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Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW
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By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

Here are a few of the common questions on relationships that I hear from a variety of sources.

Question 1: Communication Difficulties
Question 2: Men Feeling Appreciated
Question 3: How can this apply to Gay or Lesbian Relationships?

Question 4: Men's Difficulty in Sharing Feelings

Communication Difficulties
Question: My husband and I married in October, and are hitting a very rough communication spot. It seems he perceives my voicing feelings of our problems as criticism and becomes defensive and angry so that any attempt to discuss what I am feeling becomes a tug of war of I'm right and you'rewrong", His defense is an offense and I become the "wrong". I am conscious of saying the "I feel this, and I am feeling that" to not put him on the defensive, but to no avail. His family is highly critical and his first marriage was very draining in many ways for him. We are digging ourselves into a hole and I am afraid for our future as I feel myself feeling unappreciated and unadored which is making me close down emotionally.

Relationship Learning Ctr. Response:
One of the first things that I would suggest is to notice what you are saying after "I feel . . ." It may not be true for you, but often people who are trying to make 'I' statements still turn them into 'you' statements. Examples are "I feel you care only about yourself." "I feel that you don't help me out enough with household chores." "I feel that you make work a priority over me." This statements, first of all, are not about feelings, but about thoughts. Anytime you can replace "I feel" with "I think" in a sentence and have it make sense, you are most likely dealing with a thought. Feelings are more like "I feel hurt" "I feel frustrated."

It helps if both of you agree to try some different communication tools since the ones you are using are not working well for either of you. On this website, there is a format for a structured dialogue process that is especially good for talking about frustrations. A structure that both agree to use makes it much safer and allows both people to be fully heard and understood.

Sometimes one partner refuses to even try a structured way of communicating. Then you can try a couple of things.

When you express a frustration, it is usually more productive to tell the person you want to talk about a frustration and ask if now is a good time--and let them know it will take about 10 minutes to say your side of it. (Research shows that it makes it less scary if people know there is a beginning and an end and what's going to happen. It keeps them from feeling ambushed.)

Use the following general format: "When you (describe the behavior in one sentence), the meaning I give it is. . . and then I end up feeling. . . Then I react by. . ." (It's a good idea to think this out, or even write it out for yourself, ahead of time--don't read it when you say it. The writing just helps some people think it through.)

Here's an example: "Last night, I felt hurt when I said, 'Let's go out to dinner' and you snapped back at me. I just wanted to go out and have a nice evening together and the meaning I gave it is that maybe you didn't even want to be with me --and that you were angry with me for no reason. I ended up feeling hurt and confused and reacted by withdrawing and pretending I was reading my book so that I didn't have to talk anymore or let you see that I was upset."

Then it's very helpful if you can own any ways that you help contribute to the problem or your upset.

For example, "The way I may have contributed to the situation was that I didn't even give you time to put down your briefcase before I asked you and I know you like to unwind a little when you first came home. I also made my assumptions into the truth without checking them out with you. And, although I was pretending to read, I was sitting there going on and on inside my head about how uncaring you seemed and how hurt I felt."

You can go on to add what would have been more helpful for both the other persona and you to have done differently. "What would have helped me is for you to remind me that you need to just rest a little before you decide about whether you want to go out again--or to say that you had a rough day and are too tired. That would have made sense to me and kept me from thinking the worst. . . . What I could have done differently is to give you time to unwind and ask you if you wanted to go instead of telling you "Let's go" which may have felt more like a demand instead of a request. I could also have checked it out with you your reasons for snapping at me instead of making up my own story and stewing about it."

Then ask, "What was going on for you?" and LISTEN without interrupting. Anytime you are listening to another person's frustration it is helpful to:
a) Remind yourself that this is HIS or HER experience and you don't need to get defensive. Your mission is to understand what it was like being him or her in that situation.
b) Listen without interrupting and at the end, summarize the main points of what you heard. Then, try to make sense of the other person's experience--whether or not you agree with it (agreement and understanding are 2 very different things!) and guess how he or she may have felt.

