Julie Hart interviews Stephen Synder, New York Sex Therapist and Psychiatrist – February 2020
Stephen: Men’s needs are very, very simple. They want a partner who attracts them; that is to say, they like her body. She smells nice; she attracts them. You don’t hear guys saying “It’s the same thing every time.” but you hear women saying that all the time. So, I think part of the difference between Esther Perel and myself is she’s a woman and I’m a man.
Julie: Very interesting. Let’s talk some more about the differences between men and women. You were saying that, and I agree, most women have a fundamental need to be desired by men. Men do too, but for women, it’s more of a thing.
Stephen: Absolutely. It is huge. It is like oxygen for women. The most unhappy people I see are men who can’t get an erection, and women who don’t feel desired. Would you say that would fit with your practice?
Julie: Yes. Absolutely.
Stephen: Yes. A man who can’t get an erection does not feel fully like a man. And I think it might be a stretch to say that a woman who doesn’t feel desired doesn’t feel fully like a woman. But it’s close. I think it’s like oxygen. Women have to have it. And you see all sorts of mischief in a relationship if a woman doesn’t feel desired.
Julie: Absolutely. And you were saying in your book that you’ve had plenty of straight women who tell you that they’re going half-crazy waiting for the day that their partner will show them some real passion.
Stephen: Oh, my God. Yeah. And they’re furious. They’re so furious. This is what I call a sex knot. So the man doesn’t show her desire for whatever reason, and she becomes furious. And that makes him withdraw from her. And now he really doesn’t show her desire because she’s even more furious, and they could go on like this for years and never have sex. So very, very tough. Have you seen that? I’m sure.
Julie: Oh, absolutely. Yes. So, what’s happening here to start that off do you think? Is it that the man, once he’s caught her, feels he’s in a secure relationship? He doesn’t feel like he needs to chase her, pursue her, feel passionate towards her?
Stephen: It’s a good question. I think there are two things that are most often going on. The first is (and this is unfortunate about us men and it’s unfortunate for heterosexual women) that our needs are really very, very simple.
You know, Freud ask his famous question in a letter to Princess Marie Bonaparte a hundred years ago. He said, “I’ve never been able to figure out what does a woman want?”
You know, nobody ever asked, “What does a man want?” Okay. Everybody knows what a man wants.
A man wants a nice meal and a good round of sex and then go watch the ballgame. Very, very simple. And he could do that forever. It’s like I could wear the same suit to a party forever. And I wouldn’t mind at all. We’re very, very simple. Our minds are extremely simple.
And women…… Women want all sorts of things. I remember when I got married, one of my senior colleagues said, “You’re not going to believe how many things your wife wants. All sorts of things.” And most women, obviously, are mature enough to know they’re not going to get everything they want. But that doesn’t stop them wanting everything.
And so, as I said, she wants the resort. A woman wants the beauty, they want the pleasure, they want the excitement. They want the variety. They want all these things. Half the time, the man wouldn’t even notice. A woman wants a room with a view. She wants to be able to see interesting things. Her mind is going all the time.
The guy is fine. You know, just let me order a hamburger and let me turn on the ballgame. It’s very, very simple with guys.
So, one of the reasons men stop chasing women is because they feel when they’re married to them, they feel they don’t have to. You know, they’re getting sex. It’s good. They’re fine. They’re not suffering,………. but she’s suffering.
So that’s reason number one. Does that make sense?
Julie: Yes, sure.
Stephen: OK. I’m speaking as a man. Does it fit with your observations or am I missing something?
Julie: I think yes, absolutely. OK.
Stephen: And the second reason is that something very difficult for men happens when they settle into a committed relationship with a woman.
They see her unhappy at times.
That’s extraordinarily stressful for men because they’re not used to having intimate relationships.
And they don’t know that in an intimate relationship, sometimes your partner is going to be unhappy and that’s OK.
Women practice this. It’s a generalization, so there are exceptions. But women practice this from the age of seven. They have friends and the friend has a misunderstanding. You don’t talk to each other for a day and then you get together, you figure it out and you’re friends again. And they’re constantly maintaining relationships through the ups and downs emotionally.
Men don’t do that. They don’t have that kind of relationship. It’s usually not how it goes. So very often, a man’s first truly intimate relationship is with the woman that he settles in with and he sees her unhappy. And it’s very stressful for him. He doesn’t know what to do with it.
Let me modify that. It’s his second intimate relationship. The first intimate relationship was with his mother. And when his mother was unhappy, it was very, very stressful for him. And when he sees his partner unhappy, it gives him the same kind of stress.
