This article is excerpted from the NY times national bestseller, "The Truth about Cheating." The author studied hundreds of men, faithful and unfaithful, to discover how women could create better relationships for themselves.
1. Winning Is Everything
Men are commonly not interested in fighting a losing battle. They are trained to find the winning edge, and if they can't win as a team then at least they have to win as an individual. Have you ever seen men watch professional sports? Have you seen their mood change depending on the outcome of the game they watch or participate in? Many men in this research spoke to the winning attitude as it related to their marriage with very common phrases like, "I felt I couldn't win no matter what I did."
When a husband feels that his wife is so upset with him that he can't really win anymore, he immediately compartmentalizes his feelings toward her. This in turn causes her to feel angrier at him because he's becoming more emotionally distant, which causes him to try less and less because his wife is always so angry at him. The wife has been on his case because she feels she needs him to make a real change and doesn't want him to believe that one nice act is going to wash away all of the other insensitive stuff he did. So even after he does something nice she's careful not to give him too much in the win column for fear he'll think everything's fine, all back to normal, and he'll stop trying. This was a really common scenario these men spoke to, and it's a failed system.
"It was like there was nothing about me she liked. Why was I going to change one bit for her? I just couldn't win."
One husband in my research claimed that every time he came home after work he was greeted by a sour look on his wife's face. She was upset at him on a daily basis for anything and everything. It didn't take too long before he didn't want to come home anymore. He admitted to being difficult to live with but still felt he was a solid father and was working very hard to support the family. One the one hand, he knew he could be much better. He understood his wife's complaints. But on the other hand, he felt he wasn't as horrible as his wife made him feel.
"I mean, it was like there was nothing about me she liked. Why was I going to change one bit for her? I just couldn't win."
His wife shared with me that she was angry and felt that simply accepting him wasn't good enough. She decided she wasn't going to stay with him unless he made changes in his ability to be emotionally connected to her. But what she came to understand through incredible pain was that her always being critical and upset with him was never going to let him win at any stage and therefore could never motivate him to bring out the best emotional person he could be.
It doesn't serve you well to say nothing and make no positive acknowledgement when he calls to tell you he'll be late for dinner after you yelled at him for the fifth time last week when he left you with a cold roast and no phone call. I know you feel and perhaps you are correct that he should not "get anything" or be appreciated for common courtesy. But if his effort fails to get any recognition -- whether it's a quick thank-you or, much better, a really nice hug when he does return home -- he hasn't won and there's little motivation in his male mind to continue on that path. Men don't actually think in terms of winning with their wives. But they do think things like, "What good was that? I called ahead like she wanted and she's still upset about something."
When men feel like they can win at home, they'll go to the nth degree to please their wives.
The opposite is also true. When men feel like they can win at home, they'll go to the nth degree to please their wives. So learning to offer up appreciation and loving gestures will get you a husband who will continue to work at being more sensitive and emotional with you. He'll work very hard at being a winner at his marriage and family if you can lead the winning way. When he feels he's gaining ground he will continue to make a sincere effort to return your love consistently.
2. Men Compartmentalize
Men find it hard to understand why their wives can't hold on to their emotions and deal with them at a later time. Wives don't like it that their husbands can't take a moment or two to talk to them about their issues on the phone. "All it would take is a simple understanding comment and I'd be on my way," you might think.
You could be right but your husband doesn't think or speak on those levels as easily as you do. So if you have a car accident, it would likely be easy for him to say, "Oh my gosh, are you hurt, are you okay?" You might get a "You must be so shaken up." But when you call because you're upset that your five-year-old son wasn't watched properly on the playground and he got hit with a branch by another kid and it made a small cut right below his eye but one centimeter closer and he could've been blinded, he's not sure why he has to deal with this now.
You're upset and angry? Okay. If your kid is okay then there's no emergency. Your emergency is your justifiably angry, protective emotions. The likelihood is that women who are working outside the home might stop their day faster, talk to the nanny, leave work earlier than a man would.
Learn to commit to dealing with those issues together at a later time.
