One of the most common issues I see in marriage counseling or couples counseling is the misunderstanding most men have about how to listen to their wives. Men want to solve problems, to fix whatever is upsetting their wives. But what happens incredibly often is that women feel unheard and unsupported when their guy tries to “fix” whatever it is she’s talking about rather than just listening.
In 1992, A psychologist named John Gray wrote a book called Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. It sold 15 million copies and made him a lot of money. But he did a really good job of describing this issue, saying “Men need to remember that women talk about problems to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.” The fact is that much of the time when women talk to their men about problems or challenges, they aren’t actually interested in or looking for him to fix or solve anything. They want to be heard and understood, which causes them to feel closer to him.
Men want to fix problems
So, for example, a wife might come home at the end of the day and tell her husband about a conflict she has with a co-worker. Though his natural and habitual reaction might be to try to suggest ways to deal with this co-worker, what might work much better is something like this: “That sounds really frustrating, honey. Sorry you had such a hard day.” This profound gender misunderstanding is often the source of relationship problems.
I’ve found in my marriage that this realization really takes the pressure off me. It’s way easier – or at least way less complicated - to just listen to my wife than to try to fix the problems or frustrations she’s verbalizing. My wife is smart and competent and usually doesn’t need my advice. If she does, she asks for it. This is the case with most women I work with in marriage counseling. When they finally realize this, most men feel a real sense of relief.
She keeps bringing up the same thing
Another way I see this dynamic show up is when a man complains that his wife keeps bringing up the same issue again and again. More often than not, this is because she’s never truly felt heard and understood by him. It’s shocking how easily we can sometimes move past something like this in couples counseling just by having him hear her and understand her. This at times is all it takes to finally put something in the past, sometimes something that’s been a source of conflict for years or even decades. Something like “I can really see how much that hurt you” or “That must have been really hard for you” is often all it takes to finally put something to rest.
Or sometimes a man will complain that conversations with his wife last too long, that it feels to him that she just keeps repeating the same thing again and again. When we dissect the conversation in couples therapy, we often see that it could have ended much, much sooner if she had simply felt heard. Trying to fix or debate often prolongs what could have been a shorter dialogue.
We weren't taught how to listen
And it’s not men’s fault that we aren’t good at this sort of listening. We are trained to be problem solvers, to fix things we think are problems. When our women complain or express frustration, we think there’s a problem for us to solve. Our lousy listening is, in fact, well-intentioned. But when we finally see that the best way to fix or solve what’s going on with her is to listen, we have a new, more effective tool to deal with the situation. It’s as if we’ve been trying to use a Phillips head screwdriver on a slotted screw. It just doesn’t work. Sometimes, this is one of the most important tools men take out of couples therapy.
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