"The male systemizing worldview is consonant with the often true cliché that men try to fix things (problem solving/systemizing) while what women want is empathy." - Dr. Robert Solley
Understanding Men - Part 2
Dr. Robert Solley
In Part 1 of this two-part article I explained three crucial motivations for the male mind: efficiency, moving
objects through space, and systemizing. Here
I will expand on how these male tendencies are intertwined with western
society, the part they play in problematic couples cycles, and how to create a
relational environment that helps foster a shift from a systemizing focus to a
more empathic one.
Due to the continued patriarchy of our society, the
male-value realms of sports, and especially technology, have become dominant
elements of our culture. This has all kinds of ramifications for society which
are beyond the scope of this article, but consider for a moment the degree of
cultural attention and resources that are focused on sports and technology as
opposed to more relational-cooperative values like education and
psychotherapy. This creates an
unfortunately over-weighted cultural endorsement of these values (see NicholasCarr’s trenchant article, Is Google Making Us Stupid from The Atlantic).
The increasing dominance of technology in our culture is a
juggernaut pushing the value of efficiency.
While technology and efficiency certainly have their benefits, they can
all too easily become another wall between people. Sadly the
engineering/efficiency mindset also emphasizes that there is a right way and a
wrong way, which ultimately, and especially over time, can work against
relationships (see my blog article about right & wrong ). Of course falling into the right/wrong trap is not gender specific. However
in my experience as a couples therapist, the most extreme progenitors have been
men. In some cases they have been
completely unable to get outside of the right/wrong mentality, even as they
rode their relationships into the ground.
The male systemizing worldview is consonant with the often true cliché
that men try to fix things (problem solving/systemizing) while what women want
is empathy. (For an amusing take on
this, see “It’s Not the Nail”.
In a similar vein, I often see function/form conflicts
between partners. Typically in hetero
relationships, it’s the man who keeps insisting that a certain thing has to
work a certain way, while the woman is arguing for an aesthetic or social
value. Also, commonly partners get
caught up in the logistics of a situation, and become increasingly frustrated
as they miss each other’s underlying values, intents and emotions.
But let’s look at the role that those male drives play in couples
cycles. A core tenet of Sue Johnson’s
Emotionally Focused (Couples) Therapy (EFT) is that couples get stuck in emotionally
co-created and interlocked cycles. As
Terry Real puts it, the cycle has the quality of “the more, the more.” That is, the more one partner does X, the more
the other partner does Y, and vice-versa.
The lock-in occurs because each partner, in trying to get his or her
needs met, inadvertently triggers the other partner emotionally, escalating the
negativity in the interaction. Neither
partner knows how to express his or her needs, or interpret the other, in a way
that would calm the mutual triggering.
For instance, the more I nag, the more you procrastinate,
which makes me nag you more because you’re not getting it done, but then you
don’t like being nagged so you put it off even more, etc. Each partner blames the other for
"starting it" or being the source of the problem. But being a cycle, there is no beginning,
just as there is no beginning to a circle.
And when a couple is stuck, there is no end either! Frequently, the most evident and expressed
emotion is anger. In our example the nagger’s
anger comes out in the nag, and the avoider responds by expressing anger
through avoidance, or non-compliance.
Although large parts of the frustration (a form of anger) may actually
be frustrations with oneself and with the repetitive cycle, a common reflex is
to blame one’s partner, which keeps fueling the vicious cycle. There are usually further complexities which
strengthen the interlock, but for now I’ll stick with the basics.
In EFT the fundamental circle is called a pursue-withdraw
cycle. In the nag-procrastinate version
of this cycle, the nagger is the pursuer while the procrastinator is the
withdrawer. One is trying to initiate
something (e.g., housecleaning, sex, closeness), the other is avoiding it. As with one like-pole of a magnet being
pushed towards another, when one moves closer, the other moves away; the first
tries to close the distance, and the second moves away again, ad
Often the same couple will take different sides of the
pursue-withdraw cycle in different contexts.
Using the same nag-avoid case, a
classic alternation is that one partner nags for household chores to be done,
while the other partner avoids the chores.
However that same chore-avoidant partner nags for sex (different
context), and the chore-nagger becomes the avoider in that other context. And then different variations of
pursue-withdraw can develop such as pursue-pursue (in the form of
attack-attack) or withdraw-withdraw (conflict avoidance, leading to mutual
distancing and eventually feeling “like roommates”).
As discussed in my last article, part of men's systemizing
and desire for efficiency may be related to their susceptibility to emotional
overwhelm or flooding. Fitting this
into the pursue-withdraw cycle, the man (or male mind) is inclined to retreat
at signs of feeling overwhelmed. While
the cycle appears to start with an overt action, it is really an ever-present
co-creation in both partners’ minds, with variable manifestation at the level
of overt actions. The man’s retreat
triggers the woman’s fear that she is losing her connection with him, does not
know what is going on with him, or cannot rely on him. Her fear then prompts her to go after him in
a way (e.g., nagging, criticizing, directing, etc.) that triggers his feeling
overwhelmed, leading him to pull back even more, and so on.
So…how to create a relational environment to foster empathy
from men? First off, the more stressed a
man is the more he’ll be driven to those core coping mechanisms of systemizing
and efficiency-seeking which take him away emotionally. Stress can come from multiple sources, but
the key relational experiences for men that create or compound stress are feelings
of rejection. These are experiences of
not being wanted, not being appreciated or of disappointing their partners. Believe me, these feelings are excruciating
for most male minds, even if they can’t access or articulate the feelings
This doesn’t mean the partner of the male mind can’t express
negative emotions. However, implications
of blame make things much worse, while expressions of desire for connection can
be much more effective because ultimately that’s what men want too (despite
appearances sometimes!). Criticism and
contempt are the most destructive because they tap into men’s feelings of
inadequacy. Even if men aren’t aware of,
or can’t admit to those emotions, feelings of
“not good enough” are ultimately what prompt the reflexive behaviors of
withdrawal, counter-attack, or defensiveness.
Not coincidentally, criticism, contempt, withdrawal (“stonewalling”),
and defensiveness are Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Here’s a pretty good video on what appreciation and
acknowledgement mean to men:
Robert Solley earned his Ph.D. in 1988 and has been licensed over 20 years. He specializes in couples therapy, has been an associate with the Couples Institute in Menlo Park for over five years, and has an active practice in Hayes Valley, San Francisco. Check out his website atwww.Solutions4Couples.com or call him at 415 550-8725.
Labels: Dr. Robert Solley, Men, understanding men