Saturday, September 25, 2010

That Relationship Talk

There is barely a man alive who does not dread the moment when he hears these words: "We need to talk about our relationship."

He feels as though he is being thrown onto a stage, handed a microphone, and told to start reciting his lines. Only, he does not know what his lines are. He does not even know the name of the play. But he knows that he is supposed to perform, and that if he gets it wrong he is going to start having some serious problems.

Susannah Breslin raises the issue at The Frisky, and concludes that talking it over is not necessarily the best approach to relationship harmony. Link here. Breslin prescribes less talk and more action. No man is going to object to that.

Dr. Helen Smith then picked up the question on her blog. She explained that she finds relationship talk discomfiting. And rightly so. If you put your partner in an uncomfortable situation, you would normally feel a connection with those feelings. And who would want that? Link here.

I would guess that the "relationship talk" is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. It seems to derive from the therapy culture and seems to aim at putting your relationship in therapy.

In Breslin's words: "For as long as many of us can remember, we've been told that if we've got a problem, particularly a relationship problem, the answer is to talk it out. Go to a therapist and talk to a shrink about your issues. Boyfriend or husband acting distant? Well, you better talk to him about that."

Doesn't this culturally induced prescription sound intrusive and disrespectful? If your husband or boyfriend is acting distant, why not respect his feelings. Maybe he is not ready to talk to you about it.

And what makes you think that he is acting funny because of some relationship issue? If you insist that he come clean about his feelings for you, you are making something that might not have been a relationship issue into one.

If he is upset about something that happened in the office or on the ball field, might it not be better to let him feel that you are with him, rather than that you want to confront him and make him confess... God only knows what?

For my part I suspect that such thinking is a vestige of what psychoanalysis used to call transference analysis.

Putting a man on stage and insisting that he talk about his feelings is a genuinely bad idea. As Breslin explains: "... many relationships in tough times become a tug of war in which the woman tries to get the man to talk about his feelings, and the man, who may be disinclined for a variety of reasons in that directions, withdraws from her desire to talk, talk, talk about it."

Speaking for the other gender, I will tell you that most men, when you ask them to talk about their feelings, do not know what you are talking about.

Let's say a woman wants to connect with her mate. Breslin is saying that when she asks him to talk about his feelings he is going to withdraw from her. The more she insists, the more he will withdraw. Thus, the effort to connection has produced a more radical disconnect.

It makes sense in another way. To talk about your relationship you have to step out of it, put it under a microscope, and look at it as though it were a foreign object.

How can you open a channel of communication? First, by respecting his right not to tell you everything that he is feeling. Second, by following Breslin's advice and arranging for the two of  you to do something together.

She counsels women to play frisbee or to have sex or to cook a meal. She adds, wisely: "You might find that turning your relationship into a safe haven from relationship discussions will lessen your need to have relationship discussions at all."

A "safe haven" is a place where a man might express an emotion or two without expecting that he is going to be interrogated about it or called upon to justify himself.

If your man does not confide in you, you should first ask yourself whether you have created such a safe haven. You should next ask yourself whether you keep his confidence. And you should third ask whether you maintain a balance between what you share with him and what he shares with you.

If you are bubbling over with feelings, he is going to want to reciprocate, only he will start feeling that there is no way he can reciprocate in full measure. As you keep expressing your feelings and your mate does not reciprocate, you are indebting him to you.

And if the debt becomes too large he will feel that he cannot possibly ever pay it back. Then he will declare bankruptcy, and shut down completely. We know that that is not what you want.


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman, et al.
RE: Talking the Subject to Death

I suspect that it's a lot like performing brain-surgery on oneself. Or maybe a vivisection.

Either way, it's patently unhealthy.


[Don't attempt this at home!]

Proud Hindu said...

Interesting. For me it's always been the man who wants to define the relationship, not me.

I guess they don't like the thought that a woman they really like might also be keeping her options open.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point, Proud Hindu. In cultures where women will not spend too much time with a man who does not have serious intentions the man will retain the prerogative of defining the relationship. In a culture where women will spend lots of time with a man whose interest seems to be more fleeting than serious, she will likely feel the need to be more direct in asking him what his intentions are.

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