Photo: James Wojcik/Trunk Archive
Alison A. Armstrong, the author of The Queen’s Code, has helped millions of women and men learn to communicate better. For her second installment of her Marriage Bootcamp series, Armstrong explains that men and women approach commitment differently, but if you can learn to bridge the gap, you’re on your way to a very happy Rest of Your Life.
“I’ve had moments of doubt about my relationship come out of nowhere,” Laura, newly engaged in Katy, Texas, wrote to me. Things about her fiancé that had bugged her a little when they were dating were starting to look like serious problems when she thought about enduring them every day for the rest of her life. These doubts scared Laura because, like many brides-to-be, she has bought into one of the biggest marriage myths of all: that men are the ones with commitment issues, while women are naturals at it, making even the hint of cold feel like a serious red flag.
In reality, the opposite is true. Since your engagement, have you noticed that your fiancé has become more attentive? More protective? And more focused on being able to provide for you long-term? This is because no matter how long it took him to pop the question, he now considers himself responsible for you, for taking care of you and providing for you. Yes, it sounds old-fashioned — and it is! But even if you’re the one with the fat paycheck and black belt in karate, men have an evolutionary imperative to provide and protect. And when you got engaged, you became the cornerstone of his life. In his mind, he’s already married to you. He’s committed to you as a whole package, which means hes accepted everything you are and everything you’re not. He doesn’t expect you to be perfect. He’s decided you’re just right for him.
But for women, commitment is a different animal. People say that when a man and women get married, she’s hoping he’ll change, and he’s hoping she won’t. It may be a cliché, but there’s truth to it. In more than 20 years of coaching couples, I’ve found that while men commit by accepting everything about you at once, women commit one acceptance at a time — and that can take a while. I’ve met women whose weddings happened 20 years ago but still aren’t truly married because they’ve spent all that time resisting their husband’s behaviors, needs, and values. Their husbands are aware of it and feel confused and disempowered because they thought they’d been accepted too. This harms the couple’s ability to trust and connect with each other.
Does this mean you have to put up with everything about him unconditionally? No way! Think of your engagement as a commitment to committing, and get busy accepting what you can and working on what you can’t. The more you do this between now and your wedding, the more confidently you’ll walk down the aisle and the more prepared you’ll be for that tricky first year of marriage.
When I explained this to Laura, she asked a good question: “How do you know which doubts are serious signs of trouble and which are just a normal part of adjusting to the biggest leap of your life?” Answer: Determine what you can tolerate and what you can’t. My definition of tolerate is to be able to be with, without any loss of respect, admiration, or affinity. Consider the behavior that’s bothering you, and imagine it happening for the rest of your life. Can you live with that, without any loss of admiration, respect, or affinity for your husband? For yourself? This applies to small and large things, from how he keeps his bathroom to what he spends money on to his religion or spiritual practices.
When you come upon something that you can’t — or won’t — accept, use the Great Ask method to have that crucial conversation. (Go to brides.com/bootcamp for my column on how to master this critical relationship skill.) Start by saying, “I have a problem that I need your help with.” Most women avoid the word problem because we have a compulsion to be perfect or to be seen as perfect. But it’s key here because most men love to solve problems and may even feel a surge of energy just contemplating solutions. By contrast, issue sounds chronic and unsolvable; say it and you’ll probably see his shoulders droop. Ditto for “I have a concern.” So add “I have a problem” to your vocabulary, and practice saying it until you stop twitching.
Then, strive not only to be understood but also to really understand. You’re not listening if you’re planning your response when he’s talking. Ask him what this behavior, habit, or value provides him. And wait for his answer without further prompting or guessing. You may want to interrupt or move things along. Resist the urge! Learning the real why — instead of the reason you’re assuming — may help you tolerate something about him that’s different from your expectations, is inconvenient to you, or is not exactly as you’d prefer, you’re that much more committed. Likewise, every time you’re able to have him understand a change you truly need, you’re giving him another way to “provide” for you.
Avoid dramatizing, but don’t understate your problem. If something is a deal breaker for you, be straight about that. Saying “As much as I love you, this isn’t something I can see myself living with” lets him know how much you need his help sorting this out. And you do need his help, because you’ve probably been unsuccessfully trying to resolve this on your own.
Side note: If you’re wondering why it falls to you to do all this accepting and to initiate these hard conversations, there are two reasons. First, it’s because this is a column for women; we’re working on your half of the equation. Rest assured that when I’m addressing men, I give them plenty of homework! Second, we’re talking about the process of acceptance, and his has already happened. His attention is now focused on the plan for your future, while yours, if you’re like Laura — who, by the way, realized that her doubts were normal and is now happily planning her wedding — and so many women I’ve worked with, is on reassuring yourself that you can spend the rest of your life with this person, quirks and all.
The good news? Men expect life to include problems, so problems don’t cause men to uncommit. An attendee at one of my panels put it this way: “When my wife and I got married, we struggled with our sex life. But I knew we had a long time to work it out.” Of course, in our Happily Ever After fantasies, none of us would need to have these uncomfortable conversations with our spouse-to-be. But in an actual marriage, we often do as we grow and change as individuals and as a couple and deal with new situations. Thankfully, the more of these problems you work though, the more confidence you’ll have in your ability to face them down together and the more you’ll experience the freedom that comes with being really, truly commited.
This article appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of BRIDES.