Men and women are different. But which gender is more complicated? If you ask a man, he’ll say women are more complicated. Because if she does or says something he doesn’t understand, he gives up. But if you ask a woman, I’m not sure she’d have anything to say on the subject. Because when a man does or says something a woman doesn’t understand, she thinks he’s wrong. She’ll try to correct him. Or find some other way to fix him. Like going to couple’s counseling. Let’s talk about that.
Read full transcript below.
I was dining with a table full of counselors at a psychology conference. As we were enjoying our salads, each person took a turn at self-introduction. At the time, I was a psychology professor, so everyone wanted to know what classes I taught. Introduction to Psychology, Human Growth and Development, Personal and Social Adjustment, Theories of Personality, Counseling Techniques, Practicum, Doctoral Research Seminar, and the Psychology of Men. I saved the best for last because it always had the power to elicit a reaction. Women fell silent. But the men laughed, saying something about what a short course that must be. Or how could you have enough material to teach a whole semester on the subject of men? They believed they were so simple that no one needed to spend much time studying them.
Their attitude and lack of self-awareness about their own gender development is precisely the problem with trying to understand men. They see no need to explain themselves. To talk about what they think, how they feel, or why they do what they do. They considered themselves to be normal. Which makes sense. Asking a man to describe his experience is like asking a fish to describe water. It’s all he knows.
No one encourages a man to talk about his inner life. In fact, he’s taught to keep his inner life a secret. Sometimes he does it so well that he doesn’t acknowledge what’s going on inside, even to himself. He has always had very deep feelings.
As a boy, he was far more sensitive than his sister. More sensitive than the girls in his class at school. As he grew into manhood, he learned to control his powerful feelings. Which is a good thing because he is also very powerful physically. If he didn’t control his feelings, he might act them out in a destructive way.
Instead, he learned to sublimate his feelings into positive actions. To solve problems. To fix things that are broken. When he gets flooded with emotions and doesn’t know what to do, he withdraws into himself. First, to calm his pounding heart. Then, to think of a solution.
Unfortunately, whenever a man goes silent, his wife believes he’s not listening at best and that he doesn’t care at worst. She has no idea that the opposite is true. So she dives in. Tries to get him to talk. Criticizes him for what she sees as disengagement. She tries to fix him. To give him advice. She has no idea how his heart and mind are designed and trained to work together to make the world a better place.
In her attempts to offer her solutions, she creates an additional problem for him. He’s trying to calm himself enough to think, and she adds more confusion to the mix.
His heart keeps beating faster and faster. He cannot hear her words. He has absolutely no idea what she’s saying. Because human emotions always take precedence over reason, even for a man. That’s why he cannot hear or understand her words.
And the longer he stays silent, the more effort she puts into breaking down the wall between them. She provides example after example, hoping he will understand her desperation. He doesn’t. He only knows that she’s angry. He doesn’t understand her fear, because she doesn’t sound afraid. She looks and sounds angry. So he tunes her out as best he can. Not because he doesn’t care, but because he’s overwhelmed by too much input.
In my experience working with couples for more than 25 years, I watched this scene play out in almost every marriage. The woman didn’t understand her husband. And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t make him understand her. He felt attacked, blamed, and criticized. He stayed in defensive mode so long it became his default mode. Anything and everything she said and did had the potential to trigger his distress response. He lived more and more in default mode.
She felt alone. In fact, she was alone. Her husband often disconnected emotionally. He didn’t want to lash out, so he checked out or walked out. Sometimes he left the room or left the house. He would disappear physically. With no indication as to when or if he would return.
Her panic would peak at that point. Instead of calming the cycle, his behavior escalated the emotional frenzy they had created together. The harder she tried to make him understand, the more overwhelmed he became. The more he withdrew in self-protection, the more intense her efforts became.
Unlike her husband, she was taught to talk about her feelings. To work together to find a solution. When he didn’t engage in a dialogue with her, she assumed he just didn’t get it. So she offered more examples, using even more words than she did the first time. Getting even more emphatic each time. Still she got no response. Her anxiety continued to grow. Why wasn’t he talking? Couldn’t he see how important this was to her?
She felt dismissed, devalued, denied. She was alone. Believing he didn’t care. Nothing she did helped, and she ran out of ideas. So she recycled her previous attempts to engage him. With the same outcome. Or worse.
Oftentimes the couples who came to my office had been in couple’s therapy before. In describing their previous experiences, they often reported that all they did was argue during their sessions. Very few had learned any skills, and none of them had been taught how to listen to and understand the opposite sex. Their problem was glaringly obvious to me. As a woman myself and having studied men for such a long time, I knew they were misunderstanding one another. Yes, women are complicated. But so are men. We have totally different biology, experiences, and ways of solving problems.
