Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Man's Guide to Talking About His Feelings

The old stereotype that men really don't want to talk about their feelings exists for a reason.  It isn't that men don't have feelings, in fact I think in many cases men have far more powerful emotions than women do.  Powerful enough to lead a man into self defeating or even destructive behaviour under some circumstances.  The problem doesn't lie in feeling feelings, the challenge for many of us men is in translating feelings into words, and biology is not on our side.

The human mind is divided into two hemisphere's, left and right.  Each hemisphere has it's own area of specialty.  For example, the left side is used for logic, math, language, calculating.  If you are thinking in words, that is your left brain at work.  Conversely, the right brain is used for imagination, creativity, intuition, emotions and non-verbal communications.

So, emotions arise in the right brain, but to fashion them into words is the job of the left brain.  Now this is the same for both men and women, but the difference is that women are highly connected across the left and right brain compared to men.  They are able to transfer data between each side much faster and that enables them to talk about their feelings with much greater ease.  For men it is easier to keep all that on the right side, express our emotions in actions and other non-verbal communications.

There is also some cultural pressure on men to keep their feelings to themselves.  Many men subconsciously feel they are in constant state of competition.  We are uncomfortable exposing any weakness fearing others will use them against us, or feel it will make us less masculine.  We shun making ourselves vulnerable but that is exactly what is required of us in order to talk about our feelings.

None of means that that men can't talk about their feelings, but it does mean it is a skill that needs to be deliberately acquired. Here are suggestions that may help.

Take Time
Imagine you are driving along, and some really great song you never heard before comes on the radio.  After the song was over, would you be able to write out the sheet music for it?  Probably not.  If you wanted to do that you would have to go over it multiple times, in small parts, listening again and again to the same stanzas before moving on to the next.  In the end you likely would have a close but imperfect version of the song.

This is a lot like the process of turning feelings into words.  It takes time, we need to go over in our heads multiple times what we feel (several emotions can arise all together) what caused those feelings, and perhaps hardest of all: why those particular emotions were provoked by whatever stimulated them.  Introspection is a skill gained by doing it, and it is a skill that is needed to overcome the natural man.  While we may not perfectly convey our feelings in words, we can get close.

Negative emotions often push us to act rashly, and many an unkind word or deed has resulted from that (followed by hurt and regret).  It is better to remain quiet and work out how to talk about whatever happened than to lash out.  If we feel it may take us a while to master our emotions and distill them into words, we may want to tell our spouse that this is something we'll need to have a conversation about later.  It is also a bad thing for a relationship to never talk about it, bury the feelings and allow resentment and hurt and anger to fester in the dark.

Positive emotions are easier to deal with since your spouse likely will react very favorably.  There is still a lot of value in taking time to look inward and examine the source of those feelings and find a way to express them verbally.

Use The Written Word
There are some real advantages to using the written word to express feelings.  First, it forces you to take your time and gives you the chance to go over what you say and get it as right as you can before your wife reads any of it.  Second, if you are expressing something that will bring positive emotions in your spouse, they have it to keep and read again.  Third, you are not going to be thrown off topic by some question or comment.

Break it up
You don't have to cover everything in one conversion.  Often it is easier to break it up into smaller topics and discuss each one of them individually, in separate conversations.  If a conversation is increasing anger and hurt rather than healing it, take a break and continue it the next day.

Choose The Time and Place Carefully
The nature and topic of the conversation should define the setting the conversation takes place in.  Compliments and expressions of love are acceptable in many circumstances, but resolving conflicts and discussing less than positive emotions often require a high degree of privacy.  Physical intimacy such as being held can help promote a feeling of safety and acceptance that makes it easier to open up emotionally.

Embrace Vulnerability
This is you wife you are talking with.  If you don't feel safe dropping all the walls of emotional self defense with her, then something needs to change.  If there are things happening in the marriage that create a reluctance to make yourself emotionally vulnerable, perhaps those are the first things you need to discuss.  If that is not the case then you are going to have do the brave thing and take a risk, let your soft spots show and trust that she won't knowingly go after them.  This is not going to make you any less of a man in her eyes.  It will increase your emotional intimacy, and that will likely lead to greater spiritual and physical intimacy in the relationship as well.

Ladies, be sure to cut your man some slack.  Don't expect him to instantly be like you in this area.  Give him the time he needs and be encouraging and grateful for his effort.  Don't overlook the non-verbal expressions of his feelings either.

Men, if you can master the ability to look inside at your emotions and find the words to discuss your feelings with your spouse, it will greatly bless your marriage.  On top of that you will be able to do the same in your relationship with God.  You will be able to pray like you never have before.  God gave us weaknesses so that we can overcome them and become strong in those very areas.  It is never too late to rise to the challenge.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Out of the best marriage books...

