Save this Marriage

Why Can't He/She Be More Like Me?

Dealing with Gender Differences

January 25, 2009

In the ongoing effort to help couples – young and old – to come to a better understanding of what works in a relationship, it is always helpful to be in touch with the reality of our differences. Expectations always run high in any relationship. Whether or not those expectations are healthy is an important consideration in one's peace of mind.

But, the propensity of many to develop unhealthy expectations of their partner is often the result of real gender differences in the structure of the brain.

The phrase "it's all in your head" may actually hold more truth than we thought. For, although there obviously are cultural reasons for our differences in emotions and behavior, recent breakthrough research reveals that the root of many puzzling gender differences may lie in our brains.

Men's and women's brains have much in common, but they are definitely not the same—in size, structure or sensitivities. Actually a woman's brain, like her body, is 10-15% smaller than a man's. Yet, the areas of higher cognition, such as language, may be more densely packed with neurons. The corpus callosum, the bridge of fibers running down the center of the brain, is thicker in females, which may explain the "crosstalk" between the emotional, intuitive right hemisphere and the rational, factual left. Practically speaking, this translates often as the connections women make; a form of emotional intelligence, or intuition.

In school, even at a very early age, it has been documented that girls generally speak sooner and read faster than boys. They use neural regions on both sides of the brain, in contrast to males who draw mainly on the neural regions in the left hemisphere.

A woman's brain responds more intensely to emotion; melancholy feelings activate neurons in the brain in an area eight times larger in women than men. Is it any wonder that depression is twice as common in women as in men?

It also helps us understand why women are quicker to understand emotion; to recognize it in others, while it may take men a longer time – and they need more prompting – to notice and define a woman's mood.

On the other hand, men may be better able to focus intensely—which may explain why a man, for example, can immerse himself in a book or other activity to the exclusion of others things happening in the environment.

On the road, women pay more attention to what they see, particularly landmarks, like the synagogue, a friend's house or the playground. They rely on such landmarks to find their way, while men think in terms of direction and distance ("half a mile east, then south one mile"). This spatial perception also allows men, generally, to park a car more easily than women (sorry, ladies—that's what the research proves!).

At every age, women's memories outperform men's. Women associate names with faces (remember "connections"?) and they also are better at recalling lists. (Don't blame him if he goes to the store and can't remember what you need.)

Knowing these facts could go a long way to helping people understand the marital relationship that G‑d wants us to experience. He wanted us – both men and women – to be challenged to work hard at being loving, forgiving, patient and "judging to the side of merit."

This is especially true during times when we are stressed, and the expectations seem to rise automatically, making it even more difficult to excuse another person. During these moments, we need to dig deep inside to hold onto our perspective and maintain balance.

Here's an example of one typical issue that is a direct result of the differences between how than man's and woman's brain operates, and the woman's innate greater sensitivity to emotions:

A dynamic that I often encounter with couples is the wife's inability to state her needs factually, in a business-like manner, without negative emotion. A man often gets confused when too much emotion is expressed. He takes her anger/sadness/withdrawal, etc. as a sign of personal failure which causes him to either attack or withdraw. Often, he doesn't have a clue why she's so upset. And what often makes things worse is that following a heated interchange he may get through or get over the emotion quickly and move on.

Women, on the other hand, feel that the more emotion they invest in a request (even if it's a request for greater understanding), the quicker it will be accomplished. So they continue to escalate the emotion, thinking their objective will be met faster. In reality, all that happens is that the tension is maintained. In addition, women tend to hold on longer to their hurt feelings and are left wondering, "How could he so easily dismiss what happened? It doesn't seem fair!"

So practically, how are couples to deal with their natural differences?

For starters, couples should be on the alert for three counterproductive behaviors:

1. Mind Reading—thinking that your spouse should be able to read your mind and heart and know, intuitively, what pleases or displeases you.

2. Second Guessing—thinking, "He/she should have known better, should have called, should have been more respectful. (Words like "should, would, could" usually need to be investigated before believing!)

3. Assuming—thinking, "Sure I said I'd be ready in ten minutes; doesn't he know already that it would take longer?"

These three tendencies are all a result of the inherent differences between men and women, and the assumption that your spouse's mind works in the same way as yours.

In the following week(s?) we will focus on these behaviors, examine their roots, fallacies, and practical ways to avoid these marital pitfalls.

