Men: If you want to be happy and have an extended relationship with a woman, you’re going to have to learn how to talk to one. And that applies just as much to dads talking to their daughters (and sons talking to their mothers) as it does husbands talking to their wives.
Caveat: This post is about one specific woman. My wife. I can’t speak for women in general, but I think this might actually help a lot of guys out there, especially me in the future if I remember to come back and read this during my moments of less-clarity.
See, I’ve watched carefully over the last week as my wife talked to people. She talked to her father and his wife, as mentioned in my last post. She talked to her mom, her brother, her sister, her son, her husband…a lot of people. And during all of this watching her talk (which I was doing to monitor her mood because this whole thing with her parents is still unresolved and keeping her from sleeping), I had an epiphany.
I read in some magazine when I was a teenager — probably one of the Penthouses I found in my stepfather’s stash — that “women want to cuddle, be supported, be respected, and feel competent. Also, sex and [other explicit details not appropriate for this blog.]” I realized that there’s one thing that connects everything on that list — emotional support.
My wife and her father threw back and forth lots of words; he was defensive (naturally) of the implication that he wasn’t the best parent, and he tried to provide lots of evidence that he did OK. She did her best to not accuse him of anything, and when she did mention something she remembered that wasn’t excellent, she tried to reinforce the idea that it was no longer an issue and that she loved him regardless.
The more back-and-forth, the more desperate, sad, and worthless my wife felt. And I realized that it wasn’t because she actually cared about her father’s history in the least. He was focused on “solving the problem” of her feelings about him by attempting to prove them wrong or at least irrelevant — but in so doing, he completely and utterly failed to connect with her at all.
He threw facts and figures and stories, and she didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of it, because what she wanted wasn’t in the past. She didn’t care about the past. Yes, her current feelings were based on her past feelings, but you can’t change past feelings. They’re in the past.
The way to talk to a woman — in this case, my wife — is by asking yourself “what is she feeling right now?” Then take whatever answer you just gave yourself, discard it, and ask again, because “mad” or “upset” or “sad” isn’t it. Women aren’t that simple — there’s something behind the anger or the sadness that you have to get to.
My wife is upset at her father — but she’s not feeling just upset, she’s feeling worthless. And there’s nothing about his tactics of denying the validity of her feelings and trying to disprove her stance that connects with that fundamental realization. Instead, his tactic reinforced her feelings.
The next step is to remember what it feels like to feel the way she does. I’ve felt worthless before — just a few months ago, when my mom and I had the fight that inspired this blog. And once you recognize that the person you’re talking to feels literally worthless, you can start the job of addressing the reasons why.
My wife feels worthless because her father, over the course of his life, blatantly chose his job, his new wife, and other things in his life over her. That’s not a judgment against him; it’s a simple fact — and even if it’s not objectively true, she feels like it’s true, and she has for as long as she can remember. Her step-mother’s email detailing all of the complaints she/they had about my wife only served to reinforce the notion that we are more of an annoyance and a hassle to them than family.
(I can empathize; before my mother and I worked the thing with the house out, I largely felt like my mother outright telling me in exact monetary terms how many dollars I was worth to her. X amount, with a little wiggle room, but no more. Is it fair to feel that way? Of course not. Would I have felt just as bad even if the dollar amount had been ten times larger? Of course I would. It’s not about the amount of money, it’s about knowing that there’s actually a value at all.)
In contrast, when my wife talked to her mom about this issue, her mom addressed her feelings immediately. She said, “Every time he does something like this, it makes you look like a better parent and it helps you realize what a great mom you are.” Presto — feelings of worthlessness acknowledged, and worth added back in the form of a focus on what we believe is important. That’s why we love Nonna.
The point is that if you want to be able to talk to a woman, you have to start by understanding what she is feeling. Addressing her ‘point’ by actually addressing her point isn’t going to get you anywhere. Her ‘point’ isn’t the summation of her stance, it’s there as a guidepost to help you find her emotional state so that you can empathize and help her feel better.
Once the feeling better has happened — which can be a long, painful process if the emotions are deeply entrenched — then and only then can you go about addressing the ‘point’ and achieving a masculine-style ‘solution’ to the problem at hand.
Now, if all of this sounds in the least bit condescending, it’s not supposed to — because I’ve learned one of the secrets of the universe: men are the exact same way, except for one critical difference: the order of operations. Women start with the deeper side and move toward the immediate instance. Men start with the immediate instance, come up with an immediate solution, and if it turns up again and again over a period of time, they decide that the problem might actually be worth the deeper effort and go into that mode.
The difference is that the women tend to spend more up-front effort, but solve problems more thoroughly. Men spare up-front effort, but end up putting in the same effort over and over again, solving problems only as thoroughly as they need to in order to move on.
This makes sense given that men in general discount the future more than women for biological reasons (according to The Lucifer Principle) — why put in effort up-front when you might die tomorrow, and then you squandered an opportunity to get out and hunt up another bison for the kids? Women, on the other hand, give the future its full consideration — if I don’t solve this problem now I’m going to have to keep dealing with it, and that sucks, so let’s solve this and then we can get on with the business of living.
I don’t know that either strategy is any more right or wrong than the other, but I do know that if you’re a man trying to talk to a woman, it’s really important that you take your impatient desire to fix something and move forward, shove it, and settle in for the long haul. It fights against the way our brains are wired, but learning this skill is absolutely vital if your goal is your wife’s happiness and your own marital bliss.
Now, to remember and apply this moment of clarity the next time my wife tells me at 1:30 in the morning that she can’t sleep…that’s my next goal.