Marriage and Men: Not Your Grandfather's Marriage

In the last 200 years, expectations for marriage have seen a dramatic shift. Marriage was traditionally a way to preserve family, livelihood, and community. Marriage was not a vessel for interpersonal happiness like it is today. In fact, interpersonal happiness was not seen as a worthwhile goal until the more recent history. Blame it on the fact that survival for the majority in developed countries is not on the forefront of people’s minds in the same way that it was in the past. With progress comes change, and with expectations for marriage, the change has been subtle but very distinct.

Today, when you speak with people about their expectations for marriage, you will hear things about ‘marrying my best friend,’ ‘partners in life,’ ‘growing old together.’ Contrast to what their grandparents might have said: ‘He is a good man and will make a good provider’ or ‘She will make a good mother.’ Just for a moment compare the differing expectations. Current couples have the expectation that a romantic partner and best friend committed to their personal happiness is the point of marriage. No mention of the roles of a husband or wife or the fulfillment of said roles. That’s because today, roles are much more dynamic than they were 50 years ago. Couples of the more recent past could exclusively focus on their role of being a caregiver or provider with little mention of being a best friend.

In his book “How Can I get Through to You?” Dr. Terry Real discusses his observation in working with men, that the expectations now given to men are not only different than they were for men of the past, but that they are not in line with the skills traditionally given to males in their culture. We now expect men to be an emotional caregiver to his wife and children while still requiring the stoicism of the caregiver. He must be a careful blend of emotional about all the right things and unemotional about all the right things.

Women are more likely than men to file for divorce. What I believe this suggests is that we, collectively, are failing miserably at teaching men to fulfill their new and emotionally- complicated tasks. In my practice, I see women and men frustrated with their male partner not living up to the expectations of what one of my clients called “The Oprah Dad.“ This idealistic father is emotionally available for his wife, his children, carries the role of provider and caretaker and spiritual leader equally, and does it with a smile.

So how do we prepare men for this bold new frontier? Well, it starts with training. Ask yourself a few questions to see if you are preparing your sons for this new marriage contract.

  • Are we teaching our young men as boys to value nurturing? How many parents encourage their male children to play with dolls? How many parents teach their children how to nurture children while they are playing with these dolls?
  • Are we teaching our children to label their emotions and assume responsibility for them? John Gottman calls this concept “emotions coaching.” This parenting style allows children to learn how to adequately label what they are feeling and help them come up with solutions for dealing with this emotion.
  • Are we modeling healthy nurturing of relationships in front of our children? Do your children see you holding hands, laughing, going on dates?
  • Are we actively teaching our male children the importance of empathy and other caretaking skills? This includes those “car conversations” where we discuss the importance of learning how to be kind to partners and listen and pay attention and attend to their emotions.

If these questions leave you panicked thinking ‘I don’t even know how to do that-much less teach my children!’ fear not. Emotional aptitude is a skill that CAN be taught, much like the mechanics of changing a tire. It takes time, perhaps reading a book or two, watching Youtube videos or consulting with a professional. (Pretty much the same steps I took the last time I had to tie a tie minus the book reading.)

In short, marriage is not for the weak or faint of heart. It requires constant tending and a set of skills that many are forced to acquire in adulthood. Learning these skills may be difficult, but less so than the alternative.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Pablo Picasso

Whitney Warren Alexander, LMFT, LADC is in private practice in Stillwater, Oklahoma where she resides with her husband, son and two yappy dogs. She has been in private practice since 2009 and currently is the owner of the Warren Alexander Group. You can like her on facebook by clicking here.