If women could just change one thing, they would find that they could have almost everything they want in a relationship. Of course, I'm talking about women who are married to the average decent non-abusive man. I don't know how often I've heard a woman say, "But I shouldn't have to ask." Frequently, they have all sorts of expectations of their partner and become resentful and angry when he doesn't fulfill those expectations. However, when I ask what he said when they asked for what they wanted, they either respond with "I shouldn't have to ask" or with "I told him once. I shouldn't have to keep telling him."

These attitudes are self-defeating and often destructive to a relationship. If women could learn to ask for what they want and ask often, many women could have the relationship of their dreams. When I tell women this, then they typically respond, "But he'll think I'm nagging him." The problem with this thinking is that women don't understand how men communicate.

Men are usually very direct in their communication. When they talk with one another they say exactly what they want. A man would say to a friend, "I'm going to be near your office today. Let's meet for lunch." A woman is more likely to say especially when talking to a man," I have an appointment near your office today," hoping that the man will get the hint and suggest lunch. This may be a reasonable approach if the woman doesn't know the man very well and wants to test his interest without making a full commitment. However, the problem is women use the same approach with their husbands! "But I shouldn't have to ask."

No matter how much women may espouse equal rights and feminism, the reality is that men and women still grow up learning different ways of thinking and of approaching the would around them. In fact, the reason women have broke through more barriers in the workplace than at home is because women's demands have been more explicit. "We want equal pay for equal work." Men understand this type of direct request and therefore know how to respond.

Men usually want to please the woman they love. I teach my clients that the only thing that is important in a relationship is whether her partner is willing to be responsive to her requests. Fortunately, I learned this fairly early in my relationship with my husband although it still took me several years. Every year on my birthday we had a major fight because I was hurt and angry that he didn't celebrate my birthday in the way I thought he should. He just seemed confused by my attitude because he thought that he was trying to make me happy. Gradually, I realized that he grew up in a family that didn't celebrate birthdays. Then I noticed that he seemed to handle Valentine's Day and Mother's Day very well. I wondered what was the difference? It finally occurred to me that the reason he did so well on those holidays is because they were advertised. And not only that, but the advertisements told him exactly what to do. I then understood that my husband truly did want to please me but he just didn't know how. So I started advertising several weeks before my birthday and we haven't had a problem about my birthday since.

If women can get past the self-defeating thinking of expecting men to know what they want without telling them, they could be more satisfied with their relationships. Men do not think they are being nagged when a woman a makes a repeated direct request. Men consider it nagging when the woman becomes irritated and approaches him with criticism, "Why can't you do anything I ask?"

Women often become frustrated when a man agrees to a request but doesn't follow through. However, if women would make a direct request explicit they can often prevent the need to make repeated requests. For instance, a request of "Please take out the garbage" means that the man can do it at his leisure. However, if a woman says "This garbage is almost overflowing. Please take it out now," the man understands the immediacy of her request. He then has the option of doing it or letting her know he is unable to do so. However, for the most part, men are willing to be response to their partners and if the woman can learn to be more direct she will probably be more satisfied with her relationship.

Once a woman has learned to be more direct, there is one other thing she can do that will assure her of creating the relationship she desires. Men respond extremely well to positive reinforcement. Unlike women, men grow up in a very competitive environment. Their self-image is based on comparison to others. They dream of being admired for their talents and successes. When they are unable to achieve status in one area, they logically assess the probability of success and may choose to focus on something that is more attainable.

What happens when this thinking is applied to marriages? If a man is frequently criticized and he perceives himself as trying to please his wife, he comes to believe that he is incapable of satisfying her. However, he is trapped due to the commitment he made which is also very important to him. Therefore, he begins to focus more on activities which are more rewarding to him such as work or sports. His wife perceives him as withdrawing from her and frantically tries to engage him: "You don't talk to me anymore." However, these attempts are seen by the man as criticisms and he further concludes that he can't please his wife. Thus starts a vicious cycle.

The interesting thing, though, in this process is that typically the man truly does want to please his wife. But he doesn't know how. The reason he doesn't know how is that criticism tells a person what they are not doing correctly, but it doesn't tell them what to do to improve. This is where positive reinforcement comes into play. When a woman gives her partner positive comments she is accomplishing a couple of things. First, she is creating the feeling in him that he had when they first met; the feeling that he is the most important person in the world to her and that she admires him. When a wife does this well, he is also more likely to listen to her when she makes a request. Second, positive reinforcement teaches him what she wants from him. He then feels successful and is likely to do what pleases her even more.

Frequently, when I make this suggestion to women they tell me, "But he doesn't do anything that I could reinforce." I find this difficult to believe and tell them that they need to reinforce even small moves in the right direction or to reinforce things that they have always liked about him but just take for granted.

"I admire you because you are such a hard worker."

"I like the way that shirt looks on you."

"Your hugs make me feel so good."

"That's really helpful to me when you put your glass in the dishwasher."

"Thanks for taking the trash out. It gives me time to get other things done."

"You have got to be the best husband in the world."

Unfortunately, a few years ago with the women's liberation movement, women were told that they shouldn't have to thank a man for doing his share because thanking him implied that he was assisting her rather than doing what he was supposed to do anyway. This type of thinking is very dysfunctional because it only accomplishes divisiveness and resentment. Even when he does something that he does everyday or that he should do, positive reinforcement makes him feel valued and more likely to continue. Also, we tend to like to be around people who make us feel important and successful.

At first, if might feel awkward to change the communication to focus more on the positives, but the best thing about positive reinforcement is that it creates a positive cycle. The woman will frequently find that her husband will start to give her positive reinforcement in return because she is teaching him how to do it through example. This creates a more natural cycle over time.

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Author's Bio: 

Dr. Monica A. Frank is a clinical psychologist specializing in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of anxiety and stress-related disorders including OCD, Panic Disorder, Social Phobia, and PTSD. In addition, she furthered her education in Sport and Exercise Psychology with a focus in performance enhancement after obtaining her black belt in Kenpo Karate. She has a private practice in St. Louis, MO and can be contacted at 314-843-0080. Also, she teaches cardio-kickboxing and tai chi at the Martial Arts Center (www.kenpousa.com). Additional articles can be found at www.excelatlife.com.