Sunday, March 04, 2007

Shut Up and Talk to Me

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.


slouching mom said...

If we go out to a restaurant, are we stumped for conversation topics, or do the words flow freely?

I have done a lot of thinking about this aspect of my marriage. And I definitely have a husband happiest in 'fix-it' mode, happiest when I am not sharing fears and anxieties (of which, by the way, I have many).

When we go out on a date (rare though it is these days), he wants nothing more than to see a movie. I used to balk at this -- why would we pay a sitter so that we could sit in a theatre not talking to each other? But as I've grown older, I've mellowed, I guess. I am more comfortable with silence, as long as it is companionable.

I'm intrigued by the book; it sounds wiser than most in its genre, and it also sounds like it doesn't fall too far into the men-mars-women-venus pit.

owlhaven said...

Sounds interesting!


bubandpie said...

Slouching Mom - According to the book, not only is he happiest when you're not sharing fears and anxieties, but the same goes for you: if he were to share fears with you, you wouldn't like it nearly as much as you might think (it could actually raise your anxiety level).

Blog Antagonist said...

That seems kind of contrary to what I have personally experienced. I feel very close to my husband when we are both able to communicate our feelings effectively. But, we've had 14 years to perfect our communication skills and to learn how the other listens.

Of course sharing fears raises anxiety. That's normal. But I don't think that means we should avoid doing so. I think that's counterproductive. I've never found sweeping things under the rug very constructive, especially in a marriage.

I think most how to books on marriage can essentially be broken down into a couple pretty simple prinicples.

People need to feel emotionally connected and intimate to keep a relationship thriving. They need to feel valued. They need to feel that they matter to their spouse.

I can't really pass judgement on the book because I haven't read it. And of course, I'm not a marriage counselor or any kind of counselor. But those I have read have always disappointed me enormously.

I can't say this one will be making it's way onto my tbr list, but I enjoyed reading your review.

Veronica Mitchell said...

My husband is definitely a Mr Fix-It when it comes to my emotions. Actually, we both are.

I have found that if I need to confide a fear or something upsetting, it helps to give him explicit directions on how to comfort me. And he has learned to ask for those things, too. "I need you to give me something to do that will please you" is a phrase that has often been spoken by both of us, sometimes resulting in a snuggle, a shared nap, a movie run or a cold glass of ginger ale. We both need to do something practical to feel that we have comforted the other.

flutter said...

You know, I think in my house the roles are reversed. While I am very nurturing and girly etc etc guyis the one who always initiates the "expressing of anxiety" and you're right.It freaks me out, entirely.

bubandpie said...

BA - I think the book defines its audience pretty narrowly: it's aimed at couples who are already locked in a pursuit/avoidance pattern, with the woman's pursuit being characterized by various ominous-sounding lead-ins like, "We need to have a talk."

I think the authors would say that the kind of communication you describe with your husband is the result of feeling connected and valued rather than the cause of it. That is, if such intimacy is absent, the way to create it isn't to force the issue with deep talks, but to close the gap in other ways first and then let the communication go from there.

Beck said...

Yeah, I REALLY do not want my husband telling me what he's worrying about, whatever I may say to the contrary.
My husband is not a talkative man, while I am perhaps the most talkative human being alive. This works well, as he's very cheerful to be my audience. Either that, or he's painted smiling, wide-awake eyes on a pair of glasses and then just naps behind them whenever I get going.

c4cara said...

As usual, great synopsis, and I am relieved not to need to read the book for myself. I'm with you, I find 'I can't help it because I'm a man/ you are a woman' sorts of arguments really annoying and overly simplistic and very likely to give people an excuse to give up. God, chemicals, whatever. It's a work in progress, work on it.

We do that 'why don't you tell me how you are feeling' joke in our house as well. Me to get him nervous, Him because I have observed that when we are in bed and cuddling and I start to tell him about my anxieties he goes off to sleep, and so if he cannot sleep he says 'why don't you tell me.....'...

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

So, well, this is an odd question, but -- what is a relationship talk?

