As I mentioned last time, Terry Real, a family therapist and lecturer, has some interesting ideas about men and women in heterosexual relationships. In his book How Can I Get Through To You?, he talks about closing the intimacy gap between men and women. He’s a robust kind of therapist who cheerfully states that he takes sides, and he tends to make sweeping statements about men and women, observing that men in relationship take a ‘one up’ role, while women are in ‘one down’ mode. In my experience I have found the reality to be more nuanced than that – in some relationships the dynamic fluctuates, so that sometimes one partner is ‘one up’ and sometimes they’re ‘one down’. And indeed I worked with one couple where the woman was very definitely ‘one up’ at all times. Having said that, I have seen many couples where the man does tend to be ‘one up’, and I think it’s useful anyway to consider the inevitable impact that the ‘one up/one down’ dynamic has on a relationship, regardless of gender.
In Real’s experience he has found that these are the typical male/female positions:
Many men …
- are raised to be competitive and to perform, which makes them disconnect from their feelings and gives them a sense that they have to be brave and strong at all times
- assess their value by their achievements
- are unhappy with their partner’s unhappiness
- are on the receiving end of their partner’s unhappiness and get used to waiting for the storm to pass
- find it difficult to cope when the going gets tough – they struggle to express how they feel, and they don’t get help
- take the option to run away from difficult relationships/family life
- feel they have to be invulnerable, working hard, performing well, and that this precludes love and connection
- are uncomfortable with the idea of intimacy – it arouses fear and mistrust in them, which leads to shame, and then rage, and the need to be ‘one up’
- blame their partner if the relationship is struggling
Many women …
- derive a sense of themselves through connecting to others
- are taught to accommodate, and their anger, frustration and sense of injustice at this spills out at certain times
- choose silence over conflict or separation, but feel resentful
- operate in ‘one down’ mode so as not to provoke their male partner, and quietly seethe about their role
- blame themselves for difficulties in the relationship
So far, so dispiriting. And while many men and women wouldn’t recognise themselves in those bulleted lists, if any of it resonates with you, or if you feel that your relationship suffers from ‘one up/one down’ syndrome, here are some ways forward.
- Women have to express their needs calmly but firmly (Real encourages them to ‘talk softly but carry a big stick’). Men have to listen, and see what they can do about meeting their partner’s needs. I would go further and suggest that once there is more of a sense of two people ‘being with’ each other rather than in ‘one up’ and ‘one down’ mode, men can also be encouraged to say what they need, and women can listen, and respond
- ‘What can I do to help you give me more of what I’d like?’ – I believe that this is an important question for both partners, as it models the fact that we can only control our own actions. It also underlines that we’re in a loop in relationship – we do something, our partner responds, we react and so on
- Identify your bottom lines, and calmly stick to them: ‘I won’t tolerate …’
- Accept the flaws in your relationship, regretting what is lacking without resorting to blame
- Accept the other’s point of view even if you don’t agree with it. This becomes easier once you know that your perspective will be similarly accepted
- Listen carefully and look for a response that furthers repair. As Real says to clients: ‘You can be right or you can be married. What’s more important to you?’
- Try to keep control when you get that whoosh of fear, shame or anger
- Develop your negotiating skills: with an invitation (‘Would you like to …?’), a request (‘Would you do … for me?’) or a demand (this is your bottom line again: ‘I can’t accept you shouting at me’)
- Try to find your adult mode, keep calm, and make sure your comments are moderate even if your partner is being immoderate
- Recognise that the following will not help your relationship: control (constantly trying to change your partner to suit your agenda), revenge (trying to hurt your partner so they actually get how much they’ve hurt you) and resignation (acting as though you accept something when really you’re resenting it).
Essentially Real is wanting to ‘bring men in from the cold’. He wants to help them to leave behind the relentless pressure to perform and to achieve, and to risk connecting with their partner, making themselves vulnerable. It’s to be hoped that they then see that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that if both partners feel connected and appreciated, all kinds of issues can be solved together.