How to Communicate Better: Advice from Relationship Guru John Gray

A leading expert on relationships, Dr. John Gray is the author of the bestselling book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Through his books and seminars, John Gray has spread his message that men and women are inherently different, and that long-lasting, fulfilling relationships must be based on understanding, accepting, and respecting the opposite sex. Here, he offers some advice to those dealing with the challenges of separation and divorce.



Q:Could you tell us about your new workshops for those who are single or single again?

Gray: The first thing we look at in the course, and the first thing a divorced person needs to look at before starting another relationship, is how to understand what went wrong in the previous relationship -- without being too critical of either her ex or herself. This is my message: when we don't understand the differences between men and women, small problems tend to escalate into insoluble problems.

For example, a man starts to lose interest in his wife, and they break up. If you were to look at their pattern of communication during their marriage, you'd probably see that there were times when she just wanted to talk about things, but he would immediately start trying to solve her problems for her -- and both of them ended up totally frustrated. He didn't understand that sometimes women just want to talk about a problem, and not solve it right away. When a man tries to solve problems and he doesn't succeed, after a while he just gives up listening to his wife when she talks about problems. The form of communication they were using promoted frustration rather than greater intimacy.

Both of them need to evaluate what their issues were and how those issues could have been resolved -- again, without being too critical of each other or themselves. Some people move from one relationship to another, blaming their ex for all of the difficulties, and not taking responsibility for how they contributed to the problems in their marriage.

There may be something you do that brings out the worst in the opposite sex. Until you look at that, and discover how to bring out the best in the opposite sex, you won't be ready for a new relationship.

Q:Everyone wants to know why so many marriages end in divorce today. Does it really come down to miscommunication -- communicating at cross purposes until one or both parties give up?

Gray: Well, that's one of the answers, but let's delve a little deeper. The reason there's so much divorce today is that men and women have different expectations of a relationship now than in any other time in history. We want more, but we're not getting it, so we're all dissatisfied. In my parents' generation, my mother never wanted what my wife wants from marriage. Basically, my mother wanted a good provider; my dad was a good provider, so they lived quite happily.

Today, the more independent and autonomous a woman feels, the less she needs or cares about a man being a good provider. When her need for a man to do or be one thing decreases, other needs emerge: for romance, for intimacy, and for communication. Throughout history, men have never really learned how to provide these things. If you go back a few generations, there was no real intimacy between men and women. A man's job was to go out and fight battles for his family; he would sacrifice his life for them, and they needed and appreciated that. But that's not what women want from relationships today. They want to share their hopes, their dreams, their inner world; they want to participate and do things together. Suddenly, we all want a higher level of intimacy, but we haven't yet learned how to accomplish it.

Another new need we have is for lasting passion in relationships. It used to be that when men lost passion for their wives, they would have discreet affairs. Married women would give up on sex if they didn't have the opportunity for affairs. Today, the thinking is: "Why should I have an affair? If I'm not going to have passion with my spouse, I'm just going to leave him or her."

We want greater intimacy and honesty in our marriages; we don't want to fool around to have passion. Never in history have men and women expected lasting passion in marriage; if you wanted really passionate sex, you found it elsewhere. It's a whole new thing to expect passion with the person you're living with, having children with, that you love. And how do you create that? We need new skills -- skills we certainly didn't learn from our parents. Some people watch movies and see married couples who are apparently happily in love, and then they look at their own marriages and say "hey, this isn't happening here." What the movies depict isn't entirely unrealistic; it is possible, but nobody's shown us how to get there.

Historically, love was about duty and obligation. Today, we see it as more of a feeling in the heart: a passion, a desire, a longing to spend time with the other person. It's a magical feeling. Preserving the magical feeling that many couples experience when they first fall in love takes new skills and education.

Q:Do men and women really want different things out of a relationship? You said that women wanted romance, communication, and intimacy -- do men want these things too?

Gray: As men get older, in their 40s and 50s, they want these things as well. But the younger man (and this is always going to be part of a man's life) wants to feel that he is successful in providing happiness for his mate, to experience on a regular basis that he is successful in making her happy.

If you look at what men feel when they leave a woman, or when they're dissatisfied in a relationship, on the surface they might say "oh, she nags too much," or "we don't have sex anymore," but the bottom line is that they feel "no matter what I do, it's never enough to make her happy." Let's say that the surface problem is that they're not having sex. Well, that's often a reason why a man will leave a woman. But beneath that, the reason they stopped having sex is that the relationship didn't make her happy. If the woman is fulfilled in the relationship, the man is going to be fulfilled as well.

Q:Is monogamy important in a relationship?

Gray: Monogamy is the foundation of this new expectation we have for our relationships. If we want passion to last, there has to be monogamy. Some men say that they want open relationships, to be able to fool around, but there's no way they can do that and still have great passion with their wives. Give me a break! If you had great passion with your wife, you wouldn't need to fool around. It's as simple as that. The real passion I have with my wife is beyond anything I can conceive of with anyone else. The fact that a man feels the need to fool around proves that he doesn't have great passion with his wife. This is what makes sex really great: when you're making love to your wife, this is the woman you adore, you love, that you've dedicated your life to -- and you're passionately attracted to.

