If men are so good at fixing things… Part 3

A semi-scientific exploration of independence, inspiration and insanity

In part 2, we looked at Dr. Deborah Tannen’s linguistics research that shows how differently MOST men and MOST women view their place in the world, and how this affects their communication styles. (According to Tannen, ALMOST ALL of us think of things in absolutes and are unable to hear qualifiers. For that reason I capitalize qualifiers, because not everyone fits perfectly into one category or the other.)

Men: even if it’s broke, don’t fix it.

As evidenced by the experiment with those babies in part 1, MOST men have spent their entire lives solving problems. It’s the normal way for MOST men to show they care, protect their partners (another primordial urge) and also prove their personal worth. For those men who do not understand MOST womens’ need for connection, it seems insane to talk endlessly about the emotions felt while dealing with a situation without actually solving the problem.

The do’s and don’ts of interacting with an upset partner

Dr. Robert Leahy wrote an article “What Not to Say When Your Loved One Is Upset” which gives a very good overview of six big mistakes people (MOST men) can make when trying to help their partner: minimizing, rationalizing, competitive complaining, fixing, defending, and stonewalling. I have to admit, the descriptions sounded like twenty-something me and all of my male friends. (If there are any women out there who feel like these styles described them or their girlfriends, I would love to hear your comments.)

For example, Leahy writes this about minimizing:

This is the style where you treat your partner’s concerns as trivial: “It’s nothing. Why are you making a big deal out of it?” You are trying to tell them that their feelings are not related to anything real or important. So, the message they get is, “My feelings don’t matter to you.”

Men have a very different way to express connection

However, after reading Tannen’s book, I would hope everyone could see a deeper, emotional motivation on the man’s part, in spite of his inability to express it in a way that would resonate with his partner. On page 59 in Tannen’s book “You Just Don’t Understand,” she analyzes a conversation in which two teenage boys dismiss each other’s concerns and finds there may be a completely different interpretation of their behavior:

The conversation between Richard and Todd shows that although the boys’ responses are asymmetrical if looked at separately–each dismisses the other’s concerns–they are symmetircal when looked at together: Todd responds to Richard’s concern about his drinking in exactly the same way that Richard responds to Todd’s feeling of alienation, by denying it is a problem.

Each boy is trying to maintain their friendship as a relationship of equals, even though it’s in conflict with the male world of competition and hierarchy:

By offering troubles of his own, Richard declines to take the superior position and restores their symmetrical footing, sending the metamessage “We’re just a couple of guys trying to make it in a world that’s tough on both of us, and both of us are about equally competent to deal with it.”

Relax, take a deep breath, and have a stress ball close at hand. It will be over before you know it.

Dr. Leahy goes on to describe what to say when your partner is upset, sharing this advice:

Hint: Your partner wants to feel that 1) you understand that they are upset, 2) you care about how they feel, and 3) you respect their right to have their feelings.

MOST men have probably heard this kind of sensitivity from the women in their lives, but only a FEW have ever heard it from a heterosexual male friend. Men are taught to act in a completely different way from birth, learning that anything that can be interpreted as vulnerability is a weakness. The fact that SOME men can show emotional sensitivity in the face of all this cultural indoctrination (1) provides hope that we can learn these skills.

For men, learning how to validate their partner’s feelings through listening and sharing a similar personal experience — without offering a solution — can be very difficult. I can say from personal experience it can be excruciating, especially if you feel you are being attacked. Amazingly, when I didn’t try to defend myself, it turned out that it was not a personal attack against me. My partner let off some steam and the conversation changed to something else, instead of deteriorating into a fight. It may sound crazy, but it works.

You, too, can learn to share feelings without judgment.

For those times when it starts to hurt too much, the only answer is to respond with a feeling instead of logic. Here’s the simplest form: “When you say (fill in the blank), I feel (attacked, hurt, sad, like a failure, etc.)”. It’s tough to be vulnerable, but that’s the only way to achieve any real intimacy in a relationship. And guys, here’s your inspiration: emotional intimacy leads to, well, intimacy (wink, wink).

Women: it’s okay to be direct.

For many younger women who have seen mothers and grandmothers with careers, expressed themselves through athletics, or fought against gender inequality, maybe you already know how to be direct. You can ask your partner, for example, “could you bring me a sweater?” But there are still a large number of women who say “I’m cold” in the hopes that the man will bring them a sweater and then get frustrated when the man does one of the following:

  1. Replies “so why don’t you close the window?”
  2. Offers you his flask
  3. Tries to jump your bones to “warm you up”

According to Dr. Tannen, for MOST women, asking for something directly can be hard to do, because it feels like a command and not a way to connect or reach consensus. Unfortunately, MOST men can’t figure out the subtle signals that are being sent out (2). If you are looking for support instead of solutions, MOST men need some concrete direction and structure (yes, you need to set a time limit — your partner is going to try to unlearn everything he knows as a man, so you can’t expect him have the same abilities as your girl friends in the beginning). Try something like “I had a really bad experience and I need your emotional support, not a solution to the problem.” With enough practice (and inspiration), your partner will get the hang of it.

No, you’re not crazy (well, maybe a little), but your partner sure can make you crazy. And vice versa.

Writing more about conflicts that arise out of different communication styles, Dr. Tannen observes that we all exhibit behavior that meets Einstein’s definition of insanity (p. 186):

No matter how dissatisfied people are with the results they are getting, they rarely question their way of trying to get results… we try harder by doing more of what seems self-evidently the right way to proceed. But when styles differ, more of the same is usually met with more of the same from the other party as well. As a result, far from solving the problem, our efforts only make things worse.

Nobel Prize winning psychologist David Dunning, writes about the concept of motivated reasoning to explain why our perceptions are so important to us.

Some of our most stubborn misbeliefs arise not from primitive childlike intuitions or careless category errors, but from the very values and philosophies that define who we are as individuals. Each of us possesses certain foundational beliefs — narratives about the self, ideas about the social order — that essentially cannot be violated: To contradict them would call into question our very self-worth.

Finally, Tannen summarizes how our inability or unwillingness to understand different communication styles can cause great pain (3):

The biggest mistake is believing there is one right way to listen, to talk, to have a conversation — or a relationship. Nothing hurts more than being told your intentions are bad when you know they are good…

Over time, this conflict between our foundational beliefs (perception of the world and communication style) and the perceptions of our partners (the one person we love and trust more than anyone in the world) can cause us to question our own reality. And if it’s too painful to consider our own insanity, we project it outward and call our partners crazy.

Nobody’s wrong if everybody’s right. And vice versa.

Not only a twisted reference to an incredible song, but my cop out answer to the original question, “who’s right?” Honest expression of feelings and open, direct communication should be the goals of everyone. The big lesson is to understand and celebrate the differences in our motivations and communication styles and to work at learning our partner’s genderlect. Here’s to better communications and healthier relationships.

Thanks for reading this far. If you found value in this, please recommend this post (❤) to share this with other people!

Notes

  1. 48 things men hear in a lifetime (that are bad for everyone) is a pretty concise example of this indoctrination.
  2. For an in depth look at why MOST men lack this sensitivity, please look for my next post, “If women can read mens’ minds, why aren’t our relationships perfect?”
  3. You Just Don’t Understand, p. 279

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