From time to time, I deliver presentations in the community related to marriage. I have noticed that a common question comes up repeatedly from the married males in my audiences. I am asked this question often enough that I am choosing to address it in a blog post.
Before I address the specific question, I want to be clear that I believe these inquiries are coming from individuals in relatively low to moderately-distressed marriages. Many people in my audiences are feeling well in their marriages and are looking for improving upon what is already a solid foundation. I’m making that clear because I realize that this point of view isn’t representative of many other marriages which are experiencing more disconnection and outright criticism from their partners.
The question I am asked routinely by men is, “How can I make my wife believe that I really think she is beautiful and I am happy with the way she looks?” The question is usually followed up by an explanation that the female partner talks regularly about not measuring up when it comes to physical appearance, and expresses a lack of confidence in body image. Overall, men routinely report diminished quality in physical and emotional intimacy as a result.
This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it can actually be an enormous barrier to connection in marriage. When husbands try to compliment or reassure their wives about their physical appearances and it is dismissed, this is actually a form of rejection. Not only that, but many women tend to self-monitor during physical intimacy, because it feels vulnerable, so this is when many of them focus on their appearances instead of on their partners, and they generate a huge disconnect. This behavior also reduces their own sexual satisfaction. If the husband has a history of viewing pornography, there is often increased vulnerability and fear around measuring up to some kind of media-generated, false standard. In those cases, healing the injury related to porn use may be necessary before developing any kind of real closeness.
In short, I try to explain to men that our culture is particularly toxic to women when it comes to accepted standards of beauty, and it is so pervasive that it is very common for women to worry that they don’t look good enough—especially for those who have experienced permanent alterations with some pregnancy and childbirth experiences. Then, in the brief period of time I have to address the question, I try to explain to men how they can communicate to their wives how this negative self-talk affects them and keeps them from being able to get close, e.g. “When I tell you I like the way you look and you say, ‘I don’t believe you,’ it leaves me with no way to get closer to you, which feels lonely somehow,” (or something similar—if I have time, I will find out specifically from the husband how it impacts him and help him find language for that).
With the negative messages women receive about body image, it’s actually amazing that any of us has a shred of confidence with a body that hasn’t had cosmetic surgical intervention. As a mother of 7 children and who hasn’t had cosmetic surgery procedures, I completely understand. However, I want to be a voice for how damaging it can be to our marriages when we allow ourselves to be victimized by the dominant negative messages about appearance.
Women are not completely powerless. Here are a few things to do prevent negative body image talk from disrupting marriage.
- Recognize the negative impact the media and broad culture have on appearance and body image (with no sign of retreat). In short, we are in a consumer culture. Most of the time, people are selling something, and it is basically their job to make you feel like you are lacking. One of the easiest ways to do this is by preying on outward appearance. I cannot approach any makeup counter in a major department store without someone tsk-tsking about the crow’s feet developing around my eyes, or some other visible “flaw,” etc., because they want to upsell me some kind of anti-aging miracle cream. They want me to feel bad about how I look so I will buy more product. I have been tempted at times to say, “No thank you—I would like to develop as many wrinkles as possible, and I’m afraid that cream will interfere with the process,” just to see what kind of reaction I would get. Please recognize that you are so much more than your appearance.
- Have the courage to challenge the false messages of the toxic culture. Prevailing messages often, if not always, have nothing to do with truth. However, when we are constantly wading through them, we accept them as fact and don’t bother challenging them. Physical beauty and attraction in marriage is actually influenced by many variables. So-called objective standards of beauty are not enough to maintain a long-term relationship, and partners can become more or less attractive to each other based on their accumulation of experiences together.
- Recognize the false messages that the culture teaches about men. Personally, I experience my male clients as far more complex and deep than the media would have us believe. In popular television shows, movies, etc., men are presented as emotionally dull, unavailable, simple, and almost always hypersexual. This is insulting to both genders. It is normative for men to express the desires they have to be close to their wives physically because they feel acceptance and love from their wives in those moments; they do have a harder time becoming emotionally vulnerable, because, quite frankly, our culture socializes (beats) it out of them (I addressed this in an earlier post entitled, “In Defense of Men,” that you can access here). Men don’t always have the higher sex drive, but when they do, I believe it’s about more than just testosterone levels–men are socialized to seek connection through physical means–it’s a societal norm. Men are seeking deeper connection with their wives far more than they are given credit for. Many men have explained to me that if their wives aren’t willing partners, they would rather not be physically close at all, because of the way it makes them feel emotionally to have a disengaged partner. In the words of more than one husband, “I don’t want to feel like a rapist. I want to connect with my wife. I want her to want to be with me.”
- Recognize the benefits of a close physical relationship. One of our drives as human beings is to have sex, and it’s not gender-specific. However, men are generally expected to be sexual, and women are expected to be desired. Women have very limited societal role models for healthy sexuality. Instead, they are presented with polar opposites of prudes or prostitutes, with no happy medium. This is unfortunate, since sex is a bonding behavior and can increase overall closeness in a long-term couple relationship. If women had permission to be sexual, they would likely be more invested in nurturing close physical relationships, despite body type and perceived flaws.
- Try attuning to your partner instead of self-monitoring in vulnerable moments. When people focus on their own body flaws in intimate moments, they aren’t available to focus on their partners. This practice of focusing inward is referred to as “spectatoring.” Non-verbal attunement, which makes up a great deal of physical intimacy, is disrupted. If tempted to ruminate on that extra ten pounds or the leftover stretch marks, try purposefully attuning to your partner as well as to experienced sensation. I recommend author Barry McCarthy for books related to physical intimacy.
- Use mindfulness to shift out of negative self-talk/thoughts. In simplest terms, focus on breathing, and if your mind is wandering to your flaws, notice that you have shifted (which might also mean you are becoming more fearful), and refocus yourself back to your breathing. Try to stay present and engaged.
- Ask your partner what they like about your body, and what they like about you besides your body, and then risk believing them. Most of us do not have what is sold to us as the ideal body type—that’s one of the ways that a consumer culture can perpetuate constant insecurities and reap financial benefits from them. People become cherished and special to us through a variety of experiences and means. Yes, it is possible that even though you wish you were 4 inches taller, and had a smaller waist, your husband likes you just the way you are, because you are his partner, and you are the one with whom he wants to bond.
In short, risk believing that you can actually be enough. If you can never be enough, you are in a constant state of victimization, and it generates a state bereft of contentment and joy. If you can see yourself for the complex individual you are, complete with talents, a personality, and character, instead of just a body type, you can also reach out and help others feel more acceptance and peace.
As long as we feel insecure in how we look, and don’t believe our husbands when they try to tell us they are attracted to us, we are allowing faceless entities to disrupt our marriages. We are in essence denying ourselves potential connection and happiness.
Ackard, D. M., Kearney-Cooke, A., & Peterson, C. B. (2000). Effect of body image and self-image on women’s sexual behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders,28(4), 422-429.
Pujols, Y., Meston, C. M. & Seal, B. N. (2010). The association between sexual satisfaction and body image in women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(2pt.2), 905-916.