IT’S BEEN SAID that the four scariest words a guy will ever hear are: “We need to talk.” Tell him that there’s an intruder at the door and he will reach for his gun or his baseball bat, but use the F-word—feelings—on him and he is likely call for back-up. Or perhaps just clam up.
Though I have been a professional communicator for all my working life, I was an amateurish personal communicator for most of the rest of my life. I’m still a work in progress in this area, but I have come a fair way from the days when I thought “Fine,” “Tired,” or “Hungry” were legitimate answers to the question, “How are you feeling?”
I suspect that one of the reasons many men feel threatened when they are “invited” into a conversation with their wife is inadequacy. The “need to talk” is a hint that something’s not quite right in the land of marriagedom, which comes with the likelihood that we’ve done something wrong. Or, even if that’s not the case, the concern that we don’t know how to put right whatever needs to be addressed. We’ve not got what she needs.
Of course, all that presupposes that if our wife is bringing something to us, she is necessarily asking us to fix it. In actuality, she may just want to be heard and affirmed, not “helped,” as the classic “It’s Not About the Nail” sketch amusingly hammers (ha!) home.
If offering a solution when it’s not wanted is a marriage communication error, then so is the other common response: silence. The logic goes something like this: I could say the wrong thing right now and make things worse. So if I keep my mouth shut, I am going to make things less worse.
Ironically, the reverse is usually true. Personal experience and feedback from other husbands persuades me that it’s better to swing and miss than to not try at all. Because silence communicates in its own way—disinterest, disregard, disrespect, disengagement, defensiveness.
Fact is, we don’t always have to “fix it.” Sometimes we just need to feel it with them. Like the parenting advice from a dad who would ask, when one of his kids was having a hard time, “What do you need from me right now? Do you need me just to listen, do you need advice, or do you need me on your team?” The same works really well in marriage.
When the nail-in-the-head guy stops trying to “solve” the problem for his wife and just agrees it must be really hard for her, turns out that often is all she needs. It’s like that old saying about the gospel: some people don’t care what you know until they know that you care—you know, those pesky feelings.