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Q: For a man, getting married is a monumental transition in his life, both mentally and behaviorally. What's different about how a bachelor acts compared to a husband?
There's no question that getting married changes a man. In most cases, a new husband acts more responsibly than he did as a bachelor; he cares more about his work, his relationships, and the impact he's having on others. In rare cases, he freaks out. He may rebel in all kinds of small and large ways. My survey showed, however, that most men, while careful about making the decision to commit, are very happy in the first years of their marriage.
Q: What are the key differences between how a man expresses affection versus a woman?
I see two main differences. First, while women tend to express affection through words, men prefer action. Husbands told me that they expressed love to their wives by doing such things as picking up her dry-cleaning, getting her car cleaned and gassed up, building a deck for the back yard, working long hours at a job they don't love, and initiating sex. Many men find it hard to actually say the words "I love you," but they show it.
Secondly, while women seem to like face-to-face intimacy, men would rather be side-by-side. Hiking, watching a football game, sitting together in the front seat on a road-trip -- these are intimate moments for a man with his wife. Men are not so much into sharing feelings as sharing space.
Q: Men are generally pigeonholed as sexually motivated beings. What connection is there between sex and a man's perception of the quality of a relationship?
It's true that in four out of five marriages, the husband wants more sex. Some of this is biology. Testosterone is linked to sex drive, and men have more of it than women do. But in my survey for VoiceMale, sex came in fifth on the men's list of most-important issues in the marriage -- just above how to deal with the in-laws. So while sex is important to husbands, it's also clear that when it comes to sex, most are willing to wait it out, work it out, and if absolutely necessary, do without.
Q: You claim that men are just as willing as women are to talk frankly about their relationships, just not the same way women do. In what ways do their communication styles differ, and why is there a discrepancy?
If you want to get men to talk about a relationship, don't start the conversation with "How do you feel" or "What are your emotions?" Instead, ask him, "What do you think?" or "How did you react?" or "What did you do?" Men will get to their feelings, but on their own terms, in their own language. The reality is that most men are not fluent in the language of feelings.
Also, men are often concerned about being judged negatively. So sometimes it's effective to say: "If you want to talk about x,y,z, I'd be glad to listen. And I don't even need to say anything in response." And then stick to that promise!
Q: "What were you thinking?!" is a common exchange between spouses. What are some of the most common misunderstandings wives have about their husbands' thought processes?
The biggest complaint among the men I interviewed was that their wives wanted to talk things to death. Men contend that sometimes it's best to just agree to disagree, accept the differences. I think women believe men are avoiding the problem, or are just afraid to talk. But men say they'd rather accept that there will be issues that can't be resolved, and then focus on what's good about the relationship.
Q: How can wives become more attuned to reading their husbands' body language and actions correctly?
Just remember that for most men, actions trump words. Instead of waiting for him to say "I love you," or "You look fantastic," look for signs that he feels this way. Acknowledge the little ways that he shows his love; tell him you like it when he does certain things that demonstrate his caring.
Also remember that initiating sex is one of the ways that men show that they love their wives. It shouldn't be the only way, of course, but women should be careful not to interpret all sexual initiation by their husbands as selfish. Initiating sex makes a man vulnerable; he really hopes his wife will enjoy it. In these ways, making the first move can be a very generous act.
Q: Given that men communicate feelings differently from women, what is the most effective way for a woman to express her emotions to a man?
Most men like it when women express their love openly, in words and physical affection. Just don't expect him to do it exactly the same way. So women should express themselves in whatever way they're inspired to -- through words, hugs, delicious dinners, whatever.
Q: You identify four major stages of marriage: the honeymoon phase, the family phase, the empty-nest phase, and the mature marriage phase. What are some of the most crucial differences between how men act out in each of these phases, and how would you advise their wives to handle it?
First of all, it's important to note that most husbands are happy -- in all phases of marriage. In my survey for VoiceMale, at every stage of marriage, more than half of men reported being very happy with their wives.
When men are unhappy, they act out in similar ways in all stages of marriage: they withdraw (emotionally and physically) from their wives and, sometimes, find someone else to connect with. The best way to handle these "separations" is to invite the man to make it clear -- in whatever way he wants -- what the problem is.
If it gets to the point where you can no longer accept his distance, then invite him to join you at a therapist's office.
Q: What's your number one piece of advice on how wives can keep their husbands committed to and happy with their marriage?
I don't see it as a woman's job to keep her husband committed and happy, but I do know that what men want most is a friend: someone they can count on, someone they can trust, someone who, in the words of one man I interviewed, "has my back." They also want someone they can do things with, a companion. Look for ways to enjoy each other's company. Build your relationship on what's most positive about it.
Originally published in LHJ.com, April 2006.