The dynamics have changed. Here’s how to cultivate a healthy relationship now.
One quiet evening with my former girlfriend Justine, I asked what I thought would be a simple question: “What can I do better in our relationship?”
While we had built our relationship on speaking the truth, and I was expecting something fun or flirty such as “Flowers, please,” “Take me out more,” or “You could take off my clothes right now.” Instead, she looked at me directly and said, “I don’t like the way you kiss.”
I lost my breath and my head started to spin. Since I was a teacher of relationships, I had prided myself on my sexual expertise. In particular, I considered myself an excellent kisser. The fact that she didn’t even like my kissing skills ripped my heart from my chest and devastated my ego.
Somehow, through my overwhelm, I realized I had three choices in that moment:
(2) Get up on my high horse and punish her for her truth (“You’re crazy, every other woman has liked my kissing—what’s wrong with you?”)
(3) Get curious
I chose door number 3.
“Okay,” I said as evenly as I could muster. “What don’t you like about it? What can I do better?”
Her face, which had been neutral, turned to a deep smile and she moved closer to me on our bed. Then she looked into my eyes to make sure my request for more information was sincere. She told me later that no man had ever received her speaking her raw truth, and she was surprised. She was used to fragile male egos, which would have blocked her.
She took my face in her hands with her warm fingers, angled my head slightly, and leaned in close. I could smell the clean scent of her skin and breath as her lips came in light contact with mine. I responded by opening my mouth. She paused for a moment, said quietly, “Now, go slower … yes … a little less tongue … push your lips into mine and tease my tongue into your mouth … uh … yes.”
This pivotal moment taught me several valuable lessons about women. First, they normally do not feel sufficiently safe to tell men the truth. Second, I witnessed myself responding to a truth I didn’t like. Initially, I started to build up my defenses and accusations to protect my ego—from what? The fact my girlfriend didn’t like the way I kissed? No, from the revelation that my self-image as a quintessential lover wasn’t accurate. I didn’t want to confront my own feelings of inadequacy. Lastly, I learned that, if I listened deeply, then I could learn something and ultimately my life would improve. My willingness to listen improved my sex life dramatically.
Through my years of teaching, and my own experiences with ex-girlfriends like Justine and my wife, Morgan, I’ve learned a few things about what women really want and need from men.
#1 | Kindness
When I asked my teacher for the secret to a powerful relationship, he said simply, “Be nice.” When I attempted to get more details, he recommended I not complicate matters; just understand that when we treat people well, they tend to stay with us. “Being nice is telling the truth without anger,” he said.
My personal commitment in my relationships is to speak the truth in the moment of disconnection with the least amount of charge. This process can be sometimes logistically difficult, emotionally challenging, or downright scary. However, when you delay speaking your truth, the pain can easily increase and the chasm of disconnection expand exponentially over time. My choice is to confront an issue as soon as possible. Here is an example of pristine communication around a charged moment between Morgan and myself.
Me: Can we stop for a second? When you said you don’t care, I felt invalidated and unimportant. I was surprised by it.
Her: Oh, I’m sorry. I can understand how my words could have you feel.
Me: Thank you, I appreciate that. Thank you for apologizing. Would you let me know what your motivation was for saying you don’t care?
Her: I actually meant I didn’t care if we went to that specific restaurant. I do care about going with you, but just not the location!
Me: Got it. I totally misheard that. Thank you for clearing it up.
Her: I really appreciate you asking for clarification.
Me: My pleasure.
The result: Going from disconnection to connection in less than 20 seconds.
Instead of holding onto the impact of the miscommunication, I took the extra step to keep things clear. I had the option of imbuing my first comment with my own litany of pain and baggage. I could have conflated every time a woman had said something that had me feel shame and brought all those ghosts into this communication. But it’s my responsibility to speak my truth in the moment without lumping her in with old wounds.
