Difficult Husbands seem to come in two brands: The Overly-Cautious Guy and the Know-It-All. These guys often look good on the surface, but they can spell trouble in a relationship. Here are some thoughts on what makes these guys tick, and how they inadvertently stand in the way of real intimacy.
Amy: In my many years of seeing couples in therapy, it’s become clear that people and their relationships only come in so many models. Certain themes and patterns dominate the landscape of couples, and these reappear over and over again in my office. Fortunately for me as the therapist, while people tend to be similar underneath, their many variations of personality, style and culture keep the work endlessly engrossing.
I’ve also noticed that two types of husband–or boyfriend–tend to show up in the troubled couples I see. I thought I’d share these particular brands with our readers. Perhaps you know these guys? Or maybe you are one of them?
The Overly-Cautious Husband: This is the husband, or boyfriend, who prefers to avoid conflict, who habitually goes AROUND his wife instead of toward her. He’s the husband who has become emotionally cautious in his relationship, and tends to bury his feelings, his needs, his wants, his desires. Often he is almost unaware of this tendency, or at least unaware of how problematic it is in his relationship. This is the prototypical “good” guy–only he’s not, in fact, so good.
In my experience, this is the classic type who comes to my office with his wife after having an affair. I have almost never, ever seen the “bastard”, unreasonable type of husband in the role of cheater. I’m sure it’s possible, and it happens; it’s just that I don’t often see it. It’s most often the “nice”, conflict-avoiding character.
How does Cautious Guy come to be? At the risk of being reductionistic, let me offer some impressions that I’ve observed over the years. Many of these guys come into the relationship with the idea that conflict, or fighting is emotionally dangerous. They may come from families where fighting was toxic: The family temperature was too hot, or too unpredictable. Almost always, this Worried Guy didn’t get a chance to exercise his voice in a healthy way: He didn’t have the experience of feeling “heard” and understood, or pressing for what he wanted, and succeeding. Sometimes it’s because there were too many problems in the family and he didn’t feel he could ask for anything. Often, I notice, he learned to stay out of the way, emotionally.
Sometimes I’ve observed the converse situation. I’ve seen Cautious Guys who come from families who “never, ever fought”. This is the case where tensions in their family home were driven underground. Since it’s impossible to have a totally argument-free, healthy family, the family where the Cautious Guy grew up may have unconsciously signaled that fighting, or disagreements are hazardous, and to be avoided. These patterns almost always can be understood by looking at this guy’s family background and emotional messages that get handed down, across generations, mostly outside awareness. Not infrequently, undigested trauma plays a part.
The Know-It-All: This is the other brand of problematic husband that I most often see. This guy presents a special challenge, since he often resists becoming a patient in the therapy. He’s the kind of guy who thinks that if only his wife would change, all his problems would be solved.
This Master of His Universe type is difficult for his wife to get close to. Often, the problem shows up in the marriage after the birth of the first child. The couple undergoes a shift; the wife, now a mother, grows into a new kind of power, as part of the complexity and responsibility that comes with being a mother. This may unbalance an early, unconscious contract in the marriage, where the husband was “in charge”.
In therapy, this Smart Guy has many complaints about his wife. Unlike Wimpy guy, he thinks he’s the Doctor in the relationship, and is very open about his dissatisfaction. He analyzes his wife and believes he knows how to fix her problems. If only she would just listen to him! The problem is that he resists learning about himself, both from his wife and–sometimes–from the therapist.
From my experience, this man typically grew up in a family where he had a lot of emotional responsibility. He was often in charge in some kind of way, often before he was ready. Sometimes he is an only child who becomes an early emotional caretaker. Perhaps he had an ill or absent parent, or maybe served in a parental role due to family circumstances like immigration or another kind of loss or trauma. At any rate, he usually received an early promotion in the family, and that became a self-template. Often these guys are quite successful in life. But they run into trouble when they are invited into peer relationships, like marriage.
I realize these models may seem like a gross generalization. And of course, every human being is full of nuance and subtleties. But these reflect the broad outlines of these “difficult” guy types that I have observed throughout many years in my office. Of course, these men are imbedded in the context of a relationship, which shapes how they are, and what they do. No person is isolated in their being; we all belong to, and are created, in part, by our intimate relational landscape.
The important thing to add is that these tendencies are open to modification: We all enter our marriages carrying inclinations and unconscious ways of operating from our family of origin. It’s then up to our intimate partnerships to help us expand, modify and more fully develop ourselves as human beings. How well that process works pretty much determines the health of our relationship. That’s the tricky part. And what keeps life interesting.
Coming Soon…How to Help These Guys