BETWEEN THE SEXES
--A Self-Help Guide to Building a Successful, Loving Relationship
--By Judith & James Sellner
Relationships take time. If you're not spending quality time working on your relationship, it won't function. Intimate relationships are like your teeth--if you don't attend to them daily & get periodic check-ups, they'll begin to decay & cause you great pain.
Why do relationships that promise so much love & excitement at the outset often turn out to be so disappointing & painful? The answer is that love alone is not enough. Satisfying relationships do not simply happen; the ability to create & sustain them has to be learned. Most women & men have not learned how to have a loving, satisfying relationship that endures over time. In today's World it is crucial that couples actively learn how to create loving relationships.
PERSONALITIES IN RELATIONSHIPS
A Woman Relating to a Man
As part of the socialising process, women develop a deeply ingrained attitude that can be expressed as, "Once I have a man who can take care of me, I will not have to be responsible for my own development." There are profound implications in this unstated attitude for both women & men.
Even today, men usually take the lead in initiating relationships, but it's the woman who most often ensures the relationship will continue. She will be the first to seek outside advice, usually from friends or relatives, & she will likely be the one who presses the man to go for counselling if their difficulties reach crisis proportions.
Each woman usually begins a relationship expecting intimacy, togetherness, fun times, honesty, compassion, & fidelity. To many women, it is better to have high & unfulfillable expectations of a relationship than to lower those expectations to a mundane, boring level. A woman may persist in her pursuit of those ideals through the most trying times & will seek reinforcement of them through her allies--children, women friends, or relatives. She may badger the man to behave in a way that indicates to her that love is still alive; she perceives any deviation from the ideal as the beginning of the doom of the relationship. She may even resort to reading romance novels to maintain the vision of what is possible in a relationship. She sometimes seeks support by becoming ill.
Women often feel they are not taken seriously by men, & indeed their fears can be well-founded. Women are disillusioned about intimate relationships more often than men. They may feel betrayed & believe that they invest more in their relationship than men do. Women expect their personal development & growth to be respected & feel betrayed when men are unsupportive.
Men Relating to Women
One of men's greatest fears is the fear of losing control. To be out of control is bad. To be in control is good. Most of men's activities are directed towards gaining, maintaining, & expanding their sphere of control. This is the main reason why men have so much difficulty in their relationships with women. Control is the opposite of intimacy. As a man experiences vulnerability (that is, being out of control) with a woman, he begins to look for ways to get himself back into control. Being an independent personality is one of men's favourite ways of maintaining control.
It is easy to understand, then, why it is so difficult for a man to admit his insecurities & weaknesses. He fears that, if he does expose them, his partner will gain control against him. This is why men do not like to show their feelings & will insist that they can manage their own problems.
Men's fear of losing control is complicated by their dependence on women. Statistics indicate that the death rate of divorced men is three times higher than that of divorced women. Mortality rates among widowers six months after the death of their wives is 40% higher than norm. Coronary failure (a "broken heart") is the single most frequent cause of death in these men. Men are more likely to suffer psychiatric difficulties as a result of divorce than are women. Men will marry much sooner than women following a divorce. Widowers & divorced men are more prone to alcoholism than widows or divorcees. One study showed that the least happy people between the ages of 28 & 32 are unmarried men. Our clinical experience indicates that a man suffers greater upset & has more difficulty getting over the hurt when his partner has an affair than when the reverse occurs. Most men go to great lengths to cover any signs of dependence on their partners for fear of being dominated.
LISTENING WITH POSITIVE REGARD
The most important skill required to successfully navigate the troubled waters of conflict is listening with positive regard. Listening means to actively hear & understand what another is saying. It means paying attention to the words & feelings that are being conveyed. Positive regard is respect, empathy, & interest in the other person's well-being. It also means that you have to be willing to openly disclose your thoughts & feelings to your partner.
People in conflict do not listen well. We have been studying couples in conflict in our private practice & in couples workshops for the last 8 years. We have found that couples in conflict can listen to each other for a maximum of 14 seconds. After 14 seconds they interrupt, prepare counter-arguments, get angry, start yelling, walk away, & do anything but listen. This is the main reason why couples' arguments go around in circles. They don't know what they're fighting about because they don't listen!
