A cat named Molly occasionally visits our house for a few days. This is big, wonderful news for our dog, Hachi. They seem to love each other, but they have a relationship problem: They don’t speak the same language.
Hachi often tries to engage Molly with a play bow or by prancing, which causes Molly to look on with boredom. The dog may as well be speaking Latin. Later, Molly will rub against Hachi, claiming the dog as her own and possibly looking for some affection. This makes Hachi nervous. She doesn’t seem to understand if the gesture is friendly or aggressive.
Still, these two stick close even though they sometimes baffle each other. Maybe you known pair of humans with a similar struggle. My new book, The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think, talks about the ways men and women can fail to recognize good intentions, and how we can learn to understand each other's sublte expressions of affection. Here’s a little excerpt:
“I knew a man who, after the first session of couples therapy, changed the oil in his wife’s car. She was accustomed to taking her car to the local lube shop a couple of times a year, but on this occasion he decided to do it himself and save her the trip. You can probably guess where this story is going: It was more than just an oil change.
The man found their first session helpful. In particular, he appreciated that his wife openly took responsibility for her portion of their communication problems. That gave him hope. The oil change was an offering of gratitude.
His wife, being smart and insightful, recognized the offering for what it was. She didn’t complain that she would have preferred a romantic dinner. She was wise enough to know the romantic dinner would come soon enough—once her husband felt he could lower his defenses enough to engage with her more romantically.
She accepted the peace offering, acknowledged it, and expressed gratitude. That small act on her part encouraged her husband to continue his efforts at rebuilding. An unkind, critical, or indifferent response, on the other hand, would have discouraged him.
Male communication can be subtle. We aren’t the socially inept creatures that TV sitcoms portray us to be. We’re versed in the language of large, loosely connected groups where social capital is the coin of the realm and subtle gestures often carry significant meaning.
Just as women can miss the subtext of male communication, men can miss the intent behind women’s subtler signals. This happened to a couple I knew. He couldn’t seem to understand that when his wife asked him to walk the dog with her, she was really looking for some time alone with him. She had heard that men relate to others better when they’re engaged in an activity together, so she was trying to speak his language.
He missed the point. He assumed she simply wanted someone to pick up after the dog or to take over when the dog started tugging on its leash. He walked with her without complaining, but privately he was mildly annoyed at his wife’s new habit of interrupting his busy schedule for something so trivial.
Fortunately, they were able to sort out the situation after he grumbled about it one evening. He admitted that he had been feeling annoyed that she thrust a new responsibility on him without discussing it, and she clarified that she was trying to connect with him in a way that might be meaningful to him. Once he understood her intention, he appreciated her effort, and they continued to take walks together.”
Evolutionary psychology teaches that men and women come from different cultural backgrounds. Not entirely different worlds — we have much more in common than not — but we have adapted to slightly different evolutionary demands.
In my opinion, that has left men and women wonderfully, perfectly complementary to each other. It has also left us feeling a bit like Hachi and Molly: wanting to connect but speaking different languages. But unlike cats and dogs, we can bridge the gap if we're willing to notice the message of love in those oil changes and walks around the neighborhood.
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