Stop Trying to Fix Things, Just Listen!
Do you give practical or emotional support? It's the classic couples' dilemma.
Posted Jun 17, 2016
The short video “It’s Not About the Nail” by Jason Headly pokes fun at a dilemma that many couples can relate to: One person is upset about something and is looking for emotional support from the partner, but the partner only wants to try to solve the problem. The support-seeking person is frustrated because he or she doesn’t feel listened to. The support-providing person is frustrated because he or she doesn’t understand why the partner won’t simply take their advice to fix things. Oftentimes, this occurs in a gendered way. Stereotypically, it’s the woman who wants emotional support and the man who wants to problem solve, and that’s what’s depicted in the video.
Although the video is a very funny play on this dilemma, it’s not entirely clear what the message is for viewers because, for some, the video clearly suggests that the man is correct, whereas for others they see the woman as correct. The video is called “It’s Not About The Nail” because the woman has a big nail sticking out of her head. Her complaints are all related to the nail (e.g., “there’s pressure in my head, I can’t sleep, all my sweaters are snagged”), and every time he suggests that removing the nail would fix things, she says, “It’s not about the nail!” and gets angry at him for not listening to her.
People live with a “nail in their head” all the time, often to avoid the consequences or uncertainty surrounding taking it out. This can translate to hating your job, but staying in it because you don’t want to deal with not having a paycheck or trying to find a better job. You might be in an unhealthy relationship, but stay because you don’t want to face the loneliness or family disruption that a breakup or divorce would bring. Or you might not feel well, but decide not to take medication or get treatment because of possible side effects. These are common occurrences.
We all know how frustrating it can be to see a clear and obvious solution to a problem, to want to help someone fix it, and to have them not take our advice. We also all know how upsetting it can be to have someone not listen to our feelings, not validate our suffering, not just stop for a minute and take our perspective and let us know they understand.
Regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man, everyone needs both emotional support and practical help. Neither one is right or wrong, better or worse. The trick is knowing what is needed at any given moment and finding the right balance of listening and helping. Those are the hard things. But it’s possible for couples to find that balance using the skills of insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation.
Insight means being aware of and understanding yourself and your partner, recognizing the consequences of your actions, and learning from your mistakes. Mutuality means recognizing that both people have needs, both are legitimate, and both deserve to be met. Emotion regulation means managing your feelings in response to what is happening, expressing them in a calm way, and not acting in a hostile, critical, or impulsive manner. These skills apply to the “nail” dilemma in a lot of ways.
1. Recognize that you both have different ways in which you prefer to seek and provide support and work to understand each other’s perspective.
Just because someone has a nail sticking out of their head doesn't mean they don’t deserve the chance to express their feelings and have them validated. Perhaps they don’t yet understand that the nail is the problem. Perhaps they do, and they just need some emotional support before they will be able to do anything about it. Perhaps they believe the solution to the problem is going to cause worse pain or that it can’t actually be implemented. Take their perspective (they’re in pain and need you to soothe them), calm your own frustration, and give them what they want.
And just because someone is trying to problem solve with you, doesn’t mean they’re not listening and they don’t care about your feelings. In fact, it likely means they care deeply about your well-being and want you to be okay. They’re desperately trying to ease your pain. Use that insight to help you see their attempts as the benign caring help they’re trying to provide, and consider whether it’s a solution that might actually work, rather than dismissing it out of hand.
2. Don’t keep repeating things that don’t work.
Couples do this all the time. They keep trying to get their needs met, or meet their partners’ needs in the same way, over and over again, when their strategies clearly are not working. It’s like, “If I just keep doing this, eventually it’s going to work,” but that’s just not true. What’s worse is that they then blame their partner for it not working (“Why can't you just take my advice? Why can't you just listen to me and understand my feelings?”).
You need to understand the consequences of your behavior and learn from them. So, stop blaming and criticizing your partner for strategies that don’t work, and stop repeating those strategies. If you know your partner prefers emotional support, then don’t just keep providing only practical support. Your partner is never going to feel like his/her needs are being met. And if you know your partner is better at providing help rather than just listening, don’t keep trying to get your partner to never offer solutions. Get comfortable with the fact that he or she is a problem-solver.
3. Talk with each other about the ways you like to get and give support, and come up with a mutually acceptable way that you’ll support each other.
Once you develop and use insight into yourself, your partner, and the dilemma, then you need to commit to finding a solution that takes both people’s needs into account. You need to join together in an “us against the problem” stance rather than a “me against you” stance.
All the data show that supporting one another is critical to a healthy relationship, and most people truly want to support their partner. If you do, then it’s incumbent upon you to support him or her in the way that he or she wants. And most people truly want support from their partner. If you do, then it’s incumbent on you to be open to what your partner has to offer. If you both come from a place of mutuality – meaning you truly care about what the other person needs and you want to try to meet those needs – then you can be open to figuring out how you’ll negotiate – together – potentially difficult “nail” dilemmas.