Learning how to listen with positive regard. With about 10 minutes of practice, you can increase your listening skills by 400%. Here's how to do it:
Begin by reading the following guidelines. These are the basic ground rules for listening with positive regard.
1) One person talk at a time.
2) You don't have to agree--go for understanding.
3) Do this in a spirit of positive regard.
4) After you've practiced a couple of times on a pleasurable topic, pick a topic over which you have a bit of conflict. As your listening skills grow, introduce more controversial topics. Now go on to the next activity to put into practice what you have just learned.
Activity--Listening with Positive Regard.
1) Pick a topic to discuss. Choose one that is pleasurable for both of you.
2) One of you begin by making a brief statement about the topic. It doesn't have to be complete. Keep it to about 15 seconds.
3) Your partner should repeat back to you what he or she heard you say using the phrase, "I heard you say..." You listen; don't interrupt.
4) When your partner is finished, confirm that he or she heard you correctly by saying, "Yes." If he or she didn't hear you correctly, repeat the part left out by saying, "I also said..." Or, if you felt your partner didn't hear you at all, repeat your statement again by saying, "I was trying to say..." Remember to keep it short.
5) It may be that your partner didn't hear your statement at all & can't repeat it. He or she may say, "I didn't hear what you said, would you please repeat it?" You then will repeat exactly what you said. Don't add anything new or it will be confusing to your partner.
6) Once you're satisfied that your partner has heard you, it's your partner's turn to make a brief statement on the same topic.
7) You reflect your partner's statement back saying, "I heard you say..."
You will likely feel very awkward doing this activity the first few times. With practice, you'll begin to feel more comfortable. Remember to observe the four guidelines.
GIVING & RECEIVING FEEDBACK
When you disclose yourself, you open the door to creating an intimate relationship. By giving, asking for, & receiving feedback, you invite another into your private World to hear what the other thinks about you. It's a risky thing to do, because the perception you have of yourself & your World can be very different from even your closest friend's perception. Giving, asking for, & receiving feedback implies that you are open to another's point of view even though it may be different than yours. It may result in your whole World being turned upside down, or confirmed.
Example: Sandy was having an argument with Beryl. It erupted into a shouting match & ended by the two of them stomping off in a huff. Kerrie, Sandy's lifetime confidant, witnessed the entire exchange.
Sandy: Beryl is such a stubborn pig-headed fool. She won't listen to anything I say. Wouldn't you agree?
Kerrie: Are you sure you're willing to hear what I have to say, because I saw it differently?
Sandy: (Shaking in his boots) Yes.
Kerrie: Actually, in my opinion you were acting bull-headed & arrogant. To me, you weren't listening to Beryl at all. I thought you shouted her down as soon as she began to disagree with you. It seemed to me that she couldn't get a word in edgewise.
Sandy asked for the feedback & now it is his responsibility to consider what Kerrie has said to him. He can reject it, accept it or modify it to fit in with his innermost experience. Probably the most effective thing he could do would be to talk with Beryl again, tell Beryl what Kerrie said & attempt to overcome the misunderstanding. In any event, he will have learned something about himself.
The process of giving, asking for, & receiving feedback is one of the key components in intimate relationships. It is through feedback that you learn to see yourself as others see you. Through an effective exchange of feedback you create an atmosphere of caring, trust, acceptance, openness, & a concern for the needs of your loved one.
The term "feedback" is borrowed from engineering. It refers to the process of taking information from the surrounding environment, feeding it into a device for measurement, & using those calibrated measurements to gauge how the machine should best respond to particular environmental changes. A thermostat is an example of a feedback mechanism. It gauges the temperature in the room & regulates the operation of the furnace based on the desired temperature set by you.
A relationship can also be seen as a feedback instrument with each partner sending agreed-upon signals to the other that indicate when the interaction is becoming "too hot", "too cold," or when everything is "just right."
