Women expect more from their husbands than ever before. The days of us husbands putting our feet up or refusing to share our feelings are long gone. Though we acknowledge this shift, we struggle to adapt to these new expectations since we lack role models for doing so. When I talk to other young married men about our dilemma, they always agree (tongue in cheek) that something went terribly wrong between our fathers’ generation and us – and we must discover a solution quickly if we want happy marriages.
The solution is emotional intelligence. In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, marriage expert John Gottman claims that the “emotionally intelligent husband is the next step in social evolution.” He’s not necessarily sensitive and in touch with his feelings, but he knows “how to convey honor and respect” toward his spouse. This doesn’t mean previous generations of husbands didn’t convey honor and respect to their wives, but they did it far differently because their wives’ expectations – and therefore their roles – were much different. My father was a provider, my mother a nurturer. When he returned from work, he wasn’t expected to help with cleaning, laundry, or cooking. He wasn’t “disrespectful” if he didn’t do the dishes without being asked. In fact, I don’t think asking even occurred to my mother.
During my first month of marriage, several years ago, I came home from work and sat down on the couch with the TV remote in hand, thinking my day was done. I was happy to perform some handyman task if asked, but I certainly didn’t jump up to fold laundry when my wife put the basket in front of me. If she wanted me to go grocery shopping with her, I went with little patience and some confusion: “I know I should go because she asked, but she can’t expect me to tolerate this longer than half an hour, right?” Worst of all, I was mostly uninterested in conversation. Though we talked all the time while dating, I assumed a detached role once married. I preferred to zone out after a long workday and felt little need to interact since we shared the same roof during all of our free time. The reality check came when my wife told me in the midst of a heart-to-heart, “We’re not friends anymore.” I realized my role would have to change if I wanted to provide my bride with the happy, fulfilled relationship we had always wanted.
I realized I had to renew our friendship. After years of research on highly-satisfied married couples, Gottman concluded that “happy marriages are based on deep friendship,” defined as “a mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company.” Emotionally intelligent husbands not only help with household chores but also cultivate a deep and mutually-satisfying friendship with their wives. They naturally implement Gottman’s first three principles for making marriage work. “Unlike husbands before him,” the emotionally intelligent husband “makes a detailed map of his wife’s world,” nurtures his “admiration and fondness” for her, and communicates his love by “turning toward her in his daily actions.”
Although I knew her well, I “mapped her world” by becoming even more intimately acquainted with her likes, dislikes, preferences, passions, and daily frustrations, irritations, and joys. I took time to appreciate all the things she did (and still does) as well as the qualities that made me fall in love with her in the first place. And most importantly, I conveyed my admiration and fondness to her both directly and indirectly. I made a point of expressing love and appreciation, but I also “turned toward her” by showing interest in her interests. We already shared many interests and values, of course, but hers were expanding and evolving as we entered a new stage in our lives. She wanted me to share her enthusiasm for cooking nice meals, grocery shopping, and decorating. It’s hard for a man to be excited about such things, but attentively listening to his wife’s gushing description of a new recipe can add new information to his “map of his wife’s world” (oh, I didn’t know she loved ricotta so much), nurture his admiration for her (she’s such a good cook, she takes great care of me), and communicate his love more powerfully than any bouquet of roses. Flowers are cliché; listening attentively and responding enthusiastically to her interests is a much more sincere and meaningful expression of romance.
I cannot overstate the impact of greater emotional intelligence on marital happiness and fulfillment. It develops deep friendship, which in turn leads to “positive sentiment override.” Each spouse’s positive thoughts about the other supersede any negative feelings, and it takes a much more significant conflict to disrupt their happiness. As Gottman says, “Their positivity causes them to feel optimistic about each other and their marriage, to assume positive things about their lives together, and to give each other the benefit of the doubt.” When my wife and I focus on cultivating our friendship through emotional intelligence, we have much more tolerance and patience for each other’s imperfections and mistakes. In the past, my forgetfulness sometimes communicated a lack of respect and love (“If he loved and cared for me, he wouldn’t forget things that are important to me”). But when my wife knows I love, care for, and respect her – because I know she loves ricotta, because I thank her for cooking, because I respond with genuine interest when she talks about how she made dinner – then she just laughs off my forgetfulness. We are freed from unnecessary conflict and can focus instead on valuing each other for our positive qualities.
We still have arguments, of course, and sometimes I’m still as emotionally dumb as a rock. But when I’m emotionally smart, I strive for a mutually-agreeable compromise rather than winning the argument. Gottman believes this may be the “fundamental difference” between emotionally intelligent and unintelligent husbands. Whereas past husbands were the authoritative “heads” of the household, the “new” husband has learned the necessity and advantages of compromise. He follows the fourth of Gottman’s seven principles and lets his partner influence him. He isn’t a doormat, but he searches for common ground rather than insisting on having his way. He respects his partner’s perspective and values, acknowledges her feelings, and shares decision-making power with her. No relationship can thrive if one partner always dominates. The other will inevitably resent, resist, or withdraw from the dominant partner’s control. One can easily win an argument about a specific issue but lose in the context of the relationship. The emotionally intelligent husband understands this and reboots his role accordingly.
Most importantly, practicing the principles involved in emotional intelligence are the foundation for living out Gottman’s remaining principles: “solve your solvable problems,” “overcome gridlock,” and “create shared meaning.” Solving the solvable requires distinguishing between solvable and unsolvable problems and practicing emotional intelligence to establish a strong base on which to practice more traditional conflict resolution techniques. Couples cannot resolve disputes unless they have positivity between them. If each believes the other is good-willed, then the focus can rest on the problem, accepting influence, and seeking compromise. If each believes the other is ill-willed or unloving, then the focus will likely remain on blaming, judging, and resenting each other. Some problems, Gottman argues, are simply unsolvable because their cause lies in fundamental differences. Couples often “gridlock” over these problems when they argue repeatedly with no progress, not even mutual understanding. However, a couple in “positive sentiment override” can minimize the intensity and frequency of the conflict and maintain a happy, satisfying friendship, thus overcoming gridlock. And to experience the maximum fulfillment marriage can offer, couples can use their emotional intelligence and positive sentiment to create a shared culture in which both individuals’ dreams, goals, and roles are strongly valued and supported.
Of course, both men and women should practice emotional intelligence, but men usually need to make a special effort. Women and men are socialized into relationship- and task-oriented perspectives, respectively. Playing cooperative games on the playground might help boys grow into good team players, but it doesn’t develop their emotional intelligence since the relationships in the games are secondary objectives. In “house,” “dress up,” “school,” and other girl-oriented games, the relationships are the game. So, in practicing emotional intelligence, men play catch-up. But the men who play it well are the future. As John Gottman says, “The more emotionally intelligent a couple – the better able they are to understand, honor, and respect each other and their marriage – the more likely that they will live happily ever after.”
Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month. This is his first published essay on gender roles.
Photo credit the|G|/Flickr