Being kind doesn’t mean your boundaries get trampled. If someone has a disconnection with you and they are speaking to you with anger, I would recommend using a statement such as: “I completely want to understand your experience, but I cannot hear you right now. Would you be willing to be still for a couple of moments so the anger can settle? Then we can start again.”
However, kindness does mean to be willing to put your own agenda aside for a moment in order to connect with the other person. It means being mindful of each element of your communication to ensure you are communicating with clarity. Being kind also means choosing connection over being right. We spend a lot of time and energy ensuring we land on top in most situations. The expert communicator is willing to let go of his need or status in order to make sure the other person feels heard and regarded. It means putting your ego aside in service to connection.
#2 | Presence
One night, Morgan and I were discussing some challenges she was having with the children. I listened intently and, when she was finished, I started to give her some feedback: what I had noticed and what I thought she should do. While I was talking, her face constricted into a slight frown. I stopped immediately.
Me: Is there something wrong?
Her: I really just wanted you to validate my feelings.
Me: Oops, my masculine got in the way there. I apologize. Pause! Rewind! Let me try that again!
I’ve learned the primary thing women want from men is presence. This buzzword has been discussed by many self-development teachers, for good reason. Women want a man who can stand on his own two feet, feel into his body, and stay centered. My definition of presence is simply a demonstration of a man’s solid belief in who he is and how he shows up: available, aware, conscious.
A woman wants a container where she can feel safe to express herself fully, and a man’s presence provides this for her. She wants to be able to emote her feelings, describe her sexual desires, speak her inspirations. As teacher David Deida puts it: “When a woman gets emotionally intense, a mediocre man wants to calm her down and discuss it, or leave and come back later when she is ‘sane.’ A superior man penetrates her mood with imperturbable love and unwavering consciousness.”
The pathway to imperturbable love is through building your own confidence and having your own form of self-validation. If your sanity rests in the woman, then your presence will waver with her ups and downs, making it difficult to hold your center.
It is important to make one distinction: You are not responsible for your partner’s feelings. We often make statements like “You hurt my feelings” or “Stop making me feel bad.” These are misleading, as we are always 100 percent responsible for our own emotions. We can choose how we respond to someone else’s behavior. When you are present with a woman, you can start to notice the difference between the stimuli you provide and her reaction to that stimuli, while focusing on making more deliberate communications. This is called keeping your side of the street clean.
#3 | Curiosity
We are instilled with a natural sense of curiosity. When we were young, the world was new and we tested every aspect of it. We would touch things, put objects into our mouths, and get into as much mischief as we could out of innocent curiosity. As we get older, we either continue being curious or start to disassociate from this human attribute.
Women love when a man is curious about them. They tend to spend an inordinate amount of time working on both their inner and outer selves. A man who notices and asks questions will instantly win points:
Is that a new purse?
Did you get a haircut?
How are you doing?
Morgan has described a past boyfriend who wouldn’t ever ask about her day. She requested several times that he just ask, but he replied that, after his challenging day, he was incapable of even asking a simple question.
Miscue! Women want quality attention. You can be sure I ask this daily. I do this for my own pleasure, but also because I want Morgan to know how important she is to me. It is an example of a win-win cycle.
Men and women perceive the world through our diverse experiences, biology, and life force. Women want their various views and ideas to be—at a minimum—received by men. What they most want is for you to take the time to hear and consider them. They are less interested in you agreeing with them. They just want to be heard.
They do not want to be shamed or criticized for their viewpoints, which is a common experience. In fact, they want to be rewarded for taking the risk of telling you their truth. It takes courage for them. If you practice curiosity with women in these moments, you can avoid a lot of conflict, and built a lot of trust.
In my experience, kindness, presence, and curiosity form a foundation for a healthy relationship with a woman. In my next article, we’ll get more intimate and talk about how to make a woman feel both safe and turned on.
Robert Kandell is a relationship coach, business consultant, and host of the Tuff Love podcast. This is excerpted from his book Unhidden: A Book for Men and Those Confused by Them.