Because I am a woman, women seem to be less complicated than men. I understand how our minds work. I speak the female language fluently. I can pick up on a woman’s emotions by the words she uses, the rhythm of her speech, her facial expressions, her voice tone, and her body language.
However, when they’re not getting along, her husband only recognizes two possibilities: she’s angry or she’s not angry. Red light, yellow light. Full stop or proceed with caution. He doesn’t speak her language. Nor does he have as many words to describe his own emotions as she does hers. He doesn’t understand the nuances involved in the words she chooses.
He relies solely on his own pulse, which is his warning signal. Be careful. Be quiet. Or full-on danger. Fight, flight, or freeze. Most men freeze first. Many would rather walk away than fight. Especially with their wives.
For this reason, I’ve come to believe that a man is more complicated than a woman. Her processes, although confusing to him, are openly shared, straightforward, and obvious. She has no problem talking about what bothers her. It’s true she often hides her vulnerability behind an angry façade. Much like frightened kitten when it arches its back, fluffs up its fur, and hisses. The kitten tries to look tougher than it really is. And so does a woman.
No wonder he doesn’t ask her to tell him more. She’s not making any sense to him. She sure doesn’t look or sound vulnerable or afraid. She looks and sounds like she’d like to have him beheaded.
On the other hand, a man’s processes are internal. He doesn’t verbalize what’s happening for him, so his wife makes assumptions based on her own experiences as a woman.
If she were to fall silent and get that blank look on her face, it would mean she either didn’t understand or didn’t care enough to want to understand.
Therefore, she believes that’s what he’s thinking. That’s why she gives so many examples. Illustrations to help make her position clear.
But they only muddy the water for him because it feels more like a machine gun than an explanation. Again, all he has to go on is his heart rate. He doesn’t understand her language.
I’ve learned to speak the male language. It’s my superpower. Given my personal life experience, that’s quite surprising, even to me. If you’ve not heard my story, listen to Episode 1 of A Wise Woman’s Guide podcast. I can easily pick up on a man’s body language and the smallest of changes in the whites of his eyes. Sometimes, I know what he’s thinking and feeling before he does. He may not use many words, but his body speaks volumes, always revealing the truth about what he’s experiencing. One man told the audience at a seminar that it was a little scary how well I understood men. They couldn’t hide in my office. At least, not from me. My validation of a man’s experience felt reassuring to him. My goal was to teach a woman how to do that with her own husband. When she did, everything about their marriage improved rapidly.
On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to teach men about women. Their lack of success in being able to implement what they learn reminds me of the time I took a ski lesson in Breckenridge, Colorado. I did great on the bunny slope. Everything the instructor said made perfect sense to me. In fact, I was the star student in our little group.
We moved to an easy slope, and he encouraged me to go first. No one had told me anything about moguls. I hadn’t even heard of them, much less learned what to do when you hit one.
This one was an itty bitty bump, but it sent me into panic mode. I felt out of control. I couldn’t remember how to plow, much less how stop. So I headed straight for a big pile of snow on the side of the run. I don’t know how I was able to manage to get myself going in that direction, but stopping was my default mode. I knew how to default.
Like me on the bunny slope, many a man I’ve worked with has been a star student. As long as his wife wasn’t present. Then he’d try to apply the information and skills I’d taught him. But he was still operating in red-light, yellow-light mode. He was aware of the emotional moguls. He’s already hit them so many times without knowing what to do.
The first time he tried to use the skills, he was already in yellow-light mode. Even with me in the room. Because he was hypersensitive to his wife’s responses. As soon as she seemed displeased or angry, he shut down. Plowed into the nearest snowbank.
As he looked to me for help, the expression on his face was like a deer caught in the headlights. Is that me mixing metaphors, or am I okay with that one since Colorado has a lot of snow AND a lot of deer?
The bottom line on men learning to understand women? We’re not that complicated. Yes, we use language differently, and we approach life and problems differently. No, men are not stupid or dense. They want to learn. They are eager to learn. However, in the application, their overwhelming sensitivity to their wives overrides their ability to think clearly and respond differently every time. Making it impossible for them to lead the charge for change.
Now, that’s clearly not true of all men. But in all my clinical work, only four men were able to keep their sensitivity in check well enough to respond differently. One was a senior pastor, one worked in the entertainment industry, and two were highly successful businessmen. You could argue that these men simply refined their defenses. That’s likely very true.