You remember Playboy magazine, the magazine with the centerfolds. And I hope at least some of your listeners are old enough to remember that. And the centerfold girl….. she always had this rocking hot body and beautiful makeup and hair and teeth and everything. But the real winner, the anchovy in the Caesar salad here was she had this welcoming smile. She had this big smile from ear to ear and it said, “’Oh, it’s you. I’m so happy to see you. Come on in”.
And that’s what most guys rely on to let them know that it’s safe to come on in and it’s all right and welcome.
Julie: That welcoming smile.
Stephen: And so for most men, that’s the go ahead. That’s the signal. Because, you know, sex takes place at the women’s body. It doesn’t really take place at the man’s body. If it was a sports thing, she’s got the home field advantage. And, you know, obviously, for gay and lesbian people, it’s different. But for heterosexual people, it’s a whole thing, the man is a visitor there. He’s in unfamiliar territory.
He’s also in unfamiliar territory when it comes to the intimacy, you know, the exchange of personal feelings. That’s very, very foreign territory for him. For her, she’s been doing this since she was 7 years old.
So, her smile initially and the relationship lets them know that it’s safe to come in and he relies on it. But then he sees her unhappy and he doesn’t know what to do with it.
And most men under those circumstances will withdraw a bit. And women don’t understand this at all. What’s he withdrawing for, they think?
He’s withdrawing because it felt dangerous. And he doesn’t have the words for it. And he can’t tell you exactly what he’s experiencing.
But he withdraws…….. and that makes her unhappy.
And when she gets unhappy, she’s definitely not smiling. Now she’s unhappy with him because he’s withdrawing from her,………. and now he withdraws even more because she’s really unhappy.
And you get another one of these sex knots that I’m talking about, where each person’s natural response just makes the thing tighter and tighter and tighter until it’s impossible.
Julie: Yes. So, what you just described is a very, very common sex knot. That’s probably one of the most common sex notes of all, isn’t it?
Stephen: You probably see that in your work every day?
Julie: Sure do. So, what do you suggest for a couple who is in that sex knot?
Stephen: If you’re in the sex knot, the first thing is to realize which knot you’re in. And most couples that read that can go “Yes, yes, that’s definitely us”.
So, to recognize that so you can see when it’s happening so you can kind of stand outside of it and go “Oh, okay, I see”. That’s helpful. But the main thing is not to get into it in the first place.
And I have a script that I give to women when they’re entering into relationships, which is the following.
“Look, you’re going to see me unhappy sometimes. I know you don’t have a lot of experience being with a partner who may not be feeling totally happy. I want you to know it’s okay. We’re going to be okay. You don’t have to worry. And you’ll even see me disappointed sometimes. But that’s OK. It’s not going to be dangerous if I’m feeling disappointed. I can tolerate it. I’m really good with that. I don’t have to get everything I want”.
Men hate to disappoint women. That’s one of the reasons single men ghost women on Tinder because they hate to disappoint them. But, of course, they end up driving them crazy. Ghosting is totally even worse! If they would just text them and saying, “”Look, I really like you, but I don’t think it’s going to work out for us as a couple”, the woman would think, “thank God”. But, they just run away because they’re so terrified of disappointing the woman.
Julie: Yeah, so that’s the most important thing – the understanding…
Stephen: It’s important for the woman to say “I still love you. We’re still okay. I still respect you. I just happen to be upset about something. It’s all right.”
Otherwise, they end up with the Heterosexual Woman’s Dilemma, which is a huge dilemma for heterosexual women.
So, something’s bothering you, and you know that if you mention it to your partner, he’s going to feel threatened. And he’s going to feel like you’re disappointed and he’ll withdraw.
And if you don’t mention it, YOU’RE going to explode, eventually. You’re going to scream at him because you just kept all the stuff inside you for months.
So, it’s a real dilemma.
Julie: So what do you suggest?
Stephen: Well, you have to use the meta communication. You have to say, “I need to talk to you. I’m really OK. We’re really OK. I’m in a dilemma here”. And you talk about your dilemma.
And, you know, a lot of it depends on the guy. There are some guys who are like this masculinity 1.0 who just can’t hear it. But a good masculinity 2.0 guy (which is most guys these days) may be able to do this if you just kind of work with them a little bit. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of work. And unfortunately, heterosexual women end up having to do a lot of this work, which is really unfair.
Julie: Yes, so, the man we really want is a man who is secure in the love and can take on some of the things that she might be suggesting?
Stephen: Suggesting or feeling. David Deida, says one very poetic passage. He says a woman’s like the ocean. A man should be like the shore. You know, the ocean just goes, whoosh, and the shore is fine. So, the woman wants a man who’s durable that way.
Julie: Yes she does.
Stephen: And incidentally, a man wants a woman who’s durable that way, too. So that’s it. That’s an important secret. We both should be durable. It’s OK. You can work on neither of you being so fragile.
