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Providence Journal Give Your Husbands a Break
Felice J. Freyer, Journal medical writer


September 30, 2001

I was skeptical when Dr. Scott Haltzman told me his ideas about men and marriage. But I was also intrigued.

Haltzman, a psychiatrist (and a married man), thinks that married men are being held to a female standard. They're being prodded to communicate in ways they find exceedingly uncomfortable, and then they get blamed for stuttering and squirming.

As Haltzman sees it, men are naturally -- indeed, biologically -- inclined to express themselves through action rather than words.

But women, and often the therapists who work with troubled couples, expect men to just get over it, and learn to talk and talk -- to share intimate feelings that many aren't even sure they have.

Now, I have to say, the men I know don't have trouble talking. They have trouble shutting up. But who knows if my experience is typical?

And Haltzman's ideas do have an appealing freshness. It's always worth looking at something -- especially something as necessary and arduous as marriage -- from a new angle.

Haltzman's angle is that married men deserve more credit for all they do, and more acceptance for who they are.

"Men are OK the way they are," Haltzman asserts. "They really get a bad rap for their style of doing things. Society these days says that men have to be fixed. I think we do a pretty good job."

Haltzman, 41, is examining how men who have sustained their marriages do that job. He's established a Web site called secretsofmarriedmen.com in which men can share their experiences navigating the rough spots in marriage.

It's something that few men talk about, Haltzman says, and yet all could benefit from sharing. (True to form, men have been slow to post comments, but a few women have chimed in.)

"I wanted to find a voice for men that didn't make men feel intrinsically inadequate," Haltzman explains. He plans to eventually turn the Web site into a book -- a man's guide to successful marriage, written by men. With a wealth of evidence that marriage is good for men's health and longevity, such a guide, he says, is long overdue.

Haltzman, who has offices in Woonsocket and Barrington, says that in his own work with couples, he keeps seeing the same patterns. It goes like this:

She says, "He doesn't talk. He doesn't listen. He doesn't pay attention."

He says, "I can't communicate in the way she wants. I show her I love her by what I do."

Haltzman told me about a social conversation he had with a therapist, who suggested that a troubled couple set aside a half-hour every night, just to talk.

Haltzman shot back: "Why didn't you say, 'Go home, and for a half hour each night, have sex'?"

By emphasizing talk, Haltzman argues, the therapist was forcing the man into the arena where he is least comfortable, and least capable, while asking little of the woman.

"Men may not be able to easily recognize their feelings and communicate their feelings to their wives in a supportive way. It's an expectation set up by women. . . . I wanted to pull away from the automatic expectation that the way to correct the problem is to change men.

"No one is turning to women and saying, 'If you just tried harder you should be able to bench press 400 pounds.' . . . Everyone is turning to men, saying, 'Just work harder at this.' "

I asked a couple of marital therapists -- both men -- what they thought of all this, and both saw something simplistic in the sex-based distinctions that Haltzman makes. Human experience is complex and varied, and the discontents of married people don't break so easily along gender lines, they said.

But Haltzman says there's plenty of evidence that men's brains work differently than women's. For example, he says, brain scans using positron emission tomography (PET scanning) show that men's and women's brains respond in different ways when recalling words connected with emotions.

Haltzman also asserts that women hold most of the power within marriage. "Men are basically given their marching orders," he said.

I could not resist running that comment by Haltzman's wife of 13 years, Susan, a fashion designer. She laughed and said, "Yeah, well, I wish it worked [that way]!" But speaking seriously, she says that while her husband "doesn't march to a drum," she agrees that women tend to have more responsibility, and hold more sway, within the household.

My theory is that men are so accustomed to being in control, they don't even notice how often their will prevails. They take it for granted as part of the natural order of things. What they do remember are the few occasions when they're called upon to compromise or concede, leading to the belief that she always gets her way. But, that's just my biased speculation.

In any case, Haltzman doesn't seem to want to tip the power balance within marriage. Rather, he wants men to feel strong and worthy within the existing structure.

Women, he says, should accept men as they are, give them credit for their actions, and express their appreciation. Then, once in a while, do things his way: "Sit in front of the TV watching a sporting game and not talk. Play a card game and not talk. It really makes a man comfortable."

But even if a woman can't or won't do those things, men can -- and should -- do what's needed to preserve the marriage, Haltzman argues.

"It's a myth that both have to work equally on solving their problems," he says. "Even if the woman can't participate successfully, the husband can help make it happen."

For starters, listen. When she's telling you something, don't answer back for three or four minutes.

"At very tense times, send her flowers," he advises. Send her the flowers even if you don't actually feel the romantic sentiment they imply. You may not be able to muster that feeling.

While some might call such a gesture insincere and manipulative, Haltzman says that a man who sends flowers even when feeling unromantic is saying something much bigger than the sweet nothings: He's saying that he recognizes his wife needs such tokens, that he's committed to her, and that her happiness is important to him.

"Those are things that men rarely get credit for," Haltzman said. "We men have an intense honor and sense of loyalty to our wives."

He further advises: "Don't fight to be right. Being right doesn't matter."

If it's important to your wife that you hang your tie in the closet when you get home, rather than draping it over a chair, he says, then hang the damn tie in the closet. In doing that, you're not agreeing that it really matters where the tie ends up. You're merely showing that you want to make her happy.

"One of the secrets is the attitude that goes along with it," Haltzman says. " 'I'm saying OK because it will make her happy and making her happy is a gift I can give.' "

That's not being a milquetoast, he says: That's being a kind of hero.