Communication is the cornerstone of any relationship. It’s also one of the most challenging aspects.
The things people aren’t able to articulate or are too afraid to say directly to their partners are often brought up in the judgment-free zone of a therapist’s office. We asked therapists to share the relationship concerns and complaints they hear most often from their male patients. Below, find out what men are saying about their partners and how therapists help them work through these issues.
I’m afraid I married the wrong person.
Doubts about your partner may creep in over the course of the relationship: What if this person isn’t actually the one for me? Ask yourself why you’re feeling this way. Is it because the relationship has turned toxic or the issues between you are irreparable? Are you having doubts because you no longer feel that sparkly excitement you experienced when you first met?
Therapist Kurt Smith, who specializes in counseling men, reminds his clients that all relationships require upkeep. The spark doesn’t stay ignited without consistent effort from both partners.
“Too many people naively believe that the attraction and love they had at the beginning will automatically always be there,” Smith said. “It won’t, unless you work at it. So I work with men and women to identify the beliefs they have about their partners that make them think this and we change those that are inaccurate, unrealistic or unfair.”
I’m confused about what my partner wants from me.
Some male clients express confusion over the mixed messages they receive from their partners, clinical psychologist Ryan Howes said.
“She says she wants an equal partnership, but when he tries to collaborate about dinner or vacation plans she says he needs to ‘man up’ and make the decision,” Howes said. “Or she asks for him to be more emotionally expressive and when he shows some vulnerability, she criticizes him for it.”
Howes encourages his clients to ask their partner to explain what he or she really wants, rather than shutting down or letting those feelings of frustration fester.
“While it might seem like a contradiction to them, she might be able to clarify how these things are quite different,” he said. “Or she might realize she is sending mixed messages and work on deciding what she really wants. Either way, clear, specific communication is important.”
I don’t feel appreciated.
Marriage and family therapist Kate Stoddard said some of her male clients report having trouble asking their partners for validation and recognition.
“This may stem from our society’s expectations of men to be emotionally ‘tough’ and to never appear needy,” she said. “However, men certainly need to experience feeling seen and cared for by their partners.”
Stoddard recommends that these men lead by example by first making sure they’re in the habit of acknowledging their partner’s helpful contributions and thoughtful gestures.
“Then they can begin to introduce their desire to feel recognized for their own actions and hard work,” she said. “Oftentimes, partners fail to realize they have not been showing gratitude for their loved ones, and it’s important to make them aware in a gentle and loving way.”
My partner isn’t as comfortable with or open about their sexuality as I am.
Marriage and family therapist Jon-Paul Bird said his LGBTQ clients often have issues when both partners aren’t equally comfortable with their sexuality or identity. Perhaps one partner just came out, is only out to a few people or has family or friends that don’t approve of the relationship, while the other is more open and has lots of love and support from the people in their life.
This discrepancy can cause feelings of distress for both partners.
“Since people come out at different times, they may find themselves in a relationship with someone who is in a different stage of openness,” Bird said. “As a result, dynamics in family settings and in public may cause confusion, frustration and hurt feelings. This like most issues in relationships is all about communication, emotional intimacy and vulnerability between romantic partners.”
I don’t know what to do when my partner gets upset.
A common stressor for Bird’s male clientele is figuring out how to help when their partner is having an emotional response to a situation. Their go-to reaction might be to switch into problem-solving mode when their partner just wants a listening ear.
“Proactive ‘fixing’ behavior is hardwired and feels fulfilling — even if it is not what their partner is looking for,” Bird said.
Therapist Anna Poss said the tendency to want to solve the problem at hand could be embedded in cultural gender norms.
“Our cis-heteronormative culture means that many men have little exposure to emotional expression growing up or haven’t been taught how to handle uncomfortable emotions,” she said. “It can be like a new language to them, so part of our work in therapy may include building an emotional vocabulary.”
I feel like my partner is constantly nagging me.
“Nagging” is a gendered word (much like “bossy”) that’s often used to describe a woman’s annoying or otherwise negative behavior: the girlfriend who’s checking in (again) to see if you’ve picked up the dog’s medicine or the wife who makes a comment under her breath about the suitcase that hasn’t been unpacked for two weeks.
Smith said nagging is often caused by a combination of unspoken or improperly communicated expectations and crappy follow-through on promises.
“Nagging creates a very unhealthy and destructive dynamic in the relationship. Yet women often feel they’ve got no other option to get things done,” he said. “Most men mean it when they say they’ll do something but allow distractions and bad habits to get in the way. We work on identifying these obstacles and remove them, in addition to improving the couples’ communication.”
How can I make my partner happy?
Howes said many of his male clients have a deep desire to make their partners happy.
“They often reference how joyful they were at the beginning of the relationship,” he said. “They talk about how she complains about him, her job, her friends, her family, and this feels oppressive for him. He’d like to do whatever he could to make her happy, but typically finds that it is temporary or beyond his control.”
Howes emphasizes to these clients that they aren’t responsible for their partner’s happiness, but that they can certainly offer support.
“I try to let them know that making someone happy isn’t possible, and that whatever work she needs to do is ultimately her responsibility,” he said. “He can offer to help and give her love and attention, but her happiness isn’t something for him to fix. He can work on his own happiness, though, and maybe those efforts will become contagious.”