Using the example above, your partner would summarize the main points and then say something like, "What you're saying makes sense because you just wanted to go out and enjoy each other's company and when I snapped at you without any explanation, it seemed like I was angry that you had even suggested it. It also left you on your own to decide the meaning of my irritation. When you thought it was because I didn't want to be with you, you felt hurt--because you were happily wanting us to enjoy each other and my tone of voice made it sound like it was an imposition that I had to do instead of wanting to be with you (Note: Even if that's not what you intended, you are imagining what it was like for the other person.-- whether that's what you meant or not!) When neither of us talked about it, you just kept feeling more and more hurt and resentful. You realize now that both of us may have added to the situation by not communicating more clearly what we really wanted or needed at the time. So, you may have felt not only hurt, but rejected. Is that it?"

Practice using the listening and expressing understanding with other people in your life too--at work, with other family members or friends. Like any new skill, you get better at it the more you do it.

Men Feeling Appreciated

Jane's Question:
My husband has told me that he does not feel appreciated. Yet when I ask what I can do to make him feel appreciated he said that he does not want to give me a checklist (recipe). .. What makes a man feel appreciated?

Relationship Learning Ctr. Response:
A couple of things occur to me as I read your message (and I hope some men out there will send their perspectives!)

1) I see many couples where one or both partners assume the other should 'know' what makes them feel loved and cared about IF they really love and care. Often a person is really trying, yet keeps missing the mark and both end up frustrated. It's like shooting at a target with a shotgun, hoping that one or two pellets out of 30 will hit the bulls-eye. It is much better to shoot with a rifle and aim it directly at the center of the target. I frequently have couples make lists of things that have made them feel loved and special when they first were together, now, and things they've wished for. They make it so specific that if someone found the paper without knowing the person, they would know exactly what to do--example: Bring me coffee in bed on Sunday morning. Hug me and give me a kiss when I walk in from work. . .etc.

2) Another good way is to make sure that several times a week you actually say, "You know, I really appreciated when you. . .(and tell why), OR "One of the things I really appreciate about you is. . .(quality like honesty, openess etc; or a physical feature (smile, some other aspect of their body; or some behavior (reading stories to children, trying to make conversation with mother-in- law, take my car to get oil changed, etc) AND tell 'WHY' you appreciate it (how it makes you or others feel, etc.)

3) In my experience, while men often like to be appreciated for being a good provider, they don't want to feel like that's all their good for. Appreciate things about him as a person, about a decision he makes, the way he handles something, etc. Sometimes you may just tell him at dinner or in bed, or write a note and put it in his car, etc. The main thing is to be very sincere in what you say. Once in a while pamper him as an appreciation day--doing what HE likes, (could be playing golf, etc) and ending with a romantic dinner and special sensual evening with atmosphere, kids at relatives, etc.

4) If there are children, take a look at how much time is spent focused on them and their needs vs. you as a couple and your husband. If not children, is the something else? I often hear men say that it seems as though everyone and everything come before them (some women say it too). For men, there is often a sense of being left out when so much goes to children. The best gift you can give your kids is a strong, loving relationship with your partner.

5) If he brings it up again, instead of defending yourself about what you DO already, invite him to say what's missing for him, what he needs.

May your journey be one leading to happiness!

Gay & Lesbian Relationships:
Question: My partner and I want help for our relationship, but everything seems geared for straight relationships. We have issues that straight couples don't have. She is afraid that if we come to counseling or a workshop with anyone, they will try to break us up or simply won't understand our experience.

Relationship Learning Ctr. Response:
Your partner's concerns certainly make sense. Because there is so much homophobia and/or disapproval of gay and lesbian relationships in society or religious communities, you might assume that the same thing would be true with a therapist, especially if that person is not gay or lesbian. You do have to be careful in picking your counselor. There are people out there who are your partner's nightmare. They disapprove, or they have never dealt with their own homophobia, or they see it as their mission to 'save' you. Major professional counseling organizations have spoken out on respecting gay and lesbian couples and the damage done by 'reparative therapy' or 'gay conversion therapy'. But still there are licensed professionals who do subscribe to the belief that you should 'change' their orientation. I am not one of those. And the therapists I know do not work that way. I know a therapist who strongly disapproves of gay relationships because of his religious beliefs, but he is very clear that he will not see gay or lesbian individuals or couples in his office. I can respect that. He can hold to his beliefs and at the same time, avoid doing harm.

These days a greater number of therapists have training and some experience in working with gay and lesbian clients, whether or not the therapist is gay.

