Want to improve your romantic relationship but don’t know where to begin?
If you’re a guy trying to figure out what exactly is going on in your relationship, this list is a good place to start.
My clients who identify as men tend to bring up issues that revolve around common themes. I’ve tried to distill them here and provide some insights on how you can make your relationship stronger.
A note about gender
Most relationship issues are part of the human experience no matter your gender, so they aren’t unique to men.
This article discusses common experiences I’ve observed among men, seen through a Western lens. That is, they’re influenced by factors like gender stereotypes and expectations based in Western culture. So if they don’t fit your experiences, no judgment.
I hope this article helps you think about how these topics might apply (or not) to your unique situation.
1. Avoiding conflict
This is when you go out of your way to avoid difficult conversations with your partner and other types of emotional confrontation.
Here’s what it can look like: You don’t let your partner know if they did something to upset you, and you justify this as keeping the peace.
In the moment, this means you get to avoid a tough conversation, but here’s the problem: Over time you may start to feel resentment. It may show up whenever your partner tells you how you upset them, or gradually over time whenever your partner treats you in a way you don’t like.
Another way you may avoid confrontation is by putting off important questions. You plan to bring up questions with them, but sometimes wait until the last minute. Here are a couple examples:
- You put off asking your partner to do something for you, like if they asked you, “Is your weekend free? My friend is hosting a cottage weekend and I’d really like to go with you.” But you put off answering them because you don’t want to go.
- Or you avoid delivering bad news, for instance, you avoid saying, “I can’t join you and your parents for dinner anymore because I have a work meeting.”
You worry that your partner will assume the worst, which would make them feel hurt or angry.
Unfortunately, waiting until the last minute to tell your partner creates its own complications because it’s inconsiderate. After all, they may have wanted to know sooner so they could adjust their plans accordingly, or they potentially feel left out because you didn’t keep them in the loop.
At times, you may avoid confrontation without even realizing it. You may use vague or ambiguous replies, like “haha,” “I guess,” or, “sounds fun” without addressing the specific thing your partner is trying to say.
Consider whether that’s because the conversation makes you feel uneasy and unsure how to respond.
Other times, you might avoid spending time with your partner by keeping a busy schedule or staying out late to reduce the likelihood of conflict or confrontation. This sometimes happens in relationships where difficult moments happen regularly, or even in a new relationship where friction hasn’t presented itself yet.
Maybe you feel like, “Wow, things are going really well, if I keep myself really busy then there is less chance that I’ll do or say the wrong thing.”
Other times, you might opt for ghosting or ending a relationship altogether because you don’t think it is even possible to resolve conflict.
Ghosting is when you stop picking up your partner’s calls and don’t answer their texts or other messages with no explanation. Instead of having a conversation about your problems, you move straight to cutting things off completely.
If conflict makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re not alone. But remember, it’s not always a bad thing.
Actually, it’s perfectly normal. Conflict is bound to happen when two or more separate and independent minds interact and learn how to work together.
Remind yourself that conflict is natural and normal, and that facing it can often lead to growth — and that’s a very good thing for you and your partner.
Growth can look like finding a solution that enhances satisfaction for both of you, or seeing a situation more clearly and gaining information that helps you make an informed, empowered choice for yourself.
It can make you feel a lot happier and more in control in the long run.
Tip: Talk through your conflicts — compassionately
Here are some tips that can help you talk about difficult topics with your partner:
- Establish safe communication. Tell your partner you’re working on communicating more, and ask them to be patient and kind as you’re figuring things out — and do the same for them.
- Stick to talking about the objective truth. And check your assumptions. The objective truth is what you see in the world and feel inside yourself, not what you think is happening in other people’s minds.
- Use “I” statements, and avoid accusatory “you” statements. When you’re talking about something that bothered you. That is, tell them how you feel when something happens, and avoid blaming or judging them. For example, “I felt sad when you didn’t invite me,” but not “I felt sad when you were mean to me.”
2. Your partner asks you to communicate more
Did you think you communicated fine, but then heard from your partner that they wanted you to communicate more? Maybe they asked you to text more or verbalize what you were feeling and thinking more?
When you’re faced with these expectations, it’s normal to feel frustrated, unsure of the right way to communicate and what they expect of you.
If you struggle with communication, it may be because you haven’t had a lot of practice, opportunity, or encouragement to share your feelings and thoughts, when you were growing up or in past relationships.
Fear of judgment is another possible hurdle. Possibly, you have something to share but you’re scared, worried, or don’t trust how the other person will respond. You might think you need to find the perfect words before you can say it.
Tip: Ask your partner for examples
If you feel frustrated or uncertain of your partner’s expectations, I encourage you to ask them to provide more context for their request.
You absolutely do not have to agree to whatever they’re asking of you. At the same time, keep an open mind and be willing to listen to their perspective. This will help you decide whether you want to accept, decline, or work through it. The choice is yours.
You could say something like, “OK. I hear you want me to communicate more. Can you help me understand what you mean by sharing a few imaginary examples of future situations where you’d like me to communicate more?”
