Therapists often hear an honest account of what their patients are really thinking and feeling when it comes to their romantic relationships, as opposed to the more polished versions people share with friends and family.
We first asked therapists to reveal the most common complaints men have about their partners. Then we asked another group of therapists to do the same, this time focusing on their female clients. Below, find out what women are saying about their partners in therapy and how these mental health professionals help them work through the issues.
I feel like my partner isn’t pulling their weight around the house or with the kids.
Among the women marriage and family therapist Jennifer Chappell Marsh works with, a common complaint is that their male partners aren’t stepping up enough when it comes to completing household chores or taking care of the kids. And even when their partners do pitch in (as they should!), the emotional or mental load still tends to fall on women’s shoulders.
“The mental workload is a real-life phenomenon that refers to the invisible work of being the ‘knower’ and ‘manager’ of the household,” Marsh explained. “Women are expected to notice and delegate when the groceries are low, organize the social calendar, plan for child care, schedule doctor appointments, meet school obligations and buy family or friends gifts. Sure, women can ask for their partner’s help, but it still means that they are in the managerial role and they risk being labeled as a ‘nag.’”
Therapist Deborah Duley of Empowered Connections, a counseling practice that specializes in women, girls and the LGBTQ+ community, said that she hears this same complaint from her female clients in queer relationships. To deal with the issue, she advises them to calmly communicate that they’re feeling overwhelmed and list specific tasks they would like their partner to take over. In many cases, the other partner is unaware of just how much their wife is taking on or is unsure how best to help.
“Having a specific chore they can do like start dinner, give the kids a bath or vacuum the living room seems to help the partner feel more helpful and my client begin to feel more supported, which is a win-win,” Duley said.
My partner tells me I’m being “crazy” or “irrational.”
Words like “crazy” or “irrational” have a long history of being used to dismiss or undermine women’s often legitimate feelings or experiences. When someone, particularly a partner, slaps you with this label, it can be both hurtful and frustrating.
“This is called ‘emotion dismissing,’” said couples therapist Laura Heck, co-host of the podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. “It is a crummy attempt to tamper big emotions, usually because your partner is uncomfortable with these emotions in other people. When we experience emotions like anger, sadness or frustration, we turn to our partner for support. Unfortunately, our partner may be downright terrified of these emotions and do anything they can to stop your feelings from coming out.”
In these scenarios, Heck recommends asking yourself: “What does my partner’s reaction to my sadness say about them?”
My partner doesn’t communicate how they’re feeling.
Women tend to feel more emotionally connected to their partners when they’re able to talk openly about their feelings and know that their partner feels comfortable doing the same, Marsh said. When it’s one-sided — one partner is opening up, while the other is not — it can lead to a disconnect.
“Emotional connection fuels positive perceptions of the self and relationship: I am important to my partner, my partner is there for me and my spouse cares about me,” she said. “The reverse is also true. When women feel emotionally disconnected, they often report a struggle to feel important, loved and close to their partner.”
Marsh said that cultural norms and gender expectations may be responsible for why, particularly in heterosexual relationships, men may have more trouble identifying and discussing their feelings.
“Most men are taught to not wear their emotions on their sleeve,” she said. “In relationships, this often gets misinterpreted as not caring or wanting to connect with their spouse.”
To address the issue, Marsh suggests that the couple regularly sets aside time to connect and communicate.
“In that time, it’s essential to create an environment that feels relaxed and safe,” she said. “The more non-judgmental and accepting the tone of the conversation, the more likely their partner will feel comfortable exploring their emotions with words.”
I feel sexually invisible to my partner.
During a long-term relationship, it’s not uncommon for periods of sexlessness to arise or for intimacy to decrease over time. It takes work to keep that sexual spark burning bright. Duley’s female clients often share that they no longer feel desired by their partners like they did in the early days of the relationship.
“They feel the longer they’re together with their person, whether married or living together, the more invisible they feel to their partner,” she said. “When exploring this further, it usually seems that life has gotten in the way and they haven’t taken time to really nurture their relationship on a continuous basis.”
To start getting back in a groove, Duley recommends that the couple revisit some of the dates or other fun activities they once enjoyed together and make a point to do them.
Women can also try doing things that make them feel sexier or more confident (getting in a good workout routine, putting on a favorite outfit or having a solo dance party), while also trying to improve the intimate connection with their partners (through cuddling, sexting or a good ol’ make-out session). Soon, that sexy sparkle should make its way back into the relationship.
I don’t understand why my partner doesn’t care about something that’s important to me.
A number of therapist Susan Pease Gadoua’s female clients have shared that they are upset by or dissatisfied with the way their male partners respond to their emotions. They assume that because their partner doesn’t react the same way to a distressing situation, it must mean they don’t care about it. But most of the time, that’s not the case, Gadoua said. They do care; they just process these emotional situations in a different way — perhaps because they compartmentalize their feelings, perhaps because they’re taught from a young age to conceal their emotions.
“In a session I had recently with one couple, the wife told her husband that she was very upset about his reaction to her breaking her leg in a skiing accident,” said Gadoua, co-author of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels.” “Rather than being empathetic for her physical pain and lost mobility and time off work, his response to her was to ‘get over it,’ followed by letting her know that he no longer wanted to talk about it. She was devastated by how cold and uncaring he could be. He later realized that he was basically treating her the way he treats himself. Males are socialized to ‘power through’ pain, problems and fears.”
My partner isn’t affectionate with me.
“I am always at a loss when women come into my office and spend the session criticizing their partner with a variety of insults and attacks and then say, ‘You never show me love and affection,’” Heck said.
In these instances, Heck said, the woman has usually made a number of bids for affection — asking her partner to sit next to her on the couch so they can cuddle or reaching out to hold her S.O.’s hand on a walk — that have gone unnoticed by her partner. Then she gets fed up and lashes out, hoping to get some type of response from her partner, even if it’s not the one she wanted.
“It isn’t until she unleashes the 50-pound cannonball that he finally responds,” Heck said. “The response is never the love and affection she wants but at least it’s something, right? Try finding any small gesture of love, kindness and affection to reward and do it often. Remember, we get more of what we reward.”