Men in Relationships: Is He Committed or Just Complacent

Is He Just Complacent?

Some of the differences men and women have in relationships can be understood how they played as children. Boys typically favor Parallel, side by side play, one with a dump truck, the other a shovel truck. The boy with the dump truck might load sand by hand, while the boy with the shovel truck, will make roads, or piles of sand on his own. Both boys would say they’re “playing together,” even though technically they aren’t interacting. If one wanted to use the other’s truck, he’d likely grab it rather than ask for a turn, share, or suggest working together. This is also typically how fights start with boys this age. Even two best friends, will, in the course of play, intermittently clash over a toy; yet remain best friends when play is over.

Interestingly however, if a wheel falls off the dump truck so that the first boy can no longer play with it, the second boy will continue playing with his truck, not recognizing his friend can no longer play. Yet if after the dump truck wheel fell off, the first boy got up to leave, the second would protest because his friend didn’t want to play with him, and even question their friendship. But the next time they play they’re back to being friends, although the events of the previous day wasn’t resolved.

Now, two girls playing with a dump truck, and a shovel truck, will likely play interactively. One girl drives her dump truck to the other’s shovel truck to receive sand. This is called, “face to face” play, and has a much more relational quality. For example, the two girls might provide voices, narratives, to mutually create their play. If one girl wants a turn with the other girl’s truck she will typically ask, or they will take turns cooperatively. And if a wheel falls off a truck one girl is playing with, the other girl might integrate the wheel needing to be repaired into their narrative.

While an over simplification, as adults these differences contribute to misunderstanding between men and women in adult, romantic relationships. Because of men’s early tendency toward Parallel play they learn to rely and value proximity, while women, through face to face play, developed skills that promote relationships. Unfortunately, given these differences, men may appear or be far less adept with the same skills necessary for romantic relationships. What was once adequate for sandbox relationships, proximity, an activity, and minimal communication, are now seen as limitations, resulting in the common misunderstandings and misconceptions men and women experience in relationships. Specifically, the potential to misinterpret the others’ intentions, by basing them on their understanding and familiarity of their own intentions. For example, if a woman invites a man to have drinks, her intention may be to pursue a romantic relationship, yet because having drinks involves proximity and an activity, a man might not recognize it for any more than this. Neither are misrepresenting their intentions, but she might feel disappointment when he doesn’t reciprocate her pursuit. Yet, because she didn’t experience an intentionally mutual interactivity, it’s likely she’s not hurt. However, if the circumstances were reversed, he would more likely be hurt. Because based on Parallel play, he  fulfilled the basis of a relationship: proximity and activity, but she didn’t reciprocate. Again, neither misrepresented their intentions—he simply didn’t recognize and, as a result, misinterpreted her intentions were different. Consider the different processes women and men go through to decide whether to start or end a relationship. When women seek new relationships they gauge the viability of a perspective partner by relying on the quality of their relational experiences, or a sense of a co-created narrative with “How We Met” stories, or talking about the future. When woman recognize difficulties in a relationship, they communicate these, and approach resolving them collaboratively before considering whether to end it. And should a relationship end, women are less likely to isolate, but seek support and companionship from friends or family, and grieve the previous relationship before feeling open to a new one. No surprise, men, in contrast, tend to immediately seek replacement-relationships, by relying on, as much as trying to re-capture, the familiarity of proximity. “Ladies night,” is an industry based on the recognition of this. Getting men in range of women is lucrative.

While this may be a matter of practicality—or good business, when men get in range of meeting women, tendencies of parallel play can be seen. Just as the boys in the sandbox were content, so long as they could agree to playing with trucks, the qualities men seek in replacement-relationships are similar, the ability to hang, requires little maintenance, and that he is liked. If problems arise, as long as they don’t threaten hanging, and maintenance can be deferred, men will continue the relationship, like an activity in parallel play. However, if problems intensify, men react with distancing behaviors, not calling or returning texts, even  turning down their partner’s initiating sex. All are intended not to extinguish the problems as much as their presence. But only if and when their partner, unable to suppress her feelings, or continue being in a relationship that’s all about him, leaves the relationship, does he protest, acknowledge, or cop to there being problems. Unfortunately it’s more often beyond the point of repair.

This is reflected in the saying, “Women grieve a relationship before it has ended, men grieve it after,” and evidenced with women initiating 70-80% of divorces as a result of either their spouse’s behaviors, or their needs aren’t getting met. Men however, typically not only resist, and fight a separation or divorce, but are more likely to remain in the relationship. Even if their own needs aren’t getting meant. Because women don’t value proximity, or consider it as a basis for a relationship, but  interpersonal dynamics, and are able to recognize problems  with these much earlier; so when a relationship ends they naturally feel relief, experience less stress, and adjust better than men. However, once married or in a relationship, men often leave social responsibilities to their partners, and neglect maintaining independent relationships, and potential sources of support they may later need. Apart from career, a man’s partner is typically his most vital relationship. This is why being divorced can be so devastating for men. It reveals proximity’s stark contrast, by barring them from a relationship that not only sustains their basic needs, but their identity. As a result, many divorced men come to believe romantic relationships are uncertain, expendable. Still, they continue to yearn to be in relationship again, and alternate hot and cold approaching potential new relationships. This makes it difficult for women dating recently divorced men to determine their actual intentions. Are they genuinely seeking a new relationship, or simply replacing an old one?

