Over the past year and a half, I’ve spent what is probably an unhealthy amount of time thinking about relationships and male/female dynamics. During that time I’ve looked at a number of books and websites dealing with relationships, relationship issues and any other topics that seem like offshoots of this. Mid-life crisis, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, personality types, adultery, menopause, you name it.
While on websites I try to read comments on sites and in forums. This feedback portion of the web is of particular interest to me because you get a lot of peoples stories. Sure, a lot of people use forums as a means of venting (about how terrible their significant other is and how great they are), but there is still a lot of valuable stuff there. The relative anonymity of the internet allows people to show sides of themselves that they may not normally show. There is a lot of crude, mean and bigoted content in forums. But there are also a lot of people that seem to be displaying a raw honesty about their feelings.
Husbands don’t care?
One common theme I found is that women often feel like they are talking to a wall when they talk to their husbands, and it’s not until things hit a crisis point that their husbands seem to care, but by then it’s too late. Here’s something that sums this sentiment up pretty well:
Women try for years to communicate to their husbands. Husbands don’t want to listen. Women reach a point where they stop trying and leave the relationship. Husbands then decide it’s time to listen.
I saw this sentiment on a number of different sites, often accompanied by a profound sense of frustration and loss. I won’t pretend to represent all men here, but here’s my response to all the women out there who are feeling this:
You’re 100% right, men should do a better job of listening to their wives and trying to truly understand their needs. That applies to me as well as many, many other men out there. So why don’t we? Why do men only start to listen when things reach a crisis point (and it may already be too late)?
The easy answer is that guys are dumb. There are a bunch of stereotypes about men that seem to imply women are in tune with their emotions while men are emotional Cro-Magnons. Sadly, from some of the things I have seen women write about men on forums a lot of women seem to believe that. The reality is probably a wee bit more complex though.
Listening but not Understanding
I mentioned in my first entry that this blog is not about me; it’s about things that I’ve learned as a result of my experiences. In this case I think my “story” is relevant to this topic – and it’s also not that unusual. When my relationship hit a crisis point I was caught off guard. I knew things weren’t perfect, but I didn’t realize we had a serious issue – so I felt blindsided. I hadn’t seen it coming and I really struggled to understand what happened.
Reflecting on things I realized there WERE signs. There were a lot of them and I simply didn’t see them. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I saw them, but didn’t understand them. Was that stupid of me? Sure. Does it mean I was a bad husband? From her perspective maybe it seemed that way, although I didn’t think so at the time. Even now I believe I was doing the best job that I could. But I didn’t realize what was happening and as a result I didn’t take any actions to correct things before they deteriorated to a bad state. Honestly, had I realized what was happening I probably still wouldn’t have had any idea of what to do.
What you don’t know CAN kill you
A friend of mine had a heart attack recently. He was a healthy guy who took care of himself, ate well and exercised regularly. He didn’t really fit the “profile” of a heart attack risk. While recovering in the hospital he was asked about the days leading up to his heart attack, and it turns out that he had displayed a number of symptoms. Thing is, he had never had a heart attack before so he didn’t know what to look for. He had all these symptoms but he brushed them off as something else. He thought he was overtired, or maybe he had a flu coming on. His body was clearly giving him warning signs that something was wrong, but he ignored it thinking it wasn’t anything serious. Did this mean he was stupid? That he didn’t care about what his body was telling him? His body WAS communicating, but it was communicating in a way he didn’t understand. His only real “mistake” was not knowing how to read the signs.
The Chinese Whisper game
I think the same things happen to many men and women. We go about our lives thinking that we are great husbands and/or wives. We pat ourselves on the back for the good job we are doing, but we are blind to what’s really happening. We think we are communicating with each other, but the messages that seem so clear to us aren’t being understood by our spouses. Sometimes we are crying out to them the equivalent of “hey, we’re having a heart attack here”, and although they “hear” us they think it’s time to get out the cough medicine because they are coming down with a cold. To the person sending the message it feels like they aren’t valued – their needs aren’t valued. The other person, the person who is supposed to be the most important person in the world to them, doesn’t seem to care. In reality they do care, very much. But they are hearing and not understanding.
I hear people say that “he doesn’t understand me” or “she doesn’t understand me”. And that’s just it, we often don’t understand each other. One person is communicating in a way that seems so clear to them, but their message is being completely missed.
It’s like the game Chinese Whisper, played in most primary schools. In that game people sit in a circle, and one person comes up with a message. That message is whispered from student to student in a circuit until it reaches the last one, who says the message out loud – but the spoken message rarely resembles the one you started with. In that game the message breaks down, or is filtered, as it goes from person to person.
In a relationship it should be simpler because the message is only passing from one person to another. But we all have invisible filters that cause the message to break down. Your life experiences, your expectations and your beliefs. We see and subconsciously interpret each others words and actions through these beliefs and expectations. And when someone doesn’t meet them, we feel let down. Over time these little moments add up, hurt builds into resentment, and we find ourselves trying to be understood less and less. Eventually we stop trying altogether, and that is when we hit a crisis.
Always remember the actual problem
I truly believe that most conflict in relationships start as simple misunderstanding. I also believe that those misunderstandings could have be resolved, but left unchecked they can grow into something more. Eventually the conflict and the resentment it has caused has overshadowed the original problem, and you now have conflict for the sake of conflict.
Everyone has times when they have felt hurt or let down by their significant other, that’s part of life. At those points in a relationship, it’s important to communicate these hurts and get them out in the open.
My whole life I have believed it is important to pick your battles. If something was important to me I would make a point of trying to discus it to get it out in the open. But it was pretty rare that I thought something was important enough to bring up. In most cases it didn’t seem worth the effort so I would just “let it go”. But I wasn’t really letting things go, I was just not dealing with them. Don’t just “let things go” because if you sweep things under the carpet, eventually that carpet gets really bumpy.
If we acknowledge that we need to do a better job of communicating, how do we avoid “chinese whisper syndrome”? I’m trying to figure this out for myself, but there are a few things you can try. Here are my thoughts:
- when talking about things with your spouse, focus on how it made you feel instead of the event. Don’t be judgmental, say something like “when this happened, that hurt me”.
- don’t escalate. When you are hurt, it’s easy to get defensive or go into attack mode and lash out. Remember, you are trying to improve your lines of communication here, and that doesn’t happen if you make things worse.
- if you need, walk away for a bit to collect your thoughts. Sometimes the heat of the moment isn’t the best time to try dealing with things.
To any ladies out there I say yeah some guys are jerks and some are insensitive (and even the best guys out there have moments where they are both). But I would like to think that most of us have best intentions, and actually do want to understand their spouses and want the best for their relationship. We ARE listening, we just aren’t understanding. My friend didn’t recognize the symptoms of his heart attack until it almost killed him.
Take the time and effort to try and ensure that your communication efforts are accompanied by understanding. It will be difficult at first, but I think you and your relationship will be better off in the long run.
If you have any tips on communications for what has worked for you in your relationships, let me know in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.