I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)
Part V. How He Grows
Chapter 14. Relationship Red Flags
I knew what it was right away.
As I approached the steps to go up onto our wooden deck in the backyard, I glanced down. Just in front of the first step, I saw tiny, brown granules on the concrete. I tried to convince myself it was just dirt that had blown up against the step, but I knew from experience what it was: frass.
Frass is a fancy word for “termite droppings.” I’ve seen it over the years and knew what it meant. Termites can eat through an entire piece of wood, leaving only a skeletal structure on the inside without touching the outside. That’s why termites are so damaging. You don’t know any damage is being done because everything looks fine on the outside. But what looks like an intact piece of wood has become a hollow shell. You only realize the problem when your foot goes through the board. Or your house falls down.
But long before that, the frass appears. It’s a hint that there’s a problem.
I saw the frass, and my mind started running. I immediately started thinking of the cost of calling an exterminator. Then I added the cost of replacing the damaged wood. Then I pictured the hassle of moving out while the house was being tented. I didn’t know how much damage had already been done, but I knew there was a problem.
I’m a guy, and I needed a solution. So I grabbed a broom and swept it away.
Over the next few months, the frass kept reappearing, and I kept sweeping it away. I never mentioned it to my wife, because that would mean I would have to admit (to her and myself) that there was a problem. As long as there was no frass, there was no problem.
Finally, I realized that the frass was appearing more frequently. So we ended up talking about it and decided what to do. I removed the board, treated the steps, and replaced the damaged wood. I had caught it early enough that it wasn’t that difficult to fix. We eventually had a professional come and inspect the house because we realized the danger of ignoring termite prevention. There were a few more places that needed treatment, and he took care of them.
The outcome? We don’t worry about termites right now because we took care of the problem.
But I’m always on the lookout for frass.
When you buy a new house, you do an initial inspection. If you see frass, you give serious thought to the condition of the house. If there’s no frass, you assume it’s ok and you move in. You’re excited about what it will be like living in your new place. Frass is the last thing on your mind, and you start decorating.
That’s true in relationships as well. When you first start connecting with a man, you’re “inspecting” him. He’s interesting and he looks good. You can see yourself being in a relationship with him. You look for frass, deciding if he’s a solid investment or not. If you don’t see it, you move forward with excitement and assume everything is ok.
Sometime later, you notice the little frass pellets. You catch a look you haven’t seen before, or hear an attitude in his voice, or sense an unfamiliar frustration. It’s barely on your consciousness and it feels uncomfortable. You don’t want to address it because you don’t want to question this exciting new relationship. So you sweep it away.
Soon it happens again. Then it becomes more frequent but you hope it’s not a real problem. After a while you see a pattern and you can’t ignore it any longer.
When you bring it up he becomes defensive and upset. Over time it becomes an “untouchable” area. Your relationship suffers and your communication is unhealthy. It feels like it’s never going to change, and you’ve lost the opportunity to have the healthy relationship we’ve been discussing in previous chapters.
Is it too late? Is there hope?
Simply stated, it’s never too late as long as both parties are still breathing. People can change, and often do when least expected (and for the quirkiest reasons). There is always hope.
There are never guarantees.
We’re assuming here that the relationship hasn’t become toxic. When there are serious issues, a book like this will guide you toward understanding what those issues are but it won’t solve them. For that, you may need professional help. When relationships are damaged, there’s not a quick fix.
If I scratch my finger, I grab a bandage and some antiseptic to start the healing. But if a cancerous tumor appears, I’ll need the skills of an experienced medical professional.
The severity of the problem determines the appropriate treatment. Some of the symptoms to watch for might include some of the following:
· Your man tends to be generally negative during conversations.
· He tries to manipulate you by saying things like, “If you really cared about me, you would stay home tonight instead of going to that yoga class.”
· He uses absolutes: “You never …” or “You always …”
· He uses humor to deflect conflict.
