Stereotyping Your Partner: One marvels at the power of gender stereotyping in The Coupledom, that domicile in which the relationship resides. Years, even decades into a marriage, partners interpret behaviors in the language of expected gender norms. Often these interpretations are inaccurate and create emotional distance rather than facilitate connectedness.
Dismissive or Disengaged? At the top of the list for many a female partner is the seeming lack of interest demonstrated by their husband around the day-to-day life of wife and children. Whether they travel or are local for work, many men are viewed as less than present, often dismissive of the minutia and emotion that goes into mundane life.
Disappointed and Critical: Adjectives ascribed by males to their wives behaviors seem to rest on a notion that “wives are hard to please”, and often disappointed with their spouses. Many a male has looked at me with despair after once again, his wife has described him as deficient in some area.
Peeling Away The Layers of Stereotyping and Projecting: There is an art to going beneath the surface to find the layers of meaning in behavior. In couples’ work, this art involves giving each partner the time and patience to self-explore and explain the inner workings of their mind, to their partner. Why is this so necessary? Because of the inclination to stereotype and project. We tend to read each other more like a paperback novel than a multifaceted human being who can harbor more than one emotion, motivation or opinion at the same time. We tend to ignore the possibility that what we view as causal is just one possible explanation of our partner’s behavior, and not the only one. We tend to “close the book” on additional interpretations. And we tend to be incurious! Worst of all.
Disclaimer: Forgive me for much of what I am about to write may seem like the pot calling the kettle black. I will be “generalizing” and “stereotyping” from clinical experience. Whatever doesn’t fit, throw out. Take away what is useful and leave the rest.
Male Avoidance: A husband decides it is best to say as little as possible whenever he thinks that his wife will get upset. Consequently he has spent decades concealing his reactions to family life. His wife, unable to read his mind, sees this behavior as disinterest and uncaring. Hurt and bewildered by this disconnect, she withdraws as well. Both describe years of walking on eggshells. Deeper exploration uncovers a strongly held belief system left over from his childhood: “You are a bad person if you make someone you love unhappy.” Therefore, choosing compliance over anticipated “conflict” becomes a way of life. Information is withheld that could trigger a less than happy response (often a projection), and outsiders become confidants instead of his spouse. When he can no longer keep the emotional exchange at bay, he cuts it off. Why? He is overwhelmed with feeling like a bad person, guilt ridden and secondarily angry that “his wife” has made him feel this way. What had appeared as rejection and disinterest is in fact a fearful relic of a young boy’s world, desperately needing airing and updating to the world of the grown man he is today who can disagree, even with someone he loves, and not be bad for doing so.
Critical Wives: A husband is baffled by his wife’s constant attacks on him. She strikes out at him frequently with harsh words that make no sense to him, blaming him for financial hardship and failures as a wage earner, though they both are hard workers in a recession. He sees her as impossible to please, irrational and even cruel. No matter what he does, she is never happy with him. Another female impossible to please, and emotionally overwrought. In the therapy, the layers are peeled away to reveal many frightening moments in her childhood, where she was unprotected and at the mercy of a helpless mother and raging father. Money, earning it and having it, became a surrogate shield for true parental protection and comfort. In the session, that little girl made an appearance, which allowed her husband, perhaps for the first time, to see how frightened she was and why dry reasoning never touched the place that needed the comforting touch. In turn, she had glimpsed at how her childhood trauma colored her perceptions and treatment of her husband today.
Gender Predisposition? Biology and our culture demand it: men are cowboys and soldiers; women are mothers and movie stars. Men lean towards the coolness of fact; women bend towards the warmth of feeling. But each woman, each man, and each feeling is unique. Each disconnect has its multifaceted roots. There are more reasons than one; more emotions than you are with me or against me.
Simplistic Conclusions Are The Devil’s Work: The Coupledom, that domicile that holds the us of us, can be a challenge to make safe and solid. A black and white palate has no place here. We decorate in multiple shades, tones and textures, lots of layers of the you and of the me. Knee jerk assumptions of the other’s motives, feelings and beliefs are dangerous. Better to take the time to go under the surface of typical notions and become true intimates, heart and soul.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011