There are moments you may be in the middle of a talk with a friend and suddenly "POW" -- you're on a topic that simply must be explored. That's exactly what happened recently with a friend who is also an author and therapist. Pamela Milam was on to something that could spark water cooler discussion for sure, so we decided to bring that talk to Huffington Post to see what others may say. Since April is Counseling Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to talk about a few things counselors might be noticing in their sessions.
Gregory G. Allen: I'm glad we have this opportunity to sit down together and discuss your thoughts about couples and counseling. What prompted you to begin thinking about the topic?
Pamela Milam: Thank you! I'm thrilled to talk with you. I've known you for over 30 years, read every book you've ever written, and always enjoy our discussions. Your novelette Proud Pants was particularly helpful. I've recommended it to my clients who have family members struggling with addiction.
About 5 years ago, I noticed some growing trends in my couples counseling sessions:
1. An uptick in the frequency of women who say, "boys will be boys," or "you can't expect a man to understand X or Y," or "that's just how they are." Women want better marriages, but they don't dare to hope for them.
2. An increase in the number of men seeming detached, as if they've given up on their responsibilities within the marriage. They feel beat-down, frustrated, wanting to improve their relationships but not knowing how.
This got me thinking: Has the pendulum swung too far? Are we as women empowering ourselves by disempowering the men in our lives? Are men taking the path of least resistance and throwing in the towel? Are women simultaneously letting men off the off the hook by talking about them as if they aren't capable of much? It's puzzling. I want women to speak up for themselves, to engage their partners in constructive conversations about improving their relationships. I want men to strive for harmony. The thing is: I applaud "girl power," but do not want to allow it to spill over into "man hating." I applaud men who want to "keep the peace" but not when the cost is near-complete disconnection.
Allen: Are you coming at this solely from the perspective of being a therapist or do you notice this phenomenon in your personal life?
Milam: I'm coming at this topic from the perspective of a therapist, a female, a lesbian and a human being. I've noticed that some women both inside my office and outside my office appear to have a knee-jerk "men are no good" attitude. I've seen even more women who explain away their frustrations with the men in their lives by describing them as children, "big babies," as if these grown men are not also adults who deserve to be treated with respect and expected to be mature.
Equally, men seem to be managing their frustration by disconnecting, simply checking out. Many men claim to want peace and harmony (this is often the excuse they provide for stonewalling), but when we explore further we discover that they don't want to exert the emotional energy it takes to listen to their spouses, examine their own feelings or risk failing or looking foolish.
It's not always the case.....but sometimes, I notice that the man makes sincere attempts at change only to be met with derision and disdain. Here's a minor example: the man makes a real effort to put the dishes in the dishwasher or not throw his dirty clothes on the floor, only to be met by new and different complaints with no real acknowledgment of the prior effort. The men come away saying "This is so confusing. What does she want from me?" They say to themselves, "She's impossible," and they give up.
The funny (not ha-ha funny, but curious funny) thing about it is that I'm a lesbian and the stereotype of lesbians is that we are man-haters, rejecters of men. I accept and embrace men wholly into my counseling practice and into my personal life. They make up 50 percent of the population and I would be missing out on half the world (a wonderful half) if I banished men from my inner circle.
The fact is -- it's possible that my gayness helps me to observe straight relationships from a different perspective. I watch closely, as a bit of an outsider, gather data, and make strategic interventions. The trend I've noticed lately has made me want to be more mindful about how I talk about my own female spouse as well as the men in my life.
The fact is, I want us all to be kinder to each other. My hope, especially during Counseling Awareness Month, is that the counseling process can make us more aware of the unconscious or subconscious ways we label, pigeon-hole or unfairly sum up our spouses in our own minds or when we talk to or about them.
Allen: I sometimes notice both men and women coming down hard on their spouses and picking on them when in social settings. Is this something you notice too?
Milam: Yes, this problem is shared by both genders. Women often develop a habit of publicly shaming men for any number of behaviors, and men frequently belittle and disparage women in social settings. Many times when a woman publicly shames a man it is characterized as harping or nagging, and when a man does the same to a woman it is called mean or obnoxious. In both cases, it easily can become verbal abuse, and we need to pay attention and be accountable in our own lives for engaging in discussions in a more enlightened way.....or at least more politely.
Apart from their spouses, men engage in locker room talk, mocking their wives, while women drink coffee with friends and endlessly analyze their partners' flaws. Men and women are equally guilty of falling into the routine of putting down and demeaning their partners -- and -- equally responsible for elevating the conversation.