Hearing their ideas will give you a more concrete idea of how you can meet their needs.
Tip: Seek to understand their intention
It’s also helpful to understand the intention behind the request. This is what they hope the outcome would be if you were to communicate more. There are an infinite number of possible intentions. Knowing your partner’s intention could really change how you react to the situation.
Asking them to explain their intention could sound like this: “Can you please help me understand why you want me to communicate more? How would that help you?”
Here are some common intentions behind why your partner may want you to communicate more:
- They care and want emotional closeness. Your partner may be genuinely interested in how your day went and they’d feel more emotionally close if you shared.
- They want to help if you’re feeling down. Your partner has noticed that your mood has been low or different and they want to help by either doing something or giving you space, if that is what you need.
- They’re seeking reassurance about your feelings for them. Your partner notices you don’t text often and would like to understand the meaning behind that. They may simply need you to tell them directly that you prefer not to text during the work day, or prefer phone calls. They may want to know your reasons so they don’t fill in your silence with their own worries.
3. Discomfort around sharing your needs
If you’re like most people, you may already find it hard to navigate and even identify your own needs — especially when they conflict with your partner’s.
Maybe you aren’t even sure if what you want is valid, you feel guilty or embarrassed about what you need, or you strongly believe that your partner will not value your needs.
My clients often say they feel guilty about their needs when they want more independence from their partner. In other words, you feel bad when you’re craving something that seems to only benefit you — like going out with friends or having time alone at home to be with your thoughts and no schedule.
You may worry that needing something that is just for yourself means you are a selfish partner; and maybe you feel guilty seeing your partner disappointed. If you feel this, it might lead you to either ignore what you need and feel unfulfilled, or do what you need, but without communicating it to your partner in a healthy way.
Or maybe you’ve received the message that other people don’t care about your needs. It’s easy to get this impression from pop culture and social media — there’s a very homogenous image out there of what two people in a relationship “should” want or act like, and even how disagreements look.
But assuming your partner doesn’t care can hurt your relationship.
If you approach your partner with the belief that they will not respect, listen, or understand your needs, then you may come off as apathetic, defensive, agitated, or withholding.
Tip: Remember — What you need is valid
A healthy relationship is a continuous work in progress to meet the needs of both partners. Neither partner will have 100% of their needs met 100% of the time, but it’s a fluid, dynamic, collaboration.
Resist the urge to jump to conclusions about how your partner will react. And don’t use that assumption to justify avoiding telling them what you need.
Instead, focus on identifying your need and expressing yourself. You have the right to be heard.
4. Not knowing how to provide emotional support
Clients often share with me the trials and tribulations of responding to their partner’s distress. You might just want to know, “What am I supposed to say or do?”
As a therapist, I’ve noticed that providing emotional support can be a very confusing and unnerving spot to be in, no matter how much we care about someone. Society, and sometimes our home environments, haven’t provided us a lot of skills or guidance on how to support each other emotionally.
For many, this is why we go to therapy, to be supported in a very skilled and particular way (which your therapist has often developed through a lot of ongoing education).
Have compassion for yourself — providing the right support can be hard.
Maybe you’ve drafted and redrafted text messages to your partner in an effort to provide the best emotional support you can.
Tip: Start by asking your partner what they need from you
It really helps if they can clearly tell you what they need. Asking them can give them the permission they might need to tell you.
Also, tune into your own reasons for asking the question. Is it because you care about them? Is it because you are worried for them? Is it because you are frustrated for them? Then communicate that.
For example, when your partner expresses they’re upset, you could say: “Wow, I feel so frustrated for you as I hear this, and I really want to help you but I don’t know how. What do you need from me right now? To listen or share my own experience? Or do you want advice?”
Tip: Try not to offer advice unless your partner says they want it. Instead, just listen
Maybe you’ve tried to comfort your partner by giving advice, only to be rebuffed.
If you find yourself in this situation, you may feel frustrated or discouraged because you were acting from a sincere intention to help rather than hurt.
Although it’s not likely your intention, advice and solutions can sometimes sound critical and feel condescending. Your partner may also feel like you’re invalidating how difficult the situation is for them because: “Look at all these solutions I just came up with for you.”
Or they might feel dismissed, as if the discovery of a solution signals that no more conversation is warranted.
The person in distress can often come up with some solutions on their own, but they need to simply express what they are feeling to relieve some tension. Imagine a kettle letting off steam. It feels good to just talk about what’s wrong.
You can help a lot just by listening.
The final word
Relationships are complicated and it’s normal if you and your partner aren’t always on the same page.
It’s how you deal with conflict that counts.
Understanding and communicating your own needs can go a long way toward helping you resolve issues.
And seeking to understand what your partner needs can help you provide the right support.
Melody Phu, MA, RP
Melody Phu (she/her) is a BIPOC Registered Psychotherapist based in Toronto, Canada, supporting adults virtually across the province. In her former life as a corporate go-getter and yoga instructor, Melody was inspired by the transformative effects of encouragement, joy, and self-care in people under the duress of hustle culture. Her mission is to remind others that they matter categorically, and that our lives can change once we accept ourselves.