If you respond to the feedback by being more open to it next time, you will probably begin to get what you want. The result will be that you will feel better about yourself & your partner will warm up to you too. Feedback, then, is a technique that helps you get what you want in a relationship. It is also a way of comparing your own perceptions of your behaviour with others' perceptions.
One of the most difficult & confusing aspects of couples' communication is that they tend to give feedback about each other's intentions, rather than their behaviours. For example, Jim comes home from work angry after having a fight with his boss. He starts slamming doors. Judy yells at him, "Just because I wasn't interested in sex last night isn't an excuse for being a boor today." That, of course, is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. An explosion follows. Rather than focusing on Jim's behaviour, Judy made an interpretation about his intentions. It would have been more productive for her to say, "You seem angry, what's going on?" Jim could then explain. Or, if he reacted angrily to her question she could say, "I don't know what you're angry about. When you're finished being angry I'll talk to you, but not before."
Regardless of how accurate the feedback may be, if your partner does not accept the information, for whatever reason, the feedback is useless. Your feedback must be given so as to increase the probability that the person for whom it is intended can hear it in the most objective & least distorted way possible, understand it, & choose to use it or not use it.
To be most effective, feedback should, whenever possible, be given immediately following the event. If you wait too long to give feedback, the receiver may not remember the situation or your recollection of the event may become clouded. You may get into arguments over details & the original intention of the feedback may be lost. This doesn't mean that you need to give the feedback in front of the dinner guests, for example, but soon after they leave is probably the best time.
We end each day with what we call clearing. We set aside 10 or 15 minutes for appreciations, which are things we like about our day & each other, & resentments, which include things we didn't like about our day or things one of us did that the other didn't like. We also say whatever is on our minds, both positive & negative, before we go to bed. By clearing on a daily basis, we keep our relationship up-to-date, fresh, interesting, & alive.
THE PRESSURE OF TIME
Practically every study on family stress ranks time pressures near the top. Almost every couple who comes to see us for counselling says, "We should have done something about our relationship years ago." Most people would say that they should work less. We have conducted a study of two-career couples & discovered that the typical Monday to Friday week for each person follows this pattern:
--40 hours spent on the job
--10 hours commuting
--5 hours lunch (we consider this time to be work oriented since the person's time is restricted)
--5 hours getting ready for work
--5 hours to wind down from work (after a good day, longer if you have a bad day)
This totals 65 hours of work-related time per week, or 12.4 hours per day. The schedule shown above leaves little time for what most people say is most important to them: Time with their partners, children, friends, & self. When a couple doesn't take enough time to be together without distractions, communication suffers. When communication suffers, couples are less able to deal with day-to-day issues. Arguments break out over seemingly trivial things, which adds more stress & uneasiness between partners. This, in turn, leads to each avoiding the other, further compounding the time problem. Estrangement or affairs are the probable consequences.
Many couples develop creative ways for finding time for self, partner, family & friends. How do they do it? They use the following guidelines.
1. Heartbeats are a non-renewable resource. We are given a certain number of heartbeats in our lifetime. Nobody knows how many; it's different for each person. Ask yourself this question, "Is what I'm doing right now the way I want to expend my heartbeats, knowing that they can never be recovered?"
Controlling your time requires planning. It means sitting down together & going over weekly & long-range calendars. You must plan the amount of time you will take in the upcoming week to eat meals together & to relax. If your schedule looks impossibly full, & if you value your relationship, you will eliminate some extraneous activities.
Making decisions about how to use your time requires courage. It isn't easy to say to a friend or relative, "Sorry, but we can't spend time with you right now because our relationship comes first." Most people don't do this. They invite guests over, allow friends to drop in at any time, give in to the pressures of work responsibilities, & get too involved in their families. Then they end up blaming others rather than themselves.
2. Home versus office: The vital balance. When work becomes the primary focus of either partner's life, breakdowns in communication are inevitable. Successful couples don't let work intrude on their family life. They make an agreement to call each other's attention to any neglect of family. Each also agrees that when the fact is pointed out, the offending partner will change his or her behaviour.
