This is anecdotal, of course, I don't have any research to support this claim. But I do have about eight hours of conversations every day with women and men, and what I hear from men in their rare moments of vulnerability is that many of them are driven by a deep fear of incompetence. Or powerlessness. Or any other words that describe the rusty and decaying experience of failure.
One of my colleagues, Dr. Lisa Neff, is a researcher at the University of Texas' Austin Marriage Project. She and her colleagues recently completed a study that sheds light on how men experience competence. The researchers gave a group of heterosexual couples writing journals, and asked them to document when they experienced their partners doing something supportive throughout the day. They also measured the participants' cortisol levels.
How does failure impact men's stress?
Now, imagine you've had a hard day. You come home from work and your partner is waiting for you. You sit down together, have a glass of wine and talk about the day's challenges. If you're a woman, then this conversation may be very relaxing to you. You may feel calmer and more assured that things will get better. Your stress levels may go down.
Now let's say that you're a man. You come home from a hard day at work. Your partner is at home waiting for you. She pours you a glass of wine and asks you to tell her about your day. You do. But the difference is, the conversation isn't as helpful. You feel minimal relief, if at all.
Dr. Neff and her colleagues found that the main difference between women and men who receive supportive behaviors, like empathy, is that when women receive support, it decreases stress. When men receive support, it has little to no impact on their stress.
Because what reduces men's stress is feeling competent. Coming home at the end of the day and talking about work doesn't help because there's still a problem to solve at work. Talking about it doesn't help. It just burdens family with the problems he should be able to figure out.
When I work with heterosexual couples on this issue, this difference can be really frustrating for wives and female partners. Because they want to be useful. They want to help. They want to be supportive. But their desire to help is competing with their male partners' desire to feel competent, to solve the problem, to leave work at work so it doesn't burden home life.
What does this have to do with failure?
What Dr. Neff's study may teach us about men is that men aren't socialized to experience any value by just being there for their partners. They need to solve problems. So when you're trying to share a problem with your male partner, and it seems like he doesn't understand, or maybe even isn't trying to understand, it's not because he doesn't care, it's because his brain is working on overdrive to find a solution. But maybe there is no solution. Maybe the solution is just to listen and offer support.
The problem with support as a solution is that men generally don't think this way. We think about solutions to the problem you're telling us about. So if you have repeated conflict in your marriage or relationship, then what may happen to your male partner's brain is that he consistently associates these conflicts with failure and powerlessness. And men generally have a limited way of coping with emotional distress.
We either give up or get angry.
This is a shame-based response to frustration and insecurity. We're taught from a young age that we have to be strong. To be together. To be competent. And feeling like we can't solve a problem leaves us in a place where we don't feel like men. We feel incompetent.
We feel like failures.
We're not always aware that this is happening. Sometimes, we'll blame our partners. We'll say things like, "You're never satisfied!" or "It doesn't matter, because no matter what I do, you won't be happy."
These comments reflect a deep internal trigger that we're not only frustrated with our partners, we're even more frustrated with ourselves for not being able to figure out how to solve the problem.
To us, powerlessness is failure.
My son has recently reminded me how strongly men fear failure in intimate relationships. I figured that after ten years, my wife and I pretty much had things figured out. Then Jamie was born. And holding a screaming child in my arms at 3:00 in the morning after five straight hours of crying, feeding, diaper changing and screaming again, my body was flooded with stress hormones because I desperately wanted to hack this kid's problem so we could all sleep. But I just couldn't figure him out.
It turns out that there was no solution. My son just needed time to adjust to a circadian rhythm that he had no idea existed until he was born into a world of sunlight and darkness. The only thing I could do was sit in the emotional distress that the three of us were felt in that moment. I couldn't get him to sleep. I couldn't make him happy. Both my wife and I were still adjusting to the sound of a screaming baby, so I couldn't remove our stress. All I had was just to hold him while he was in distress and manage whatever I was feeling.
And this is the thing that men really need to learn.
Most of the time, our partners want us to listen. They want us to understand. They want to be held, emotionally and maybe physically. But our selfish need to be competent and to add value gets in the way of your need to be seen. So instead of offering our empathetic ear, we offer advice. Then, a part of you feels offended or frustrated because you don't want to be patronized, you want to be heard.
And when you express that frustration, we get upset because we don't know what you want. We think, "I don't know how to make you feel better," or "I don't know what I should do with what you're telling me." So we carry on feeling powerless and dejected.
And that failure is excruciating. Especially if, at the same time, we're holding onto work or other personal failures. If, in addition to work, we can't figure out how we're supposed to act as husbands or fathers, we're utterly devastated and ashamed. So we go inward and internalize. To you, this may look like apathy or callousness.
How can men cope better with failure?
If you're raising a son, start early. Help them understand that failure is okay and a necessary part of life. Also, praise them more for who they are, not just what they do. Say things like, "I love you because you're mine." Or "You're wonderful for who you are."
If you're married to, or in a relationship with, a man then stop trying to tell him not to solve your problems. That'll never work. Instead, give him a new challenge to solve. The challenge of your need to feel understood. I've experienced men respond well to direction when they know they can still do something constructive for their spouses.
Where they struggle is understanding that the "doing" is just listening and offering a piece of their hearts. It's like a foreign language.
Our whole lives, we've been taught that our value comes from what we produce, not who we are. The subtle, insidious problem here is that we struggle to have a strong sense of self-worth without accomplishing something. So the idea of just sitting and listening is so outside our worldview, that it takes a lot of time for us to learn that we can still feel competent by just being. Try not to get too frustrated.
It takes practice.
The next time you're asking your male partner to talk with you, tell them up front that what you need from them is just for them to listen. Remind them how much their empathy means to you, what it does for you. Give them the cues before you begin so they can shut off that part of their brain that acts like an engineer.
If you're a man, consider working on your own emotion regulation and practice shutting off your agenda when you're in conversations. Just experiment with listening. Experiment with thinking like a journalist. Journalists ask curious questions. They have no interest in the outcome of the story, they just want to know the story. So they ask questions and they clarify what they've heard. You may feel a bit naked doing this because you're not using your typical skills to problem solve, but you'll feel a surge of competence when your partner feels validated and understood.
Then, perhaps, failure won't seem like such an intimidating monster.
Crockett, E., & Neff, L. A. (2013). When receiving help hurts: Gender differences in cortisol responses to spousal support. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(2), 190-197. doi: 10.1177/1948550612451621