Allen: To reference pop culture, the Millionaire Matchmaker would say that "no one wants to f#%^ their mother" -- and does it seem like women move into mommy role with the men in their lives or that men retreat into a childlike role?
Milam: Yes, this does happen to a degree. Part of it is the cultural shift that we talked about earlier -- the idea of empowering women by disempowering men. Many women don't trust their husbands to take care of the children and they often don't even believe that the men can take care of themselves.
There is an attitude that sounds something like this:
"I would never let my husband Bob take Junior for the whole day. Who knows what would happen to Junior?! I take care of all of the childcare in our home and all of the domestic chores because Bob doesn't have a clue about how to do any of it." (Read this to mean: I'm awesome and Bob is not.)
"My boyfriend Mark is such a baby. I hate to leave him alone on the weekends. I'm skipping that road trip with my cousins because I know he won't be able to get his laundry done or eat a balanced meal while I'm gone. What would he do without me?!" (Read this to mean Mark can't take care of himself and I am vital to his survival.)
I'm not sure this attitude is helpful, if what we're striving for is equality. Men are capable and so are we. Placing either spouse in a one-down position doesn't help balance the power in a relationship.
Men have their own work to do in this area. You can't "play dumb" about how to run the vacuum just because you want to rush out the door to your all-day golf game. The more you pretend you're not capable, the harder it is for your wife to trust you with little things -- and then you might find that you aren't included or consulted when it comes time to make big decisions. After years of teaching your wife to believe that you're a sweet and harmless, but bungling and helpless guy, you might discover that you've created a large marital gap that's hard to bridge.
Don't get me wrong, I want both men and women to speak up and ask each other for help, to voice their concerns and offer feedback. And I'm not shushing anyone from expressing a legitimate complaint or a valid problem. I'm pointing out that we need to be careful that our complaints don't serve to perpetuate a problem rather than solve it. How we communicate our complaints is important. We can hold others accountable, and at the same time examine our own behavior and hold ourselves accountable.
Allen: Since you brought up 'girl power' earlier and to give equal time -- what are your thoughts on women's lib and the amazing women who have led that charge?
Milam: I remember that quote from Gloria Steinem, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." I like how she summed it up. A woman is whole and complete without a man. She is not in "need" of him. However, when we form relationships and marriages, we set the tone for how we will treat each other long-term and how we will allow ourselves to be treated. It is empowering to behave in a civilized way. Neither the man nor the woman should be allowed to get away with boorish or cruel behavior, nor should they become accustomed to absorbing a series of subtle slights. That really does go for both sides. Women's lib intends to liberate women, to empower us all as human beings.
The strong women I respect the most are the unsung heroes:
-The grocery clerk who shows up for every shift on time, is friendly with her co-workers, helps her children with their homework and works with her husband at night to manage the budget, plan for the future and resolve problems together, as a team.
-The stay at home mom who juggles it all -- the varied needs and personalities of her children and spouse, the myriad of mundane chores, the numerous intangibles, as well as all of the surprises and delights of motherhood.
-The childless (by choice or otherwise) women who respect themselves and others -- they are reliable, strong, forthright and as warmhearted and nurturing as any mother you could meet.
-The single mothers who show strength, fortitude and resilience in the face of obstacles and challenges.
I also admire feminist pioneers like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Marilyn French, Betty Friedan, Margaret Sanger, Virginia Woolf and so many others who made sure that women had a vote and a voice. I want to be sure we are using our voices in the most positive, constructive way possible.
Allen: I wanted to discuss this with you because you seem passionate about it. My question to you is what kind of advice would you give couples going through this?
Milam: My general feeling is this: Let's not spend so much time creating divisions, polarizing into male vs. female and then taking a tally of who is winning or who has the upper hand.
That being said, I would give these pieces of advice:
1. If you're in a good or decent relationship, behave respectfully and be emotionally generous with each other. Stay away from a win-lose mentality.
2. If you're in an abusive relationship, get help or get out -- you might need to do both. (I want to be very clear here: When a woman voices complaints about an abusive relationship, that's healthy.)
3. Let's treat men and women like adults -- Most of us really can feed ourselves, do laundry, take care of the kids and behave well. Women can be magnificent, efficient, nurturing, practical and smart. Men can be loyal, noble, competent, warm, intelligent, even heroic and it's important to remember that.
The real goal is to eliminate the "me vs. you" approach to relationships.
My mom actually gives the best advice. She always says, "Never try to make yourself more by making someone else less."
Pamela offers all kinds of amazing advice and some of that can be found in her books. Check out her Counselor's Corner at ASD Publishing.