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VoiceMale: How Men Do Marriage
General Assembly 2006 Event 2033
Sponsor: Unitarian Universalist Men's Network
Speaker: Neil Chethik (with songs by Joe Jencks)
Neil Chethik and his wife Kelly had been together several years when she woke him at 3 a.m. and said, "We need to talk, right now! I realize now that we have to get divorced; the sooner the better." Neil does not remember what he said, but Kelly remembers in detail.
"I was not meeting her standards of affection," he explained. "I was not doing the things she liked: hand holding, cuddling, and little nothings." They grappled with a list of differences and disagreements, and arrived at an array of hopeful accommodations, wobbly compromises, and agreements to disagree. Kelly is now a Unitarian Universalist minister, Neil is a writer and co-founder of UUMen, and they are still together after 20 years.
Neil has shared what he has learned in his most recent book Voice Male, which is dedicated to Kelly. Men have a different vocabulary, a different voice, he tells us. To understand this better, he spent two years traveling across the country, interviewing more than 300 men. His carefully-researched results are accompanied by personal stories on topics such as the link between housework and sex. He concludes there is a definite correlation between satisfaction with housework and satisfaction with sex.
His research uncovered other interesting correlations. There is an old saying: If you want to know how a man will treat his wife, look at how he treats his mother. However, he found no correlation between the relationship with a man's mother and his wife. Instead, he found a strong correlation with a man's father. Apparently, men learn how to be partners from their father.
Another surprise was what older men can teach us about relationships. Although much has changed since the 1960s and the "traditional marriage" has passed into history, nevertheless we can learn from the stories told by a man who has been married for an amazing 72 years.
Another man who has been married for a mere 44 years advised: Begin by finding someone who shares as many values as possible; thereafter, focus on being the right mate, not on finding the right mate. Becoming a soul mate is a lifetime goal.
Are men willing to talk? Yes! Half the men he contacted were willing to be interviewed on the phone, and of these, 80% agreed to an in-depth follow-up interview in person. The interviews were one-on-one and anonymity was guaranteed. The aim was to find the truth and record it in a book that would be of value to both men and women.
Men have a different vocabulary. A 48-year-old man described marriage in heroic terms, like climbing Mount Everest . Analogies with Vietnam were common. Vietnam was easier, one man declared. The challenge for these men was to be available to a woman while staying true to themselves.
One man offered a fascinating analogy: Marriage is like a big complicated machine with lots of cogs. We all have problems with the machine; that's sand in the machine. Sex is like lubricant in the gears. It helps you overlook the sand.
Contrary to popular belief, the men loved to talk about their relationships. What they were not so good at was talking about feelings. If you ask "How did it feel?" the men would pull back. But a question such as "What happened?" would get the men talking, and in that context their feelings came through. It is best to focus on actions and thoughts, and then the feelings follow.
Should a woman try to change a man, to train him, to mold him? The men did not like the clay analogy. Nevertheless, when asked "Has your wife changed you?" 60% replied yes and 90% of these said the changes were for the better. Most importantly, it was the men who already felt accepted who were the most likely to change.
There were many questions. When asked about affairs and infidelity, Chethik suggests that dishonesty is hazardous to a marriage. If you are not sure whether it's dishonest, go ask your spouse.
Do men do better the second time around, after a divorce? Yes, unless there are children from another marriage. Learning to be a stepparent is difficult, and the biological parent often has difficulty with split loyalties.
What about mixed marriages where the partners come from different religious traditions? There's no problem as long as the couple go to a congregation together. Those who go together, stay together.
The discussion returned to Neil and Kelly, where we left them at 3 a.m., early in their marriage. Kelly wanted to talk about divorce "right now!" Neil knew that his response would be momentous, so he paused before replying: "It may be that we have made a huge mistake, but I am not going to talk about something this important in the middle of the night." Then he went back to sleep. How could he be so heartless? Can men turn off their emotions so easily? Neil theorized that men evolved for hunting or battle, and in this setting it is essential to compartmentalize, to close the door on emotions until the time is right.
Reported by Mike McNaughton; edited by Margy Levine Young.