Almost every man craves it. It's the prelude to the majority of extramarital affairs. Many husbands whose wives avoid it have sorrowfully discovered their unanticipated vulnerability to women who will give it. Nearly all marriages would improve dramatically -- and become much less susceptible to failure or sin -- if the wife would overcome her reservations and learn how to satisfy her husband with it.
And not just men crave it. Women yearn for it too.
What is "it"? Conversation. Conversation where each person feels accepted no matter what he or she says, reveals, explains, or feels. Complete openness to another human; absolute honesty that strips one of all pretension, posturing, and protection so that he can present himself naked and vulnerable to the other.
"Wait a minute!" you may be thinking. "Are you crazy? You make it sound like this is something that men want but women refuse to participate in? You've got that exactly backwards, buddy! Don't you know anything about men and women? I've heard of that Mars and Venus stuff, but what planet are you from?"
Earth, thank you.
As an observant citizen of this planet I don't buy much of what I hear about how men and women are "supposed" to be. Oh sure, there are some real differences between men and women. But human beings are often more complex than the way some experts portray them.
Working with more than 20,000 couples has revealed to Marriage Helper that numerous men and women simply don't fit into their assigned stereotypical slots. While it is true that men and women may approach a need differently, thinking that only men need "this" or only women need "that" leads to crucial errors in marriage. Don't mistake methodology for motives. The way a person seeks something doesn't always reveal what it is that he or she really is seeking.
Just as many men crave intimate sharing with another as do women. Back in the late 1970's, I learned in a graduate level psychology class that the most common thing men want from prostitutes is a listening ear. That appears to be true even in the 2000's. I read that in many calls to phone sex lines the conversation isn't sexual at all. The caller craves someone to listen without judgment. Thousands upon thousands of men -- many of them married -- pay women to listen to them!
Think about this. At Family Dynamics Institute we've discovered that relationship affairs develop as a man and woman begin to listen, understand, and accept the facts and feelings of their lives. They usually start innocently and progress without safety checks or barriers. By the time they recognize danger, they no longer want any checks or barriers. My experience in working with couples indicates that these affairs most often find root in couples who are best friends. The wife of one couple and the husband of the other participate in innocent sharing. It leads to a deeper relationship, and then, before anyone realizes the warning signs, friendship morphs into a full blown affair. The second most common source I've observed for such affairs is the workplace.
So, life-shattering affairs start with something as basic as listening, accepting, and valuing another person? Yes. The process starts slowly and picks up speed as each realizes that the other will love and value in spite of what they hear.
If many are willing to extend such grace to a coworker or friend, why isn't such grace extended to the ones we made a lifelong pledge to - our spouse?
Most husbands or wives who disguise their true feelings or actions do so because they fear some type rejection from their spouse Their fear ranges from the relatively minor (the spouse pouting, crying, acting hurt) to the moderate (heated arguments, emotional withdrawal, lack of fulfilling sex) to the major (hitting, leaving, divorcing, exposing embarrassing or endangering facts to others). If people experience negative reactions from the "minor category" when they share, they very likely aren't going to risk opening themselves to the negative consequences found in the moderate or major categories.
Therefore, it may be that a husband may have tried on occasion to share the facts of his life (his day, his hobbies, etc.) or the feelings he has (frustration, happiness, anger) only to find that his wife responded with a lack of interest. Though her lack of response is a minor negative in the grand scheme of things, it may be enough to cause him to clam up. If she reacts in a more intense way (like arguing, or telling him how he needs to fix the situation he just described, or laughing at his emotions), he probably won't share more of himself at all. The scenario above is often why we hear from many wives that they don't understand why their husbands won't open up: "We don't argue. He just doesn't say anything!" It may well be that a minor rejection keeps him from ever risking a more painful rejection. If he decides to risk it and shares again, a moderate level of rejection could ensure his future silence.
Such a dynamic is how spouses "teach each other to lie." When a loved one reacts negatively to honest, open sharing, they shouldn't be surprised when the sharing ceases or at the least goes through a careful editing process before being spoken in their presence.
Yes, I remember what I wrote a few paragraphs above about not stereotyping. I've seen many, many women who would love to share openly about their lives and emotions with their husbands, but who don't dare because of some level of received rejection. But lots of writers mention that situation. I would like to open eyes to the reality that men also want to share but will only do it when they perceive permission. In countless cases I've witnessed even the quietest most reticent man talk endlessly when someone listened carefully, encouragingly, and nonjudgmentally. He may have started more slowly than a verbal female, but as he "tested the waters," felt true acceptance, and believed in the genuine interest of the listener, he shared just as much as any female would have.
When husbands and wives allow their spouses to open up their deepest feelings and most sensitive history, deep levels of sharing and understanding will happen. "Allowing" means avoiding behaviors that will make you spouse feel that you are responding with punishment for what he or she reveals. It means accepting that the event being communicated happened, or that your spouse genuinely feels as he or she does, even if it breaks your heart to hear it.
There is a crucial difference in disliking what you hear and punishing the person for sharing it.
Punish -- and stop the flow of truth. Live with lies or deceptions. Accept, even when it hurts, and you'll find wonderful intimacy. You may discover that your "silent" spouse suddenly shares in ways you've always hoped for.
Originally posted on February 5, 2008