There’s a story on this site that never, unfortunately, gets old. It’s about depressed men breaking up their relationships as a misguided way to get well and find fulfillment. The psychotherapist, David Wexler, has good ideas about how men can change the experience of their closest relationships without leaving.
He looks at the problems of men in crisis from a broader perspective than that of depression, but his thoughts are also helpful when mood disorder is the cause of crisis.
When Good Men Behave Badly is directed to men running off the tracks as a result of midlife crisis. It’s a companion piece to his Is He Depressed or What?, which is aimed at women trying to live with depressed men. (I discussed his ideas about male depression in a recent newsletter.)
He paints an interesting portrait of the “unconscious man,” one who is focused solely on what is missing from his life and what he does not get from his partner. He can think only of what his life should be, not what it is – what he wants, not what he has.
In contrast, the conscious man is able to look at his life without illusions. He can accept it for what it is, with all its good things and all its limitations. Instead of being consumed with urges to turn his life upside down to get what he wants, he is attentive to experience as he lives it.
Wexler’s book is intended to serve as a guide to help men move from crisis into a more conscious awareness of who they are and the lives they lead. The crisis Wexler describes can be triggered in various ways.
The Dream Unfulfilled. Perhaps a man has been living with a dream about what he will be or the kind of life he wants. He might wake up one day and realize that he will never achieve that dream and has to settle for what he has. No longer able to focus on the promise of the dream, he might now think only about the ways his life falls short of what he had hoped for.
Crisis of Meaning. Perhaps he was able to have the career, the marriage, the family he always wanted but suddenly feels none of it has any meaning. It no longer feels worthwhile. There must be something more.
Regaining Vitality. He may be afraid of growing old, in the sense of losing his potential to grow and fulfill his ambitions. He may panic about losing the vitality that makes him feel alive. He wants to rejuvenate his life, to feel young again.
However he perceives the course of his life, he takes the frustration or sense of loss at face value and comes to think in absolute terms. His present life and especially his partner will never meet his needs. He must have someone new who really understands, who responds in just the way he wants, who shares his likes and dislikes. If nothing turns him off that path, he can cause irrevocable damage to the present relationship, either through an affair, public humiliation of his partner, rage or violence.
If he can stop before reaching that point, there are several methods that can bring about a basic change of attitude. I found that Wexler’s ideas closely matched the experience I went through with my wife. The end result can be a basic change in the relationship. For us, it was like falling in love all over again. That is exactly the outcome that seems unimaginable to a man in the midst of this kind of crisis.
Feeling the need to change or revitalize your life is not necessarily a bad thing. Wexler respects the drive to make life more coherent and meaningful but puts the emphasis on making choices when self-aware rather than when feeling driven by irresistible urges.
Those urges, he points out, are temporary states that will pass if you can hold off from action when they are at their most intense. Part of preparing yourself to deal with powerful moments of need is knowing ahead of time that you do have the ability to choose to act or not when those urges feel overwhelming.
If you need relief from the confusion of inner pain, then a decision not to act, as Wexler says, can be a bold, informed choice.
He talks about taking responsibility for your moods as one of the crucial steps in gaining more insight into what you are going through. In his view, moods are not feelings but the rigid states of mind you enter when you are ignoring emotions. Acknowledging and expressing feelings of hurt or need as they arise is the important step that many men miss.
I often felt a need to feel validated by my partner by having her recognize and respond to my feelings without my having to say anything about them. That desire arose from a legacy of shame and broken self-esteem, I’m sure, but I seem to share that desire with many men, according to Wexler.
In this strange state of mind, a woman’s reaching out to take care of your needs without your having to say anything is a way of demonstrating love. You feel that your emotional needs are being taken care of. It sounds strange and childish, but I believe a similar dynamic underlies the sudden estrangement that partners of depressed men describe.
The men never said anything was wrong, but silently they were compiling a record of unmet needs, a sort of emotional score-card, and their partners failed the test. The men felt misunderstood, rejected, unloved and believed that the relationship could never change. The first thing their partners may have noticed was anger, blame and withdrawal that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Wexler, as a psychotherapist, wants his male clients to face the reality that no wife or partner would ever be able to satisfy all their needs. He tries to get them to think realistically about what they are imagining. When this works, it is a relief to his clients to realize that their partners don’t have to be everything for them. That would be an impossible burden on any woman and would mean she would have no life or needs of her own.
Shifting attention to the realities of the present takes away the inner pressure to compensate for a sense of shame or inadequacy by holding onto a dream of perfection. If you can stop focusing on what you imagine your life could be and look at what you have, then it is possible to take some of the power out of the fantasy.
I have felt that shift from fantasy to reality, and the relief that it brings. Wexler is one of the few writers who has tried to account for the sudden change that follows. The need to fulfill an unquenchable longing and the bitter disappointment at not being able to do so disappear. In their place is a sense of rediscovery of your partner – a shared feeling that leads to a renewed intimacy.
The very thing that seemed so impossible – that you could find fulfillment in your existing relationship – is actually happening.
You have a completely different experience of being with your partner. Frustration and angry silence are replaced with responsiveness and the ability to talk through whatever problem has come between you. Everything is not perfect – you are no longer expecting perfection. Instead, the relationship feels real and present emotionally.
Wexler puts it this way: “…as Buddhists know, pain stems from the gap between expectations and reality. … [When] the expectations genuinely change, the opportunity for freedom from pain appears.”
As he summarizes the process: The pathway out of crisis leads to authenticity and intimacy.