Here's another answer: if you want to have lasting passion in a relationship, one of the prerequisites is that the woman must be sexually fulfilled. That doesn't mean she has to have an orgasm every time -- that would put too much pressure on the relationship -- but she has to be experiencing peak fulfillment in sex on a regular basis. If she doesn't -- if every time they have sex he just gets off and she doesn't -- then he's not going to feel very successful at sex. And so his attraction to her will become less. When she does experience peak fulfillment, it's a great memorable experience for him that will keep him attracted to her.

There are three major requirements for a woman to feel fulfilled in sex. The first is that you must have a good relationship, with good communication; the second is sexual monogamy; and the third is romance outside of the bedroom.

If he's unfaithful -- even if he doesn't tell her -- the fact that he's taking his sexual energy and sharing it with another woman means he's taking it away from his wife. A woman needs to feel a man's full attention from time to time for her to blossom. Monogamy creates that focus: that she is the number-one person in his life, that she's cherished, that she's not being compared with other women. That gives her the safety for her to open up and become increasingly vulnerable to the man. Over the years, it's like a flower continuing to unfold: deeper levels of her being are able to open up and surrender to him -- and by surrender, I mean open up and let him in, instead of putting up a wall to keep him out. She cannot achieve these deeper levels of intimacy if she suspects that he's going to be with another woman. When life's experiences have proven that he is sticking with her through thick and thin, his loving commitment opens her up to deeper levels of her being, and allows greater passion, which allows sex to get better and better. If she can't continue to open up, sex will become stale, and both of them will lose interest.

To summarize: monogamy makes a woman feel special, and she needs to feel special to open up sexually. You can't just be mechanically a great lover; you need to be monogamous.

And you have to be romantic -- even if you don't feel like it. Men have this idea that they only have to make romantic gestures when they're courting. Once they're married, a man thinks he's giving his wife the big stuff -- like sharing his income with her -- so he doesn't have to do all of the little stuff anymore. But it's the little stuff that builds romance. The man has to continue to bring flowers occasionally. He should be physically affectionate, even when sex isn't planned. He should give her hugs, look at her when she talks -- all the things he did when they were dating. You have to do all these things for the rest of your life if you want your relationship to grow. This doesn't mean you have to do it every day, but from time to time you have to bring back that initial energy that you used to give to her when you were courting.

Of course, it's not all up to the man. Lots of women will be nodding their heads at this point, thinking "yes, he's stopped doing those things: I understand why sex isn't that good nowadays." But there's a flip side: women take men for granted as well, and stop appreciating men for doing the little things. As a woman gets to know her husband, she'll become aware of his little failings -- then she starts pointing out all of the things he does wrong, hoping he'll change. And that kills passion.

My advice to women is to appreciate the things he does and don't point out his mistakes unless, on a scale of one to 10, those mistakes are eight, nine, or 10. A man can deal with you pointing out his mistakes if they're serious, but if you're pointing out mistakes indiscriminately (whether they're a one or a ten), it's a real turn-off. He feels, "if you really loved me, you'd overlook these little mistakes." Sometimes, a man will say, "I cleaned up the whole kitchen, and she comes in and says nothing about how I cleaned it up, only 'you know, you put the pots in the wrong spot.'" That man will never wash another dish! Focus on what he does right, not on the little mistakes he makes. Women aren't taught this stuff, and it's very, very important.

Q:One of the sad things in relationships -- particularly those heading in the direction of separation or divorce -- is that couples seem to get worse rather than better at communicating over the years. And when there are children involved, divorced spouses may need to be in communication for the rest of their lives. How can they break out of this cycle of miscommunication?

Gray: Taking a new approach really helps couples. Couples often start behaving like children: blaming their partner, pointing their finger. There's an old saying: "When you point a finger, three fingers point back at you," which means that you're at least partially responsible for what's going on. You need to look at your own responsibility first. Those three fingers pointing back should remind you that you're behaving like a three-year-old. Couples really need to realize that those forms of communication are childish, and they need to try another formula, which I call "Plan B." Our "Plan A" is usually an automatic reaction, which was probably the way our parents communicated, and the way we communicated in childhood. And why do we regress to this? Because we stopped doing all of those loving things we did in the beginning of our relationship. When people feel loved, they can stay adult. When they start feeling powerless to get their needs met, then they start regressing and behaving like children -- a time when we really were powerless to get our needs met. We start becoming too dependent on our partners, and forget that we have power ourselves to get things done as mature adults.