Julie: Great Steve. So, more men and women differences. You were saying that for a man, basically, he needs to find his woman attractive, physically attractive. And as long as she’s physically attractive and got a lovely smile, a welcoming smile, she doesn’t really have to do much other than that.
Stephen: She is good. I mean, you look at the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Do they have it in Australia? So, what are the women in this magazine doing? They’re doing absolutely nothing at all!
Julie: Nothing. Yes.
Stephen: Nothing. They’re doing absolutely nothing at all. They’re just sitting there in a state of relaxation for a heterosexual man. A woman in a state of relaxation is a turn on. She didn’t have to do anything. All right!
Julie: Yes. You just need to have a welcoming smile. But for a woman, we don’t feel the same way about our men though, do we?
Stephen: Few women feel that way. You know, there was a magazine in the 70s and 80s called Playgirl. Are you familiar with it?
Julie: No, I’m not.
Stephen: OK. So anyhow, I’m dating myself. There was a magazine called Playgirl in the 70s and 80s, and it had a naked man sitting in a state of relaxation in a beach chair or, in bed, you know, with their schlongs hanging out and everything. And it did OK. It was in circulation. But the open secret about Playgirl magazine was that its circulation was almost entirely gay men. Only a gay man wanted to see another man relaxing.
Women don’t like to see men relax. They’d like to see men doing things like, you know, 50 Shades of Gray. You know, she sees him in the morning. He’s not relaxing, he’s doing dips and chin ups and stuff and is exercising. She has to see what he can do.
Julie: Yeah, I agree.
Stephen: The women in my office, they get panicked when their husbands are retiring. They go “What’s he going to do all day?” I say “He’s going to relax”. “I don’t like it. I just don’t like it, it’s a turn off”. It’s really not fair to us guys. You know, there’s a joke around the Upper West Side, “What’s the best way to get your wife’s attention?” Sit in a chair and look comfortable. She’s not going to like it. She’s going to do something.
I don’t know what this is, but I talk to my wife, I say, “Do you feel that way?” She goes, “Yes, absolutely”. I say “I work very long hours. Do you mind me working long hours?”, “No, I like it, like you being productive, doing something.” She says.
So, it’s one of those things that’s just unfair to the male species. But that’s the way it is.
Julie: Yeah. It is interesting, isn’t it, because we live in a time now where women have never done so much. I mean both of us.
Stephen: Totally. Yes.
Julie: Women often feel that they end up doing more than their partner does in terms of overall workload when it comes to work plus our duties at home.
Stephen: The second shift, yes.
Julie: That’s right. So, we can get resentful if our man is not pulling his weight at home. If he’s hanging around, you know, relaxing when we’re having to work. So, do you know whether it comes from that partly?
Stephen: I don’t think so. I think it’s more primal. Did you ever read the book Sex at Dawn?
Stephen: Oh, it’s a wonderful book. Its about the prehistoric origins of human sexuality. And he describes what sex was like for hunter gatherers. His big thesis is that hunter gatherers had sex in groups because there were no bedroom doors. So, they were naturally promiscuous and everybody slept with everybody else.
And he also describes one hunter gatherer society where they would they do this ritual called “The Meat” where all the women of the tribe would go wake the men up in the morning and say, “The meat, the meat, we want the meat.” And each woman would choose a man who was not her husband, to get the meat for her. And the men would each be given the assignment by these particular women.
So the men would all get up, go out into the jungle and hunt meat. And then they would come home from the hunt and say “The meat, the meat. We’ve got the meat.”
And they would throw down the meat and they would do a little dance. And the woman would go off with whatever man she had chosen who gave her the meat. (Presumably the guys would kind of partition the meat in the jungle so that every guy had some meat to give to his particular woman).
You know, this book always got presented as being one of most progressive books because it had to do with polyamory in prehistoric societies. But I thought to myself, this is so conventional.
No woman is going to go into the jungle to hunt. The guy goes and does something. There’s something very primal about that, about women wanting to have a guy do something that involves a special gesture, a big sacrifice. I mean, it can be less dangerous than going into the jungle. But it’s about risking something and doing it for her. He’s done it because he wants her. She’s desirable. That’s pretty impressive for most women, at least most women I talk to.
Julie: Yes, absolutely.
Stephen: But it’s not the same for a man. If a woman does something very heroic, risks her life for a man, he would be grateful, maybe. But it’s not going to make him one bit hotter for her.
Julie: Yeah. So, what would?
Stephen: To make a man hotter for a woman? Well, the fact that she’s got the kind of a body he likes and that she smells nice. That’s it.
Julie: And it’s welcoming?
Stephen: Men are just very simple in what turns them on. You know, most men, you show them breasts and butts and they get turned on. They’re simple that way.