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Sex, Power, and Boundaries

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The period drama “Mad Men” highlighted the American cultural revolution during the 1960s, when it was a man’s world at home and when sexual banter at the office wasn’t yet harassment. Not long after the final episode ended in 1970, researcher John Gottman began revolutionizing the study of marriage, using methods and standards as rigorous as those used by medical science. As a relationship strategist, I am fortunate to be able to develop approaches based on continuing solid research about what makes couples happy and marriages last.

Sharing Power with Your Partner Safeguards Your Marriage

A generation ago, a wife might not leave her husband if he treated her with disrespect or disregard. Now these behaviors are recognized as one of the most dangerous things a man can do to jeopardize his marriage.

Even in the 1990s, when Gottman’s research first revealed that the happiest, most stable marriages were those in which the husband shared decision-making with his wife and negotiated versus dominated during arguments, it was pilloried by Rush Limbaugh and parodied (hilariously, I must admit) on Saturday Night Live. Even so, Gottman’s study in unprecedented detail of real life couples discussing areas of conflict in their marriages gives us a glimpse into how successful couples are able to navigate marital minefields.

The flip side of Gottman’s research is a staggering statistic: “When a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.” WHOA! Now that I have your attention…

How a Man Can Destroy His Marriage in Four Easy Steps:

So exactly how does a man go about resisting his partner’s influence? Gottman observed four very specific types of behavior that actually “escalated the negativity and led to instability in the marriage.”

Here are some specific examples cited in the study of how a husband can be unresponsive to his wife’s feelings in a way that escalates the negativity. Let’s say the wife says, “You’re not listening to me!”

► Husband’s critical response: “I don’t listen because what you say never makes any sense.”

► Husband’s contemptuous response: “Why waste my time?”

► Husband’s defensive response: “Yes I am!”

► Husband’s stonewalling response: Says nothing. Ignores her.

How a Man Can Save His Marriage in Two Easy Steps:

So how might a man tone down the negativity or at least not make it worse? Here are some examples observed in the study:

Matching the negativity without going beyond it: “I’m finding it hard to listen to you!”

Toning down the negativity: “Sorry, I’m listening now.”

In my experience, helping couples operationalize “respect, shared decision-making, and searching for common ground” into practical, doable behaviors like the ones cited above is some of the most important (and rewarding) work I do in counseling sessions.

Misreading Cues of Sexual Interest from Women Can Land a Man in Trouble Professionally and Personally

Early on in my counseling and consulting practice, I encountered a number of organizations and individual men and women dealing with sexual boundary issues in a variety of work and family settings. I was not prepared for the two very different planets men and women are from in terms of their perceptions about sexuality in daily life — or the degree of complexity of these gender differences, which I found are biological, psychological, and cultural.

I found a man’s perspective, in the form of Dr. Peter Rutter’s in-depth research, invaluable to me as a female therapist, not just in helping men manage their relationships with women in ways that don’t land them in trouble, but in helping women trying to figure out how to effectively handle sexual boundary tensions with the men in their worlds.

Men and Women See It Differently. Vastly Differently.

Rutter’s research reveals that, whereas men tend to see sexual boundary events as “interesting opportunities,” women are more likely to perceive them as “threatening” and “burdensome.” In his book Sex, Power and Boundaries, he notes, “In general, a man monitors boundary behavior with more attention to cues about whether a woman is sexually interested in him and has an added tendency to project sexuality into an interaction even when she has no such interest. In general, a woman monitors boundaries with concern for harmonizing relationships; she is less likely to look for a sexual connection.”

It is these inaccurate “reads” of how women are interpreting the experience that can land a man in trouble professionally, personally, and maybe even legally.

I found that women also have a “blind spot.” Although a man tends to be able to easily and instinctively locate the sexual boundary between himself and a woman, many women are rather clueless about recognizing where the boundary is and/or feel inept at how to manage it — making it even easier for a man to misinterpret or disregard her intentions or even making her an “easy target” for sexual predators.

Seeing Spots

Can you see how these two gender “blind spots” can interact to wreak havoc in the workplace and beyond? Here’s how I like to work with men and women to avoid what I call potential “gender-based chemical reactions”:

For a man, I wholeheartedly validate his right to have and appreciate his attractions, and I help him become more skillful in accurately reading women’s cues regarding sexual interest, so he doesn’t act on his attractions with impropriety.

For a woman, it’s about increasing her understanding of how sexual boundary dynamics work and helping her develop her skillfulness in effectively managing sexual boundary tensions, so she can be successful at work and enjoy being in relationships with the men in her world.

The New Aphrodisiac

There’s another surprising way it is different now for men. Check it out in my latest blog at

When a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.