Husbands and Wives—Do They Really Talk Differently?
JUST suppose that Bill shuffled into Jerry’s office, his shoulders visibly sagging under the weight of his worries. Jerry looked gently at his friend and waited for him to speak. “I don’t know if I can close this deal,” sighed Bill. “There are so many snags, and the head office is really pressuring me.” “What are you worried about, Bill?” Jerry asked confidently. “You know you’re the best man for the job, and they know it too. Just take your time. You think this is bad? Why, just last month . . .” Jerry recounted the humorous details of his own little fiasco and soon his friend left the office laughing and relieved. Jerry was happy to help.
And also suppose that when he arrived home that afternoon, Jerry could tell right away that his wife, Pam, was also upset. He greeted her with particular cheeriness and then waited for her to say what was on her mind. After a tense, stony silence, she blurted out: “I can’t take it anymore! This new boss is a tyrant!” Jerry sat her down, put his arm around her, and said: “Honey, don’t be so upset. Look, it’s only a job. Bosses are like that. You should have heard the way mine ranted on today. If it’s too much for you, though, just quit.”
“You don’t even care how I feel!” Pam shot back. “You never listen to me! I can’t quit! You don’t bring home enough money!” She ran off to the bedroom to have a good cry. Jerry stood outside the closed door in shock, wondering what had happened. Why were there such opposite reactions to Jerry’s words of comfort?
A Gender Gap?
Some would attribute the difference in these illustrations to one simple fact: Bill is a man; Pam is a woman. Linguistic researchers believe that communication difficulties in marriage are often because of gender. Such books as You Just Don’t Understand and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus promote the theory that men and women, though speaking the same language, have distinctly different communication styles.
Unquestionably, when Jehovah created woman from man, she wasn’t just a slightly revised model. Man and woman were exquisitely and thoughtfully designed to complement each other—physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Add to these innate differences the complexities of individual upbringing and life experience and the molding of people by culture, environment, and society’s view of what is manly or womanly. Because of these influences, it may be possible to isolate certain patterns in the way males and females communicate. But the elusive “typical man” or “typical woman” may exist only in the pages of psychology books.
Women are typically noted for their sensitivity, yet many men are wonderfully tender in their dealings with people. Logical thinking may be attributed more to men, yet women often have keen, analytical insight. So while it is impossible to label any trait exclusively male or strictly female, one thing is sure: Insight into another’s perspective may make the difference between peaceful coexistence and outright war, especially in marriage.
The daily challenge of male-female communication in marriage is a formidable one. Many discerning husbands can testify that the deceivingly simple question “How do you like my new hairdo?” can be fraught with dangers. Many diplomatic wives learn to refrain from repeatedly asking, “Why don’t you just ask for directions?” when their husbands become lost while traveling. Rather than belittle the seeming peculiarities of a mate and stubbornly cling to one’s own because “that’s the way I am,” loving partners look below the surface. This is not a cold scrutiny of each other’s communication style but a warm gaze into each other’s heart and mind.
As each person is unique, so is each blend of two individuals in marriage. A true meeting of minds and hearts is no accident but requires hard work because of our imperfect human nature. For instance, it is so easy to assume that others view things the same as we do. We often fill the needs of others the way we would want them filled for us, perhaps trying to follow the Golden Rule, “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” (Matthew 7:12) However, Jesus did not mean that what you want should be good enough for others. Rather, you wish others would give what you need or want. So you should give what they need. Especially is this vital in marriage, for each has vowed to meet the needs of his or her mate as fully as possible.
Pam and Jerry have taken such a vow. And their marital union of two years has been a happy one. However, even though they feel they know each other quite well, situations sometimes erupt that reveal a yawning communication gap that good intentions alone cannot bridge. “The heart of the wise one causes his mouth to show insight,” says Proverbs 16:23. Yes, insight in communication is the needed key. Let’s see what doors it unlocks for Jerry and Pam.
One Man’s View
Jerry navigates in a competitive world where each man must assume his place in a social order, whether a subordinate or a superior in a given situation. Communication serves to establish his position, competence, expertise, or worth. His independence is precious to him. So when given orders in a demanding way, Jerry finds himself resistant. The subtle message “You’re not doing your job” makes him rebel, even if the request is a logical one.
Jerry converses basically to exchange information. He likes to talk about facts, ideas, and new things he has learned.
When listening, Jerry seldom interrupts the speaker, even with little responses, such as “uh-huh, yeah,” because he is absorbing information. But if he disagrees, he may not hesitate to say so, especially with a friend. It shows that he is interested in what his friend has to say, exploring all the possibilities.
If Jerry has a problem, he prefers to work out a solution on his own. So he may withdraw from everyone and everything else. Or he may seek to relax with some diversion to forget his dilemma temporarily. He will discuss it only if he is seeking advice.
If a man comes to Jerry with a problem as Bill did, Jerry realizes that it’s his job to help, taking care not to make his friend feel incompetent. He’ll usually share some troubles of his own along with the advice so that his friend won’t feel alone.
