In a recent posting I identified a list of the wrong things to say to someone who is upset. Interestingly, this led to a lot of comments on The Huffington Post, which got me thinking. The first thought I had was, “Why do men find it so hard to validate women?”
Before I get into this, I’d like you to think about the research by psychologist John Gottman. Gottman has been able to predict with 91 percent accuracy which couples will end up getting divorced. He calls these “The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse” — along with other problematic styles of communication. The Four Horsemen are Criticism (“You are always whining”), Contempt (“You’re a basket case”), Defensiveness (“I’m not the problem, you are!”) and Stonewalling (withdrawing or becoming silent). Other problematic styles include starting the conversation in a hostile or intense style, giving off body-language that is defensive or cold, flooding your partner with negativity, and bringing up past memories, complaints and injuries. When you can predict divorce with 91 percent accuracy you know you are on to something.
Now I don’t want to claim that men are always the problem — or that they are even more likely to be the problem than women are. No group is innocent, no group is perfect. But I can see that a lot of times men have a great deal of difficulty validating and emotionally supporting the women in their lives. Here are some reasons.
The Seven Reasons Men Don’t Listen
- It’s a Power Struggle. Some men view intimate relationships as a win-lose game. If the woman is venting her feelings, then she is winning and the man is losing. As a result these men may try to dominate and control the woman, telling her that she is illogical, out of control or just a pain to deal with. One man says, “You want us to be doormats.”
Many men describe their interactions in terms of “sarcastic” comments — put-downs, contempt, criticism and condescension. For example, some men respond with, “It must be that time of the month” or “Get me a beer” or other problematic and self-defeating comments. They think that sarcasm will get the woman to either shut up or help her see that she is being ridiculous. She gets the message that he not only doesn’t care — but that he is the last person to ask for support. He thinks he’s clever and funny — and she thinks he just doesn’t get it.
- Macho Thinking
A number of men comment that to validate or to use emotional language to support the woman is unmanly. “You are trying to make us into wusses,” a number of men say. They believe that the role of the man is to be strong, above it, domineering. Validating and allowing emotional ventilation is for feminized men, men who have lost their dignity as “real men.” The women may think that some of the macho confidence is appealing, until it leads them to feel that the only emotion they can get from him is his anger.
- Emotional Dysregulation
Some men find it so upsetting, so emotionally arousing to listen to their partners that they feel they have to ventilate their anger or withdraw. In fact, this is supported by the research that shows that their pulse-rates escalate during conflict and they find this unbearable. As a result of their own escalating emotion — which they can’t tolerate — they either try to get her to shut up — or they leave the room. She feels controlled, marginalized and abandoned.
- Not Wanting to Reinforce Whining
This is another reason that men give for not supporting or encouraging expression. They believe that validating and making time and space for their partner’s expression will reinforce complaining which, in turn, will go on indefinitely. So they want to stop it immediately by using sarcasm, control or stonewalling. She feels that he won’t let her talk, that he is cold, aloof, hostile. So she goes somewhere else to get that support — another woman friend — or another man.
- Demand for Rationality
Some men believe that their partner should always be rational and that irrationality cannot be tolerated. Their response to their partner’s apparent irrationality is to point out every error in her thinking, dismiss her, become sarcastic or withdraw. This demand for rationality or “the facts” might sound “mature” but I have yet to hear someone say that they have a great sex life because they have the facts on their side. Communication is often more about soothing, grooming, connecting — less about simply giving you the information and being logical.
- Problems Have to Be Solved
These men think that the main reason for communication is to share facts that then can be used for problem-solving. They think that venting and sharing feelings gets you nowhere and that if their partner is not willing to initiate problem-solving then she is being self-indulgent and wasting everyone’s time and energy. When he jumps in with problem-solving, she either escalates the emotion which she believes is not heard, or she withdraws.
Well, ask yourself, “Have these responses really worked?” Why is this kind of behavior and thinking so predictive of divorce? If it’s not working — and you and your partner both know it’s not — then maybe it’s time to think about making a change. You can change your partner — break up, get divorced. Or, perhaps it would be easier to change your response to your partner. In a previous posting I listed some possible responses.
Let me go back to a fundamental part of intimate relationships. We want to feel that our partner cares about and respects our feelings. We want to believe that they have time to listen. We want to feel supported, soothed and that we are not a burden. The seven beliefs and styles above — which many men use — only alienate the women that they claim they love. If it’s not working, why would you continue to act this way?
The answer may be that some men view relationships in terms of power and control. They believe that being real men means never giving up your power. They think that women need to be kept in their place, not “indulged,” taught how to think rationally and solve real problems. Of course, rationality and problem-solving are important, but if your partner wants to be heard and respected you better find out first before you jump in and take control. Real men share power, real men are partners, real men know that real women need real respect.