The Glass Ego
A: If you decide you want to keep the man around, don't use the word irresponsible. You can call him a jerk or even an ass and it won't devastate him, because what is a jerk? That's not concretely definable. But what a man feels when you call him irresponsible is what a woman feels when you call her a bitch. It's the ultimate insult. So if you're angry at a man, just call him a bitch.
Q: Suppose a woman tunes in to her partner's intentions but he doesn't reciprocate by hearing her needs. How can she convey her frustration without becoming a nag or know-it-all?
She can get his attention through action. If a man leaves his pajamas on the floor, a woman might get so upset that she'll accuse him of disregarding her feelings. Then for two days, he'll pick up the PJs to avoid an emotional outburst. But if two men were living together, one would simply say to the other, "Do you think you could put away your smelly pajamas before my girlfriend gets here?" The other agrees—but still leaves his PJs out. So his roommate finally says with a grin, "The next time you leave your pajamas out, I'm gonna burn 'em in the backyard." He does. When the other guy looks for his PJs, he finds a smoldering pile of cloth. That's how men operate. They don't call each other irresponsible or accuse each o ther of not caring about feelings; they simply burn the damn pajamas. For a woman to get a man's attention without bruising his jujube doll, she has to show rather than tell.
Q: You've written that when a woman begins to care deeply for a man, he becomes her home-improvement project. Why?
A: A woman often marries a man for his potential. If women married men for who they actually were, there would be far fewer marriages. When a woman loves a man, she says to herself, 'I could improve him. Once we're together, things will be different.' Since I began my practice in 1977, I've heard this refrain hundreds of times. I try to get it across to the woman that what she sees is what she gets. This is him. If he's drinking every Friday and Saturday night, look forward to a lifetime of weekend alcoholism. He may cut out Friday, but he'll still be a drinker. Men tend to resist change. In fact, one of the most prized characteristics of a man's friendship with other men is total acceptance. When a woman begins to encourage a man to live up to his potential, he misunderstands that as her overall dissatisfaction with him. What he feels is tantamount to what women feel when men don't hear and respond to what they say they need.
Q: How might the relationship unravel when she expresses her disappointment?
A: The man may initially improve according to her recommendations—remember, he has a lot invested in what she thinks of him. But over time, he becomes slower to respond. The there's the day when she inadvertently steps on his jujube doll with a spiked heel, and it's so painful that he snatches his self-esteem back. That's the day she loses significant influence. He tries to make himself not care what she thinks, which is why she begins to feel he's emotionally distant. He stops connecting. He doesn't look her in the eyes unless he's angry. When the marriage is on the brink of breakup, the woman drags him into my office. That's when I hear what almost any therapist can tell you is the most repeated phrase among men: "No matter what I do, I can never please this woman." While she's been genuinely trying to improve him with the best of intentions, he's been feeling her efforts as a shot to his self-esteem. After all the work she has put into him—he finally eats with his mouth closed, he doesn't say ignorant things— he may run off with another woman. That's often because he's looking for someone who will think the world of him—someone who will see him as he thinks his wife once did. What he doesn't know is that he's bound to repeat the cycle because he hasn't done the work of understanding himself, the woman in his life, and the differences in how they communicate. He thinks his new woman is looking enraptured because he's the greatest, but what she's actually thinking is, "Wow—what potential."