What does it mean to be a good husband?
This was the question posed to a group of men at a recent men’s workshop. The focus of the workshop was men and intimacy. But a theme emerged about how men in committed relationships can be better husbands and partners.
“What does it even mean to be a good husband?” one man asked the group.
The answers to this and similar questions became the focus of the entire day. Clearly working on how to be a better husband was central for these men.
There are usually two categories of men who attend these workshops: The first group are men who have already done some amount of self-work. Something in their lives wasn’t working and their pain could no longer be ignored. The second group of men are generally content, but are faced with something that got them into “hot water” with their wives/partners. For these men, attending the workshop is a form of penance, a way of saying, “I hope this shows you just how sorry I am for what happened.”
At this particular workshop, both groups of men seemed equally invested in discovering ways to be more loving, caring, emotionally-present men and spouses.
The pain of failing as a husband/partner
When your wife is unhappy (frustrated, angry, etc.) with you for some reason, there are two ways to try and understand what just occurred between you and your partner:
The first involves taking ownership of the negative impact you’ve had on her. This means sitting with the discomfort that comes with disappointing or hurting someone you love deeply (this is easier said than done, but well worth the effort and the practice). We all hurt the one we love at some point. Even our best intentions cannot stop this from occurring.
It’s not easy staying with these feelings (the initial feelings that arise after your spouse/partner expresses her anger/hurt with you). But is important to learn how to resist the knee-jerk avoidance of unpleasant emotions in these cases. We need to hold a metaphoric space that allows for this. Setting an intention that helps to steady us as the unsettling feelings and sensations arise within us can help.
When we fail to hold this space, a secondary reaction is likely to occur. This secondary emotional reaction quickly obscures our initial reaction and has the potential to distort what is occurring between you and your wife/partner.
In these instances, the secondary emotional reaction can cause us to project blame onto our partner, thereby taking the heat off ourselves. In this version, we go from a husband who just upset/failed his wife to a husband who is now upset with his wife.
We’ve magically (and quickly) turned things around to where we are now the victims of an unreasonable, overly-sensitive, overbearing other.
The sequence (and fallout) of this internal emotional domino reaction
The benefits of taking ownership for your mistakes
Imagine for a moment that your wife is experiencing a difficult emotional time about something and she reaches out to you to talk about it. After a minute or two of listening, you mindlessly check your cell phone while she is sharing her feelings with you. Your ill-timed cell phone check lasted only a second, but it was enough for her to accuse you of being insensitive and pointing out that you’ve been less and less attentive to her lately.
You want to be there for her (it’s something you value highly in being a good husband) and her disappointment feels like a punch in the gut. You feel a heaviness wash over you and a lump in your throat form (emotions are often experienced physically). If you were able to hold a space for this initial reaction, you would remain open to feeling really terrible about upsetting her. You might think, “What a stupid move checking my phone! I feel really bad about this.”
Staying with this reaction allows you to take responsibility. And in doing so, it allows you to communicate to your wife that you take full ownership in messing up. Through taking responsibility, you increase the odds that you won’t be making the same mistake any time soon. A contrite, apologetic response is likely to follow: “I’m so sorry I just checked my phone. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but that’s no excuse. I sincerely want to hear about what’s going on for you…”
When you sidestep taking ownership for your mistakes
As already noted, taking ownership in this way (and remaining conscious of the fact that you just hurt your wife/partner) isn’t easy. In fact, the likelihood of having a secondary reaction is very powerful. In this example, a possible reaction on your part might be that you feel horrible for hurting your partner, followed by you getting angry with her for telling you that you hurt her (no one says emotions are always rational!).
So rather than thinking, “That was insensitive of me, I’m so sorry,” your reaction is distorted to, “I can’t believe you’re making a big deal of nothing—I’m listening!”
There is no ownership. There is just the projection of blame for what is going poorly.
Whenever we get frustrated with our wife/partner in this way, it’s important for us to self-reflect (even if this can only occur after the fact). Here are some questions you might consider:
- Is it possible that I’m blaming her because I feel really lousy about messing up again?
- Is it easier to be annoyed with her than feel like a failure as a husband?
Becoming a better husband: It’s a goal, not a destination
The men in the group were ready to face their foibles and strive to be better husbands. At times, we all found ourselves moving toward pointing the finger at our wives/partners in an effort to undo our own discomfort. But then someone had the insight to catch it and gently ask, “Are we here to wife-bash or to grow as husbands?”
That was all we needed to get back on track to answer the question, What does it mean to be a good husband?
Isn’t this a question we should all ask ourselves from time to time?
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)