If I’m trying to keep up with the times, updated with what is happening in our relationships, then I would have to say that living with the opposite sex is a heroic task indeed.
“Just listen to me,” is a wonderful phrase that I’ve heard many times in past years, and lately I’m beginning to see the validity in slowing my knee-jerk reactions down, and really listening to my wife. Holding my quick, intellectual responses to myself and waiting for her to go through, what I’m coming to see as, ‘a free association’, without trying to defend myself, has been helpful for both of us.
If what I am attempting to do is successful, then it might take place by sitting across the kitchen table from her and listening to unfounded complaints, like, “you never do the dishes,” or “why do I have to be the one to always takes the garbage out?”
I know damn well that I did the dishes yesterday and at the same time took the garbage out. If I really want to listen, then my job is to hold my responses and not try to defend myself for the five or ten minutes it’s going to take for her say what she needs to say. If I can do this successfully, an amazing thing can happen. She just may find the real reason why she is feeling so upset with me in the first place, and it’s my experience that it usually has little to do with me.
Unlike this carefully plodding man, my woman is a wonderfully spontaneous creature. Yes, in her spontaneity, it feels unfair that she must begin her statements by focusing on what is wrong with me, but if I can refrain from taking it personally, and leave her the room to work through the quagmire of her own verbal process, I can be present for the possibility her finding the underlying reason why she is upset. Yes, there are many things in our household that need fixing, but my woman’s process of discovery is not one of them.
It is the nature of us men to gradually trudge our way through the countless possibilities of a problem in our minds, sometimes for days, before we can come to resolution. More time must go by before we can assemble the answer and present it to our women as a package.
A woman must work the problem through as it presents itself by talking it out. Men and women are different. The job for both sexes is to realize that no one is doing anything wrong. Men have their way of going inside to solve problems, and it is good. Woman have their own way of verbally working through problems, and it is good too.
So how can I, “hold the space,” to support her through a gauntlet of emotions as she ‘free associates’. Often it looks like this; She might say, “You never do the dishes” or “I wish for just once you would pick up a dish,” or “why can’t you just help around here once in a while?” Can you feel the barbs of shame in those allegations? Can’t you just feel the hackles on your neck raising? Don’t you just want to say, “that’s not true, “I did the dishes yesterday.”
If I try to protect myself from those, all-encompassing declarations, I have embarked onto harrowing territory. If I defend myself, I do so from my natural intellectual approach to life, which is correct, but the problem is, the resolution she is attempting to find will shift from her purely emotional approach, which is also correct, to discussing about whether the statement was true or not. When this kind of argument ensues, it usually is because of my overwhelming masculine need to know what is true, blocking her from being able to go past her first few statements and arriving at her goal of self-understanding. If she has brought up the subject, then it is my job to honor her method of speaking and give her room to work through the emotion without defending myself. There will be time for defending, but not at that moment.
So how do I engage with my wife, without going down that well-worn path of defense. How do I hold that ‘Container’ of her anger or frustration without getting caught up in the drama. One of many approaches is for me to visualize her throwing little poison darts of shame at me. Understand that I am not blaming her for the darts. From my point of view, the way she finds understanding is simply a fact, and darts are the beginning part of that process. For us men, women’s highly emotional approach is frustrating, just as men’s highly intellectual approach is frustrating to women. Sometimes before she can run the cycle of emotion, her poison darts may need turn to razor tipped arrows, or slashing swords. Some women, in their attempt to get to the core of their anger, will need to break out the heavy artillery; sometime what is bothering her is that big. Though it must start by being pointed at me, it seldom is about me.
If we are going off to this kind of war of love, than what is needed is not heavier intellectual artillery, but some kind of armoring. When darts are being thrown, little more than a simple small visual shield is appropriate. When heavy artillery is being used, then it’s time to find a bunker to hide in until the battle is over. I’ll talk about bunkers later, but for now I want to concentrate on shielding. To stay engaged with my wife, I imagine a shield to protect my heart from the slicing innuendoes, and blaming. Okay, here comes a poison dart arcing across the room. I hear it leave her mouth, “You never wash the dishes.” I hear the shaming statement floating in the air, pointed directly at my heart, or worse yet, at my manhood, “why can’t you be like Martha’s husband.” When the very first statement arcs across the room, I put up my shield. Not at shield of indifference mind you, because if she gets even the slightest feeling that I don’t care about what she’s saying, I can count on her quickly dipping down into her nuclear arsenal. “You’re just not a very good father, or why can’t you last longer when were having sex?” Do you feel the nuclear shame in those statements? Remember, she’s going to do whatever it takes to get my attention, and get to the core of her frustration. Instead of a shield of indifference or defense, I need to put up a shield of acceptance. One way is by thinking, “isn’t it interesting that my wonderful wife is making these statements. Though it looks like she is pointing them at me, I know from experience it is seldom about me. I wonder what will be coming next? I wonder what wonderful place she is going to get to once she finds understanding? Wow, aren’t women amazing to be able to process their emotions while they talk?”
