start sooner rather than later. Obviously, the lessons here, transcend gender, so my advice is not just for “men only.”

Stanley avoided conflict at all cost in his marriage. He didn’t say anything to his wife that would bring differences out in the open and disrupt their pseudo-harmonious “we.” He couldn’t recall the last time he said to her, “No I don’t agree with that,” and then held firmly to his position when the response was anger or disapproval.

Gradually, Stanley put his toe in the water and experimented with having more of a voice. For example, he told his wife that he would wear the shirt and jeans he felt like putting on, rather than always deferring to her taste or rules about proper dress. (“You may be right that I’m underdressed for the party, but tonight I’m going for comfort”). He began to order from restaurant menus without her supervision. (“I know this place is famous for fish, but I’m in the mood for pasta”).

If asserting himself on these matters had felt too difficult for Stanley, he could have started with something even smaller.

Armed with new confidence from finding his voice on small issues, Stanley took on a big one. For several years, he had taken calls from his mother only at the office, because his wife couldn’t stand her mother-in-law and wanted Stanley to have nothing to do with her. He kept his contact with his mother “semi-secret” to avoid his wife’s anger. “It’s not worth the fight,” he’d tell himself.

It was a huge move forward when Stanley talked to his mother from home and dealt directly with his wife’s anger and criticism. He told his wife that he knew his mother could be a piece of work, but that she was still his mother and he needed to have a relationship with her. When the counter-moves started rolling in (“You’re going to have to choose between her or me!”). Stanley held to his position with dignity. (“I love you both, and I need to have a relationship with each of you”).

When his wife spoke contemptuously, calling Stanley’s mother a “toxic bitch” and worse, he told her to cut it out. He said, “Look, I’m totally open to hearing what you think about my mother, but the name-calling and insults have to stop.” He said it more than once, because change doesn’t occur in one conversation, but rather in many. And he really meant it. He exited from conversations when his wife failed to clean up her language.

What's the lesson here?  All marriage requires give and take. As the Rolling Stone song goes, "You can't always get what you want." Things go more smoothly when partners are light and flexible about accommodating each other.

But equally important is the wisdom to know when not to give and go along along.

As Stanley learned, marriage suffers when we become so tolerant that we expect too little, settle for unfair arrangements, or fail to hear the sound of our voice saying out loud what we really think.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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