We need new communication skills, and step one in learning new skills is: woman talks; man listens; woman thanks man for listening. The woman feels that her concerns are being heard, and the man isn't trying to fix her, solve her problems, or argue with her. And if she thanks the man for listening, he learns an important skill: the importance of listening to a woman's feelings instead of trying to give her a solution right away. If you listen to a woman's feelings, all the way through the range of them, she has practically nothing more to say. At that point, she's going to be much more open to finding a solution to the problem. But men want to jump right in, skip the feelings, and rush right to the solution. And that formula doesn't work. When he wants to give a solution, and she's not ready to hear the solution, that's when he starts becoming childish and argumentative.

For instance, she might say, "The kids aren't doing their homework," and he jumps right in and responds, "Well, I've already talked to the kids and asked them to do it, but the other day you said X, Y, and Z and that's why they're not doing their homework -- you let them do X." And now you're into a petty back-and-forth argument. Instead, when she complains that the kids aren't doing their homework, he should say, "Oh really?" and just let her talk out the whole problem from her point of view. Then she'll be ready to hear -- and appreciate -- his solution.

Step Two is true adult conversation: she talks, then he talks, then she talks, then he talks, then they come to a solution. But before they can have this type of conversation, her need (which is to be heard) must be met, then his need (which is to be appreciated) must be met. And what she appreciates him for is for giving her his full attention.

Q:I'm thinking of an example of this sort of childish communication. A couple who's been divorced a few years has two young kids, so they have a lot to talk about. Their conversations tend to begin with a simple topic or problem, and rapidly escalate into their particular brand of argument: the woman becomes a screaming maniac, and the man becomes ultra-calm and obsessively rational. I think society would tend to side with the man, but aren't they both to blame for their communication problems?

Gray: I agree that his becoming analytical and objective and trying to solve the problem is driving her crazy. He's really saying to her that her feelings make no sense and she has no right to be upset about this, and that makes women go crazy. She's not trying to be illogical, she just wants to share her feelings before getting to the logical part.

Q:So, should he just try listening to her instead of being reasonable?

Gray: He should be empathetic, and say, "Let's talk about a solution at a later time. Let me understand what you're going through, let me ask questions." Then she needs to appreciate him for listening. Then later, they can come back and have their problem-solving conversation. And she should initiate that. She should say, "I really feel heard, so now I'd like to hear what you have to say, and together we'll come up with a solution."

Q:Just listening will be difficult for a man because, particularly in the context of divorce, some of what he's going to be hearing will be hurtful. How does he listen without becoming upset?

Gray: One thing she can do when she sees he's becoming upset is to say, "I know this must be hard to hear. It sounds like I'm blaming you, but I'm really just expressing my feelings. And after I explore my feelings about it, I'll feel much better." That always helps. She can also say, "You don't have to say or do anything about this. I just need you to understand what I'm going through, and my feelings will shift."

Q:What advice would you give people who would like to start dating again?

Gray: When you're ready to start dating again, you shouldn't go out looking for "the perfect person." You need to experiment, to be with several people and get your feet wet before you dive into the deep end. Don't expect to find the person you want to marry right away. You're going to be a little gun-shy, a little hesitant, and that's perfectly normal.

I also recommend that you take a course on relationships that makes you feel good and excited about relationships. If the end of your marriage was painful, it's hard to go right back into a relationship. You need to get involved in some kind of support group or educational class. For instance, my "Mars-Venus Workshop" is an upbeat class about the positive aspects of relationships. If you're in a support group about how terrible ex-husbands are, you're not going to want to get married again. You need to surround yourself with people who are having good experiences with relationships. That helps you to focus on the positive -- what's great about relationships -- rather than on the negative -- what doesn't work in relationships.

Q:It seems that some people never get over their divorce. We get letters from people who have been divorced for 30 years, and they're still as hurt, angry, and bitter as though it happened only yesterday.What can they do about that?

Gray: Bitterness and emotional negativity [can prevent] emotional healing after a relationship ends. I recommend that you do an emotional inventory: first, make a list of how your partner contributed to the breakup -- everything you're angry about, everything you're hurt about -- then write a letter to yourself exploring the feelings that come up for you. Then you need to take a look at your responsibility for the breakup. I wrote a book called What You Feel, You Can Heal with specific exercises for people to heal from past relationships -- to forgive their partners, and themselves, so they can move on.

You have to reassess your relationship from the point of view of not being too judgmental, too critical, and too blaming -- and that's really what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is the key to opening up into another relationship. For some people, that might mean going to counseling and talking about your hurt with someone who can understand; finally, your hurt is healed and then you can forgive. As long as you walk around with that hurt, you're probably not going to be able to find someone who will love you.

Q:Many relationship experts have said that we tend to remarry essentially the same person in a different body. Is it possible to remarry someone exactly like your ex, but have it work this time because you've learned how to communicate properly?

Gray: I have seen over and over again that the second or third time is a charm. We marry the same person over and over again, but with age and wisdom, we can learn how to bring out the best instead of the worst in them. If you do have this repeating pattern, if the same kind of person keeps coming into your life, learn to bring out the best in them. And that's how your relationships can just keep getting better.

Divorce Magazine provides advice and support for those coping with separation, divorce, and remarriage. For more tips and stories, visit www.DivorceMagazine.com.

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