Men are often the last to know when there is a problem in a relationship.
It’s not for lack of trying, myself included. Many times, when a woman decides to leave a cisgendered, heterosexual relationship, she has done her due diligence. There have been conversations and tears and fighting and – in some cases – counseling, either individually or as a couple. I’ve gone through this with my first marriage, and now I work with people who are trying to decide whether or not to continue their own relationships.
I have heard men say in some form, over and over, “If you will just tell me what to do, I’ll do it.” This is me, a cishetero, mental health professional woman, telling men what to do when it comes to being a participating member in their intimate relationships.
A sense of compassion and curiosity are two foundational building blocks to every intimate relationship. I know, you haven’t exactly been socialized to feel compassion, much less show it, and that sucks. Curiosity, though, is more socially acceptable, and may be easier to access.
What is compassion? This is putting yourself in somebody else’s situation. Compassion is imagining what another person’s thoughts and feelings are in a situation and feeling sympathy. Compassion is realizing that you have been in similar situations as the person sharing with you, and feeling empathy and a measure of understanding.
Do you have to logically understand where someone is coming from? Not necessarily. You might understand it, you might not. Logical understanding is less important than imagination in this case.
Be Curious First
Curiosity goes right along with compassion, and makes a great follow-up. Curiosity is simply asking questions with no judgment. For instance, you come home and your significant other is crying. Sometimes it’s really easy to jump to the conclusion that she is mad or disappointed with you.
Instead, practice curiosity. “She is crying. What’s that about?” Then, ask. Ask without an agenda. Ask because you really want to know what’s up. Ask and then ask another question, and then another question.
Don’t Take It Personally
Practicing compassion and curiosity quickly creates a safe space for both of you to express feelings and thoughts. But what happens when a thought or feeling is expressed and it feels like a punch in the gut?
Don’t take it personally. Yes, this is possible. This is a skill that everyone needs. Why? Because so much of life is not about you or me.
Not what people think or how they feel or what they express. None of it is about you.
I know it might not feel that way when she expresses a thought or feeling that you clearly “know is wrong” and that you have a physical reaction to. But guess what? That physical reaction has only to do with you, not with her. How you feel in response reveals more about you than about anyone else.
This is where things get tricky. It can feel personal. It is not personal. Can your feelings be hurt? Of course, and that is a different issue. More often than not, though, what’s happening with another person isn’t personal and likely has nothing to do with you. Don’t take it personally.
Transfer Your Skills
Men don’t arrive at their particular place in life by accident. Men are successful professionally and with hobbies and in groups and clubs and sports and whatever else dudes do.
But relationships are where I see many men check out. Intelligent, creative, thoughtful men will often not know what to do, so they’ll withdraw and go silent.
And the thing about that is that if you did that at work, what would happen? You would get fired. Instead, you might ask for help or get more education or find another job that was a better fit.
I’m going to tell you a secret that not a lot of people realize: skills transfer. The skills that you have developed in other areas of your life can absolutely be transferred to your intimate relationships. Showing up, being in charge, following through, communicating clearly – all of these skills can be transferred over into other areas of life.
What is the Point of Conflict?
I’m including conflict in this letter because this is where compassion, curiosity, and not taking it personally will need to show up.
Get enough people into a small enough space for a long enough time, and there will be conflict.
Conflict feels uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it’s necessary. So why not get more comfortable with it and figure out what it’s used for?
For a long time, I thought the point of conflict was to get my way. To be “right” and to “win.” Guess what? This is not the ultimate purpose of making our way through arguments and fights and irritations with our partners.
The point of conflict in a relationship is to work out differences and ultimately bring people together.
The point of conflict is to bring people together. To build understanding and share more about ourselves and be vulnerable and compassionate and curious about another human being.
Men, you have been given the shaft (that’s what she said) when it comes to emotions, feelings, and relationships. This is unfair, and it is also an opportunity to be who you want to be – and who your partner needs – in a special relationship…before it’s too late.