Men don’t listen. It’s a horrible stereotype—but as far as most women are concerned, it’s an irrefutable fact.
Why don’t we just listen? Why do we always try to fix everything? Because, as men, we are instinctually wired and acculturated to provide for and protect our partners through helping, fixing and directing. When a man’s partner is upset, his ability to provide and protect her is in jeopardy, and he feels like he’s failing: “How can I be doing my job well if she’s so upset?” In the heat of the battle, you aren’t aware of the bigger prospective. It feels like it’s all about you. Your head is saying, “What is this woman thinking? She’s not making any sense.” To your logical mind, this might be true; but to her, her emotions are perfectly justifiable. And the harder you try to fix it, the worse it gets.
In part, we are at the mercy of our biology. When she’s upset, he’s upset, and he starts to experience his own survival physiology: he gets stressed. The fight-or-flight response is hardwired in us. Whatever your stress coping behavior is, you will start doing it. If you go right to “fight,” you’ll get more active. You may start arguing. If your default is “flight,” you may withdraw. Your response, or lack of response, is probably not about your partner (just like the intensity of her emotion probably has nothing to do with you).
A way out
There is a solution to this dilemma. Men, you need to surrender.
I know, I know; every part of you wants to run or fight. Surrender is what cowards do. But surrendering to what you’re experiencing, to rise above your survival response, is an act of courage that few men are willing to do. To trust that you will live, while all your physiological cues are saying otherwise, is tough. You have to override biology with your commitment to something bigger than yourself: this is NOT a life-or-death issue.
When you let go of your survival response, your partner will relax. She might not show it at first. She will often need to see more stillness from you to know she really can trust you. As you let go of your need to fix it, she will start to relax.
This is not a manipulative way to get her to chill out; when you relax, you’re showing her that it’s safe for her to relax. But when she comes to you with a problem, she’s already upset. To protect her, to serve her as her partner, you need to lead the way. You need to set the space as a place where she feels safe being vulnerable.
The ways to do it
Be more than your survival response. Here’s how to transform what’s occurring:
- Breathe. Simple, but powerful. When you’re in a stress response, you aren’t breathing. The converse is also true: when you breathe deeply and calmly, your physiology will change. From years of teaching Mindfulness Stress Reduction, I learned that teaching your body how to relax will transform your response to stress.
- Listen. In the heat of battle, it’s very hard for you to suddenly shift from warrior mode (fight whatever is upsetting her, take flight with her to keep her safe) to lover mode (where she is the center of your attention). In battle, if men focus on love, our buddies are at risk, we are risk. Battles demand that we fight. When your instincts and body are telling you not to slow down and be vulnerable, trying to stop and truly listen can feel life-threatening. Here are a few ways to change that.
- Practice the skill when neither you—nor your partner—is stressed. You don’t just develop your athletic skills in the game, right? You practice ahead of time. Practice listening when it’s easy.
- Feel what you are feeling. Just experience it. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t try to understand it. Just feel. In battle, men aren’t meant to feel. Feeling is dangerous. (See the post I did on Why Are Emotions So Hard for Us?) It goes against everything to just feel, but trust me, you will live. In fact, you’ll discover your relationship will deepen.
- Create agreements or ground rules to your arguments. Make sure either person can call a time out. Maybe each person has a “safe word” that, when spoken, immediately stops the argument.
- Let her be. Let her get upset, let her release. Let her emotional waters be out of control. It’s one of the ways she has to discharge all that pent up rage, hurt and sadness. It is also her test to see if you and the relationship are safe. Maybe in other times in her life, when she needed to express, it wasn’t allowed or safe. Often after a few “uncontrolled” episodes, a woman’s trust with you will deepen, and she won’t feel the need to do it as she once did. When I’ve talked about this with women in long-term, healthy relationships, they usually nod and relate stories of “blowing up” or “melting down” early in the relationship. Over the years, they’ve told me, as they know they’re safe to feel or express whatever they’re feeling, things don’t get so pent up. When they can go to their partners whenever they need to, it doesn’t “build and blow like Mt. Vesuvius,” as one woman put it.
- Let go. Be a remarkable man by standing there and allowing her emotions to just be. This does not mean standing there and taking abuse. You don’t take her emotions in; you let her emotional waters run off you as if you are standing under a beautiful waterfall. Know that she wouldn’t show you she’s so upset if she didn’t care. Yes, it is a strange way to express her love. Part of what makes her “crazy” is that she cares about you and is so upset at the same time. You try to sort this out in your head; your woman may need to sort it out emotionally.
Remember something important: there is nothing wrong with either one of you. First, you both are in a survival response; and second, no one taught you how to get out of it. The physiology of survival is biological, but when and how you experience it is under your control.
It will take work to go from the man who doesn’t listen and just reacts… to the man who listens and responds with the love you feel. You will be re-wiring yourself for how you behave when you feel attacked. You’ll be developing more choices and skills which will show up in other parts of your life.
This was a hard lesson for me to learn, but I knew I needed to learn it if I was going to have a successful relationship. I am still learning it! And I am seeing rewards in all my relationships. My listening continues to improve. I react less. People see, feel and understand how much I care.
Men in our groups have saved their marriages because they applied these skills. Last week I did a talk attended by several of our current and past members and their wives. The men and the women talked about how learning these skills created relationships that they never knew were possible.
Gottman has been able to predict with 91% accuracy which couples will end up getting divorced. He calls these “The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse” — along with other problematic styles of communication. The Four Horsemen are Criticism (“You are always whining”), Contempt (“You’re a basket case”), Defensiveness (“I’m not the problem, you are!”) and Stonewalling (withdrawing or becoming silent). Other problematic styles include starting the conversation in a hostile or intense style, giving off body-language that is defensive or cold, flooding your partner with negativity, and bringing up past memories, complaints and injuries. When you can predict divorce with 91% accuracy you know you are on to something.
These Four Horsemen are four survival skills. We use them when we feel threatened. Leahy goes on to list his seven reasons men don’t listen. These reasons are the ones you often hear:
1. It’s a Power Struggle
3. Macho Thinking
4. Emotional Dysregulation
5. Not Wanting to Reinforce Whining
6. Demand for Rationality
7. Problems Have to Be Solved
These are all true reasons—and I emphasize “reasons”. They all play a role in why men don’t listen. I have found, in working with men, you often you need to go beyond the logical and go to the physiological to create sustainable change. Go beyond understanding – go to changing your biological as well as psychological behavior.
How will you apply this to your relationship? For men not in a relationship, you can practice these skills in other areas of your life. Men, if you ARE in a relationship, go to your partner. Tell her, “I want to learn to listen better when you’re upset. If it’s all right with you, how about I practice listening when you’re NOT upset?” I guarantee you—guarantee you—she will appreciate you more just for trying.