When a boy gets hurt, he’s likely to hear other males tell him to “walk it off.” Most men were taught early to squelch emotion and man up. Personally, I have no problem with these messages. I received plenty of them, and I’m glad of it. Stoicism is a useful skill. But unmoderated stoicism is a liability when it leaves us with a lack of emotional knowledge.
Insufficient emotional training leaves a lot of us men feeling outwitted and outmatched by women on matters intimate connection – especially during arguments. As one man put it in my new book, “When we have an argument it’s like I’m playing one-on-one against LeBron James. Why do [women] have to win every argument?”
In my clinical experience, women tend to see a bigger relationship picture than men, and can more easily relate past events to current happenings. That’s not always true, and sometimes the roles are reversed, but I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve seen sidetracked into destructive and pointless arguments because he’s talking about what’s happening here and now, while she’s talking about larger patterns in the relationship.
Because she’s looking at the bigger picture, she may bring up past incidents during an argument, or even speculate about how the current problem will affect the future of the relationship.
That leaves a lot of guys feeling anxious in their relationships because arguments seem like contests for which they’re hopelessly ill-equipped. Many men have told me, in essence, that they feel stupid during arguments with the women in their lives because they don't seem to possess the same memory or insight into patterns.
That leaves a lot of guys feeling incredibly anxious about the relationship because they never know when they’ll have to (in their view) defend themselves for something they did or said long ago. Here’s a little excerpt from my book:
“A man who took my survey described one of the most common dynamics that discourages men from trying to make women happy: “They don’t forget anything. The old mistakes, the purchases that didn’t work out, the words said in anger—a guy can never take them back. Women always bring them back up in an argument. They won’t accept an apology and forget it.”
Bringing up past events in an argument is often an attempt to gain reassurance that old problems won’t be repeated in the future. It’s a problem-solving strategy designed to eradicate painful patterns.
But to the man on the receiving end, it can seem pointlessly aggressive, and it can cause the discussion to devolve into unproductive bickering over particular events rather than problematic patterns.
If one partner in an argument (often the man) is focused on present events, and the other (frequently the woman) is focused on patterns and history, each person is trying to solve a different problem. The partner who’s focused on patterns and history is likely to end up feeling unheard, and the one focused on the immediate problem is likely to fear forever being punished for past mistakes.
That’s precisely the fear that many men have described to me. As one man explained it, “When you remember our past mistakes but forget our successes, we think you expect us to be perfect.” This often compels men to retreat rather than face an impossible standard.”
In my experience working with couples, men tend to feel more comfortable in discussions when we know the ground rules and the goals. Women can help us by setting some guidelines at the outset of a difficult conversation, and letting us know whether they want to discuss the immediate problem, larger patterns, or concerns about the future.
Most of us men prefer to address one thing at a time during relationship discussions. Perhaps that’s a result of the relatively limited emotional training we received. In any case, we can end up feeling discouraged or hopeless when we’re chasing multiple problems at once and perceive that none of them are being solved. It doesn’t matter whether a couple discusses the past, the future, or the present – as long as both partners are on the same page, solving the same problem as a team.
* * * * *
My new book, The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think: Love, Commitment, and the Male Mind is available at Amazon, in stores and online at Barnes & Noble, and at other fine booksellers.