Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
April 2021 - Volume 21, No. 4
Subscribe to this blog

Why can’t you speak to me like that?

It’s not uncommon, when spouses or domestic partners may be contending with each other over some matter, the phone will ring.  Let’s say the man will answer it, to discover it’s a client, friend, business associate, neighbor, or somebody for whom a courteous and friendly tone is appropriate. Needless to mention, it’s quite a different tone than that of the domestic conversation already taking place or just interrupted. This can take place in my office as well, leading the woman to thereafter complain to her partner “Why can’t you speak to me like that?” And, of course, it’s the same way when the genders are reversed.

Then the offended will turn to me, with the comment “He/she always does that, why is he/she always so nice to everyone else, and all I get is the dregs”

Well, there is an answer, and it’s actually quite common, as well as accurate. I’ll say it like this:

“We often find it much easier to be kind to someone we don’t have to live with.”

There can be a grunt of recognition, but rarely enough for the other to say “Oh, now I understand.”

Intimacy and its difficulties

Somewhere back in my undergraduate years, Sigmund Freud’s “Civilization and It’s Discontents” (1929) was required reading. In it Freud explored what he saw as the important clash between the expectations of society and the desire for individuality. From the title alone I gained a wisdom of the human world that has steadied me through my years. For certain it was a foundation stone for of my skills as a marriage counselor.

In the helping professions, the term “burnout” can function as a Damocles’ sword hanging over the individual. Many are trained for a specific field of work, and if they would “tire” of it, there may not be many other options. I myself have trained for and ‘imbibed’ in a handful of professions, till settling in my current work, which has fed me with satisfaction and income for many years now.  But even still I can wonder if/when I may want to look elsewhere.  I opened my counseling office here in Fenton in March of 1977 - that’s 44 years ago! And although I’ve moved it twice (within a half mile radius), I can’t imagine ever leaving it.

And then there’s marriage. By some metrics, I basically failed there many years ago - even though my value system still believes the “for life” - which remains in my “when in doubt” belief system. I find that I want so much to support the marriages that come to me - though some of the pain and destruction I see is can so disheartening. I saw the psychotherapist Esther Perel in a TED talk, say something like this to a couple - “Your marriage is dead, and I can’t ever see bringing it back to life. But if you would like to build a new one, even with each other, I’d  be happy to work with you.”

In marriage, ‘burnout’ doesn’t have to mean separation, divorce, or abandonment. I’ll often hear of the ‘death’ of love - or “falling out of love.” Moving on doesn’t have to mean with a different partner. The “death rattle” of a relationship doesn’t mean one has to find another partner. But it can mean finding a way out of the suffering.

Over the years I have learned so much about marriage, intimacy and desire - and am desirous of sharing it where will and circumstance can allow. But I’m also a realist.  Perel has explored the tension between the need for security and the need for freedom in human relationships. Which brings me back to the struggles and victories that take place in my office, and back to Sigmund Freud’s work.

Intimacy is teachable.

One of the difficulties with is that many folks think it’s just a natural desire. Mother Nature has made it so, in order to get us to have children. But with some (or many), that ‘honeymoon’ phase often lasts for only long enough for Mother Nature to get us pregnant at least once or twice, thereby guaranteeing a next generation. I’ll often figure that’s eighteen months.

Sometimes (in jest) I’ll note that a ten-year-old boy may not know much about sex, except that once you have it you have to go off to work to support four people for the rest of your life. In the meantime the new wife will wonder why she’s home alone all the time.  “All that courtship just to be at home alone!”

There are times I’ve asked a young person or couple, “Have you ever seen a good marriage? only to get the answer ‘no’. That’s so sad!

A lot of my work with men is teaching them some (or many) of the intimate arts. I’m not just talking about sex, but how to build a loving relationship with a woman to where she will ‘want’ to love you and then feel safe enough to have sex with you. One part of this is to teach a man how to listen to a woman. I’ll tell a man that if he knows how to listen to a woman, she’ll want to do anything for him. Then if she’s present, I’ll ask the woman if this is true, and so very often she’ll grin at me and say “Oh yes!” That’s such a wonderful moment! However, it can take a considerable amount of time and coaching to get a man to a place where he can switch gears and learn what I’m talking about. Teaching a woman about “intimate arts” is often much easier - unless her anger or depression has meant she’s already left - physically and/or emotionally. But even then, when there’s been so much damage history, there often can be hope.

The Magic of Communication

My cat loves it when I’m on the phone. When it’s just the two of us, he has two primary modes - sleeping or begging. But when I’m on the phone, or in conversation with a visitor, he wants to be a part, and his ‘conversation’ skills can be full-on delightful (or intrusive).

In a multi-level list of communication stages, the ultimate can be the art of letting go, as in dying, orgasm or deep prayer. Sex itself involves the rhythm of holding on and letting-go - after which can emerge that post-coital bliss the French sometimes call “petit-mort” (‘little death).

Walk Together, Talk Together

When I was a teen, my mother discovered The American Field Service. It began in France as a volunteer force of ambulance drivers in the field of battle in The Great War (WW1). With the American entrance in 1917, it became an American-French effort, and eventually the American part became a part of the US Army. After that war, the drivers began the reformulation to what is today a massive intercultural youth exchange program, through which in1958 I was able to spend a Summer in Germany. I mention this because my mother was captured by their motto,

“Walk together talk together all you peoples of the earth, and then you shall have peace.”

She established a local chapter in our Iowa hometown of Independence, and I was fortunate to be the first my hometown sent abroad.

“Walk together, talk together…”

Back in my office, working with my clients,  I may again hear the complaint, Why can’t you speak to me like that? Then I know that I’m in the right place doing the right work.


In West Branch, Michigan, on US 23, Exit 122, a major rest and refill stop for the deluge of folks who drive “north” especially on Michigan weekends - there’s a Shell Station and tourist shop I’ll frequent on my own travels.  Some twenty years or so ago I found and purchased a wooden sign - the kind one would hang on a cabin wall - with the words,

Wish it - Dream it - Do it

It probably cost around $10 - and the letters are fading now. That sign probably should be in my office. I think I bought it with that in mind. But instead it’s on the wall in my bedroom, just above the main South window.

Nothing there about it being easy. Just that it’s possible.

It’s mine - it’s for me. And so I still...

Pay Attention.

Bill McDonald

This post has no comments yet.

Add a Comment

will be kept private

Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

FREE Monthly Newsletter

Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some free monthly words of wisdom:
Your e-mail address: