(Oprah.com) — Here’s a closely guarded secret: Women have more influence over men than they think. Psychologist Jay Carter talks to Michelle Burford about male self-esteem, the criticism that could demolish a man and what male intimacy is really about.
Twenty-six years of counseling men and couples have given Jay Carter an unusually clear window into men’s hearts and minds. Carter’s observations are so eye-opening that we asked him about everything from finding the key to a man’s inner life to the best way to chew him out when you’re mad:
Michelle Burford: You’ve written that most women have no idea of their power to wound men. Where does this power originate?
Jay Carter: During a boy’s most important developmental period — his first five years — he usually gets his self-esteem from his mother. I think some of Freud’s theories are hogwash, but I believe he was right about at least one: Whereas a girl might choose to grow up to become like her mother in certain ways, a boy tries to be becoming to his mother — to make her proud.
Years later, when he meets someone he wants to spend his life with, he unconsciously gives her what I call his “jujube doll” — a kind of voodoo-like name I have for the part of a man’s self-esteem that’s vulnerable to a woman’s opinion of him. If she sticks a pin in his doll, he recoils. Most women I talk with don’t realize what kind of influence they have over men.
Burford: Doesn’t a woman likewise hand over part of her power to the most significant man in her life?
Carter: Yes, but she does it by sharing her most private feelings. The seat of a woman’s soul is her emotions. A woman usually believes you know her when you know what she feels. But the seat of a man’s soul is his intent or purpose.
That’s why when a woman bares her soul by disclosing her feelings, a man often doesn’t recognize that as significant. He’s been socialized to discount feelings.
For him, baring the soul means sharing his hopes and dreams. He may say things that seem boring, silly or outlandish: “You know what I’d do if I had $20,000? I’d invest it in lotto.” But if a woman really listens, he’ll share more.
After a failure, a man might express his intentions by saying, “I know I’ve messed up, but here’s what I wanted for our family.” When a woman understands this, she can begin to share her own intentions as a way of drawing him closer. Men respect hopes and dreams. That’s a language they speak.
Burford: In your book “Nasty Women,” you state that men are more word-oriented. But aren’t women considered more verbal?
Carter: Yes, but research on gender differences has proven that men tend to take words more literally and to hear them in more sweeping terms.
Let’s say a woman asks her husband to pick up a half-gallon of orange juice after work. When he arrives home empty-handed, she’s irritated.
She might offhandedly say, “You are so irresponsible.” All he hears is the word irresponsible. He believes she’s saying he’s irresponsible in general. He thinks, “What about all the months I paid the mortgage? Does one slipup erase all my effort? And why is she overreacting?”
With his self-esteem wounded, he may launch into a defense about what it means to be responsible. She gets frustrated because he’s so caught up in words that he doesn’t acknowledge her feelings — and that’s usually because he doesn’t remember how important feelings are to her.
Burford: What if the man really is irresponsible? How do you communicate that without inciting a gender missile crisis?
Carter: If you decide you want to keep the man around, don’t use the word irresponsible. You can call him a jerk or even an ass and it won’t devastate him, because what is a jerk? That’s not concretely definable. But what a man feels when you call him irresponsible is what a woman feels when you call her a bitch. It’s the ultimate insult. So if you’re angry at a man, just call him a bitch.
Burford: Suppose a woman tunes in to her partner’s intentions but he doesn’t reciprocate by hearing her needs. How can she convey her frustration without becoming a nag or know-it-all?
Carter: She can get his attention through action. If a man leaves his pajamas on the floor, a woman might get so upset that she’ll accuse him of disregarding her feelings. Then for two days, he’ll pick up the PJs to avoid an emotional outburst.
But if two men were living together, one would simply say to the other, “Do you think you could put away your smelly pajamas before my girlfriend gets here?” The other agrees — but still leaves his PJs out. So his roommate finally says with a grin, “The next time you leave your pajamas out, I’m gonna burn ’em in the backyard.” He does. When the other guy looks for his PJs, he finds a smoldering pile of cloth.
