The Nothing Box

Have you ever watched the hilariously funny clip “A Tale of Two Brains” from Mark Gungor’s “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage” seminar? His serious intention for the seminar is to improve the married lives of the people attending, even though he presents the relationship information like a stand-up comedy show. His strength lies in using humour and having his audience roar with laughter while he explains male and female differences. Among others he discusses how our brains are different. A man’s brain, he says, has different “boxes” for different topics and they “don’t touch”. A man is able to focus on one “box” at a time. He jokes that women’s brains are made up of a big ball of wire in which everything is connected to everything. He continues saying that men have one particular box in their brain that women are unaware of, the “nothing box” and it’s their favourite box.

Have you ever asked your husband or son “What are you thinking?” and the answer was “nothing”? That’s what Gungor is talking about. Women cannot fathom the concept that one could not be thinking anything at a given point in time—unless you are asleep or dead. We tend to think that he just doesn’t want to share or must be hiding something from us. And as humans we might even fill his silences in with negative assumptions. Perhaps we wonder if he is thinking something bad about us or our relationship, or if he is keeping secrets from us. We perceive his response as holding something back because we are comfortable even just sharing fleeting thoughts and feelings, no matter how “silly” they might be. If he wasn’t thinking something negative, he would share, we assume.

When we say, “What are you thinking?” it translates into “I feel disconnected from you. Connect with me by sharing your inner world. I want to know how you are feeling and connect on a heart level.” Men’s reaction to our question might meanwhile be feeling intruded upon, and the response is an exasperated, “Why does she need to know everything?” He might also feel that he has nothing of importance to share. He literally feels that he was thinking of “nothing”.

The female clients that come to see me typically complain that men are emotionally unavailable. They want to feel more connected to their partner. And their natural go-to for connection is words. All they often want is for their feelings to be acknowledged. That translates for us women into being seen and being heard. Men, on the other hand, often complain about feeling smothered, suffocated or intruded upon when women want to talk. Their need to retreat and to work things out internally is perceived by the woman in their life as rejection or as an incapability to be vulnerable and connect. Men want to feel connected, loved and accepted as well, but their ways of connection are often fundamentally different.

When men are stressed out, Gungor jokes that they just want to go to their nothing box. The last thing they want to do is talk about what is stressing them out. He quips that when a woman is stressed she “has to talk about it or her brain will literally explode”. And men feel obligated to fix it but “if you are trying to fix her, she is gonna kill you. She doesn’t want your advice, she doesn’t want your help. She wants you to shut up and listen.”

Michele Weiner-Davis:

“We don’t feel close to our partners

unless we have had a good talk recently”

As women “verbal communication is our lifeline. We don’t feel close to our partners unless we have had a good talk recently” (Michele Weiner-Davis, Getting Through to the Man You Love). And we have a very clear idea what a good talk is. We are not talking about meaningless chatter or small talk. We are also not talking about an exchange of information. “Good conversations are about feelings—deeply personal, soul baring feelings. The more personal, the better.” (M. Weiner-Davis)

I find I crave those intimate conversations and so do my daughters. When my 17-year-old daughter comes back from a sleepover with her girlfriends, she raves with a satisfied smile. “We were up late, talking. It was sooo great. I was glad there were no guys at this party because we really connected…” The only male, she connects with in the same way as with her girlfriends is a gay friend. He “gets it”. He understands that there is no such thing as “too many words”, “too many emotions” or “too much sharing”.

Real connection to us is being vulnerable, trusting each other with our inner world and having the other person listen, understand and affirm our feelings. For us an intimate conversation is an end in itself because it brings us closer to people and therefore makes us feel safer. We are seen and heard, and we belong. Too frequently we assume that men are like us. “From a woman’s perspective, men have two modes. They are either engaging in meaningless chatter or they are actively avoiding conversation, and it’s generally the latter.” (M. Weiner-Davis). We overlook that intimate conversations might feel unsettling to them; all too often they are out of their element.

In the sixties and seventies, research was focused on our behaviour being learned and not biologically determined. We began to expect men to learn communication skills and connect in the way we do. According to linguist Deborah Tannen, the gender differences when it comes to communication stem from a different upbringing. Men learn to use conversations for negotiations and to achieve a position of power or respect. Life is about independence and avoiding weakness and vulnerability.

For women, conversations are negotiations for closeness. They seek and give confirmation and support. Conversations are a protection from being pushed away, a struggle to avoid isolation. The main purpose of communication is to be included, to create closeness through vulnerability. If you want to read more about the male and female genderlect, as Tannen calls it, please read my blog “You Just Don’t Understand”.

