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Recently, a Ricochet member posted a humorous video skewering a common complaint women make about men. When a woman is talking to her husband about an upsetting topic, he should just listen, women say. His tendency to come up with advice to solve the problem ignores her feelings as well as the fact that she’s not looking for solutions–she just needs to vent. This complaint has become part of our culture, self-deprecatingly accepted by men and referenced as a bit of go-to humor everyone relates to. The video responds to this cultural chestnut by suggesting that this male “problem-solving” they get accused of can be a case of simply pointing out the painfully obvious. Meanwhile, the venting woman is indignant that she is not being heard.
It’s possible, however, that the cliche about women just wanting to vent has it all wrong. And the description of unwelcome input from the listener as “problem-solving” might be framed more accurately as something else. Women would actually welcome advice from men. This male-female divide may have more layers than generally assumed.
First, I’ll tackle the accepted notion that when women are upset they just need to pour out their story and process their emotions. Advice at the wrong time, goes the claim, merely escalates the situation and the man is left puzzled at what he did wrong. Actually, women appreciate input and problem-solving. I’ll go as far as to say that when she’s pouring out her story, advice is ultimately what she is really seeking–some wise counsel, a different perspective. An understanding listener who can offer wise words makes a woman feel loved and cared for. In fact, women give one another happily accepted advice all the time.
To illustrate, I had a friend telephone me years ago very troubled. It seems that she went to visit her sister in another state, but ended up not being able to stay at the sister’s home as planned. Her son was too allergic to the cat to be able to cope there. Far from being understanding and flexible, the sister appeared to harbor resentment over it. I settled outside on the porch steps as the story details unfolded for several minutes, every now and then inserting “I’m sorry,” or “That wasn’t kind.”
Then I explained to my friend that the situation made sense to me. I knew someone who would react a lot like her sister did, and there was a rational explanation for this behavior. Some people just look forward to planning a visit and being with their guests so intensely (especially when it’s family or close friends), that their disappointment when things don’t work out is almost tangible. It doesn’t make their reaction right, but my friend could take it as a compliment that her sister longed to spend time with her. In response to my perspective, the tightness went out of my friend’s voice. She agreed that it made sense and expressed appreciation for my talking it through with her.
Another time, I was on the receiving end of a caring friend’s counsel. I told her a sad tale that had been troubling me: relations with a neighbor were awkward because I had responded in white-hot anger upon finding out that on the first day of school, her new stepdaughter had verbally shredded my daughter. A confrontation ended with my being ordered off the neighbor’s property, and now I didn’t know how to approach the neighbor or whether I could trust her. What would I say? This friend, Margaret, understood why the standoff bothered me and what my own role had been in it. She sweetly set forth her suggestions that included me taking a plate of cookies to the neighbor. I didn’t act on the suggestions, but Margaret’s words made me feel as if reconciliation were possible. More than that, I felt loved by my friend.
Women long for good advice, helpful insights, problem-solving. Bring it on. But the question is, does all input qualify as this highly sought after response women look for? Admit it, you’ve seen this happen: a woman will share a problem and her distress over it. Let’s say she describes her frustration with a work friend who keeps claiming credit for others’ ideas. The input this woman might hear from a male listener is: Well, maybe you shouldn’t work there anymore. Or, You should stop being friends with her. You’re always complaining about it. Just don’t hang out with her anymore. That’s pretty efficient problem-solving, right? You don’t work there anymore, or you cut off your friend, bingo–no more issues. Yet the woman would not want to follow these suggestions except with extreme cases. And, if he thought about it, the guy probably would not quit his job because of conflicts, either.
I suggest that two dynamics are going on in the male-female scenario above. First, the guy doesn’t want to see the woman upset, and he hates that she is having problems. It’s a caring response. He wants her problem to go away. And, he wants taking care of her pain to be like popping an aspirin, fast and efficient. Second, though, he wishes for the talking part to be over, so he can go ahead with whatever he was doing. Why she has to use so many words, and include so many details, is beyond him. Backstories are for comic book villains, not for conversations. His word processing capacity, especially for a drama-laden, detailed narrative like this one, is running low, and he’s got to say something to stem the tide–and soon.
To the woman, I would say this: she needs to be open to recognizing good counsel in what her man is saying. He doesn’t have to frame ideas perfectly for his words to be sound. Also, she can admit that insights from an outside source, like a friend, tend to be better received. Sometimes shared history can make spouses less receptive to one another, even when spousal feedback is solid and if not eloquent and well-timed, from a heart that’s true.Published in