Today has been yet another day of coaching sessions with guys struggling to manage feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness, and despair. These are guys who really have no one in their lives to talk to about these things; in part because they feel weak and unmanly complaining rather than just sucking it up and powering through, and in part because when they do finally open-up, they tend to feel misunderstood and invalidated. Case in point: Recently a guy was venting about his marital frustrations. He's in his mid 40's, they have two kids (young teens), and from the outside their family seems to live an enviable life. He works in finance, makes good money, she's a "happy" homemaker. They have a nice house in a great community, plenty of toys, everyone in the family is in good health and decent shape.... so for all intents and purposes they're living the American Dream. Yet from the moment this guy turns on his camera there's a feeling I get in the pit of my stomach, a sense of situational urgency, like I'm visiting someone in jail. He's an accommodator, which is to say a people-pleaser. He has nice-guy syndrome, and will do anything to keep his wife happy so as to avoid conflict. She is the opposite. She's very loud and direct when it comes to expressing her likes and dislikes, and what she considers assertiveness he reads as toxic aggression. He hates himself for doing so, but he typically just does what she asks of him (you know the drill: "yes, dear") rather than contradicting her and facing hellfire. The result is that he finds himself sullen and withdrawn, cursing her under his breath, fuming with vitriolic hatred for the woman he married in the hope of spending a joyful eternity together. The constant feeling of being misunderstood and invalidated led him to seek something -- anything -- to bring his spirits up. Give him a dopamine hit. Give him a feeling of personal power. He found himself staying up later at night -- like many dads -- trying to steal a little "me-time" after the wife and kids had gone to bed. The caffeine from energy drinks became an addiction. He developed a guilty penchant for late night porn searches, as well as a notable increase in social media consumption altogether. He hid these from her, because she would likely chastise him for it, but also because they were his.... the whole point was to have something that gave him pleasure which no one else had power over. And of course at some point he admitted to having this relatively tame "secret life", and she doubled-down on her hostility, basically saying that this represented the end of their marriage. She felt threatened by the energy drinks and porn, but more, that he had hidden something from her. And even more, she felt that this completely private activity was in some way a threat to their kids. And so to save his marriage, he said "yes, dear.... sorry, dear.... you're right, dear..... I'm a bad person, dear..." and is now going to a marriage counselor who clearly plays to the wife, as well as sitting in on a weekly female-dominated "relationship betterment" group on ZOOM, where his identity as a toxic male is constantly reinforced. This dude is getting ZERO validation from his family, only criticism and gun-to-the-head ultimatums, and it's killing him. He's check-mated. He's spends time sitting in his office, in his car, lying in his bed just killing the clock, trying to figure out how to get out of this trap he's in.... and the weight of it all is very heavy on his heart. He's dying inside. Man down for real. From the outside, perfect situation. From the inside, he has the blues and they aren't going away. So here's where we roll up our sleeves and get a man unstuck. In this specific case, the guy in question has some work to do. First he has to decide for himself what his ethical and moral codes are, and make sure he's sticking by them. If porn is evil in his worldview, then obviously he shouldn't be engaging with it. If, on the other hand, he fundamentally doesn't have a problem with porn, or certain kinds of porn, then he needs to make rules for himself and stick by them. To thine own self be true. Same with the energy drinks. If he personally feels that he's abusing caffeine, then he needs to get that dialed in for HIM, not for her. So that's number one. He needs to establish his code.
"A Man Gotta Have a Code." -- Omar Little, The Wire
Next he needs to have a heart-to-heart with his wife and let her know where he stands. "Wife, we've been together for 20+ years, and people change. As you know I'm working with a coach, I've done some soul-searching, and here's my bottomline. There are things I consider to be non-negotiable. If you can't accept this, then we're going to need to amicably change our situation so I can be me, and you can be you. If you can accept them, great. We stay married. Also, I'm going to need you to be clear about your non-negotiables, and same deal... if I can't stipulate to your terms without reservation, then it is what it is. We accept that we're at an impasse, and we dissolve the marriage in a way that puts the kids first. BUT.... if we CAN agree to each others boundaries, then the good news is that everything else is negotiable. So that's the first bit. If they get through Round One without deciding that a divorce is probably best, then Round Two is changing how they communicate. They have to truly negotiate, not fight and invalidate each other....
Her: "I don't think you should drink energy drinks, they're bad for you."
Him: "I feel it's my choice whether or not I drink caffeine. Is there some way in which it's harming you?"
Her: "No, I'm just worried you're going to have a heart attack."
Him: "Okay, well if we're being honest, I've noticed you doing a lot of comfort-eating. It's none of my business, your body your choice, but I'll make you a deal. You start eating a keto diet and keeping your macros down to around 1600 a day, and I'll quit caffeine cold turkey. And maybe we could make a routine of working out together in the mornings. We'll both look and feel better."
Her: "Wait, so now you think I'm fat??"
Him: "No, but if we're being real, that's a trade that would focus on both of our decisions rather than just mine. So what do you say, deal or no deal?"
Her: "Okay fine, deal.... but if I really want a piece of cake or something, then what?"
Him: "Well, obviously you can have it... but just be honest and say you're jumping off the wagon. And I'll do the same with energy drinks. But moving forward we don't punish each other, we support each other. This way no one feels like they need to hide anything."
Her: "Okay deal. Actually this could be a good thing. Now what about the porn?"
I'm not saying these negotiations are going to be easy, but I'm saying they are absolutely necessary for him to practice using his voice to draw boundaries. And the truth is she actually wants him to draw these boundaries, in a way that's firm but fair. AGAIN: it doesn't have to be a fight. Negotiating means finding a creative way to get both of your needs met. This is true not only for this guy, but for LOTS of guys. LOTS. I'm thinking of at least 10 guys on my roster right now who are going to feel this post hard. Negotiate, man. That's the secret. Gamify the process. The old, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." It's actually fun and intimate once you let go of the idea that you have to bully the other person into doing things your way, or sneak around to secretly get your needs met.
And as always, staying calm and validating yourself throughout this entire process is clutch. Be calm. Be cool. Know your code. Stick to you code. Make her an offer she can't refuse. And if she's not willing to negotiate, but instead tries to use emotional tactics to bully you into doing things her way, then Man-UP! and start packing your things. You both deserve a better situation.