But your husband thinks it can wait. His asking you to wait and hold on to those emotions isn't his idea of being insensitive of you. It's what he'd ask of himself. If he got the call and found out the same information, chances are he would go on about his workday and file it all later to remind himself that he'd better call the principal and give him a piece of his mind. Unfortunately, he doesn't tell you this and possibly just ignores your feelings, thinking, "If the kid's okay, go on with your day and we'll figure it out later." If you continue to talk about it and even imply that he's being insensitive to you for not taking time out of his day to calm and soothe you, you risk him telling you that you're being insensitive for not respecting what kind of day he's having at work that you want to deal with it all now.
You want to find a compromise now that you understand more about how your husband works. If he can't help you with your feelings right now, learn together to commit to dealing with those issues at a later time, in the evening, for example. You may be concerned that he'll never want to deal with any feelings later, but he will if he feels he can win. At the same time you can ask him to just tell you that he's really busy and feels bad for you but would like it if you guys could wait until tonight to discuss it, so that you can get a momentary commitment to have him hear your feelings and he can get on with his day.
3. Men Don't Like to Complicate Things
Men have been trained to solve a problem and get on with it. Otherwise they're not quite sure what they're supposed to do. If you share an issue with your husband, the most likely response will be something along the lines of, "Well, why don't you just ___." He doesn't know that you're not yet interested in a solution but rather just want some understanding. He's been taught forever not to acknowledge his own emotions and not to expect others to rally around him and feel along with him. That is why he'll like be resistant to your verbalizing emotional support for him.
He doesn't want to hear you say in a soft voice, "I feel so bad for you that your boss embarrassed you in front of your colleagues and made you feel little." He wants to be a winner and he wants you to understand, not through sensitive remarks but through emotional love. He wants you to be especially kind to him that night and make him feel like his idiot boss is a loser and he is a winner because he goes home at night and has a wife who loves him.
Since your husband isn't looking for feeling, sensitive comments when he's upset, he doesn't get it that you want words of encouragement and love.
Since your husband isn't looking for the same type of feeling, sensitive comments when he's upset, he doesn't get it so clearly that you want words of encouragement, love, and support when you are sharing your daily struggles or accomplishments. He loves you and wants to make you happy, but this isn't going to register to him as an initial response. So you might have to clue him in to what you want – many times – because it's not his instinctual response in his own world of winning man. His world is about simplicity.
"You hurt, kid? No? Then get out and play. What? Your shoulder hurts? You got another shoulder, use it." He'd love to love you in the way you'd like, because deep down he seeks as much of an emotional connection as you do. He's just been trained to manage emotions very differently.
How to Show Him Support
Consider how you can show him supportive, loving gestures. First of all, when he tells you a story about someone who he felt wronged him, take his side immediately. Let him know you think the other person is wrong, disgusting, and inappropriate if any of that is true. This is really no different from what you want him to do for you. You may want it in a loving, soft voice and he may want it in a more matter-of-fact voice, meeting his tone. Be careful not to use motherly gestures when he's sharing a problem ("Aw, honey, that wasn't nice"). Rather, speak to his masculine side. Think about how his best male friend would respond and get as close to that as you feel comfortable ("Your boss is such an idiot. Of course you're fuming"). Have your emotion match his own. If he's angry, allow yourself to get a little hot and show him you're angry for him. If he's delighted, smile broadly and let him know he deserves it ("Unbelievable, you must be flying high. You deserved it after everything you've done over there").
Again, don't turn into a mother ("Wow, I'm so proud of you"). You can make motherly statements later on when they are attached to a supportive gesture or written on a card, but they are not what he wants at the moment of sharing. Later on you can ask him if perhaps the other person said what he said because he misunderstood the situation. You can try to help your husband find another way to look at it. But this should come, if at all, at a quiet time later. If offered at the time he's sharing his feelings with you, he'll see you as unsupportive and taking the other team's side, and he will not want to be on your team.
A kind shoulder, back, or foot rub is a physical gesture that says, "Thank you for sharing. I understand you can use a little extra warmth and I'm just the person to give it, so keep on sharing with me." Cooking or arranging a meal and setting up a fun time out are simple and much-appreciated gestures. All of these examples of supportive gestures serve as a great counterbalance to the messages he receives from the outside world that he might be complaining about. This is the way to keep your husband discussing his issues with you on a regular basis and keeping him on your team.