Feature

Men really do enjoy talking about relationships, as long as they can do it on their own terms, says author and former men's issue columnist for the Detroit Free Press Neil Chethik. Based on a national survey and interviews with more than 350 American husbands, Chethik found that men are willing to talk about the dreaded "f-word"-feelings. It may just take them longer to do it.

Chethik shared this and other stereotype-shattering findings-summarized in his book, "VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment" (Simon & Schuster, 2006)-at a session sponsored by Div. 51 (Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity) at APA's 2007 Annual Convention.

At the session, Chethik read from an interview he'd conducted with a man who'd been married for 13 years who had told him: "I know guys who went to Vietnam, who were jumping out of helicopters. That was much easier than jumping, open-eyed, into marriage."

"Now I would bet my Div. 51 membership that if you asked every married woman in this room what it meant for her to get married, not a single one would bring up the war in Vietnam!" Chethik joked. "But this type of response was not unusual."

Phobias and father figures

Men often get a bad rap as being unwilling to commit to a relationship, said Chethik. But he found that men merely want to be sure they are making the right decision-hence why they sometimes take longer to commit. In addition, Chethik's survey, conducted in collaboration with the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, showed that more than 90 percent of currently married men would marry the same woman again. Given that women initiate nearly two-thirds of all divorces, it seems that once men do commit to marriage, many intend to be in it for good, he noted.

"Are men overwhelmed by fear or are they merely being careful with a decision that they know will shape every day of the rest of their lives?" he asked. "What I saw was nothing approaching commitment phobia, but rather a careful discernment process that embraced the reality that marriage is sacred and challenging."

Chethik also countered the conventional wisdom that a woman can determine whether a man will make a good husband simply by observing the way he treats his mother. He found that men who had good relationships with their mothers were just as likely to have good or bad relationships with their wives. Instead, he noticed a strong correlation between a man's relationship with his wife and his relationship with his father.

"It makes perfect sense that sons model themselves off the man closest to them," he noted. "They learn how to relate by watching how men relate."

Soul searching

For psychologists who work with married men, Chethik's book may provide new perspectives on men's inner lives, and the most effective ways to reach them in clinical and personal settings.

Chethik noted that, during his interviews, most men immediately withdrew from the conversations when he asked them about their feelings toward their wives. Yet when he approached the question using action phrases such as, "What happened when you met the woman you would eventually marry?" or "What did you think of her?" their defenses relaxed and they could tell the story as they remembered it, Chethik said. Almost always, he noted, the men eventually used this line of questioning to share their feelings, but they did it in a language they felt comfortable with. Both therapists and wives may be able to learn from his early word-choice mistakes, Chethik said.

"When we say that therapy or counseling is about expressing feelings, I believe we elevate its importance above thoughts and actions, when in reality there is not a hierarchy among those," Chethik said. "Thoughts, feelings and actions are all potential avenues to a man's soul."