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A successful marriage includes a successful sexual relationship (however the couple together would define success), but it is not realistic to expect an easy path to a mutually satisfying sexual relationship in an environment of sexual ignorance.  The mechanics of reproduction are typically not a mystery, adults know what goes where, but the art of being a skilled lover and how to manage the very emotional nature of a sexual relationship are topics many Mormons feel uncomfortable making a focus of study.

When I got engaged I was keenly aware of my ignorance in these areas and it gave me more than a little apprehension about my ability to give my bride a wedding night that would live up to her expectations.  My ignorance was a shame to me, and the prospect of somebody seeing me buy a 'sex book' or asking anybody for guidance was terrifying. 

At some point my fears overpowered my shame and I went to some out of the way bookstore I never went to before (or since) and purchased a well known book on sexuality.  While there was some useful information in it, the entire topic was treated without reverence, and the images in the book were clearly intended to be more erotic than educational (which I suppose was why it was shrink wrapped in the store).  All in all I wouldn't call it the best experience, but it got me started.

A little while later I was in an LDS Bookstore and unexpectedly came across a paperback with a blue cover that was written to help prepare ignorant virgin Mormons like myself for the sexual side of marriage.  I don't' recall the title of the book but it was small and thin enough to fit in a suit coat pocket.  I sheepishly purchased it.  The content was far more helpful and reverent towards sexuality and it left me feeling much better prepared.

While our wedding night was a success, the early years of our marriage was a time where everything was wonderful, except in the bedroom.  My wife had little desire for intimacy and it bothered me greatly.  At times I blamed myself, wondering if things would improve if I could better please her, sometimes I wondered if the problem was she no longer loved me like before.  My job downtown was in an office building that was beside a very large bookstore, and sometimes on my lunch break I would go there and try to find a book that would help fix this one sore spot in our marriage.  I still struggled with the fear of others seeing me do this since the book shelves were not high enough to hide me, but I desperately wanted our marriage to improve in this area.

Over time I've found a number of books that were helpful, and my wife likewise made an effort to learn, and found resources that were helpful to her.  I'm no longer ashamed to head into Chapter's and check out or purchase a book on marriage or sexuality.  It is Satan that wants us to feel shame over it and overcoming that is a big step forward.

As I found early on however, there are books on sexuality that treat the topic with due reverence and, and others that do not.  Below are some books that I would encourage you to consider reading:

And They Were Not Ashamed - Laura M. Brotherson
If you only read one book on marriage and intimacy, it should be this one.  Physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy are covered in detail, accurately portraying both male and female perspectives.  Each chapter has exercises that are relevant and helpful.  The teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles are prominently featured in the text and the content is harmonious with the moral standards taught by the church. 

For my wife, it was very helpful to hear some of the things said in this book from a woman and presented in a gospel context.  It they had come from a man she may have dismissed them as self serving, and if they came from a non-Mormon she would be tempted to write it off as the way of the world.  It also covers how to raise children so they are better prepared for marriage.  Likewise it was a great help to me in understanding my wife's feelings on several fronts.

His Needs, Her Needs - Willard F. Jr. Harley
This book details the top five relationship needs for men, and the top five relationship needs for women and teaches spouses how strengthen a marriage by satisfying those needs for their partner.  While it does generalize about men's and women's needs, it is an excellent starting place for a couple to discuss and learn more about each other.

The 5 Love Languages - Gary Chapman
Just because you feel love for your spouse doesn't mean your spouse feels loved.  All of us have a set of internal 'rules' that govern what looks like an expression of love to us and what doesn't.  This book lays our those rules in terms of 'languages' or ways we express love.  For a spouse to feel loved, their partner must express their love in the language their spouse understands.  While it also is a generalization, it is a useful framework for a couple to use in teaching each other how to show their love for each other.

Personality Plus - Florence Littauer
While this book is not specifically about the marriage relationship, it is certainly helpful in building a stronger marriage.  In this book the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of 4 basic personality types are discussed, along with how the different types relate with each other.  Having a better understanding of your spouse's innate personality traits helps reduce personality conflicts, and the same skills are useful in dealing with children, co-workers, people at church etc.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands - Laura Schlessinger
One of the joys of marriage is to have somebody who is so different from you in so many ways love you in spite of those difference, but sometimes those same things make it hard to understand each other and lead to frustration.  Society also projects an image of marriage that often leads women to treat their husbands in ways that are counterproductive.  Dr. Laura takes on the task of helping wives to understand their husbands and work with them in her typical, no-holds-barred style.

There are of course other books that are worthwhile, but these 4 should be at the top of the list for most couples.  It works best if both spouses read them, and that can even be a date night thing, but even if they are read by only one spouse they will be beneficial.

We hold that the glory of God is intelligence, and the church stresses life long learning.  Certainly God is perfectly knowledgeable in this area.  It may mean stepping out of your comfort zone as it did for me, but the blessings of learning the skills of marriage may be result in the greatest blessings of your life.