Returning to reading David Wexler recently, I am reminded of one of the biggest takeaways from a previous reading of his book, Men in Therapy (I’m currently reading the layman companion book, When Good Men Behave Badly). In both books, Wexler discusses the relationship pattern in which people in general, and men in particular, set up relationships as mechanisms for reflecting back at them the values they most want to see and be seen in themselves. These mirroring requirements create a subtle and problematic kind of dependency, often reducing the autonomous, individuated human being who is the partner to little more than a reflective surface. The problems surface when the Partner has the audacity to develop their own wants and needs, to offer comments or criticisms about their mates that suggest dissatisfaction, or to become busy, distracted, unavailable or unreliable as sources of emotional validation and support.
When the dependent partner starts to perceive that the reflective surface is out of alignment or broken, it impacts their security in both their self-imaging and in their relationships. And what do we do when something is out of alignment? We attempt to push it back INTO alignment. Wexler writes in detail on how men especially give the power of validating them into the hands of women partners, often without either of them realizing what is happening and without the woman’s consent to shoulder this responsibility. We all look to our partners for emotional support and validation, yes; this is human relational nature. But we don’t all act out our insecurity when the support or validation is disrupted.
Because our cultural has stunted men’s emotional development in many ways, men are often left with very few ways of expressing hurt, fear, or shame. They do well enough to a point with frustration and disappointment, but in intimate partnerships where they feel especially vulnerable, fear or shame often paired with disrupted validation processes means they misdirect those base-level feelings into more commonly-acceptable and familiar anger, and lash out. Sometimes anger becomes cold silence, but in all cases where this distorted mirror process is occurring, it’s all intended to punish the mirror for misalignment. Lacking direct engagement with each other, couples get into cycles where the disappointment of not getting core needs met turns to emotional reactivity (acting out) that can drive partners to increase distance, which in turn only increases the sense of distortion. It’s another form of what Harriet Lerner calls the distancer-pursuer dynamic, when one partner misbehaves (lashing out, withdrawing, or both) and the other partner’s task in relationship is to somehow “bring them back” to centre; in short, “You change, so *I* feel better!”
There are a lot of reasons why these kinds of imbalanced attachments form; why men in particular crave a kind of emotional vulnerability they don’t feel safe pursuing outside these rare intimate contexts, and why women raised contextually to be placators and nurturers for their own safety allow themselves to be saddled with the unspoken expectations for holding up men’s self-images. Mismatches in Love Languages, for example, can be an enormous source if this kind of distortion. Unravelling all of this in counselling requires looking at where these unarticulated expectations have become burdensome, both in the sense of men being unable (or untrained) to hold their own sense of self-worth without relying exclusively on external reflective sources, and in the sense of women adopting and accepting this degree of emotional labour as the “cost of being in relationship”, as a female friend recently put it. People can be taught how to build their own internal reflections; questions I frequently use with my clients (of all gender identities and relational roles) include these:
- What story are you telling yourself about what happened?
- At the end of the day, what kind of person will you wish you had been in this situation?
- In situations like [X], what would the person you wish you could be have done?
- What do you see in yourself that looks like that kind of person?
- What can you do to be a little more like that kind of person?
- Where you choose to [negative, acting-out behaviour], what do you wish you had done instead?
- What do you think you might need to make that choice differently in future?
These aren’t cure-alls by along shot, but this kind of questioning is intended to do two things: (1) get the client to practice looking inward to their own perceptions and values, and (2) trust that they can perceive and integrate those values in ways that teach them to trust their own validation senses rather than relying on, or pushing aggressively for, externally-reflected validation. Wexler provides MANY exercises in his books for how to explore those internal distortions, and conversations that shape more effective interactions between partners trying to work past the “bad behaviours” resulting from deep insecurities.