· He changes the subject whenever things get uncomfortable.
· He minimizes your opinion: “Oh, just let it go. You’re being unreasonable.”
· He never has an opinion, and just gives in to whatever you want to keep the peace.
Most people respond in one or more of these ways from time to time. If your man shows one of these symptoms occasionally, it doesn’t mean there’s a major problem. The two things to look for are number and frequency. The more of these symptoms you see and the more frequently they appear, the greater the need to address the situation.
The question is, “How do I deal with those red flags in my relationship?”
Fear of Frass
Some women are afraid to bring up tough issues with their man, especially early in a relationship. They’re afraid of losing him, so they pretend everything is ok. That is building the relationship on a base of dishonesty, keeping it from going deep because you’re not letting him inside. Over time you begin to resent him because the issue isn’t going away. He senses this and pulls away even further. It’s not fair to him because you haven’t said anything.
As a woman gets frustrated over these unresolved issues, and she doesn’t know what to do, she might confront him or lash out, telling him in so many words that he needs to get his act together. It’s the only thing she knows that will get some type of reaction from him. If I don’t somehow keep after him, he’ll never change.
Whether she says it aloud or thinks it to herself, that last sentence is the heart of the problem. A woman’s most common response to relationship difficulties is to feel like her life will never improve until her man changes. Unfortunately, that attitude can be a recipe for disaster. It makes two assumptions:
1. You can change another person.
2. The other person is the problem.
We talked about this a bit earlier in this book, but let’s revisit both of those assumptions individually.
Assumption #1—You can change another person.
My book People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys focuses on the futility of basing our happiness on another person’s choices. Anytime our personal sense of wholeness comes from what another person does, it lets us see ourselves as a victim. We’re no longer taking responsibility for our life; we’ve given it to another person. As Eleanor Roosevelt purportedly said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
A healthy relationship is made of two healthy people, not two half-healthy people hoping to become whole. I can’t force another person to change, but I can influence them. How? By changing the one person I do have control over: myself. When I grow and change, the other person is living with a different person. When that happens, it’s natural for them to respond differently to that “new” person.
There are some things a man can change and some things he can’t. If he’s practicing bad behavior, that’s something he can work on and make better choices. He needs to make those changes. But if his response is because of how he’s wired as a man, trying to change him can only lead to frustration.
Assumption #2—The other person is the problem.
“Well, isn’t it obvious?” you might ask. “Everything was fine with me, but now he comes into the picture and messes it all up.”
Now, let’s stand back and look at that statement objectively. Someone on the outside would say, “That sounds a little arrogant.” It implies that the woman’s way of doing things is correct and the man needs to change. It leaves out the fact that she might need to adapt to his way of doing things too, and implies that the only solution is for him to become more like a woman—and the chance of that happening is nonexistent.
Bringing two people together into a relationship doesn’t work if it reduces one person or the other. A relationship works when both people come together with all their uniqueness and differences and become a team. On that team, they become something stronger together than either of them are separately. They experience synergy.
How to Change a Man
What’s the best way to approach a man when he’s gone beyond the frass stage and you’re sensing that he’s become hollow inside? There’s a solution that has a better chance of working, even though it’s not guaranteed. It’s much better than confronting and attacking him, which is almost always guaranteed to not work.
It happens when you accept his maleness and embrace it rather than trying to change it.
That’s probably not the solution you were looking for. It probably feels like you’re giving up any hope of him changing and you’re going to have to live with his stuff forever.
Remember, we’re not talking about bad behavior. If he always leaves a mess in the kitchen right after you’ve cleaned it, he’s disrespecting you. That’s bad behavior, and it’s something he can change (and needs to). We’re talking about those characteristics that are there because he’s a man.
We’ve seen that a man has a hardwired need to feel effective and make a difference. For a good man, the place he most wants to see that happen is in his relationship with you.