Moving into New Husband's Old Home with his Children

January 18, 2009

Dear Bronya:

This is my situation: David and I feel that we're really suited for each other, but his children are very unhappy about him getting married. His teenage daughter is especially angry. She won't even talk to me, and told her father that if I move into the house, she's moving out with all her mother's things.

Right now the house is the same as it was when their mother was alive. When David said that he's going to be making changes, his children got very upset. I noticed he took some of the family pictures off the wall, and put away his wedding picture, but I didn't comment.

He says that we don't need to buy anything for the house since it's a fully furnished house with linens and kitchen things. It's a very nice and homey atmosphere, but I feel strange moving into another woman's home. So, how do I make it my home? He wants to start work renovations in the house, so that the married children will have a place when they come to visit.

Where do I fit into the picture and how do I relate to the children that don't want me there?


Dear Sarah,

I'm happy for you; it sounds like you and David are good for each other, and I was moved by his very strong desire to make his home yours. I have no doubt that the two of you will find, in your own home, continued happiness.

At the same time, Sarah, you need to create strong and clear boundaries.

First, his children are his. They are not your children. This is a boundary that has to be very firmly respected by all of you. When David and his children celebrate family events — such as their birthdays or siblings' anniversaries — you're a guest there. Not a member of that family. Not yet. Perhaps in time, but only they can make that happen, not you. And the only way they can make that happen is if they invite you.

I know how much you want to be the "caretaker" and nurturer, but that was their mother. And you're not able to replace her. Respect that. Of course, you will be performing many of the tasks that were hers, but do it, each task, with permission. Shopping for any of the children, or doing their laundry, or taking the younger kids to their friends' homes or other extra-curricular events — ask them first. Tell them that you'd like to drive them, and would they like for you to do that. Ask if they'd like for you to get them the socks or books they need. Don't just assume, ask permission to assume that role. And still, be very careful that you don't "act" like their mother. Of course you want with all your heart to give them what they're missing, to nurture them, but you need to be very careful when acting on this. It's a delicate balance, a very subtle dance. You're there, you're running this household now, but you need to respect their feeling of intrusion, even if not warranted.

It's up to you to create the dynamic — don't be put off by their resistance. You feel that this is your home, but they need time before they can let you in.

When you next come into the house, ask about the missing pictures. Don't ask David, ask the children, the ones living at home. Don't be casual about it, be deliberate. Softly, say you want to ask them something, and then say that you noticed those pictures weren't there when you last came, and ask them about their removal. I wonder if it was their father, or they, who thought the pictures ought not to be there.

Let them know that you recognize that this is their home. Yes, you are now their father's wife, and now moving into this home, and want to make it yours...but you realize that it has been, all their life, and will be, always, their home. Reassure them, tell them you'll not subtract anything from their home, you'll just add to it.

After your wedding, when you have your own pictures, don't put them out on the living room credenza or on the dining room walls. For now, keep them in your own room. And the picture of their mother that you found ...show it to David's daughter, and invite her to come with you to have it framed. Suggest making copies for her married siblings.

You say David is renovating the house. Perhaps you can create a new room for the two of you, and leave his bedroom as is. It will remain, for his children, 'his' room and the two of you will have your own new quarters. Don't sit in her chair, unless they ask you to.

With time, Sarah, you will not be a 'guest' in their mind — but that will only happen if, for the beginning, you respect fully their mother's presence in the home.

Most of all, be sensitive to their need for this strong recognition of clear boundaries. There is the relationship between David and their mother; there is the relationship between David and you. They are not connected in any way. There is his relationship with his children, and there is your relationship with his children. Two different relationships. They may intersect. But they don't overlap.

Much, much more to be said about this....we'll talk...

No More Nagging

January 4, 2009

Although both men and women nag, it seems that women are most commonly accused of this unpleasant behavior. "Stop nagging!" says an aggravated husband when his wife asks him for the tenth time to please repair the broken gate or finish the tax return or pay the bill. The wife – already frustrated by her spouse's tardy behavior – resents the accusation that she is the one who is not being nice. Obviously, she wouldn't be asking him to do something repeatedly if he would just do it in a timely manner to begin with!

