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June 26, 2006

Surprise! The Sexes Are Different

One of my favorite bloggers takes exception to this essay by 'some devil-shrew named Amy Sutherland':

"I love my husband. He's well read, adventurous and does a hysterical rendition of a northern Vermont accent that still cracks me up after 12 years of marriage.

But he also tends to be forgetful, and is often tardy and mercurial. He hovers around me in the kitchen asking if I read this or that piece in The New Yorker when I'm trying to concentrate on the simmering pans. He leaves wadded tissues in his wake. He suffers from serious bouts of spousal deafness but never fails to hear me when I mutter to myself on the other side of the house. "What did you say?" he'll shout.

These minor annoyances are not the stuff of separation and divorce, but in sum they began to dull my love for Scott. I wanted — needed — to nudge him a little closer to perfect, to make him into a mate who might annoy me a little less, who wouldn't keep me waiting at restaurants, a mate who would be easier to love.

...Then something magical happened. For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers, I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.

I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

John's reaction could not more perfectly illustrate the differences between men and women. While I completely understand his objection to Ms. Sutherland's seemingly contemptuous attitude toward her husband, I have to say that the author isn't doing anything smart mothers haven't been doing with their children (or more accurately, primarily with their sons) for centuries. Little girls are, for the most part different. Where small boys respond best to decisive action, a firm "No" is often sufficient to get the attention of the average little girl.

What many men don't understand is that women are more responsive to words and men to actions. While I don't quite see the need to indulge in disrespectful comparisons to the animal kingdom (even in jest), one of the first things I noticed about the time my first son became mobile at six months of age was that it was a complete waste of time talking to him. If I wanted to get his attention, I needed to act: pick him up and move him away from the houseplant he was munching on, remove the ash tray he was banging on my side table instead of putting it back where it belongs and explaining why we don't bang ashtrays, even (though this would probably get me arrested nowadays) bite his arm gently to demonstrate how much he was hurting me when he suddenly (at 18 months) decided that employing his new fangs got a highly gratifying reaction from his Mother.

Previously I'd tried explaining, "That hurts Mommy". No reaction. All my pleas were in vain. It wasn't until one day when he bit me really hard that I finally, in desperation, bit him back. And then I said, as I soothed his tears, "See? That's how Mommy feels every time you bite her." I will never forget the look on his face as understanding finally dawned. I even got a hug.

But more importantly, he never bit me (or anyone else) again - not once. All my words had not meant nearly as much to him as a single object demonstration.

I employed the same tactic when my young husband did things that upset me. Instead of nagging, I simply let him experience the same things he was doing to me. Since he is an extremely intelligent guy, he got the point right away.

Of course, this doesn't work quite as well on women. We prize words: they're our way of communicating. A man assumes you know he loves you because he's still there, because he does things to please you. But women need to hear the words, because words are our preferred mode of communication. They matter to us in ways men often find hard to understand. Women store words away like a treasured gift, turning them over and over in our minds. This has good and bad consequences.

If nagging is the worst mistake women make, one of the worst mistakes men make in their relationships with women is stalling or ignoring them. Often when problems arise, a woman tries to talk them out. And all too often men respond to that admittedly unpleasant stimulus by denying anything is going on or waiting for it to blow over.

It's hard to think of a worse response from the woman's point of view. In the language she was programmed by nature to understand and respond to, you have just told her you don't care that she's upset and you're not interested in solving the problem. By extension, in her eyes, you don't care about her. She has become invisible.

Whether that's a fair inference or not is debatable. What's undeniable, however, is that both men and women tend to interpret each other's actions according to their own frame of reference: women assume men don't care because we know that if we did the same things, that would be an indication that we didn't care. The problem with this line of thinking is that men don't always do things for the same reasons women do, so using a female frame of reference to interpret male behavior is risky at best. Many women know this, but when you're hurt, reason and objectivity are the first things to fly out the window.

Likewise, men tend to assume women are nagging or trying to control them, when often all we're trying to do is communicate. If our initial attempt to clear something up or express frustration hits a stone wall, we try, and try, and try again, hoping something we've said will eventually get through the smokescreen. Unfortunately, if the man is ignoring the issue hoping it will go away, that tactic backfires.

One of John's readers who almost always has something insightful to say commented:

I don't know...think about this. Who wouldn't want a woman that simply ignored all your bad behavior, but rewarded you when you did something good?

You: Hey hon, gonna play World of Warcraft all weekend!
Her: ...

