I encounter men routinely who find themselves deeply frustrated, exhausted, and exasperated from what feels like an endless dredging up of past wrongs and hurts by their wives.
“Why won’t she just let it go?”
“I just want us to move on!”
“I feel like I apologize over and over again!”
“She says I never listen to her, but I do! I could recite it word for word.”
“Why won’t she forgive me?!”
I too know this feeling and spent two decades often experiencing the same kind of issues with my wife. Eventually I concluded that I must have a broken and busted wife because clearly she had the memory of an elephant about wrongdoing and just couldn’t forgive me.
Like most of the men I encounter, I blamed her past, her upbringing, her abusive experiences, her childhood, her father, her trouble with parents… it was pretty easy to see the causes – so I thought. These unhelpful narratives are completely unhelpful and themselves erode the relationship.
In reality, I was just a bonehead about relating to women. Most men of late are too.
If this is you, I’m not saying it’s your fault. or that you’re a bad man. We just don’t know what we don’t know – until someone shows us. No one showed me so I didn’t know. Then a bunch of someones – mentors – showed me and the transformative power of it was eye-popping for me.
Laying a good foundation
After struggling for hours through what feels like a “hurts from the past death match”, it’s hard to believe good things about our wives and not just throw our hands up in despair.
I know for me, for some reason these kinds of “discussions” took place in the hot tub and I distinctly remember lowering my head under the water afterward thinking “I’m not sure I want to resurface”. I felt like I was drowning in exasperation anyway, so mine as well just not come up for air.
The last thing I would have wanted a mentor to tell me is to “remember the best things about my wife”. Yet, this is the essential cornerstone for moving forward together into a relationship most men want (and their female partners want too).
In my community, we call this “high regard” or “unconditional high regard” or “unconditional positive regard”. The ancient Greeks called it “Agape”. It’s not a feeling but a deliberate act of the conscious self to choose to build and keep our internal view of someone virtuous, lovely, noble, esteemed, and everything else that views them in a pure and life-giving way instead of merely by their actions and behaviors.
To do this requires a belief that we are not our actions and deeds and that something more greater and noble is at our core. It’s viewing others by that beautiful and unvarnished core.
When we begin here, with a cornerstone of unconditional high regard, it begins to build a foundation of acceptance of our wives, who they are, and what they need.
From here we can begin to build layer-upon-layer, assuming the best about them. We remind ourselves that they’re not broken, not busted, not anything unlovely. Rather, we can see that they’re doing their best, that they have pains and hurts, and that they’re bringing them to us because they want something from us. Not something impossible, but possible.
What is it that they want that is possible?
What they need is our empathy, compassion, and understanding.
Here’s the rub… an anxious, fearful, insecure, and ashamed man cannot show empathy, compassion, and understanding to his wife with any reliability. He’s far too consumed trying to achieve a sense of worthiness, acceptance, and confidence in himself through approval of others that all his attention needs to stay on being right.
When this man encounters these past hurts death matches, this man’s mind and heart go right into explaining HIMSELF, defending HIMSELF, telling HIS SIDE of the story, correcting the record, telling her where she’s mistaken, etc.
All of that energy is a man trying to protect HIMSELF. It’s impossible to show empathy when we’re occupied with self-defense.
A man doing this, for a woman, is like driving down a coastal highway, her looking to one side saying “I see scary cliffs” and he looking to the other side saying “I see beautiful beaches”.
He’s just completely unwilling to see hers because he want her to see his.
He thinks because he heard the syllables and words she used to describe her experience that he has “heard” her. Nope. He didn’t.
He heard just enough to compare it to his own view and choose his viewpoint as the correct, “accurate” viewpoint.
Why she starts to feel it’s impossible
This is why she says “you never listen!”
This is why she says “you always make it about you!”
From her perspective, her man really doesn’t truly listen – not to her heart – because he’s too busy going back to the lens of his experience – making it about himself.
It’s also why women call these kinds of husbands Narcissists – because one trait of narcissism is a lack of empathy. Of course, very few of these men truly are Narcissists, but the point remains, the feeling of being with a man without empathy is agonizing for a woman.
Note: To be blunt, this describes my former self. It also describes most men that I mentor. Rather than speak more deeply to those underlying issues here, I’ll just say… if this is you, the very first thing you need to do is address shame, fear, anxiety, and insecurity within yourself. You simply won’t be happy in marriage or any romantic relationship until you do.
Once a man begins to adequately address his own issues, he can then show up in these encounters in a much different frame, knowing with deep confidence that there is no need to defend himself, no need to set her record straight, no benefit to explaining himself or to get her to see his perspective.
Where empathy takes us
Once you can show up in these moments with calmness, clarity, self-confidence and empathy, you’re then able to bring your innate masculine strength into the encounter.
You’re able to lay your lens down and is willing to peer through hers.
What was her experience like? What and how did she feel? Where did that cause her heart to go?
This is what the woman in our life wants – our presence with her in those hurtful times. Validation of the awful feelings of pain, hurt, abandonment, loneliness, hopelessness, being unseen, being uninvited, being overlooked.
