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Men and women communicate in different ways, experts say, the key is in the listening

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Catherine W. Idzerda
February 21, 2008
You’ve asked him, nicely, a thousand times, not to floss in the living room.
Yet there he is, with a gaping mouth and his gross waxed string, flossing during the nightly news.
Why can’t he listen?



What’s the big deal with a little flossing? One step outside of the bathroom door with a tiny piece of string, and she goes into crazy lady mode. Of course, the next day we have to “talk about what happened.” It’s like the Paris Peace Talks, except with more at stake.

What is it with women?


What is wrong with men?


Now that a week separates us from Valentine’s Day and all the lovely-dovey sentimental stuff is over, the nagging questions tug us back to reality. All those small arguments over flossing—or the pile of dirty socks next to the recliner or lights left on or who last took out the garbage—will return.


As a service to our readers, we asked local family and marriage counselors to decipher the mysterious and often annoying behaviors of the opposite sex.


Sally Greer, psychotherapist at the Janesville Family Medical Center and the Counseling Care Center at the Beloit Memorial Hospital, listed the three most common complaints.


-- His complaints about her:


Why do we have to talk about everything?


Why can’t everything be OK?


Why is she so critical?


-- Her complaints about him:


Why can’t he be more affectionate or emotionally close? Why is he so remote?


Why can’t he see what needs to be done and do it?


Why is he so critical?


It all comes down to that dreaded word, “communication.”


Men and women have developed different thought processes over the ages, Greer explained. As culture changes, those processes might evolve— But for now, those habits are all we have to work.


Licensed family and marriage counselor Judy Formosa agreed.


“The genders are different; their priorities are different,” said Formosa, who works at the employee assistance coordinator at Mercy Health Systems. “Even if their dreams are the same, they have different ways of getting there.”


That doesn’t mean the sexes are fated to quarrel about dirty sock piles for the rest of their lives.


“Men and women might communicate differently, but they don’t have to,” Greer said.


To get at those differences it helps to understand, in general:


-- Men want to fix problems, not talk about them.


“Men are about action. They want to rush in with their tool box and fix the problem,” Formosa said.


-- Women tend to talk through problems; it helps them make sense of something that’s happened.


The cardinal rule of arguing or “talking about it,” is to avoid the word “you.”


Instead of “Why do you have to leave your cans of chew spit around the living room?” try saying, “Can we think up a system for chew-spit disposal?”


The “you” rule will drive both genders crazy. Why not just get to the point: “Why can’t you stop using my razor on your legs. It’s disgusting and dulls the blades.”


Unfortunately, the fastest and most emotionally satisfying is often the least successful.


“Communications is about a two-way dialogue,” Formosa said. “We speak and assume we are being heard.”


The word “you” creates a hostile environment, and the person listening might just hear accusations, not a request.


What should she say?


Women need to be specific.


“Women assume that if a man loves her, he’ll understand what she needs,” Formosa said. “Really, women have to ask for what they need more directly.”


Bad examples include: “Why don’t you spend more time with me?” or “I don’t want to cut into your valuable television watching time, but could you load the dishwasher for once?”


Instead, start with something gentle and non-threatening such as “Let’s do something fun together this week,” or “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount of housework I have to do every evening.”


Then move on to the details.


Develop lists with his and hers jobs. Don’t imagine he’ll realize what needs to be done. Make concrete suggestions about where you’d like to go on your evening out.


If you want to “talk” about some big subject, break it down, break it down, break it down. Say “I’m unhappy about relationship,” and the conversation will fail.


If women avoid the issues that bother them, it will only make them unhappy and resentful, Greer said.


What should he hear?


Men have to listen for the meaning behind the words—and remember that their day doesn’t end when the workday ends.


“Males very often believe that if they’re bringing home the paycheck, they’re doing their part,” Formosa said.


Consider saving some of that work-a-day energy for your home life.


And when she’s shrieking at you about some slight offense, such as leaving a single pair of socks on the floor, it might be time to “check in,” Formosa said.


“You have to understand the intent behind the words,” Formosa said. “If you know your wife has had a hard day, instead of having an argument, check in on it.”


She might be saying “I’m exhausted and the socks sent me over the edge,” or “The kids are making me berserk. Can you distract them?”


Men often object to a woman’s tone—the voice that conveys a mix of contempt and disgusted pity at male stupidity.


As hard as it is, try to get past the tone and listen for the message. Is she actually being critical or just asking you to do something?


Finally, don’t assume that your wife or significant other knows that you love her. You do, of course, but it helps if you show it in some tangible way. Words are wonderful, affectionate hugs—without any ulterior motives—are good, too.


Some dos and don’ts for both


-- Cut your partner some slack. We often are kinder and more considerate of our co-workers and friends than of our spouse or significant other.


-- Don’t assume that your partner will meet all of your needs. Expand your world with other interests and activities.


-- “Sometimes it’s going to be his way; sometimes it’s going to be her way; sometimes it will be a compromise,” Greer said. “But it shouldn’t be one of those all the time.”


-- Let your partner know how much you appreciate him or her. It’s obvious advice, but people forget.


-- If you find yourself heading down the slippery slope toward a argument, try this line: “Even though we don’t agree on this, my intent isn’t to upset you.”


-- Remember what you first loved about your partner. Keep his or her positive qualities in the forefront of your mind. Don’t let the small details and quarrels overrule something great.



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