Men don’t talk as freely and easily as do women because they’ve been trained not to–It has nothing to do with love.
“I just don’t understand men,” Susan moaned to her best friend, Helen, over lunch. “Every time I try to talk to Jim about something the least bit emotional, I get the impression he wants to point the remote control at me and push the mute button. Sometimes I don’t think he has any feelings!”
“Yeah, Joe tunes me out a lot,” agreed Helen. “He doesn’t know the first thing about communicating.”
Although this kind of conversation may help women vent frustration, it does little to bridge the communication gap between the sexes. What women don’t realize is that men do have feelings, even if they don’t always communicate them directly. Such myths about men are prime culprits in the erosion of trust and understanding in a relationship.
Olivia and Aaron, married for 10 years, had recently moved to the area and were seeking marriage counseling because the stress of the move had taken a toll on the relationship. Olivia had been in public relations, but had quit her job about a year ago when they had their first child; Aaron, an engineer, had been transferred unexpectedly.
Olivia began the session: “Since we moved here Aaron has been completely wrapped up in his job. I try to talk to him about the baby, and he doesn’t seem to care. I feel shut out and lonely. I haven’t made any friends yet, so I need Aaron all the more. He’s not here for me, though. I think all he cares about is his career.”
For what seemed like a long time, Aaron sat silent. When I asked him what he was thinking, he said, “I know Olivia is unhappy, but I don’t know what to do. I feel bad that we had to move, but we didn’t have a whole lot of options. I try to suggest things she could do to make her day go faster, or ways to meet new people, but that only seems to make her madder at me. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
The communication pattern that Olivia and Aaron demonstrated is common. Olivia expressed her feelings to Aaron (she’s lonely) and Aaron offered her solution to the problem (get out and meet people). Here’s another version I often hear: a woman comes home and tells her husband about some problems she’s encountered at work. Her husband is quick to offer advice. She becomes angry and doesn’t feel supported. He feels baffled, “Why is she mad? I was just trying to help.”
What’s going on here? Why all the confusion? It’s an oversimplification, but sometimes men and women speak different languages, and neither is fluent in both. Many women communicate by talking, and many men by doing. A man talks to solve a problem. If he doesn’t have a solution already in mind, he’ll remain quiet (like Aaron did), figuring out the problem internally before speaking. In contrast, women speak to vent feelings, to elicit support and validation, and to build rapport.
When I was in graduate school research into sex roles was a hot subject. The prominent sex-role researchers at the time referred to men as being more “instrumental” and women as more “expressive”. Instrumental referred to being logical, rational, and analytical, while expressive referred to such traits as being nurturing and emotional. The research focused on the concept of androgyny – when someone of either sex shows a balance between instrumental and expressive traits. Results of numerous studies found that androgynous individuals fare better than sex-stereotyped individuals on a number of dimensions, including behavioral flexibility, assertiveness, and socially appropriate behavior. I remember being excited by this line of thinking: freedom from rigid sex roles would allow men and women to express all the different aspects of their personalities, without being negatively evaluated.
Somewhere along the way, it seems the ideal of androgyny was lost. Now the prevailing norm appears to be that, at least in the area of love, a woman’s way of communicating is the most revered and the most accepted as the standard of mental health. Indeed, many popular books, women’s magazines, and seminars admonish men that they better shape up and learn to communicate more like women – talk more, listen more, and be more expressive and intimate. When men communicate their feelings of love for their family by supporting them financially, or by fixing a leaky faucet, or by clearing ice off the driveway, it’s not enough. In fact, it’s often not even noticed by women as communication at all.
Neither men’s nor women’s way of communicating is inherently superior. There is a time to talk and a time to act – either way carried to extremes has limitations.
Couples must accomplish three main tasks to bridge this communication chasm:
- Each partner must acknowledge that both ways of communicating are valid – that communicating by talking and communicating by doing are both acceptable.
- Then they must learn to speak each other’s language. Oftentimes in therapy, there is more of a focus on teaching men expressive and emotional skills; but I think it’s just as important to teach women to be fluent in the language of action.
- Finally, it can be enormously helpful if partners don’t take it personally when the other is not speaking their preferred language. Many times I hear women, in particular, assigning a negative motivation to their partner’s behavior: “If he really loved me, he’d talk to me more.” This is simply not so. Men don’t talk as freely and easily as do women because they’ve been trained not to–It has nothing to do with love.
You might also like this post: A Simple Way to Put The Spark Back in Your Relationship.
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, andNurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. My husband, Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.
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