by Dick Douglass, L.I.S.W., therapist at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center. Dick has been practicing mental health counseling with adolescents, adults and couples for 44 years.
The men I meet in my role as a counselor these days seem to share a main concern— intimate relationships in their lives. That may not surprise you, but it opens my eyes a little when I think of the stereotype of men as avoiding emotionally intimate relationships.
Men may be grieving the loss of a significant relationship through death or divorce. They may be aware of a pervasive loneliness and seeking a partner. They may be in a relationship that is working pretty well but that they feel can be enriched. They may be in a relationship so fraught with conflict and pain that they’re not sure it can be saved.
But they are concerned enough that they will seek counseling. To do that is to risk being emotionally vulnerable which, in my mind, is a distinct act of courage and self-care.
It takes courage to share our sense of our limitations, our sense of failures in our lives, our feelings of confusion. It takes courage to more fully embrace our emotional life including our fears and shame—a feeling many of us are uncomfortable acknowledging even to ourselves. It takes discipline to shift the focus from the glaring faults of the “other” to our own feelings, thoughts and actions. In fact, why do it? What men teach me is that their exploration yields them a greater awareness of themselves, a clearer and more affirming sense of self, and a greater capacity to connect emotionally with significant people in their lives. To me, it’s a little like choosing to live life in full color rather than in gray.
Lately, I have recommended an author to everyone who is interested in improving intimate relationships. John Gottman has researched marital relationships for many years and has written several books. If you’re interested, you might look at The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Here are just a few highlights that may catch your interest. Gottman spots four behaviors that are toxic in intimate relationships: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling (withdrawing, refusing to engage.) He calls these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to emphasize their destructive impact on relationships and the urgent need to eliminate them.
Beyond these basics, he takes us on a journey toward relating more effectively (and affectively) to our significant other. He starts with the belief that we all seek emotional connection in our lives. He alerts us to his idea of the “bid.” Bids are gestures, sounds, expressions, words we make (positive or negative) indicating our wish to connect to a person. One key issue is how can we make effective emotional bids; another issue is how can we notice, interpret and constructively respond to bids our partner makes.
He also encourages us to nurture appreciation for our significant other and has very practical suggestions for how to do this working together.
Other “gems” are his encouraging us to be aware of different personality types So we ask, “What type am I?”
“What type is my partner?” This takes us in the direction of being mindful and constructive in dealing with differences.
We’re then invited to explore how our childhood and prior experiences affect our responses to our significant other in the present. To me, this is a gold mind of understanding that can free us from chronic patterns unconsciously carried over from the past.
There’s much more in the book; practical self-tests and exercises that help put ideas into action. When I read this book, I always feel hopeful, like someone has provided a map through and out of the proverbial woods into a place of greater freedom, light and love.
I hope you’ll experience Gottman’s work for yourself.
John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage
For more blog posts about mental health for men and boys: www.dmpcc.org/men