DEALING WITH CONFLICT & ANGER
It's easy to love & feel close when things are going well, but your mutual respect & goodwill is tested in times of antagonism or disagreement. Conflicts, power struggles, anger, or frustrations are the inevitable by-product of intimate relationships, because the closer you get to your partner, the more your different individual needs & values become apparent. Unfortunately, this reality runs counter to the romantic belief that the more you love each other, the more you will think & feel alike. Compounding this mistaken assumption is the fact that most of us have not learned how to deal effectively with conflict & anger. The ability & willingness to resolve conflict successfully is one of the most important social skills you can possess. Our strategies for resolving conflicts can be classified into four basic types: Flight, diversion, fighting, & constructiveness.
1. Flight. Some people seem to run away at the first sign of conflict.
Example: Sherry & Ralph have been married for two years. Sherry has some lasting disagreements she wants to settle with Ralph, but he has been avoiding discussing them.
Sherry: Whenever I want to talk about anything that might create conflict between us you hide behind your newspaper or your work.
Ralph: I'm sorry, Sherry, but I can't talk about this right now, I've got a meeting.
Sherry: ARRRGH! That's exactly what I mean!
Ralph: Sorry dear, have to go, see you later.
People who have a pattern of fleeing from conflict find all kinds of rational explanations for their behaviour. They quit jobs because their bosses are incompetent. They get divorced because they weren't meant for each other. They are usually afraid to face up to conflicts, & they don't have the skills to do so. "I guess," & "I don't know," are common phrases these people use. They will do anything to avoid new situations because they have a great many doubts & fears about their competency as a result of fleeing from the unknown. Some couples flee into silence by making an unspoken agreement to not talk about any contentious issue as a way of avoiding conflict so they can have a "nice" (but boring) relationship.
There are situations where flight is the most appropriate & effective strategy. If your partner beats you up physically or verbally, the best thing to do is get away as quickly as possible. Sometimes it is also more effective to wait until a better time to deal with the conflict. For example, at a dinner party Bob disagrees with Sue's version of why her parents were recently divorced. It would be best if Bob didn't say anything until they got home to avoid a heated discussion in public.
2. Diversion. Diversion is basically an attempt to delay undesirable action by deflecting attention away from the conflict. Changing the subject, arguing over semantics, & criticising your partner's use of language are all tactics designed to divert attention away from the real problems or to keep the issues so unclear that attempts to constructively resolve the conflict are impossible. Example:
Rex: You were late again last night; I want to know what's going on; this is five nights in a row.
Sara: What do you mean?
Rex: Look, you usually get home by 6:30, lately it's 10:30 or 11:30. I'm concerned that you might be seeing someone.
Sara: Oh, Rex, there you go again. Did the Freison's call about Saturday night?
Sara's diversionary tactics are designed to keep Rex at bay. These kinds of tactics usually lead to feelings of dissatisfaction & anxiety in the partner who is being put off.
3. Fighting. When in doubt, attack. This is the strategy adopted by some people in the face of conflict. The intention is to get power over the other by use of physical force (a punch in the nose); verbal assaults (screaming, yelling, long barrages of sentences); or punishment, both overt & covert (withholding love, sex, money, taking away privileges until the other gives in.) Often one person will fight while the other flees.
In any particular conflict, there is a winner & a loser. Wins, however, are only short term as the loser gathers force for revenge as soon as possible. Hostility, anger, anxiety, alienation, & physical damage are the usual by-products of these win-lose power tactics.
4. Constructiveness. When you take a constructive approach to conflict, you try to resolve the disagreement with actions that are mutually satisfying to everyone involved. The constructive approach requires that you learn & practice a set of skills.
a) The ability to figure out the source of the conflict.
b) An ability & willingness to initiate constructive action.
c) The ability to use the process of conversation.
d) The discipline to engage in a problem-solving process to bring about mutually acceptable action.
a) Diagnosing the sources of conflict. When diagnosing the source & type of conflict, the most important issue is determining whether the conflict is a value conflict, a real conflict, or both. Almost all conflicts between couples are value conflicts or disagreements that reflect internal values, or the assumptions about what is "proper." For example, arguments over what love is, how much sex is enough, where to spend money, who should pick up the kids or take out the garbage, & when the stove should be cleaned, are all value-based. There are no right answers to these conflicts. How they get worked out, however, will have a very significant impact on how much love, intimacy & companionship you will experience in your relationship.
b) Initiating constructive action. If both of you are willing to be open to discussion & intend to resolve the conflict, use the process of constructive action outlined in the following example.