But we can’t see those things if we are only willing to look through our own lens.
Understanding what she wants to show you
Imagine your relationship is a very large estate. Every month of the relationship, you and your partner add a new room. The room is filled with your shared experience for the month.
Month after month, you add rooms. Over time… years, decades, and longer, you’ve really got a lot of rooms!
Now imagine that the woman in your life, being a creature with defuse focus, attention to details, and a disposition toward creating and protecting love within your estate spends some of her time going down the hallways and opening the doors of the rooms from the past.
She doesn’t like what she sees in some of them. Perhaps she had not visited a room since it was built and upon looking at it again encounters the painful difficult experiences she had in that month. There they are – just like they were!
She slams the door shut and runs to find you in the present month room. That’s generally where you’re predictably going to be. (or sketching out your plans for future months).
“I need you to come back with me to this room on the tenth floor… it’s awful! There’s black mold growing up the walls. You didn’t _____ and I felt ______”.
In her plea is an innate, beautiful, and wonderful desire to clean those past rooms. What she wants is to be able to go back and visit those months with ease and even delight. She doesn’t want rooms that must remain locked tight. She wants freedom to explore the relationship and appreciate every room – even the ones that were not her favorite.
What we usually (and ineffectively) do
“Baby, can’t you see I’m busy?! What do you want from me? I didn’t do that. In fact, I _____________!”
That right there… that’s called invalidating. It’s exactly the opposite of what she wants and needs. It’s also the exact opposite of what you need as a man.
Your wife isn’t acting badly. She’s not misbehaving or broken. She’s protecting the love by keeping the relationship tidy. Your wife is telling you about a black mold growing that is undermining your estate. What she is sharing with you is her wisdom that builds and protects the connection you both deeply desire.
You…? You’re on a ladder with a drywall knife in your hand and just want to work on the present room. There is good change you’re also kinda annoyed and far more interested in moving ahead and quick fixes so you can get back to it.
Even worse, you’re a guy who is working toward the same goal every month – building a new room where more sex, intimacy, and deep connection happens.
If you’re that guy you’re doubly annoyed because what you want is her to come into the room you’re working on, oooh and ahh over it, then invite you for a romp.
Her emotions scare the f*ck out of you. They make you feel small. They stir up shame. You just want her to stop.
Brother, if you keep doing what you’re doing, your wife will stop.
She’ll stop coming to you about past rooms. Stop sharing her love. Stop caring for the love. That’s not all – she’ll stop trusting you, stop being attracted to you, and stop having sex with you (or do so at a begrudging minimum). Why would she want to be intimate with a man who defies her attempts to promote and secure love by keeping the estate clean?
And you relationship will die. That black mold of bitterness and contempt will spread to the present room. Perhaps another man comes along who doesn’t think she’s broken but wise, beautiful and worthy of attention. Someone who sees her, who appears safer.
What to do instead
If we can stop feeling and reacting upon those awful things we feel when she barges into the present with hurts from the past, the path to love and freedom is right in front of us.
“Woah, babe… that sounds pretty awful. Let’s go check it out” (as you puts the drywall knife down and gets off the ladder).
Then, imagine you grab her hand and walk down the hallway…. “which room did you say that was? Let’s go!”.
Then, you go – leading the way and you turn the handle of the door, walk into the room together, your arm around her and your heart open for whatever is on the other side.
“Ah, I see a few things myself here but tell me what in here is troubling you?”
“It’s over here. This is where I asked you for _____ and you didn’t ________. Why did you do that? That made me feel __”
“Ughhh… that’s awful sweetheart! I’m sorry. That must have been very difficult. I can really see now how that made you feel _______. I bet me leaving this in here has really caused you to feel _”
“Is there anything else you’d like me to know about how this made you feel?”
“Is there anything you need from me here?”
“Yes, I need to know that you don’t think ______ or feel _____ this about me. ”
“and I need you to hold me. I need to know you love me and that this is part of the present.”
“I need you to scrub this black mold off the wall and spray it with bleach.”
Then, you give your attention to cleaning up that room together. Identifying the risks to the estate, tidying up the room, making everything straight.”
Then she says “thank you” as you hold her again, a smile on your face.
“how are you feeling now” you ask?
“frisky!” she says with a wink as she slaps your butt.
You can imagine what might happen next. This isn’t about having sex more, this about using your best strengths as a man to honor her strengths and wisdom to promote love and connection in the relationship. It just so happens to be that those men are the men that don’t need to worry about how much sex they’re having or when they’ll have it next.. More sex happens in clean estates with clean rooms.
Presence – your gift to give
Masculine presence is the gift you have to give. Many men unfortunately only see presence as being valuable in the present. However, taking your gift of presence into the painful and unpleasant rooms of the past provides presence to the woman in your life too.
When a man learns to no longer become undone and unhinged in these moments, but bring himself to the encounter, be with his partner in empathy, compassion, acceptance, and understanding, both he and the woman in his life will benefit.
They’ll both also build a better present “room” – far better, far more connected, far more intimate, and far more loving than what he’s build on his own.
Having trouble navigating the rooms of the past with your partner? Reach out – let’s talk.