Nearly all of the basic principles, tools, and skills apply to gay and lesbian couples as well as straight couples. Attraction, stages of relationship, working through conflict, communication, learning good tools are just as important for gay and lesbian couples. So while some gay and lesbian couples may have unique issues like coming out, their own shame around being gay in a homophobic culture or family, sexual stereotypes, sexual issues, their relationship with the straight culture and with the gay community, are a few of the issues more unique to them. But with both gay and straight couples, HOW you work with issues one of the big keys to successful partnerships. Learning good skills and tools to work with whatever issues you have is what can empower you to co-create the loving partnership you both long for.

Men's Difficulty Sharing Feelings

Martha's Question:
My partner lives in his head. When I ask him how he feels, he just says 'nothing' or 'I don't know'. Why is it so hard for men to share feelings? The more I try, the more closed he gets.

Relationship Learning Ctr. Response:
While we are going to talk about men, understand that these are generalizations and that this is not true for all men! Some women have the same difficulty and some men are more in touch with their feelings than their female partners--and desire to share them!

If you think about how men have traditionally been raised in our culture, it makes sense that sharing, or even feeling, their feelings is difficult. Boys are usually allowed to feel happy or angry. If they feel sad, hurt, afraid, or show vulnerability, what do they hear from other kids (and their parents, coaches, teachers)? They get called 'sissy', 'Momma's boy', 'baby', and other names-- and are told to 'be a man', 'suck it up' etc. So if you hear all your life that that's what a man does, it makes sense why they don't readily 'share their feelings'! And because they have had to pretend they don't feel for their whole lives, they often find it difficult to even give names to feelings. I remember one man I had as a client who had only two 'feeling' words--he either felt 'fine' or 'yucky'. That was his entire feeling vocabulary! He had to learn how to notice his feelings, distinguish among different feelings, and find a name for them.

For some men, years of walling off emotions to survive in this culture and in their jobs lead to a sense that they don't feel anything. This can also be true for women who are raised with those messages. In my family, my Dad pretty much ruled the family and with an older brother who repeatedly got those messages, it trickled down to everyone in the family. We were supposed to be strong and together all the time. So when an intense feeling got triggered, I would become very logical and rational and not let myself feel it. It took me a long time to be able to comfortably share my feelings--and even longer to let myself show outward expressions of sadness or anger at the moment I am feeling them! At the same time, I also like having a choice as to when and where I show or share my feelings. Sometimes it is not appropriate for the place or time or persons present!

Because of this socialization, men tend to not see value in sharing feelings. In the American work environment, nobody cares how you feel about anything--they just want results. As a result, in discussing a relationship issue, many men will want to bypass the feelings and go to "let's find a way to fix it" mode. Unfortunately, this makes the feelings of the woman seem invalidated. In fact many will dismiss anyone who does express feelings as being 'too emotional'.

In some relationships women bombard men with intense feelings and they often are at a loss as to what to do and are very uncomfrotable. Sometimes I see men in my office finally feel safe enough to share a deep feeling, only to have their partner blurt out something like "That's not what you feel!" or "How could you feel THAT!" Many men also feel somewhat at a disadvantage since sharing feelings is often a woman's strength. Nagging your partner to share his feelings--or berating him when he doesn't--will not get you what you want. It will usually make him shut down even more.

One of the gifts you can give such a person is the safety to re-discover that part of themselves and the freedom to have different feelings from yours! Likewise a partner who dismisses feelings, while learning to find them again, can also help a very feeling partner develop better boundaries around expressing their intense feelings.

A Reader's Response:
Let me give you a man's pespective. Most of the time your partner is telling you the truth. He's not thinking of anything. Men just don't stay in touch with their feelings like women do. If you look at the relationships women develop with each other and compare them to the relationships men have, you can see the difference. It took me many failed relationships and counseling before I really understood the need women have for men to relate to them on an emotional basis. Dennis

For additional information on Imago Relationship Therapy, visit our Marriage and Relationship Articles section.



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© Dawn Lipthrott, The Relationship Learning Center, 1998 Renewed 2013
(May be posted on a website as long as you include full credit to the author and a working link to this website. If you wish to use it in a newsletter or publication, the same conditions apply. Reproduction for financial gain is prohibited.)
©Copyright of the Dialogue Process as used in Imago Relationship Therapy belongs to Harville Hendrix, PhD