Generations of American men have learned from “The Duke” that in order to beat the bad guy and rescue the damsel in distress, you have to be tough, brave and work hard. That’s all fine and dandy. Most men don’t have a problem with those things. We can work hard, act tough and sweep a woman off her feet. What most of us struggle with, however, is what to do next. Unfortunately, this is where John Wayne’s movies end. John Wayne doesn’t show us how to be happily married or provide a stable livelihood. We never saw John Wayne struggle with marital difficulties, much less manage a 30-year fixed mortgage, career changes, fatherhood, church service, etc. I guess those plot lines don’t make for good westerns.
With June being National Men’s Health Month, I want to focus on improving men’s emotional health by filling in one of the gaps left by John Wayne. Specifically, I’d like to address what men want in their marriage and give three suggestions on how we can attain it.
What men want in relationships is to love and be loved. Research shows men are happiest and healthiest when in a loving relationship. In fact, men in loving relationships live longer and are less likely to experience heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety or chronic pain than men not in loving relationships.
I doubt if there are any surprises here. After all, John Wayne risked arm and leg to win the affection of the woman he loved. What men struggle with is how to maintain a loving relationship once it’s started. This is where manly toughness ceases to help and instead hinders. Listed below are a few suggestions to help men get what they want out of their marriages.
1. It’s Not All about Sex
Our culture teaches men to express emotional needs physically. Boys are often teased when they attempt to say how they feel, especially when they convey a sense of vulnerability (e.g., fear, sadness or distress). On the other hand, boys are praised for acting out their aggression on a football field or holding in their emotions through statements such as, “Way to suck it up!” or “You are tough!”
When married, men are naturally inclined to use sex as a means to feel close and express love. I often hear men say to their spouse, “If you really cared about me, you would want to meet my needs.” My suggestion to men is based on the belief that love and closeness are built upon open and honest expression of emotion, especially those emotions that leave you feeling vulnerable. I know! What if you are not feeling anything? If that’s the case, then say that. Talk about how you want to feel closer to your spouse and the trouble you have expressing your emotions. Try it. On your next free evening, sit down together and open up without an expectation for sex. It may surprise you how good it feels.
2) No More Mind Games
Don’t expect your spouse to read your mind. Did you know your face can produce over 20,000 expressions? These thousands of facial expressions can then coincide or contradict the many subtle messages you send through your body language. How in the world, then, can your spouse know what you are thinking by just looking at you?
To avoid all the confusion, I recommend you share your thoughts and feelings with your spouse. As you do, remember to avoid saying “you”, as it can sound like you are blaming your spouse for how you feel. Instead, say something like, “I feel _____ when _____ because _____.” Saying “I” helps you take responsibility for what you think and feel. Again, you will be surprised by how good it feels to share your internal experiences and not have to wait for others to guess it.
3) Praise Your Spouse
Research finds that most men only have one close friend, their spouse. As a result, most of our emotional needs are placed upon our marriage. Also, men are exposed to countless messages from the media telling them their spouses are supposed to be passionate, sexual and emotionally fulfilling. Taken together, men are sometimes too quick to blame their spouse for any unhappiness.
I recommend making a conscious effort to praise your spouse. Tell her how lovely she is; compliment her hair or outfit; mention how much you appreciate everything she does for you. I suspect that once you start looking for things to compliment, you’ll be surprised by how many things you like about your spouse.
The take home message here is that your spouse isn’t perfect. Trust me, she knows that already. But, neither are you. You both are trying the best you can with what you have. It’s just that you will be a much happier husband if you focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t have. After all, happiness often isn’t found through focusing on your self. It most often comes from the sustained emotional investment in other people.
Focus on becoming a better person and partner and ask your spouse for help with this…
Dr. Todd Dunn is a Licensed Psychologist at Wasatch Family Therapy specializing in men’s mental health and relationships. To schedule a session with Dr. Dunn call 801.944.4555 or visit wasatchfamilytherapy.com.
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