Even so, their wives continued to struggle because none of the wives had been able to see or understand their husbands’ vulnerabilities and put that understanding to use in building a stronger marriage. To put it simply, had these men and their wives been equally invested in understanding one another at a deeper level, both they and their marriages would be fireproof. Nothing would be able to stand against them.
That is my goal for every couple. I never ignore the red flags. Instead, I shine a light on them. We talk about what’s really going on. Then we explore ways they could do things differently. All along the way, they are learning about one another.
Research in emotionally-focused therapy for couples has revealed a predictable pattern. Before there’s any conflict, the couple disconnects. Therefore, repairing the disconnect is essential to relationship growth. Before anything can change, the person who withdrew must re-engage in the relationship.
In about 95% of the couples I’ve worked with, the husband is the one who has disengaged. I quickly discovered a crucial step that must occur before the withdrawn person can re-engage. Simply put, he must be given space. The coach or counselor is responsible to make sure there is a safe space for him to talk.
Mark and Maria described their one session with a counselor before consulting with me. The counselor asked Mark a question, and Maria started talking before he’d said a word. So the counselor turned her focus to Maria instead. Leaving Mark without a chance to use his voice in what was supposed to have been a safe space for both of them. Not at all what would have done.
My approach has always been to calm the fears of the most obviously anxious person in the room. To create space for the other person, who is so anxious he’s afraid to speak. Remember, his past experience has taught him not to say anything. To take it as long as he can until he can take no more, then lashes out or walks out.
How did I do it? At the beginning of each session, I checked in with the husband first to see how the week had gone and to take a reading on his current emotional state. I validated his experience and thanked him for whatever he shared. Then I told him I was going to talk with his wife for a few minutes. He was not only allowed to remain silent, he was required to remain silent. His anxiety immediately abated.
Then I turned to his wife. She was free to talk about whatever was on her mind. However, she was not allowed to attack, blame, or criticize her husband in the process. How did I stop her? I rephrased her words for her. With example after example, I was teaching her how to talk about her pain without putting her husband down.
The whole time, I was monitoring her husband’s non-verbal responses. Watching for and sensing the slightest changes in his demeanor, and using my knowledge of the psychology of men to formulate a hypothesis that I could offer to his wife. I said, “I imagine your husband felt powerless in that moment. Like there was nothing he could do to make things better. That’s probably why he shut down.”
Many times, I elaborated as she listened. I was translating what he was feeling into words that she could understand. Each time, I was validating her husband’s experience and teaching him how to use words that she could understand. I’d watch his body language to see if I was on track. Adding more information or clarifying what I’d already said. When his tension eased, I asked him if I got it right. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I did get it right. He was relieved, and she had a new possibility to consider.
I wish I could say this process only took one session. But if that were the case, I’d have a line of cars around my block day and night with couples wanting that one magic session with me.
However, mindsets are not easy to change. When you’ve heard derogatory comments about the opposite sex your whole life, you tend to hold onto them as through they were the gospel truth. You believe they are your shield against hurt. You don’t realize that believing those lies are actually causing your hurt.
It ain’t what you don’t know that causes the most problems. It’s what you do know that just ain’t so. About 95% of my time with couples was spent on unlearning what they believed to be true. In the last 5%, they began to embrace the truth about one another’s hope and fears, dreams and disappointments, vulnerabilities and possibilities.
Every successful outcome required each person’s willingness to let go of their desire for self-protection. To let go of their desire to get even. In order to embrace the possibilities. The capacity that each had, both for understanding and for being understood. In that order.
It was simple. Most solutions are. But they’re not often obvious. And they’re rarely easy. But they’re always worth it. I most loved saying goodbye to the successful couples. You’d think I’d want them to keep coming once they became easy to work with. But that’s not why I’m here. I rejoiced in their graduation. Romance was alive and well again. And that was amazing. They’d done amazing work. They took the risk and now it was time to reap all the rewards. I was and still am beyond happy for them!
The truth is, you will never have a better relationship unless you are willing to learn the truth, to unlearn the lies, and to practice what you learn. Learn. Experiment. Observe. Repeat what works. If you’re ready for that, you’re in the right place.
It’s time to check out my free classes and my advanced training courses. I’ll put the link in the show notes. You can work at your own pace. You can work together.
Or you can learn on your own. Because this is all about your personal development. Even if you’re hoping your husband will change. Remember, an upgraded husband will need an upgraded wife.
Thanks for listening today. I wish you all the best as you learn. It’s challenging, to be sure. New knowledge has the power to rock your world. But you’ve got this. And remember, I’m here to help.