Men are right. Women are wrong. Such is the engaging premise of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, a book that makes two main assumptions about its readers:
(a) They are women.
(b) Their husbands don’t want them reading marriage how-to manuals.
It’s an interesting tightrope for authors Patricia Love and Steven Stosny to walk: they are addressing a female audience, yet attempting to do so in ways that will disarm male suspicions. When they say that men are right, what they mean, essentially, is that having the big relationship talk – the one most men would give their right arm to avoid having – does not actually improve marriages. The reason is that men have a hair-trigger shame mechanism: when women express their anxieties and fears (even when those fears are not directly related to the marriage), what they hear is "Blah, blah, blah, failure, blah, blah, blah, not good enough, blah, blah, blah, can’t meet my needs." My informal survey of one husband indicates that this translation is 100% dead-on accurate.
The book begins with a feminist disclaimer: the gender patterns the authors describe are averages that may not apply to individuals; they are traits that affect relationships but have no significant bearing on aptitudes or career paths. With that concession to my feminist sensibilities out of the way, I found myself both fascinated and convinced by the authors’ observations. By any measure, they say, women report higher levels of anxiety and fear than men. A woman’s response to this anxiety is most often to "tend and befriend": she increases her nurturing behaviours ("tending") and invests in her friendships ("befriending") in order to find reassurance. This may or may not be true of women in general, but it’s certainly true of me. Convinced thus far, I read on.
As Love and Stasny observe, the rituals of female bonding involve exposing one’s vulnerabilities. Following the ancient rites, one woman swaps her fear of abandonment for another’s fear of rejection. With this ceremony out of the way, both women feel stronger and safer, assured of one another’s support. Problems arise when these women go home and try to engage their husbands in the same ritual. It’s not simply that the husbands respond incorrectly (trying to fix the problem instead of empathizing with it); rather, the issue is that the wife’s expression of anxiety triggers the husband’s shame mechanisms – her fear is a sign of his failure.
The authors are careful to couch everything they say in scientific terms: instead of describing emotions, they refer to the brain chemicals that correspond to them: the wife says, "I’m worried about how we’re going to pay the bills this month," and the husband reels from a sudden dump of cortisol in the frontal lobe. I assume this tactic is meant to remind us that these responses are largely involuntary. Sure, the husband shouldn’t feel attacked or criticized when his wife attempts to bond with him by exposing her vulnerabilities, but he can’t help it: he’s powerless to stem the chemical tide her words evoke.
Male shame and female fear are the central ideas in the book, and they are linked to an interplay of biological and environmental factors. Male babies are more easily over-stimulated than their female counterparts: they tend to break eye contact for fear of being overwhelmed – and then when they attempt to reestablish eye contact, they find that the caregiver has moved on. These formative experiences send subtle signals to the boy child that his style of communication is wrong. If this (mostly inevitable) dynamic is augmented by the deliberate use of shaming as a disciplinary tactic, the problem worsens.
As essentialist gender stereotypes go, this one is fairly tolerable: for one thing, these differences are not something parents are meant to reinforce or perpetuate: the more psychologically healthy men and women become, the less ruled they are by their shame and fear. Indeed, as the mother of a son I found the insights in this book at least as applicable to my parenting as they were to my marriage.
Talk is very important to me: I measure most of my relationships in terms of how I talk to people. Do we have a lot to talk about, or are we bored by each other’s conversation? Can I trust this person enough to feel comfortable revealing secrets? (Okay, let’s face it, the answer to that one is an almost universal "yes.") Does this person feel comfortable sharing her secrets with me? In my marriage, likewise, I measure the health of the relationship by the volume of words. Do we talk about things other than the children? If we go out to a restaurant, are we stumped for conversation topics, or do the words flow freely?
For that reason, I was relieved to discover that this book does not actually forbid husbands and wives to talk to one another. The problem isn’t talk – it’s relationship talk, emotional talk, the kind in which women run circles around their hapless husbands. That rang true for me – I love to converse with my husband, but I don’t consider it necessary to talk about feelings – indeed, I occasionally like to tease him by saying something like, "Tell me about how you’re feeling," just for the fun of seeing that look of panic in his eyes before he realizes that I’m kidding.
Love and Stosny point out that a wife often initiates the big relationship talk as a means of reconnecting with her partner, an end that can often be better achieved by other means – by talking about Survivor, let’s say, or the Super Bowl, or even, at times, about the children. (They also recommend more sex – see previous post – and you’re welcome to take that advice for what it’s worth, though you can probably guess how likely it is to be implemented in my home.)
I’m on a bit of a marriage-book binge right now – the next book on my nightstand is called Love and Respect, and I anticipate that it will cover much of the same ground (with love being the antidote to fear and respect the antidote to shame), only with more references to the Bible and fewer references to brain chemistry and evolution. Hard to say which approach has greater annoyance potential: gender differences as dictated by God or gender differences as dictated by pseudoscientific ideas about hunter gatherer societies. Considering its subject matter, perhaps the most amazing thing about How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It is how little it annoyed me.