Research by Dr. John Gottman has shown that relationships are much more successful when men allow themselves to be influenced by their partner. It’s important for women to accept influence too, but the research has shown that the majority of women already do this.
Being open to influence requires a man to let go of avoidant strategies like distancing, attacking, and defensiveness. This doesn’t mean adopting an inferior position, but rather allowing his partner’s needs to be of primary importance in his life.
Accepting influence is also about moving from a position of “me” to “we,” which requires a shift toward more maturity and complexity, beyond seeing the world as a binary, win-lose, right-wrong, zero sum game.
Stan Tatkin, Ph.D. describes this movement from a one-person system to a two-person system as “secure functioning.” Such a shift demands and facilitates maturation by caring for one’s relationship in the long term through considering another’s mind and emotions.
Yield to win
I’d like to introduce you to Susan and Michael. Michael is a highly accomplished entrepreneur who has started several companies and sold them at a significant profit. He is quick witted and decisive, and gives off an air of confidence and intelligence.
Here in my office, outside his public persona of success, he demonstrates that he can be fragile when his wife brings up her concerns about the distance in their relationship. She expresses her need for more connection, both emotionally and physically.
During this session, Susan asserts herself with Michael by looking directly at him declaring, “I love you Michael, but I feel so alone sometimes even when you’re right next to me.”
Michael’s first impulse is to become defensive, as he turns to me and says, “See! I’m never enough for her.”
Rather than saving him from the pain in this moment, I allow the pressure to build. I have confidence that he can respond with more skill than he is demonstrating, and that it’s his defensiveness and fear of being more collaborative that stop him from moving his relationship forward.
Part of his defensive position comes from framing his relationship as a win-lose proposition, something that has worked well for him in the context of business, but this attitude is genuinely harming his relationship.
He doesn’t realize that by yielding to his wife’s concerns, allowing them to influence his next move, through appropriate action, words, gaze or touch, he can create a win-win experience that will feel good to both of them. This will also allow him to feel competent, something that is very important for Michael in all areas of his life.
Redirecting Michael back to Susan, I give him an encouraging smile and ask, “Michael, what’s your next move?”
He is hesitant, which is surprising for a man who is seen as a powerhouse by so many. He slowly reaches out to Susan, takes her hands in his, looks in her eyes, and says “You’re right, I know how distracted I can get, and I know that’s not fair to you, to either of us actually. I also want more with you, but I don’t know what to do. I’m not good at not knowing how to do something.”
With that, Susan lights up, moves closer, and kisses him. She whispers to him with delight, “This is what I’m looking for!”
It was a breakthrough moment in their marriage.
When we first began working together, Michael wasn’t willing to be influenced by Susan. He heard her complaints as demands and criticisms, which he saw as a threat to his sense of self. Now he’s able to listen to her with interest and curiosity.
He allows himself to be impacted by her state, her thoughts, her emotions, and her needs, and he understands that it’s in his best interests to create a relationship that is satisfying for both of them. This is a win-win.
He has begun to experience how accepting influence actually results in getting more of what he wants from his partner. It becomes self-reinforcing as he feels the rewards of success not just in work, but in his marriage, too.
On a neurological level, Michael is learning to use more of his prefrontal cortex, that amazing structure of the brain that helps us to imagine and weigh future consequences while dampening the primitive impulse to attack or be defensive.
When men are able to allow themselves to be influenced by their partner, they take a significant step in moving their relationship forward towards greater happiness and satisfaction while becoming more mature and secure in the process.
The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.
More in The Archives