That’s how men operate. They don’t call each other irresponsible or accuse each other of not caring about feelings; they simply burn the damn pajamas. For a woman to get a man’s attention without bruising his jujube doll, she has to show rather than tell.
Burford: You’ve written that when a woman begins to care deeply for a man, he becomes her home-improvement project. Why?
Carter:A woman often marries a man for his potential. If women married men for who they actually were, there would be far fewer marriages. When a woman loves a man, she says to herself, ‘I could improve him. Once we’re together, things will be different.’
Since I began my practice in 1977, I’ve heard this refrain hundreds of times. I try to get it across to the woman that what she sees is what she gets. This is him. If he’s drinking every Friday and Saturday night, look forward to a lifetime of weekend alcoholism. He may cut out Friday, but he’ll still be a drinker.
Men tend to resist change. In fact, one of the most prized characteristics of a man’s friendship with other men is total acceptance. When a woman begins to encourage a man to live up to his potential, he misunderstands that as her overall dissatisfaction with him. What he feels is tantamount to what women feel when men don’t hear and respond to what they say they need.
Burford: How might the relationship unravel when she expresses her disappointment?
Carter:The man may initially improve according to her recommendations — remember, he has a lot invested in what she thinks of him. But over time, he becomes slower to respond. The there’s the day when she inadvertently steps on his jujube doll with a spiked heel, and it’s so painful that he snatches his self-esteem back.
That’s the day she loses significant influence. He tries to make himself not care what she thinks, which is why she begins to feel he’s emotionally distant. He stops connecting. He doesn’t look her in the eyes unless he’s angry. When the marriage is on the brink of breakup, the woman drags him into my office. That’s when I hear what almost any therapist can tell you is the most repeated phrase among men: “No matter what I do, I can never please this woman.”
While she’s been genuinely trying to improve him with the best of intentions, he’s been feeling her efforts as a shot to his self-esteem. After all the work she has put into him — he finally eats with his mouth closed, he doesn’t say ignorant things — he may run off with another woman.
That’s often because he’s looking for someone who will think the world of him — someone who will see him as he thinks his wife once did. What he doesn’t know is that he’s bound to repeat the cycle because he hasn’t done the work of understanding himself, the woman in his life, and the differences in how they communicate. He thinks his new woman is looking enraptured because he’s the greatest, but what she’s actually thinking is, “Wow — what potential.”
Burford: Once a man has snatched away his “jujube doll,” can a woman ever get it back?
Carter: Yes. She can sit down with him and say something like ‘It wasn’t my intention to hurt you, but I have. I really do think you’re a wonderful man.’ He may never admit that there are heel marks all over his doll, but if she approaches him this way, he’ll slowly open up again.
Burford: How can a woman encourage her partner to reach his full potential without hurting his self-esteem?
A: By stroking the jujube doll before bringing the hammer down. Let’s say a man leaves his McDonald’s wrappers all over the car. The woman is angry that he’s inconsiderate of her desire to drive without bits of cheese, pickles, and dried ketchup stuck to the steering wheel. What should she say?
“I see how organized you are by the way you keep your desk, which is why I’m a bit surprised about the wreck our car is.” Because she has first acknowledged the big picture — “I know you’re a neat guy” — the criticism doesn’t sting. And if she keeps the whole thing light, she’ll get a laugh out of him before he heads out to clean the car.
I’m not suggesting that women spend their lives enabling and patronizing. This is not about telling a man he has the brightest gold chain or the biggest penis. Emphasizing a man’s positive qualities is acknowledging the complete picture of who he is and what he has already done right.
Burford: After nearly three decades of counseling men, do you think most really want to please women?
Carter: Oh, yes! And I believe that a man will feel even more motivated to please a woman he loves if he knows that, in general, she already thinks the world of him. Once a woman tells a man how responsible and caring he is, he’ll usually do all he can to live up to that image. Just to make her proud, he’ll rise up and move mountains.