Joan: I have a problem, are you willing to talk about it?
Gordon: Yes, I am willing.
(Both people set aside all possible distractions, sit facing each other in preparation for a serious discussion the same way they would for an important business meeting.)
Joan: Gordon, I've been telling you about this book I'm reading & how I think we could use it to clear up some problems in our relationship. I've asked you a couple of times to read it so we can discuss it, but you seem uninterested.
(Joan intentionally stops talking now so she doesn't overload Gordon, who is likely to be a bit defensive. Even if he isn't defensive, it gives him a chance to reply. A key in discussing conflicted topics is to go slowly.)
Gordon: I don't like that psychological self-improvement stuff, I don't think it does much good. Besides, I don't think we have as many problems as you say we do; that's what happens when you read that stuff.
(Joan takes some deep breaths to calm herself because an angry outburst at this point would be ineffective. Even though she'd like to "kill him," she's going to keep her intention in mind.)
Joan: We have had four angry fights in the last two weeks. I am unhappy in this relationship. I think we need to improve our communications before it's too late. I would like you to give it a try with this book.
A defensive reaction at first is quite common. It is important to discipline yourself to let it go for the moment, otherwise your feelings will sidetrack you from your intended purpose. The most effective way to confront your partner is to go slowly, make short statements, & state the tangible effects the unresolved conflict is having on you. And breathe, breathe, breathe.
c) Engaging in the process of communication. Engaging means to listen, expressing yourself clearly & directly, being aware of & checking out your assumptions/understandings, being conscious of your feelings, keeping track of your intentions, & later on moving towards solutions to the conflict. Let's continue the conversation between Joan & Gordon.
Gordon: So, unless I read this book you're going to take off.
Joan: No, I didn't say I was going to take off. I was trying to tell you that I think we have some communication problems & I believe this book could help. I would really appreciate it if you would give it a try.
Gordon: You think we have some communication problems & you would appreciate my giving it a try.
Joan: Yes, that's what I said. Basically I think we have a pretty good relationship, & if we learned how to handle our conflicts better we'd both be happier.
Gordon: You think basically we have a good relationship. You just want us to learn how to deal with our conflicts better. Boy, I thought it was the end & you were ready to go out the door.
Joan: I heard you say you thought I was ready to leave you. (Gordon acknowledges with a nod.)
Gordon: OK, I'm willing to give it a try. What did you have in mind?
Joan & Gordon are well on their way to searching for some ways to resolve their conflict. Gordon was open to the discussion, which helped a lot. Joan's willingness to discipline herself & not harangue Gordon helped too. Although this is a simple example that may seem too easy, it shows how both people can learn to deal effectively with conflicts.
d) Problem-solving. The final skill in the constructive approach is to search for possible solutions to the conflict & agree to try one out. The first step is to clarify the problem. What needs to be changed? What is each person's opinion about the perceived need for change? Joan has clarified her problem; she thinks they don't communicate very well. She wants them to learn to communicate better, which will require time. Gordon will also read the book, or at least parts of it. Gordon is willing to give it a try.
The next steps are to mutually agree on a workable solution & to make definite plans for implementing the solution, including when, where, & how.
Gordon: OK, I'll read the chapter. Let's see, today is Monday. I'll finish it by Friday, then we can talk about it Saturday evening.
Joan: You'll read the chapter by Friday & we'll talk Saturday. (Gordon agrees.)
Gordon: Oh, one more thing, I want you to agree to not bug me about whether or not I'm reading it. If you do that I'm likely to get angry & not do it. That's what I did when my mother bugged me about my homework.