Jerry likes to share activities with friends. Companionship to him means doing things together.
Home is for Jerry a refuge from the arena, a place where he no longer has to talk to prove himself, where he is accepted, trusted, loved, and appreciated. Even so, Jerry occasionally finds that he needs solitude. It may have nothing to do with Pam or anything she’s done. He just needs some time alone. Jerry finds it difficult to reveal his fears, insecurities, and pains to his wife. He doesn’t want her to worry. His job is to care for and protect her, and he needs Pam to trust him to do so. While Jerry wants support, he doesn’t want pity. It makes him feel incompetent or useless.
One Woman’s Perspective
Pam sees herself as an individual in a world of social connections with others. To her it is important to establish and strengthen the bonds of these relationships. Talk is an important way to create and confirm closeness.
Dependence comes naturally to Pam. She feels loved if Jerry finds out her views before making a decision, though she wants him to take the lead. When she has to make a decision, she likes to consult her husband, not necessarily so that he will tell her what to do, but to show her closeness to and reliance on him.
It’s very hard for Pam to come right out and say she needs something. She doesn’t want to nag Jerry or make him feel that she is unhappy. Instead, she waits to be noticed or drops hints.
When Pam converses, she is intrigued by minute details and asks many questions. This is natural because of her sensitivity to and intense interest in people and relationships.
When Pam listens, she punctuates the speaker’s words with interjections, nods, or queries to show that she is following the speaker and cares about what he or she has to say.
She works hard to know intuitively what people need. Offering help without being asked is a wonderful way to show love. She especially wants to help her husband to grow and improve.
When Pam has a problem, she may feel overwhelmed. She must talk, not so much to seek a solution, but to express her feelings. She needs to know that someone understands and cares. When her emotions are excited, Pam makes sweeping, dramatic statements. She doesn’t mean it literally when she says: “You never listen!”
Pam’s best childhood friend was not one that she did things with but one that she talked about everything with. So in marriage she is not nearly as interested in outside activities as she is in an empathetic listener with whom she may share her feelings.
Home is a place where Pam can talk without being judged. She doesn’t hesitate to reveal her fears and troubles to Jerry. If in need of help, she is not ashamed to admit it, for she trusts that her husband is there for her and cares enough to listen.
Pam usually feels loved and secure in her marriage. But occasionally, for no apparent reason, she begins feeling insecure and unloved and urgently needs reassurance and companionship.
Yes, Jerry and Pam, complements of each other, are quite different. The differences between them create the potential for grave misunderstandings, even though both may have the best of intentions to be loving and supportive. If we could hear each one’s perspective on the above situation, what would they say?
What They Saw Through Their Own Eyes
“The minute I walked through the door, I could see that Pam was upset,” Jerry would say. “I assumed that when she was ready, she would tell me why. The problem didn’t seem so major to me. I thought if I just helped her to see that she didn’t need to be so upset and that the solution was easy, she’d feel better. It really hurt, after I listened to her, when she said, ‘You never listen to me!’ I felt as if she were blaming me for all her frustration!”
“The whole day had been one big disaster,” Pam would explain. “I knew it wasn’t Jerry’s fault. But when he came in all cheery, I felt he was ignoring the fact that I was upset. Why didn’t he ask me what was wrong? When I told him the problem, he basically said I was being silly, that the whole thing was petty. Instead of saying he understood how I felt, Jerry, the repairman, told me how to fix the problem. I didn’t want solutions, I wanted sympathy!”
Despite the appearances of this temporary breach, Jerry and Pam love each other very much. What insights will help them express that love clearly?
Seeing Through Each Other’s Eyes
Jerry felt that it would be intrusive to ask Pam what was wrong, so he naturally did for her what he would want others to do for him. He waited for her to open up and speak. Now Pam was upset not just over the problem but over the fact that Jerry seemed to ignore her plea for his support. She didn’t see his silence as a gesture of gentle respect—she saw it as uncaring. When Pam finally spoke, Jerry listened without interrupting. But she felt he wasn’t really hearing her feelings. Then he offered, not empathy, but a solution. This said to her: ‘Your feelings are invalid; you’re overreacting. See how easy it is to solve this little problem?’
How different things would have been if each had been able to see things from the other’s viewpoint! It might have gone like this:
Jerry comes home to find Pam upset. “What’s wrong, dear?” he asks gently. Tears start to flow, and words just tumble out. Pam doesn’t say, “It’s all your fault!” or imply that Jerry isn’t doing enough. Jerry holds her close and listens patiently. When she is finished, he says: “I’m sorry you’re feeling bad. I can see why you’re so upset.” Pam replies: “Thanks so much for listening. I feel much better knowing you understand.”
Sadly, instead of solving their differences, many couples simply choose to end their marriage in divorce. Lack of communication is the villain that devastates many homes. Arguments explode that shake the very foundations of the marriage. How does it happen? The next article tells how it happens and how to avoid it.