You: Hey hon, using all my vacation to go on a monthlong ballpark tour with my drinking buddies!
Her: ...

You: Hey hon, I swept the floor.
Her: Oh why thank you, let me get you a beer and some steaks!

And some of you are complaining about this?

I laughed out loud when I read this. It explains why, despite the fact that most women long ago figured out that positive reinforcement works better than nagging, we don't substitute action for talk more often. Part of us, deep down inside, can't help thinking, "If he cared, he'd listen to what I'm saying."

A female reader expressed the female viewpoint perfectly:

When you and your wife have one of those days where you just start out wrong, what do you do to turn it around? You know what I mean... one of those days where you say some smartass thing that pisses her off first thing in the morning, or vice versa.

I know this wasn't directed at me, but we've been married a long time and a female perspective might be helpful.

If you were truly at fault and you know it, how about a sincere, "Hon, I was really crabby with you for absolutely no reason, and I'm really sorry. I love you, and I don't want to fight with you. Please forgive me." A hug might help, too, but check body language first.

And if you were REALLY crabby and she feels the need to say, "Well you really hurt my feelings..." Don't pick the argument back up. Agreeing with someone when they speak the truth diffuses a lot of arguments.

And no excuses about men not being verbal. There's not a one of you on this site who cannot express himself just fine in words.

Women require verbal reassurance that the men in our lives care - for us, silence is the worst possible response. And we should pay more attention to the male need for a break from non-stop relationship talk by not trying to have it all our way, by understanding that sometimes to men, a gesture is far more important than all the words in the Merriam-Webster deluxe dictionary. Some fights don't need to be followed up by endless discussion of who was at fault - a quick hug (or something more likely to appeal to the average oinker) speaks volumes. And perhaps if we talk less and show our appreciation more, the men in our lives will listen to those things we do say.

Posted by Cassandra at June 26, 2006 12:57 PM

Comments

Yeah, I bristled a little too. Not so much for substance, but for tone. It's not focused on trying to find a win-win solution that both are happier for, the tone is more how to manipulate him to get what she wants.

And that puts him in a position of being a child. And when you treat him that way, don't be surprised when he starts to act that way.

That being said, the advice that men respond better to acts than words is good advice. You just have to be careful with it. No one likes being manipulated.

Posted by: Masked Menace© at June 26, 2006 05:09 PM

Yeah, I bristled a little too. Not so much for substance, but for tone. It's not focused on trying to find a win-win solution that both are happier for, the tone is more how to manipulate him to get what she wants.

Too true. But there's another way at looking at positive reinforcement (and this is the way I always saw it as a young wife): when someone does something you like or want them to do more often, they are providing value to you. If you fail to respond with something they value, you are taking them for granted, and sooner or later they just give up.

I can't say I ever saw reciprocating when my husband did nice things for me as being manipulative - I saw it more as showing him I appreciated something he really didn't have to do. And I would hope that if I do things he likes, he'd do the same for me (and he does).

Most of us are smart enough to sense when we're being manipulated. I think guys' radar is at times a bit oversensitive in this regard. I have always tried to make it a point to thank someone when they do something for me, to respond to emails if I want that person to continue to contact me, and to try and let people know I appreciate efforts made on my behalf. I honestly see no reason for them to continue if I don't show I appreciate what they're doing, but I don't think that's manipulative. It's just common sense.

And that puts him in a position of being a child. And when you treat him that way, don't be surprised when he starts to act that way.

Boy is this ever true! But conversely, when a woman tries to tell you something important and you duck her or pretend you've forgotten about it, you're putting her in the position of acting like your mother rather than an equal partner, and that's something women often rightly resent. I really think the two things feed on each other.

As usual, I agree with you Menace. Neither sex is above doing things that are counterproductive.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2006 05:25 PM

Right.

It's not the "how" that I have any problem with. The "how" is great advice.

The difference between loving reciprocity and manipulation is the "why".

Where John went wrong is in blaming the brick for the smashed window.

Posted by: Masked Menace© at June 26, 2006 06:03 PM

I think her tone supports a conclusion that she's treating her husband badly, for all the wrong reasons.

On the otter heiny, some people joke about things that are deeply painful to them. I know I do. Sometimes when you're hurt, you make light of it thinking that way maybe people won't see how much it bothers you. But your hurt usually seeps through on some level, or worse, people take your words at face value and think you're callous or hard.

I understand what set John off. It's just that I understand what it's like to be on the other side, too.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2006 06:12 PM

Viva la difference!

Posted by: camojack at June 27, 2006 01:22 AM

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