Nonetheless, a woman may acknowledge that her behavior falls under the category of "nagging" (even if it isn't her fault!). She usually says that she doesn't want to nag, but her husband makes her do it because he fails to follow through with his responsibilities. Many women have the same problem with their kids. They nag them as well, because, like the procrastinating spouse, kids often don't do what they're supposed to be doing at the time they're supposed to do it. Nagging is unpleasant to do and unpleasant to receive. But how can it be avoided in family life?

There are two strategies that can be helpful. The first is called the CLeaR Method. CLeaR stands for Comment, Label and Reward. Suppose Rachel's husband is supposed to fix a leaky faucet. He has promised to do it on Monday Sept 1. By Monday November 14, no repair has occurred and the annoying plop plop of water driplets constantly reminds Rachel that the task is waiting to be done. Finally, on Tuesday November 15, the husband pulls out his tools and repairs the faucet. Now Rachel applies the CLeaR Method. She gives her husband a positive comment. This can normally be acknowledgment, praise or appreciation. In our example, Rivka might say (with enthusiasm , "David, thank you SO MUCH for repairing that leaky faucet!" Then, she gives him a label. The label is very important because it builds self-concept. Rachel wants David to begin to think of himself as a person who knows how to make his wife happy because if he thinks of himself this way, he is more likely to repeat helpful behaviors in the future. So she says to him, "What a great husband! You really know how to make a wife happy!" Although this sort of labeling and global praise might sound excessive to the uninitiated, you need to try it out for yourself to see how your spouse responds. In most cases, there is no harm done and – better still – it leaves a husband feeling very successful and proud of himself. Finally, Rivka rewards her husband's helpful behavior (the third step of the CLeaR Method) by a tender gesture or offering him his favorite beverage/treat for being so clever and helpful. These three very pleasant steps of the CLeaR Method imprint strongly on the husband's brain, increasing the likelihood that he will be eager to help his wife in future situations. The eagerness will cause tasks to be completed sooner.

At first, a wife may need to use the CLeaR Method several times before she notices a change in her husband's behavior. Patience is important. Since the strategy feels good, it will enhance the marital bond even if it doesn't cure procrastination. Moreover, it replaces "nagging" which not only has a very poor success rate in ending procrastination (in fact, it tends to worsen the condition), but also harms the marital relationship. While the CLeaR Method does have a good track record in increasing motivation and reducing procrastination, the only way to see if it will work in your house is to try it out for yourself.

The second strategy that you can use to replace nagging is called the Two Times Rule (2X-Rule). This rule says that you never ask for anything more than twice. Three times is called "nagging." Suppose you make a request of your spouse. He agrees but doesn't follow through. On the second time you make the request, you give your spouse a choice to comply with your request in a timely manner or face the consequence of not complying. For instance, suppose Rachel asked David on September 1 if he could fix the faucet and he said "no problem." She then asks him if it could be done within the week, and again, he agrees. However, by the end of the week, the annoying plop plop reminds her that no action has been taken. Now Rachel asks David a second time if he could please fix the faucet. He again agrees. She asks if he can have it done within the new week. He says "yes." She says, "Good. Because if it isn't done by then I really don't mind. I understand that you're busy. I'll just call a handyman to do it for me." At the end of the week, the job isn't done. Rivka calls a handyman (or someone else who knows how to do it or she learns how herself!). In this way, she doesn't nag. She simply creates a situation that is reasonable, in accordance with her husband's promises. The trick in this technique is to make sure to follow through with whatever consequence you promised, being careful to refrain from any use of anger, displeasure or rejection. This strategy helps spouses be more accountable for their commitments. It is possible, however, that a husband may not appreciate this technique. He may try to make it seem that the wife is being unfair or unreasonable. The wife must be very sure that she is being very fair and very reasonable. If she doubts herself, she'll let him off the hook and then likely fall back to her unpleasant nagging ways. Although the husband might have played this game with his mother and/or his teachers, the wife can refuse to be a willing partner in this destructive pattern. She will have to be strong and consistent of she wants to use the 2X-Rule.

Essentially, nagging is an agreement between two parties. One party reneges on commitments and the other agrees to remind him over and over again. If you find yourself nagging, YOU can break the agreement. Do something different. Refuse to nag. Even if it is hard in the beginning, in the end, your marriage will benefit and both you and your spouse will be happier.

Feeling lonely in your marriage? Constant fighting, arguing and bickering? Money problems keeping your apart? Or is jealousy ruining your intimacy?

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