Name: Larry Peterson, M.D.
Hometown: Robbinsdale, Minnesota
Relationship: Married to Dorothy for 46 years
Children: Three boys
Job: Retired physician and psychiatrist
Current: Cartoonist and book illustrator
PAM: What works well for a man in a relationship, and what doesn’t work?
LARRY: That’s a terrible question to ask a psychiatrist. [Laughs.] Why do some partnerships last? A colleague once said to me, “The people who wear well.” I thought it was the most boring answer, but she was right.
[Men and women have] tremendously different needs. A lot of men don’t spend any time trying to figure this out. They don’t take the time to become experts on their wife. Men are hardwired to become passionate about things, but when it comes to the person they’re living with, they don’t make much of an effort to understand her.
PAM: How might they start this process?
LARRY: By asking a lot of questions. And listening. Listen carefully. Understand what’s being said. Remember what you heard. I grew up with two sisters and my mom in a pretty female-dominated household. I would listen in on all my sisters’ slumber parties and learned a lot. My mom gave me constant instructions on what I was supposed to do and how to do it properly. She taught me the standard stuff, like manners, but also how to be nice and make women feel valued.
PAM: Is “The Five Love Languages” worth reading? It’s a book about understanding your partner and knowing what fills their love tank.
LARRY: Yes, it says things in a way that men understand. Men want to know what to do. They like instructions. Questions like, “How do you feel about that?” are trick questions for us.
PAM: Does understanding each other get any easier?
LARRY: Ten years into a marriage is a very dangerous place because you think you understand the person, but you don’t. It’s sort of bottomless. This is not something that you can study up on and then you’ve got it cold. You have to keep working at the relationship.
After 46 years, my wife and I still have clarifying conversations to make sure we are on the same frequency. One of us will say, “I told you this already,” but it didn’t get communicated.
PAM: Do we need to take the time to decode each other’s messages?
LARRY: Yes, that’s crucial. If my wife gets dressed, comes out, and says, “How do I look?” there is only one answer. “How do I look?” is not the real question. The question is really, “Do you love me?”
PAM: Are there ways that women communicate with men that are disadvantageous?
LARRY: Women often assume that there is some profound thing going on [inside the man’s head]. My wife will ask, “What are you thinking about this?” I’m not thinking anything. It is possible, at any given time, for a man not to be thinking anything. And it’s very enjoyable!
PAM: How might people use humor in relationships?
LARRY: Humor is a big part of what I do, even as a psychiatrist. Using humor in therapy is like using dynamite. It can be very dangerous, but it can also be very helpful. Using humor in a relationship is like taking a bath: It’s cleansing.
But sarcasm has no place in a relationship; it alienates people very quickly. You can gently tease [your partner] if you, yourself, are open to being teased back because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Laughter is part of a working relationship, but it needs to be a positive brand of humor. Never be hurtful. Never tease a woman about her looks. Good humor doesn’t upset people. If you start making a person mad, you’re damaging the relationship.
Humor, if used well, can lighten up things. It’s a big part of medicine. It’s a strategic thing. And it’s a healing thing.
PAM: What makes it so hard for men to commit?
LARRY: I think it’s a real issue for a lot of guys. I think men will instinctively pull back if they’re feeling pressured. However, that doesn’t mean that the woman can’t be fairly assertive about asking where things are going. Women need to be fairly upfront about how they’re feeling in a relationship. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask calmly, “Where is this going?” Why do I say, “calmly?” Because men turn off emotional displays.
My boys used to call it the DTR. “Have you had the DTR talk yet?” they’d say. As in, Defining The Relationship.
PAM: So when the woman is calm, it throws off the man’s game?
LARRY: When a woman looks at you and says, “This is how I feel, and this is what I need,” the guy needs to respect that.
I always talked with our boys about treating women well: Be straight with them; don’t misuse them. My wife once asked, “What’s the best thing a dad can do for his kids?” My 8-year-old said, “Love Mom.” Kids know intuitively that when the parents get along, they will benefit.
The big unstated message [to our boys] was how I treated Dorothy. I knew that our kids were going to model what they saw us doing as a couple.
Pam Whitfield is a teacher, writer, horse show judge and spoken word artist. In 2011, she won the Minnesota professor of the year award from the Carnegie Foundation.