And as you’re doing so, it’s important to stay connected to the caring feelings you have for your partner. Keep your angry feelings to yourself and soothe them with your insight about the situation. In support situations, one person is hurting, scared, upset, and the other person is hating to see their partner in pain. Stay with and communicate those feelings so that you two can stay focused on providing and receiving support, rather than turning a support moment into a fight.
To illustrate all of this in action, here’s the transcript of the video, followed by a transcript of how it might go if the characters were using the skills of insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation.
“It’s Not About the Nail” by Jason Headly
A couple is sitting together talking. There is a large nail sticking out of the front of the woman’s head.
Woman: It’s just, there’s all this pressure, you know. And sometimes it feels like it’s right up on me and I can just feel it, like literally feel it in my head and its relentless and I don’t know if it’s gonna stop, I mean, that’s the thing that scares me the most, it’s that I don’t know if it’s ever gonna stop.
Man: Ya. Wha—you do a have a nail in your head.
Woman: It is not about the nail.
Man: Are you sure, because, I mean, I bet if we got that out of there …
Woman: Stop trying to fix it.
Man: No, I’m not trying to fix it, I’m just pointing out that maybe the nail is causing —
Woman: You always do this — you always try to fix things when all I really need is for you to just listen.
Man: No, see, I don’t think that is what you need, I think what you need is to get the nail out —
Woman: SEE YOU’RE NOT EVEN LISTENING NOW!
Man: Ok, fine. I will listen, fine.
Woman: It’s just — sometimes it’s like — there’s this achy. I don’t know what it is. And I’m not sleeping very well at all. And all my sweaters are snagged. I mean — all of them.
Man (compassionately): That sounds really hard.
Woman: It is. Thank you. Awww (warmly)!
Man (frustrated): Oh come on — if you would just —
Woman (angrily): Don’t!”
Now, here's the skills-based version. (Old material is crossed out and new material is bolded; partners’ experiences are annotated):
Woman: (really needing emotional support): It’s just, there’s all this pressure, you know. And sometimes it feels like it’s right up on me and I can just feel it, like literally feel it in my head and its relentless and I don’t know if it’s gonna stop, I mean, that’s the thing that scares me the most, it’s that I don’t know if it’s ever gonna stop.
Man: (shocked because he sees the nail, but using insight, he’s thinking about how to both support her and deal with the obvious problem): Ya. That sounds terrible, really awful. I wonder if it’s because you have a nail in your head.
Woman: (feeling like she’s not being listened to): It is not about the nail.
Man: (really wanting to help her): Are you sure, because, I mean, I bet if we got that out of there…
Woman: (feeling not listened to but using the skills to assert her needs clearly and calmly): Stop trying to fix it. What I really need right now is you to just listen to me.
Man: (using the skills to respond empathically):
No, I’m not trying to fix it, I’m just pointing out that maybe the nail is causing — I’m sorry. I know. I really do understand that you’re feeling awful and scared. I don’t want you to feel that way, and I really want to help you. I hate to see you in pain.
Woman: (responding empathically and calmly in turn):
You always do this – you always try to fix things when all I really need is for you to just listen. I know you do. I’ll feel better if you just listen and not rush to try to solve it. I want to solve it too, but first I just need to talk about how I’m feeling.
Man: (using the skills to try to meet her need):
No, see, I don’t think that is what you need, I think what you need is to get the nail out – OK. Tell me more about what you’re feeling. Woman: SEE YOU’RE NOT EVEN LISTENING NOW! Man: Ok, fine. I will listen, fine.
Woman: (feeling cared about): It’s just – sometimes it’s like – there’s this achy. I don’t know what it is. And I’m not sleeping very well at all. And all my sweaters are snagged. I mean – all of them.
Man: (using the skills to respond empathically): That sounds really hard.
Woman: (feeling cared about): It is. Thank you. Awww (warmly)!
Man: (thinking “Oh come on – If you would just take the nail out!” but regulating his feelings and focusing on her needs) I do have some ideas for when you’re ready, and I hope we can talk about them. I think together we can deal with this.
Woman: (starting to feel frustrated, but using the skills to recognize that he has good intentions and to continue to communicate her needs calmly):
Don’t! Okay. Just don’t tell me to take the nail out. It’s not that simple.
Man: (using the skills to be responsive to her and to be creative about helping her): Okay, what about thinking about how you might sleep better, like trying a different position? Or maybe putting your sweaters on differently. Do you think any of that might be helpful?
Woman: (trying to be open to his suggestions): I don’t know. I guess I could try…
Man: (not wanting to push her and turn things into a conflict): Well, just think about it. I’m here to help you with this. I really do hear how difficult this is for you.
Instances where a partner needs support happen all the time and often continue over time, as the “nail” one likely will. If you can commit to using the skills, you’ll be better able to truly support one another in ways that both solve problems and create intimacy and strengthen the foundation of a healthy relationship.