My husband and I talk a lot but we never talk about our relationship. It exists, what's to say? We do talk about when the other is doing something irritating (WHY does he always start a project 5 seconds before I put dinner on the table??) but I don't think that's what you mean -- is it?

Angela said...

My husband is the Mr.Fix-It in our relationship, I am the one who has the look of panic on my face when he asks me how I'm feeling, I'm still working on being completely open and forthcoming. Which has been hard for me to do since in my family we never spoke about our feelings, his family was the exact opposite. I guess it goes both ways, fear and shame can be triggered in both sexes.

Neither of us wants or needs to know everything that the other partner is thinking or feeling, too much information is not always a good thing, some degree of ignorance can be bliss in a marriage.

Mary-LUE said...

My informal survey of one husband indicates that this translation is 100% dead-on accurate.

So funny!

I agree with c4cara: this is a great synopsis. The conclusions remind me of another book you mentioned some months ago (I forget the title) which focused on making gestures (Were they called repair efforts?) to reach out after conflict in a marriage instead of trying to reach conflict resolution.

19 years in to my marriage, I would have to say that I see the wisdom in this book's approach. And I suspect you are right in your response to blog antagonist's comment about the type of communication she experiences with her husband being the result of feeling connected and valued, not the cause of it.

All in all, I find it interesting to see this approach to strengthening marriage.

Julie Pippert said...

My husband's happy marriage: let wife talk as much as she likes whilst reviewing sports stats in head

My happy marriage: err, is he listening to me? oh well blah blah blah blah blah

My husband's idea of talk: here's what you need to do

My idea of talk: oh, wow, you must feel so...about that...

This sounds a bit like the Five Love Languages or is it the antithesis of that book? I can't tell.

bubandpie said...

Julie - I guess this book would suggest that the five love languages would be most effective when the husband learns to speak in his wife's love language, since feeling loved is more of a core need for her than for him.

marian said...


I read Love and Respect last year. The main points are excellent. The main points are examined from all angles. The main points are stated in as many ways as possible. The main points are re-phrased. The main points are rounded out with analogies. Examples of the main points are given. The main points are reviewed... Are you getting my main point?

Truly excellent content but, really, the book easily could have been half as long! Skim and enjoy.

Jenifer G. said...

Wow. Sudden revelation. I am definitely the one to duck the conversations. While I may talk a lot more than hubby, I don't talk about our "relationship" that much. Unless I am really ticked I pretty much don't waffle on about "us".

I agree with the premise that I think I just don't want to know his anxieties - I have enough of my own! To be fair we do have discussions about the future, our goals and where we want to be as a family in say five years. These discussions are hardly ever started by me. I don't hate sharing, I just find it hard to start the process.

I do know that my hubby's one biggest fear is that he has let me down in some way. And when he is at his most annoying self I try very hard to remember that.

Thanks for the review.

Alpha DogMa said...

This was a great review, I was a bit apprehensive about the title and subject matter when I began reading and the last line of the post made me laugh outloud. Very droll.

bubandpie said...

Jennifer (Ponderosa) - A relationship talk might begin with any of the following:

"How do you really feel about me?"

"We've been spending a lot of time apart lately and we need to sit down and figure out why that's happening."

"Why are you acting so distant lately?"

"Are you still in love with me?"

"I've come to realize that your refusal to do housework is the result of your childhood feelings of abandonment. Tell me about how it made you feel when your mother went back to work."

"I've been reading a self-help book and it says we need to fill out this inventory of our commitment to the marriage."

"Why don't you ever tell me I'm beautiful now, the way you did when we were dating?"

Any other suggestions?

Gwen said...

Thank you for reading and reviewing this book so I don't have to! I'm not really into marriage books, because like several of your other commenters, I'm happy to connect by talking about Survivor. In fact, I can talk about Survivor A LOT.

My husband is the one who pursues me emotionally, but I've never considered our behaviors gender related. I'm more reserved; he's more effusive. Both of our parents packed our emotional suitcases full of gifts that keep on giving. These seem to be the core issues for us, not brain chemistry.

However, I do find the neuroscience, pseudo or otherwise, fascinating. I just can't seem to apply it in situations that are feel-y not think-y.

gingajoy said...