This isn’t to  say single men don’t have difficulties with dating. With serial dating, a man may initially pursue one woman, but react to the ambiguity ordinarily involved in dating, by continuing to pursue other “prospects,” despite potential complications. When women serial date, they likely disclose their intentions, or status, to avoid such complications. Men will often reserve their explicit intentions, or status, until they are assured or certain about a prospect. The strategy is to allot attentiveness to each prospective woman in proportion to their degree of certainty, and weed out others by tapering off availability, or proximity. This isn’t necessarily calculating, but a function of how men treat their wants and needs like problems needing solutions. If not being in a relationship is a problem, then the solution is to be in one.

Obviously, attributing the challenges men have in relationships to parallel play would be too simplistic. However, it’s fair to suggest that the tendencies particular to parallel play, given the tendencies of Face to face play, later pose challenges. For example, a typical complaint expressed by dating women is, “He didn’t ask anything about me.” Coming from Face to face play, not asking about her neglects interactivity, and demonstrates a lack of concern for mutuality. Yet this may not be entirely accurate, but a function of having learned to interact from other males through Parallel play. If a guy wants another guy to know something about him, he’s expected to just say it. The asking, like “playing together” in the sand box, is implied. It’s also possible that not asking a woman about herself, but talking about himself instead, is a way of trying to get her to accept him. Similar to early play, if a boy suggests an activity and the other agrees, the boy is accepted. In this way, as an adult, sitting across from a woman at dinner, and telling her all about his life and career is also a bid for acceptance. Unfortunately though, for women it isn’t what a man has to tell them, so much as how well they tell each other. Yet, even though telling her (at length) about himself isn’t a character flaw, because of her unfamiliarity with its possible intimations, his underlying intentions, understandably, get overlooked, and he gets unfairly dismissed as a potential partner without recognizing why. There are times, however, when the “not asking about her” approach works. Specifically when the object of dating is to find a suitable mate, and whether the woman’s biological clock is ticking. If it is, listening to what he is telling her may be in the best interest of that clock, and informs her  of what he can provide should he want a family. But this needs to  be clearly established and discussed, not assumed, or hoped come up organically. In fact it’s appropriate, if not fair, to bring it up initially. Because a bid for acceptance, has different intentions than a bid for partnership. For couples over 30, this is where the influence of parallel play causes the most difficulties. A man’s intention may be of having a casual relationship, but the enthusiasm he expresses, could misrepresent this intention. Because women don’t recognize, or value proximity in the way men do, they may not know how to distinguish whether his intention is to have a casual, or a committed relationship. To confuse matters more, it isn’t terribly uncommon for a man to affect enthusiasm as a stall tactic with his partner, or if he is unsure of a woman he’s becoming involved it. Obviously, for any relationship to potentially be serious or long term, both have to have genuine enthusiasm and communicate this explicitly.

Recall the boys in the sand box. Neither “formalized” their play by establishing expected behaviors, mutual objectives, or committing to play again. As long as one continued “playing trucks”, the other remained contented. Men maintain a similar “Ask and don’t tell” attitude in their romantic relationships

When it comes to their basic needs mens’ default are survival behaviors, and characterize practicality even in their romantic relationships. Given this, men are more likely to be persuaded by function than form, recognizing the basic functions that a relationship provides. If a woman brings a friend to a social function, it’s so she’ll have someone to interact with. But if a man does it’s often so he won’t be alone. A woman may complain that their boyfriend or spouse left them alone at a party while he worked the room. Yet ask that spouse or boyfriend, and he’ll insist they went to the party together; though he might not take into consideration whether they actually interacted. Sound familiar? But the same behavior that hurts his partner, in reality, hurts him further. One of the consequences of complacency is continually relying on the function of proximity relationships provide. In doing so, he forfeits the opportunity to rely on himself independently, overcome a basic social challenge, and gain the confidence that will allow him to recognize the value of fulfilling relationship over a functional one. Otherwise, he risks being the guy who asks his girlfriend or spouse to help him pick the outfit he will wear, pack his suitcase, or book his travel plans for his business trip.

Ironically, part of the internalized male identity is to know, and thus get, what one wants, despite not always differentiating the “means” from the “ends.” The “means” for getting a relationship includes, romantic gestures, gifts, availability, understanding, and potentially offering a better partner than the woman has had. The “ends” though, may amount to a relationship of complacency. More importantly, because the expectations set by the “means,”were misrepresented, thus misunderstood, her feelings of disappointment are unavoidable. The guy who was once always available is minimally available due to work obligations, or who hung on her every word, now can’t talk enough about himself, and inevitably causes predictable relationship-problems. She begins to feel he’s lost interest, and expresses insecurity, while he thinks she over analyzes the relationship, is needy, or high maintenance. In actuality though, they are just at cross purposes. She wants interaction and he wants proximity.

If a man wants the security that a relationship provides there’s no harm in this—as long as his intentions are clear to himself and his partner. If he considers relationships functional, a social venue, couch time, or routine sex, but his partner thinks otherwise, he’d fare better by making this known from the beginning. Obviously, this kind of upfront disclosure isn’t exactly a chick magnet, it will help prevent expectations—rather than risk condoning them by omission. Relationships have momentum—especially when romance is involved. It’s one thing for a man to go into a relationship with luke-warm feelings, but another when his partner is continually turning up the heat. If he doesn’t address where he’s coming from up front, it won’t be long before his partner becomes frustrated with is lack of communication, complaining that she is the only one making any effort. Worse yet, finding himself in a therapist’s office, turning to her to find out what he did wrong over yet another week. It might just be better to admit he’s “not that into her,” and save everybody the trouble.

All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.