Can you feel how easy it is to listen while thinking this way?
At the same time. I’m also not listening so carefully to the content of her statements.
I’m not making a list so I can build a good defense later, I’m simply listening and giving her the room to find her own answers. Sounds easy? Trust me, it’s not, but it is well worth it.
Sometimes there is so much anger in the words she is speaking that the overwhelming numbers of darts, or their intensity makes it impossible to stay engaged. When I feel even one stab getting through my armoring, when I begin to feel the shame or guilt of her accusations, I can assume that my shielding has been compromised, and I must remove myself from the situation (thus the bunker). If I can do this after the first dart gets through, I usually am able to say something like, “I need to leave now, but I’ll be back in an hour.”
The important part is that I must leave to let things cool a bit, but also need to give her a time when I’m going to return, otherwise her abandonment issues will also cloud what she is trying to say.
An amazing thing happens when us men can really hold the container while women go through their emotion. Without anything to push against, without distractions, my experience is that emotional storms blow over quickly. As she gets to the end, she might share her fears like for example, “I remember that my dad was never around to do the dishes at night and the job was always put on us kids. When you don’t do the dishes, I get scared that you’re going away.”
Maybe for the first time in her life, a woman may feel that she was truly heard by a man. With each encounter, instead of the cycle of conflict and repairing the damage of arguments, there is the possibility of much closeness.
All of the issues that have been written here, although very important, are not the reason these words have been set to type. The issue I want to address here is the utter unfairness of this situation. If this kind of intimacy and safety is what women really want, then it should stand to reason that the reverse should also be valid. I believe that one reason men aren’t able to articulate their feeling as well as women is because, like women, we have felt the shame of never being able to complete a thought without the other defending themselves. It’s been my experience that, like us men, women aren’t able to hold this container either. I’ve been told that it’s because there is so much fear in the man taking over the conversation. This man approaches an argument from a purely intellectual perspective. I want to speak about the what, where, when, why , and who of each situation before I can get any deeper into the subject. I need to know these things before I can go to the next level and begin to feel them.
Women that I’ve known seem to approach each situation from a purely emotional perspective. She wants to know how it feels first. Both of these approaches are wonderful. When they clash, as they often do. . . You can see the problem.
I spoke earlier about how easy it is for a woman to shame a man when she begins to “free associate” by making feeling statements”. In the reverse of that, a man can easily shame a woman by talking about the specifics of the situation. Remember, most women are not concentrating on specifics. Her attention is on the feelings.
But, when I’m needing to get something out, I can’t be worried about shaming. Part of the process of getting something out is not censoring it. If I have to worry about hurting her feelings I’m going to be censoring a major amount of what I’m trying to say. I’m beginning to understand why it takes me so long to speak my truth to a woman.
I support women in approaching an argument in the same way I supported the men at the beginning of this piece. It’s not easy, but very rewarding when you can hold your responses until the guy has completely finished. Visualize putting up shielding to protect yourself from his intellectually shaming statements. I believe that the statements that can possibly shame the other are the very ones that need to be said. A precedent of ruthless honesty seems to be one of my main healing with women.
My mate and I find it helpful to allow the other person to completely finish his/her statement, before responding. We have a little ritual at the end of the statement, “I’m finished, for now.” the person will say, giving the floor for the other to speak. The hard part is when I want to respond in the middle of a statement
that continues for another five minutes. I’ve usually forgotten what was said and feel frustrated that I can’t respond.
There is a calmness about this approach. I know that sometimes calmness is not what is needed, but you must agree that without calmness the chance of a discussion turning into a battle of the sexes is more likely. These “free for all” battles are definitely harmful to my relationship. It takes so long to heal the wounds of a “free for all”.
Now, let’s take this discussion one step further. Barbara and I have been practicing this taking turns talking for some time now. We have found lately that there is some dissatisfaction in the process. Just lately we have realized that there is truly a male and female mode of feeling. Our different approaches to the process of taking turns talking is a clear example of the difference.
When Barbara takes her turn to talk I get very frustrated. From my point of view she takes a long time to get to the point. She will bring up fifteen different subjects in one turn of talking. I’ve tried writing notes to myself so I could respond to every allegation. It’s hopeless. The frustrating part is during my turn to talk, I spent most of my time and concentration on answering her allegations.
Guess what. . . I seldom get a chance to make allegations of my own. When I do, she never answer them, but has a whole batch of new ones to make during her next turn.
I’ve found her approach to talking unfair. Just lately I’ve come to realize that she is trying to get to the feeling of the situation and not talking about specifics. I’ve thought all along that specifics were what I was suppose to be concentrating on when she talked.
On the other hand when I talk I want her to pay attention to the specifics of every sentence of my statement. When I make an allegation I want her to answer.