That is fascinating, BP. I love this review because it frames it in terms I think about too (feminism, social constructionism, etc). I have to say, my husband and I don't conform to type here--I am the one to balk sometimes when he wants to talk relationship, but I am realizing more and more that we are an exception in this regard that proves the rule.

I think the marriage books coming out right now are fascinating--I am reading Babyproofing Your Marriage for BH also. Many of my thoughts on it are very much akin to yours--my feminist, social constructionist self balks, but there is a truth there that sinks home a little. And they actually have some useful strategies for improving relations.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Yikes! Those kinds of conversations would freak *me* out, if my husband tried to initiate them!

nomotherearth said...

Our relationship talks have pretty much boiled down to:

ME - "You better not divorce me. Ever"

HIM - "Don't worry. I can't afford it."

Oh yes, it's true love. Listen and learn...

Terri B. said...

What an interesting book. I guess I figured out the basic premises of this sometime during 25 years of marriage (go figure). It didn't take long to figure out that "let's talk" just wasn't going to work. I had no idea why for many years, but I caught on. Bumbling my way through the relationship I found that actions speak much more loudly with him than do words and were actually likely to encourage hubby to sometimes initiate "let's talk" conversations out of sheer curiosity on his part! Of course, once that door is opened by him I still have to choose my words carefully and phrase things in ways to keep the door open.

Momish said...

Very interesting concepts. If you are on a quest for a great relationship book, you have to read Deborah Tannin's "You Just Don't Understand" (if you haven't already, it is pretty old). This book changed my life. It is such a revealing look into the speech and thought difference between men and women! Report vs. Rapport. What I like about her books are they are more sociolinguistic observations than advice or formulas for success (which are unrealistic all too often).

This sounds like an interesting book, yet another to add to my growing list!

Jenifer G. said...

Ok. I just have to add after reading nomothereath's comment which sounds very familiar except we through in "I get the kids." Since we never agree we just agree to stay together....

Denguy said...

I started to read this post but all the words gradually turned into blah, blah, blah.

Karen said...

What I say: "can we please talk about what's been going on the past few days?"

what I mean: "I'm freaked out about (blah, blah, blah)

what he hears "would you like me to sever off your left arm?"

what he says: "what are you talking about?"

what he means: "please, God, don't make me do it."

what I hear: "I am completely disconnected from the pain you've been in and don't want to be informed."

How do we resolve this? Poor man, my love language is therapy (he's a good egg.)...though I also find getting a babysitter and going o-u-t works wonders.

b&p your review was great, but I've been freakishly trying to keep eye contact with all 3 of my sons in the super obsessive compulsive way since I first read it...
I'm finding I need more eyes, a cook and a housekeeper.

Melanie said...

Thank you for sharing. I may look into this book or at least try to talk less with the hubby about feelings and more about golf. There is this point, when the hubby and I are having a great conversation, that I do get those butterflies. You know the ones, that feel like when you first met. I love that! I hope you'll write about Love and Respect. A co-worker recommended it and I never did go get it. If you give a fair review, I may give it a second thought. We could all use more of both, right? And apparently, men need the respect - women, the love. Let me know how it goes.

bubandpie said...

Karen - Hehe. I was telling a friend about the eye contact thing, and you could almost see the light bulb appear over her head: she gets frustrated with her husband and both of her sons for breaking eye contact when she's talking to them, so this reassured her that (a) they really can't help it and (b) they're still engaged in the conversation - they just can't sustain it the same way she can.

Sober Briquette said...

My husband just left for work annoyed with me because I offhandedly mentioned that our son needs a haircut (which would be up to me, anyway) when the boy is in his fourth day of a bad cold with fever. This is a man who is wound way too tight, and a woman who needs to think silently.

We do have a lot of "failure-not good enough" stress because I'm at home all the time (with my hands full), so I notice things that need to be fixed or improved, but I don't get much accomplished. If I say anything, he thinks I'm expecting HIM to put in a second shift as Bob the Builder.

Reading this, I realized that I have to work harder on filtering my conversations. When I detoxify by recapping all the mishaps and misbehaviors of the day, I'm poisoning my husband against us.