Recently, I was asked about the complaints men express in marital therapy. I am typically bursting with answers to such questions, but this particular question left me wondering.
These sorts of press queries about marriage, divorce, life and love, provide an opportunity to reflect on my work with couples through a thematic lends. What should couples think about before moving in together? What's the most important thing to consider before getting divorced? What are the signs that a relationship has what it takes to go the distance? What's the best way to support a divorcing couple when you are friends with both of them? Why do Katy Perry and John Mayer keep breaking up and getting back together?
I try to give an answer that illuminates a dimension of relationships that is at once elusive and obvious. Usually, an answer comes quickly with clarity and minimal effort. But this question is a tough one. Differing degrees of sexual desire and clashes about money are quite common. So is tension related to nagging and division of household chores. But these topics felt both expected and superficial. In desperation, I asked my husband:
"That's easy. It's when men are just about to fall asleep and women want to talk."
In fairness, this conversation took place after eleven on a Tuesday evening. But it drives my husband crazy when I do this. His effortless answer is one that many of my male clients would find relatable.
Men wanting to sleep. Women wanting to talk. Standard sitcom fare since the days of I Love Lucy. And yet, there's an epidemic of sleep-deprived couples lacking adequate communication. As a result, sex is often less frequent than one or both partners would like, and feeling "tired" (not enough sleep) or "disconnected" (not enough pillow talk) are common explanations.
The celebrated linguist Deborah Tannen referenced this tension from the female perspective in her landmark research in the 1990s explaining that the women she interviewed repeatedly complained:
"'He doesn't listen to me', 'He doesn't talk to me.'... Most wives want their husbands to be, first and foremost, conversational partners, but few husbands share this expectation."
More recently, couples therapy guru John Gottman used his Love Lab research of hundreds of conversing couples to assert that the ability to consistently experience positive communication is a key predictor to a satisfying, lasting marriage.
The cursory solution seems simple. If a woman is repeatedly making pleas to verbally connect when the lights go out, this likely relates to a couple's failure to give each other significant time to connect during the day. It takes a deliberate effort to set all electronics and chores aside; however, ten or fifteen minutes of engaged conversation at some point during the day often leads to more sleep, more sex and more marital satisfaction.
But beneath the surface, this dynamic is more psychologically complex and frequently poses deeper challenges. This conflict illuminates the tension between balancing separateness and togetherness. True emotional maturity entails the ability to be intimate with another while simultaneously existing as a truly separate self. To do so, a spouse must be able to affirm themselves enough to contain the urge to talk if necessary OR to rally for a conversation even when experiencing a strong preference to do something else. Balancing this tension can mean managing an underlying fear of abandonment that sometimes accompanies the urge to connect through words. Or managing an underlying fear of engulfment that may drive the urge to take space through sleep or other independent pursuits.
Couples therapy is the most difficult form of therapy. It differs from individual therapy, as the relationship is the focus, not the individual. Successful couples therapy typically involves less affirmation, more discomfort, and a challenge that each half of the relationship own their piece of the problem. Women are often driven by emotional urges like the desire to connect through words or gazes. Men tend to pursue physical urges like sex or sleep. In a fascinating twist, women whose physical drive outweighs their emotional drive often choose partners who want to talk. These lasting dissimilarities in needs and personalities make psychological sense. We often fall in love with particular elements of our beloved that clash with our own, as it would be immensely boring to be married to a mirror image of one's self. And yet, once intimate, the tendency to try to change our spouse to be more like one's self pervades. Even though what most of us long for is to be loved and embraced for who we are.