Men — even very smart men — can find themselves in all sorts of pitfalls, pratfalls and bizarre situations on the journey to finding true romance. Do any of these distinctly XY uh-ohs ring true with you?
Choosing a mate for her looks
Sure, looks matter. But be careful what you wish for: “What I find is often true with a guy who is dating a beautiful woman is that he starts out by feeling great that he’s with this hot person,” says Ron May, a psychologist in private practice in Madison, WI, who is on the editorial board for The Psychology of Men and Masculinity
. “But then, he starts to fear that other men might want her. He becomes jealous, and that can undermine the relationship.”
Assuming you’re always the “reasonable” one
Men often take undeserved pride in being more rational, but the reality is that “everyone has a reasonable side and a side that can get unreasonable at times,” says Daniel L. Buccino, a clinical social worker and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. “In the early stages of a relationship, when there are a lot of hormones and lust, people sometimes overlook the underlying issues. If a woman behaves poorly, her partner could try to convince himself that this is OK, that it will pass and that she’s acting this way because all women are more emotional than men. The reality could simply be that she’s not a good match for him.”
Buccino adds: “I often see the scenario of the so-called ‘nice guy’ dealing with the so-called ‘mean’ girlfriend, when it turns out they’re both being difficult. Despite his mellow exterior, a man can be very controlling about many issues. He really needs to have things his way. He tries to do this in what seems to be a very nice and reasonable way, but when she gets emotional in response to his inflexibility, he can step back and say, ‘Of course I am the reasonable one.’ Then he feels more righteous.”
Trying to “fix” everything
When presented with a relationship challenge, men often revert to Mr. Fix-It mode. “It’s a product of growing up in a male culture that emphasizes being in control. A lot of our work is oriented toward figuring things out and rationalizing things,” May says. Such skills are less valuable when it comes to relationships, where facial expressions and unspoken messages are key to good communication. “A woman might say, ‘When you’re off traveling on a business trip, I begin to feel lonely and scared,’” May says. “The classic “overly rational” male response — ‘That doesn’t make sense, you are a successful woman with lots of friends’ — invalidates her true feeling, which is that she wants to feel close to and desired by her husband.”
Suppressing negative emotions
Surprisingly, many men find the quintessential male emotion as scary as a dark room is to a small child. “Men are often afraid that if they allow themselves to feel angry, they will be violent. As a therapist, I try to get them to talk about whether they have lost control of their anger. I ask, “Have you ever hit someone or destroyed property?” says Bob Maslow, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, VA, and the author of Men, Women and the Power of Empathy
. “When they realize they haven’t, that gives them the support they need to trust that they will be able to express their anger in a nondestructive way.” Says Maslow: “If you always bury your anger, you become distant and withdrawn. To a mature woman, that’s more threatening than an expression of anger.” Gloria Tate, a Dallas-based family counselor, observes that a man who’s learned to conceal his anger can punish his partner in many ways: “The public thinks that only women withhold affection, but it’s a controlling behavior on the part of men, too. Some men do it for years. Men also cheat when they’re angry.”
Picking partners that need to be rescued
Both genders can suffer from “White Knight Syndrome” — the desire to rescue a romantic partner from his or her personal problems. But because a white-knight man is also fulfilling the traditional role of caring for a woman, he might end up hiding his true motives from both his partner and himself according to LeslieBeth Wish, a social worker in Sarasota, FL, who writes the “Relationship Realities” column at qualityhealth.com. “If you feel damaged or empty psychologically; if you were the black sheep of your family, for example, you might choose someone who is more needy and therefore more vulnerable than you are,” Wish says, adding: “A man should ask himself, ‘Do I tend to be in cyclical patterns with women who look up to me? Would I be comfortable with a woman who makes as much as or more money than me, has lots of interests and capabilities, and doesn’t have any serious limitations?’”
Despite the swaggering image, the “player” or “lady killer” (to use that quaint term from our grandparents’ time) may not be as self-confident as he appears. “Cheating is a way of putting up a shield against intimacy and protecting yourself so you don’t get hurt,” says Karen Shanor, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and author of seven books on relationships. “A lot of times, very early on in a relationship we will get a lot of signals that a person is not trustworthy,” Shanor says. Emotionally aware people respond to these warning signals by getting out as fast as they can. But some men engage in what Shanor calls “defensive cheating,” thinking: “I better cheat on her first so she doesn’t hurt me.”
If any of the above behaviors sound a little too familiar, what can you do?
Self-awareness is critical to relationship success
Maslow says: “Typically, men won’t share vulnerable feelings with other men. But a man can get a lot of terrific support from a close female friend or possibly a sister.” Wish advises: “Get outside your comfort zone and date different kinds of women.” Buccino tries to get his patients — both male and female — to seek a partner who provides what he calls the “Confucian virtues” of being “responsible, reliable and trustworthy.” After all, explains Buccino, “The best way to elicit good behavior from others is to behave that way ourselves.”
Kent Miller is currently writing a comic young adult novel. His articles have appeared in
Nintendo Power magazine,
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The San Francisco Chronicle and
The St. Petersburg Times (Florida).