Steve Biddulph offers us support for our relationships
One of the great tragedies of life is a marriage or relationship break-up, especially where children are involved. Not everyone is ‘right’ for each other, but in my experience as a family therapist, two-thirds of break-ups simply happen because people get lost, confused and afraid. In my books for men, I aim to give clearer maps for how to get along with the opposite sex, because many men haven’t been shown or taught this, and lack the inner language and awareness to help them be intimate, equal, and assured in doing the ‘dance’ that partnership really is.
These are some edited extracts from my new UK edition of Manhood, which are aimed at men but equally might be helpful for women wanting to get along better with the men they love.
His wants, her wants – how to make it work...
Love is built on willingness to give, but that doesn’t mean being a martyr. It takes balance – we have to respect our own needs and values while also caring about someone else. It’s a kind of dance, and everyone stumbles a little while learning it.
Young men in love tend to take extreme positions. They are either totally besotted – “I would do anything for her” – or totally selfish – “I have to possess her as my own.” Neither is a recipe for a long and happy relationship.
Human beings have needs (beyond food and shelter) that are necessary to our wellbeing. Here is a rough list:
To be loved
To be appreciated
To have time to oneself
To socialise with friends
To be creative
To do useful work
To have a sexual life
To have a spiritual life
Each is an ‘essential vitamin’; leaving even one of these out will bring you unstuck in time. If you are interested, go back over the list and choose which is missing for you at the moment. Can you feel how that may be harming you? How could you do something about that?
Denying one’s own needs works only in the short term. A relationship is never static; it’s a lot like a dance – a bit this way, a bit that way, first you lean on me, then I lean on you! Long-term, it has to make everyone happy at least some of the time. A family or couple is dysfunctional when they cannot find a way to balance the needs of all. A functional family is a happiness-generating system: people thrive, nobody misses out. There is conflict, but it doesn’t last. Things get nutted out. In a dysfunctional family, someone always gets harmed.
A mature man, then, is not one who has swung right across from being selfish and pleasure-driven to being a martyr. Rather, he stands in the middle place. He cares about the other person and he cares about himself. He gives out of his fullness, which is a deeper well than he might realise. He is flexible, generous and nurturing. He also asks for what he would like to have happen. He is careful not to demand or intimidate; but he puts his needs out there with dignity and self-respect.
A man needs a lot of grace to be vulnerable at this time – to say “here is what I would like” – which might be as huge as that they both take a trip away together, or that he leaves his job, or as small as a burning desire to make passionate love. And to do so without it being a demand, or a threat. And a woman needs a lot of grace to neither go to a competitive place, nor merely be compliant but with a cold heart. That’s why it’s a dance. My way, your way, our way, something completely new and invented to satisfy both. Always that search for integrity, that is kind and fun as well. You don’t do marriage, marriage does you.
Standing together, alone
Love is a journey. It’s also a kind of classroom. The way we do it at the start is very different from how we end up. Young and newly formed couples get close by almost melting into each other. They are a tangle of arms and legs, breathing each other’s breath. Refugees from loneliness, they cling together in relief at having found someone who cares. The odd thing is that, at this stage, they don’t really know each other at all, but they make up for that with imagination. It’s as if each provides a blank screen onto which the other projects all their hopes and dreams. The problem is that, being so linked, their happiness totally depends on the other. Deeply insecure, they watch intently for any sign of diminished love.
Then, as the hours and days together start to add up, the real relationship begins, the long struggle to birth the real person behind the fantasy. Gradually, each partner becomes more real and more delineated – they act more like themselves. Over time, if they don’t panic, but allow the relationship to contain differences of preference and direction – if they respect the other person’s separateness – then something good happens. They both strengthen as people; they become more whole. People in healthy relationships will notice this and comment on it – “I am a better person around her,” “He makes me feel more able to be myself.”
It’s not only in couplehood, but also in life overall, that you gradually become more yourself, strengthened by the push and pull of relating to other people. Living in a relationship helps you develop a clear sense of your boundaries, define your values and limits, and acquire a healthy self-protectiveness that prevents you melting like a mush into each other’s emotional troubles. You can care for the other person without having your emotions tied up in theirs. It’s not helpful if he is down when she is down, or if she is angry with him for being angry with her. It takes time to learn this. If you get to a point of real conflict and leave the relationship, you do not learn. A new relationship will have to get to that same place all over again, and still you might or might not break through. But if you stay, and keep talking, and listening, sometimes something shifts and you learn some things about yourself and really grow. That will benefit you forever.
As we grow, we strengthen. So even though our love deepens, our dependency gets less. It’s a paradox that takes a bit of grasping. People can hate each other and be very enmeshed; usually they are. I’ve known people who haven’t seen their partner in years, but spend much of their day hating them. That’s not very free. And people can love each other and stand separate and apart. They are two strong people who have chosen to love. You sometimes meet old couples who have cracked this secret: you will see them holding hands and laughing as they walk. Their eyes sparkle, and they can sum you up in a glance. They are feisty and cranky with the world and with each other, but it’s a tender crankiness, with a deep peace at the heart of it.
When your partner is difficult, or draws boundaries, and does not always want what you want, welcome this – it is helping you both along to this goal. Only when you are fully individuated, clearly your own person, can you really be close. You are no longer role-playing: it’s the real you and the real her. It’s a remarkable feeling.
Steve Biddulph is one of the world’s best-loved parenting authors. He has especially focused on changing masculinity for a world where we have to collaborate, not compete. He is an adjunct professor of psychology, and his books, including Raising Boys and Raising Girls, are in three million homes and 31 languages. He and his partner, Shaaron, have lived and worked together for 42 years. They live in Tasmania, Australia, but teach worldwide. stevebiddulph.com
Manhood is published by Vermilion, 2015.
Photo by Gee Mackenzie - geephotography.co.uk
Published in issue 42. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.