Joan: (chuckling) I heard you say that you want me not to bug you about reading the chapter, otherwise you might get angry & not do it. You did that when your mother bugged you about homework.
While it may seem tedious to keep repeating to your partner what you heard, it is crucial for maintaining the clarity in your exchanges. This is particularly true for contentious issues. It helps to slow the process, which will keep the conversation on a rational basis.
An angry person may use anger as a way of avoiding stating directly what he or she wants, while attacking the partner for not coming across with it.
Example: Sam wants to have sex with Gina but he doesn't ask her if she is interested. He snuggles up to her a bit but never states what he has in mind; nothing happens. The next day Sam stomps around the house criticising Gina for everything she does. Sam is using anger to try & punish Gina for not giving him what he didn't ask for. Rather than be assertive, he gets angry at her by being critical, punitive, & demanding perfection. He might, if he has the opportunity, become judgemental & call her frigid.
Gina finally figures out what's going on with Sam & decides to confront him.
Gina: Look, Sam, I think you're criticising me & punishing me. My guess is that it has something to do with last night. Did you want to have sex with me & now you're angry because it didn't happen?
Sam: Well, you're never interested in sex!
Gina: (Directly, with determination, not anger) Sam, that is not true. If you want something from me I want you to ask directly. It doesn't mean you'll always get what you want, but if you don't ask, you'll never get what you want.
Sam: Sometimes I feel too embarrassed to ask, like I shouldn't or like I'm a little boy asking for a cookie from my mommy. I'll try though.
Gina: You may feel embarrassed, but unless you take the risk, you're always going to blame me. I think it's going to require more than trying; I think you will have to just do it. When you punish me I don't want to have anything to do with you.
Sam: I will try, I'm surprised how afraid I am to ask for what I want, especially from you, the one person it should be easy with. That was difficult for me; thanks for the feedback.
If you have a pattern of being angry or freely critical of others, you must learn how to listen. You likely focus on others to justify your angry behaviour. You spend too much time being angry or talking to others in an angry authoritative manner. As a result, you probably think your relationships are in better shape than they really are. People who have to be physically close to you have withdrawn psychologically from you by not talking to you or being very careful about what they say to you, or they will tell you what they think you want to hear. If you do begin to listen to others you will hear a lot of things that will be difficult for you to take in or agree with. But listen you must if you ever hope to develop a satisfying relationship.
STAYING IN CONTACT
In long-term relationships, your sexual encounters will not always be exciting or pleasurable. Many times you will find yourself having sex & discover that it's mundane or boring. That's OK. Boring sex does not diminish the presence of love. In fact, boring sex can be a source of humour & intimacy for both of you, if you can share your boredom in a light-hearted way. Being bored can actually be quite relaxing & may open up the possibility for just experiencing the pleasure of having intimate, physical body contact. It can be a rough World out there, sometimes all we need to recover from it is a warm, loving person to cuddle up with.
The following activities are ways of sustaining intimate contact without sexual activity.
1) Take at least 20 minutes each day to be alone together. Don't allow any disturbances.
2) Once a week have your partner lightly stroke your back for about 10 minutes. Return the favour.
3) Every day make non-sexual physical contact when you get up in the morning, when you part, & when you meet again in the evening.
4) Spend one evening about every two weeks being in close physical contact, without having intercourse: Touch, stroke, embrace, give each other a bath, wash & dry your partner's hair, do a face massage.
If you usually wear nightclothes to bed, don't for a week. Allow yourself to freely walk nude in your bedroom with your partner present.
After the Climax. Often you will move toward orgasm, either together or at different times. Couples in long-term relationships have a tendency to equate climax with conclusion. One of the most satisfying aspects of lovemaking can be the relaxation & closeness that follows an intense orgasm. It is in this time that you can experience the quality of your love together. After orgasm your body is still aroused & there is much pleasure yet to be experienced in the ensuing cuddling, caressing, or gentle kissing. It is during these times that you can experience the connection that transcends sex differences, by sharing your humanity, your vulnerability, & your sensual satisfactions.