Feature Archive

Men in Love

What do men need to keep the relationship strong? Learn the secrets to success from the Love Doc.

By Neil Osterweil
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

There's an old story about a couple in their 90s who go to a divorce lawyer to dissolve their 75-year-long marriage. When the lawyer asks them "Why in heaven's name do you want a divorce after all these years?" they reply, "We wanted to wait until the children were dead."

Although about half of all marriages these days end in divorce, the odds that a couple will stay happily married or in a satisfying and fulfilling life partnership - with or without children -- get a whole lot better when both partners work at it and learn to give and take, says Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD.

In an interview with WebMD, Gottman, co-founder and clinical director of The Gottman Institute, a Seattle-based couples-counseling center, discussed what men need and want from their romantic relationships in three key phases of their lives: the 20, 40, and 60s.

As you read, keep in mind this winning strategy, which Gottman says helps all couples of all ages:

  • Make time for conversations where you find out what your partner has experienced lately.
  • Express fondness, appreciation, and admiration for your partner often.
  • Acknowledge your partners interests, even in small moments.
  • Avoid the "Four Horsemen" of Marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness (which follows criticism and contempt), and stonewalling (that is, when one partner completely shuts down and refuses to respond)."Something like 81% of our stonewallers are men," Gottman says.

The 20s are an often exciting but turbulent time for men as well as women, Gottman says. Men in their 20s are just embarking on their careers, often working long hours, under tight deadlines, for low pay -- the Triple Crown of work life in the 21st century.

If a guy is also in a committed relationship (no "fear-of-commitment" wisecracks, please), the workday pressures can be exacerbated by the demands of settling down, moving in together, and maybe starting a family.

"What the research shows is that men are actually needing something fairly similar to what women are needing [in their 20s], and that is they are needing a very solid friendship, and they are needing ways to manage conflict when disagreements occur," Gottman tells WebMD.

Although traditional roles of men as hunter/gatherer and women as tenders of the home fires have been tossed out of the cave door, there are still plenty of opportunities to fight over who takes out the garbage, who pays the bills, and how the kids should be raised. (Men still, however, tend to hog the barbecue duties).

Men in their 20s are also establishing themselves in the workplace, jockeying for recognition, power, and prestige. In their private lives, they are at the peak of their sexual prowess, but paradoxically, this is the age when newly married men are expected to hang out the "sorry, this one's taken," sign, and this, too, can be the source of conflict early on, especially if a guy is loath to trade in his muscle-car image for a minivan persona.

"In general, the conflicts that couples have to deal with in their 20s have to do with finances, sex, parenting, and with in-laws -- those are the four biggies that come up," says Gottman.

At this stage of the Game of Life when conflict occurs, "it's very important to regulate that conflict, especially when trying to work out major issues early in the marriage or the relationship about things like finances," Gottman says. The trick is to do this in a way that doesn't blame, condemn, or criticize your partner, and that allows you both to hold on to your own beliefs. For example, rather than calling your partner a "spendthrift," say something like, "Honey, I know you'd like to have a new car now, but I'm concerned that we won't have enough for a down payment on a new house."

In the 40s, men are well into their careers and may even have their goals in sight: retirement, a vacation home, a senior management position, a Harley hog (for those inclined to mid-life crisis). This age can be one of relative tranquility and contentment, but there can also be obstacles that even that most nimble runners can't get around, such as kids entering adolescence, or a spouse entering menopause.

"With menopause, women's sexual drives will be dropping; men's will have dropped to some degree too, but often not as much as women, so there can be conflict around sexual frequency that comes up more predominantly in the 40s," says Gottman. Another barrier to intimacy is the simple fact that in the 40s, "people are more tired - both men and women."

Sex aside (and for many men that's a BIG aside), the 40s are pretty swell. If couples have found a way to talk things over without igniting anger and resentment, and if they can manage to stay friends, life can be good.

Gottman recommends keeping a positive perspective here: When your spouse is crabby, chalk it up to the time of life and not her personality.

Retirement and kids leaving home can throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the marriage works in the 60s, Gottman says.

"In terms of kids leaving, women usually suffer much more than men, but that is changing over time, because in more contemporary families the fathers have really gotten permission in the last 10-20 years to be closer to their children and not just providers. That has been helped in part by women returning to the workforce so that the father doesn't carry the whole financial burden on his shoulders. So as fathers get closer to their kids, it's also harder for them to let go."

And when a man faces retirement, if he doesn't have hobbies or other interests to keep him engaged, "It can be very stressful on a couple to face one another and not know how to spend their time," Gottman says.

Some go through a period of depression when they retire, brought on by a feeling of a loss of the power that normally accompanies a more active role in the world. "There are a whole lot of ways that can be acted out in the marriage," Gottman says. "For example, a man can become more domineering in the relationship to compensate for feeling a loss of power. On the other hand, if he has been in a more subordinate role at work and then retires, he may look to his wife to tell him what to do, and his wife may not want to do that, so there are issues around establishing power and sharing of roles."

Here again, openness, understanding, and non-confrontational discussions can help the couple over a rocky spot. For example, the wife in the example above might say "Honey, I know it's difficult to be at home after all those years in an important job, but I need you to understand that it bothers me when you try to tell me what to do all day." The husband, for his part, needs to think about what matters most to him and find a way to share his dream with his wife.

With advancing age also comes that the loss of friends, family, and social support. For men, illnesses such as heart disease and prostate cancer may also put strains on even the closest relationships. "Again, what's really important is the couple having a very strong friendship base from which to face these changes developmentally in their lives," Gottman says.

Published February 2003


SOURCE: Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, co-founder and clinical director, The Gottman Institute.

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