When you notice things that irritate you, it’s easy to make assumptions about his motives. You feel like his feelings toward you are negative and he’s on a mission to make your life miserable. That’s a dangerous assumption, because he could very well be trying to love you well—but it’s not working the way he intended. He tries, but he sees you focusing on what you’re not getting rather than what his intent is. That’s frustrating for him because he doesn’t know how to solve the problem (and he’s all about solving problems).
Let’s say you’ve spent the last hour cleaning and polishing the wood floor in the kitchen. The next time you walk through, you see his dusty footprints. Your first reaction is frustration or anger: I just worked hard on that floor, and he comes in and messes it up. Doesn’t he care that I spent so much time making it look nice?
Yes, he cares—or he would if he had noticed. He doesn’t notice dirt. He also doesn’t see clean. If he didn’t see you working on the floor, he probably didn’t notice the floor looking any different. Consider how this might look from his perspective.
Maybe, at the same time, he was outside working on a flowerbed you asked him to build. He was doing it because he wanted to make you happy. He was focused on the project and excited to show you. He’s that little boy again saying, “Look at what I did!” The clean floor was not even on his radar.
Suddenly he’s in trouble. He wasn’t being malicious or intentional about messing up your floor. He was just being a man and didn’t notice the floor because his focus was somewhere else. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it with him. But your reaction needs to come from understanding how he thinks and how excited he is rather than from an assumption about his motives.
It’s easier to clean the dirt off the floor than to repair his broken spirit. Ignore the floor this time, and go share his excitement over the flowerbed. Let him know how much you appreciate it and what a good job he did. When you both go back into the house, you could kindly say, “Whoops! I think we’re bringing some dirt in from outside. Would you mind wiping your feet before you come in? Thanks!”
If you’re not accepting his natural characteristics, it’s easy to focus on how they’re impacting you. You’re thinking about how bad you feel about what he’s doing. You put up barriers to protect yourself, such as believing that your perception of his motives is accurate. You don’t let him in because you don’t want to get hurt.
In relationships where people irritate each other constantly, the root cause is often wishing the other person would change instead of accepting the reality of who they are.
When people finally learn to accept each other as they are wired, everybody gets to relax. When you both feel accepted for who you are as individuals, you both feel safe. You get to be yourself in the relationship. That’s when real growth can take place.
It’s also interesting that the things we’re most irritated by in relationships are often the very things that attracted us to each other in the first place. You fell in love with his strong personality, but now it feels overbearing. You loved his quiet confidence, but now he doesn’t talk.
You think, What happened? Why did he change? He didn’t. You now simply see both sides of that characteristic.
Escaping the Prison Camp
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning after his time in a Nazi concentration camp, said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He watched people in the worst circumstances give up and die when they focused on the circumstances they had no control of while others survived in the same situation by focusing on their responses to those circumstances.
You might feel like you’re imprisoned and there’s no hope of anything changing. You’re trapped, and it’s all his fault. You’re sure he’ll never change and you fantasize about escape. What’s the solution?
It goes back to the Serenity Prayer, penned by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Anytime we try to change another person, we’re operating from the belief that they’re wrong and need to change. It’s their problem. They’re the problem. We’re right, so nothing will change unless they change. But look at the implications of those three lines of the prayer:
Things I cannot change—the characteristics of his manhood and the unique traits that make up his personality and temperament.
Things I can change—the behaviors he has picked up over his lifetime that influence the relationship.
Wisdom to know the difference—we’re careful not to mix up the two.
If you focus only on the things you can’t change, you’ll always be a victim. Accepting their reality is the foundation for freedom.
The Bottom Line
The time to deal with frass is when it first appears. It’s a symptom of a potential problem that can damage a relationship if it’s not dealt with early.
How do you deal with relationship frass? By communicating about it and accepting each other and your uniqueness. You’re dealing with the frass as a team, not ignoring it in isolation.
When both people feel that they are accepted for who they are, it gives them the freedom to dream of a frass-free life.