Women in Relationship, Part I

This posting looks at the question of women taking responsibility for their part in the difficult dance of relationships. The format is a back and forth between a male and female couples counselor.

I want to start this post today by introducing a long time colleague, Deborah Leeds, MFT.  Her contact information and website links are at the bottom but for now, I want to say a few words about her, our relationship, and why I've asked her to join me in this post.

Deborah and I have known each other for over 25 years, going to graduate school together, working together at Children's Protective Services in Oakland, and now working together in a group private practice in Pleasant Hill.  We have shared many cases over the years, and I have always enjoyed collaborating with her because we are able to differ without our egos getting involved.  We are both passionate about working with couples using the Imago methodology (you can check some of my earlier posts for an overview of what this is).

I was nervous about writing about women in relationship for a number of reasons:  1) as a man, I can never be certain if my observations on women are skewed because I simply don't get them as I do a man; 2) I can never know if women respond differently to me than men do because I'm not a woman, whereas a woman therapist saying the same thing would get a different (and more favorable) response, and 3) I worry that even if what I say is accurate, female readers will not be able to hear it because it's coming from a man.

So what better way to cope with these concerns than to ask a respected female colleague to help?  The way I envision this unfolding is that it will be in the format of  Deborah and I writing each other e-mails on the topic in question.  You will get to listen in to our correspondence, and we will get to listen in to your thoughts in the comments section below.  Let's get started:

Dear Deborah:

Thank you for agreeing to dialog with me on this topic.  In some way the format fits the content, in that discussing women in relationship seems to require a more team approach.  I had no problem writing about men from an individualistic, this-is-what-I-think standpoint, but I was very uncomfortable trying to do that with women. 

The topic I want to raise today has to do with what I see as a woman's struggle to take responsibility for her part in what goes awry in the relationship.  I think that women, by and large correctly, think they are the work horses of the relationship.  But it seems to blind them to their role in the difficult dance.  That's not the real problem for me however.  The real problem for me is that I often find it difficult to get a woman to take responsibility for something without prefacing it with a "Yes but."  Usually the "Yes but" is connected to something the man is or isn't doing.

I tell myself "Well, this is because women are so relational they have a hard time seeing their actions as existing in a vacuum."  But it is sometimes frustrating for their spouses when a woman is unable to simply say, without artifice or excuse, "I messed up.  I'm sorry."  With a man I simply tell them:  "Dude, you screwed up.  Apologize."  And they do.  That just doesn't work with a woman, at least not in my experience.  What do you think?

Hello Josh!

Thank you for welcoming me into this dialog about relationship; my favorite topic!
What struck me today as I read you, was the sentence "…women are so relational that they have a hard time seeing their actions as existing in a vacuum." I laughed, reflecting on the countless times each day I say to people: "Nothing happens in a vacuum!"

And this I truly believe: Nothing happens outside relationship. And that itself may be at the crux of what you are describing.

In my mind's eye I can see on my office bookshelf a book written by Judith Jordan, I believe in the 1980's, called "Women's Growth In Connection." It was a very important book, as it was one of the "pioneering" studies on the very real differences between men and women's psychology. In it, the author describes the huge influence of relational factors in girls' thinking from a very young age. So, perhaps what you are seeing is literally true: women may not separate out their part because, in a woman's psyche, that separation is not as evident as it may be in man's psyche. Perhaps, more predominantly in women, it is within a deeply internal "relational environment" that things occur, are considered, understood, and responded to.

In my work with couples, and in my own history in relationship, I have seen that sometimes, what makes a difference in "getting there" - being able to account for my piece independent from other feelings and the pieces of the story - is feeling understood by my partner as to why I said or did one thing or another; the "how I got there" piece.  It is challenging to put that need aside and understand my partner first.

That, it seems, is the challenge for any individual in a relationship: putting aside our own experience, making a large space for our partner's experience, seeing our role in something "in their world", and trusting that in another moment, we will have the opportunity to be understood. Easier said than done! But so important in building trust and safety in a relationship.

Next week:  Josh and Deborah continue the dialog in Women in Relationship, Part II.

Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog?  Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at josh@joshgressel.com.

Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA.  Visit her website at deborahleeds.com

Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Anna August 19, 2012 at 02:30 PM
I have had experience with saying, "Yes, but..." and then been accused of blaming my partner for all our problems. I have also tried saying, "My reaction to the situation was inappropriate and I should have handled it differently." And actually, the latter didn't worked any better, but maybe that had something to do with my partner. I still hold with the idea that the latter is a better way of taking responsibility for one's actions: it acknowledges that the circumstances may have been beyond your control, but you are/should be in control of how you react. You are only responsible for what you actually did, but for your actions, you are entirely responsible - and acknowledging that does not make you responsible for what the other party did, as they also are responsible for their actions. I think there is more of a problem when couples view situations as needing to have one right and one wrong party, instead of seeing that both can be partially wrong and partially right at the same time. If taking responsibility for a "wrong" action means that you are entirely blamed for a situation you didn't create on your own, it is much harder to resolve, and much easier to fall back on "yes, but..."
Anna August 19, 2012 at 02:36 PM
For a little more elaboration, and because nothing happens in a vacuum, sometimes an "I'm sorry" from one party should be followed by an "I'm sorry, I should not have put you in that position," from the other one.
Sa Abbott August 25, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Hindsight being a great teacher, my first thoughts upon reading this article was noting an important factor in every relationship: the HONESTY factor. In my own experiences, there appears a big difference what honesty means in the lives of men & women. Often men might say "sorry, I screwed up" just to appease those concerned without really meaning it nor with intent to change...they simply want to shut-down the tension. While more often women want to exactly define the mistake in order to accurately accept culpability & change. Using my last relationship as an example, I often tried to explain the 'whys' in my partner's behavior--looking at what I did to trigger such reactions. For example, when he became emotionally distant, I’d ask if there was something wrong--"no, everything's fine"..."don't make such a big deal of it". I believed him--gave him his 'space' with the understanding he would emotionally return when ready. It would have been more simple & kind had he just said he & his former wife were discussing renewing their marriage. And as said later, he didn't want to reveal the truth for fear of losing me, & if negotiations with his former wife failed, "he would have no one". "Ouch" on so many levels :>) Made me remember what a former lover, Victor who was the head of Langley Porter at the time, said to me as a very ignorant 20-something, "Men lie--& even when we are caught lying, we deny...because you women want so much to believe us, it works".
nicole beasley August 27, 2012 at 08:53 PM
Love your post and would find it so helpful to have the discussion start with an example that illustrates the issue presented, i.e. a woman contextualizing rather than just taking responsibility. I bet I do this and might understand it all better with illustration. Look forward to next weeks!
jjobes August 29, 2012 at 12:36 AM
i am a female, 49, married 26 years, two kids in their teens. I agree with Josh's point that women often don't acknowledge their part in the problems or breakup of relationships. I have seen it all around me for years, especially the last few. Women are constantly complaining about their men. Sadly, what I am seeing a tremendous amount of recently is women who get divorced (from men who are not abusers, or druggies, or anything serious like that) and then they are shocked, sad, resentful when the man within a year or two is dating or happy with someone else. I do think it's much easier for men over 40 to find women (and most of what I have seen are men with women in their approximate age group--not 20-somethings) after a divorce than a woman over 40. I think the wives think the men will be sad, lonely, lost without them, and they (in my experience) are for awhile, but then they find someone new, and the former wives seem stunned.


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