What if you lived in a world where men were more romantic than women, where guys were just dying to talk about their feelings, where men were the ones who craved affection from their spouses and partners?
Actually, there’s good evidence that you do.
Oakland University sociology professor Terri Orbuch, who has been studying the same 373 married couples for more than 25 years, has looked at the impact of “affective affirmation” — the words or gestures you use to show your partner that he is special, noticed or cared for — on the long-term health of a marriage.
Her findings, she says, are surprising.
“When husbands reported that they did not get affective affirmation from their wives often, that couple was two times more likely to divorce over time,” Orbuch says. “And that was not true when wives didn’t get that affirmation. Wives need it, but it’s not as distressing to the couple if [the women] don’t get it.”
Plenty of examples
Intrigued by Orbuch’s research, we went looking for other examples of male relationship needs that run counter to common wisdom, and we didn’t have to look far.
Studies show that men fall in love faster and harbor more romantic notions of the “love conquers all” variety. Warren Farrell, author of the best-seller “Why Men Are the Way They Are” (Berkley), says man-cave hype obscures a basic truth he saw while conducting relationship workshops: Men want to talk to their spouses about what’s troubling them. Often, he says, it’s women who get uncomfortable when their husbands or boyfriends reveal their fears and vulnerabilities.
Psychologist David Schnarch, author of the best-seller “Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships” (W.W. Norton & Co.), says that there are a lot of men who want to talk more than women do — and they’re not hiding their needs. The problem, he says, is that stereotypes about women being “all heart and no crotch” — and men being just the opposite — are so strong that they often prevent us from seeing the men who are right in front of us.
Whether you agree with Schnarch that men and women are more alike than different in the relationship realm, or you’re interested, like Orbuch, in parsing the differences, there’s little question that a lot of information that runs counter to popular wisdom has gone unremarked and undiscussed.
For Orbuch, author of the new book “Finding Love Again: 6 Steps to a New and Happy Relationship” (Sourcebooks Casablanca), a key
moment came when men and women in her study were asked to map the five closest relationships in their lives onto a series of concentric circles. The inner circle represented the people closest to the person in question and the larger circles represented degrees of decreasing closeness.
Women, Orbuch says, tended to put all five of their nearest and dearest in the intimate center circle. Men put only their wives in the center circle and their other confidants in various “outer” circles.
That pattern makes men heavily emotionally dependent on their wives and may help explain why “affective affirmation” in marriage is so important to them, Orbuch says.
“Women need affirmative affirmation as much as men, but we’re lucky because we can get it from lots of other people,” she says. “We don’t crave it and need it only from our partners. Women in our studies reported they get it from their best friends, their mothers, their sisters, their children — even strangers and people they’ve just met.”
Men’s emotional reliance on their wives or partners may also help explain why men fall in love faster and tend to idealize their romantic relationships, Orbuch says.
“We know men are more likely to believe in love at first sight and that love conquers all,” she says. “Men are more likely to believe you need love in order to have commitment. I think it also has to do with needs getting met in that primary relationship. There’s an awful lot invested in that primary relationship for men.”
“Everyone has a deep need to be seen and heard,” Farrell says, and men generally want to confide their fears and emotions. But, at the same time, they don’t want to lose the respect of a spouse or partner or diminish her love or her sexual interest. A man may be afraid his female partner will feel vulnerable and unprotected if he admits weakness, and that’s a well-founded fear, Farrell says.
Many women want their partners to “open up,” he says — but only to tell them things that are flattering or romantic. “I feel adrift at work and my team doesn’t respect me” doesn’t tend to qualify, but it may be what’s really on his mind, even during a moonlit walk on a Saturday night.
“How can a woman actively draw out his feelings? By using her [verbal responses] and her body language to solicit his fears of failure and portions of his feelings that do not enhance her ego or immediate security,” Farrell says. The incentive for her? “Intimacy — and a man who will stay with her because his primary needs that he cannot meet by himself are being met by her.”
Need for realization
Orbuch says that it’s important for men as well as women to realize how much husbands rely on their wives for emotional support.
“I definitely don’t want to say it’s only the responsibility of women — that this is just another job that women need to do. I think it’s important for men to realize they have this hidden [intimacy] need and that they are not getting it from other people in their lives; they are expecting it from their female partners.
“And I think it’s important for men to expand and give it and try to get it from other people in their lives.”