Weiner-Davis, in contrast to Tannen, believes that the differences are based on how male and female brains function differently. Is this the result of learned behaviour or a biological difference? That seems to be an “who was first, the chicken or the egg” question. It might be both. Our left hemisphere deals with rational and logical thinking, the right hemisphere with more abstract concepts, communication skills, feelings and emotions. According to Weiner-Davis, males predominantly depend on the left hemisphere and it is harder for them to move between the two hemispheres than it is for women. “That’s because the corpus callosum, the delicate fibres connecting the left side of the brain to the right side, is 40 percent larger in women than men… Therefore verbal activity, comprehension, and other language skills—all right brain functions—simply come more naturally to women.” (Weiner-Davis)

Willard F Harely reminds us in his book “His Needs, Her Needs” that the need for intimate conversation is at the top of most women’s lists, usually within her top five needs. Harley’s mission is to teach couples to understand and meet each others needs more. There is certainly value in understanding each other’s priorities and different values and making real efforts to meet each others needs. Women can learn to meet their mate’s needs more and men can learn to venture into her world of words more. As long as we remember that he might only be a visitor to our world and not take up permanent residence there. Problems arise when we believe that the importance verbal communication has in our life is right and his silences are perceived by us as wrong.

As women, we tend to measure our success in terms of how we are getting along with our loved ones. Are we close to our partner, our children and other family members? Do they feel comfortable sharing with us and do we know how they are feeling? Men often judge themselves by their ability to set and accomplish goals. They realize the importance of dedicating time and energy to accomplishing a career or athletic goal while they tend to expect relationships to run on autopilot.

Usually, partners come to see me because the woman has initiated it. She is hoping he will learn to be a sensitive communicator who wants to connect the way she does. There are of course exceptions to the rule, there are some men who love connecting through words. Yet, many men use different avenues to connect. Harley names the need to engage in recreational activities together as a need that in general seems to be higher on the list of values for men than for women. Men also tend to connect through sex. Of course there are couples where this is reverse. In general, Women often need to feel close to engage in physical intimacy. Men use love making itself to connect. “Guys feel appreciated and cherished when we acknowledge them as sexual beings.” (Weiner-Davis)

We need to take a step towards each other. Neither way of connecting is better than the other. They are just different and if Weiner-Davis is to be believed, a result of different wiring in our brain. We have to stop making it mean something negative that we don’t tend to reach out to each other in the same way.

Here is my appeal to both partners. Men, when women want to have an intimate conversation, this is not about controlling you or intruding on your privacy! Your female partner just feels disconnected, excluded or alone. It makes her feel safe and loved to really talk. Do your best to share your thoughts and feelings and truly listen to hers. You don’t have to have the solution to her problems; in fact, it’s best if you don’t. She wants to feel that the two of you are a team, solving issues together. And most of all, she wants to know that you care about her feelings. That’s when she knows you accept and love all of her.

Women, when your male partner needs some space and doesn’t want to talk, breathe through your feelings of abandonment and anxiety which might come up for you. Remind yourself that he has to go into the “nothing box” in his brain because being in that nothing box relieves his stress. Talking through things might create more confusion and anxiety for him than clarity. Allow him to deal with things his way. He will reach out and share when he is ready. When you stop pursuing him to talk, that’s when he knows you accept and love him the way he is.

 

Contact me for a free phone consultation on either individual sessions or couple’s coaching.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

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You Just Don’t Understand

“I think my marriage is not going to last much longer,” Julie says. I encourage her to go on. “We don’t talk!” she continues. “Whenever I want to talk, my husband says ‘There is nothing to talk about.’ And we just sit and watch TV together. And then he wants to go to bed and have sex when we can’t even talk with each other!”

Once again it’s the time to pull a book out of my shelf by Deborah Tannen, a professor of Linguistics, which was published 15 years ago. In her book “You Just Don’t Understand”, she beautifully illustrates the gender differences when it comes to communication, which can challenge us in our relationships.

“…many women are deeply hurt when men don’t talk to them at home, and many men are deeply frustrated by feeling they have disappointed their partners, without understanding how they failed or how else they could have behaved.” (Tannen, p. 82)

The gender differences when it comes to communication stem from a different upbringing. Even though things are changing, men and women are still socialized differently. Boys tend to play outside, in larger groups that are hierarchically structured. Their groups have a leader who tells others what to do. The power structure is negotiated by giving orders, telling stories and jokes, and by challenging the stories and jokes of the other boys. Boys’ games have winners and losers. It is accepted to boast of their skills and argue who is the best at something.

Girls play mostly in pairs or smaller groups. The centre of a girl’s social life is often her best friend. In that relationship, intimacy is key. Many of the girls’ activities do not have winners and losers. Girls are expected not to boast and if they are strong leaders, they are frequently accused of being bossy. They often simply sit together and talk. There is less joking for status. Girls are more focused on being the same and more concerned that they be liked.

Based on their upbringing, men use conversations for negotiations and to achieve and maintain their position of power or respect. Life is about independence and avoiding weakness and vulnerability. For women conversations are negotiations for closeness. They seek and give confirmation and support. Conversations are a protection from being pushed away, a struggle to avoid isolation. The main purpose of communication is to create closeness through vulnerability.

Men use words

Julie perceives her husband’s behaviour as a failure of intimacy, she assumes he is keeping things from her, or has lost interest in her or is pulling away. She can’t comprehend why he wants to be physically intimate if they can’t even connect through words. She is unaware that men use the spoken language more to convey information. So when he says “there is nothing to talk about” he is solely saying “I don’t have any information to convey at the moment”. It does not occur to him that for Julie, talking is the main way of experiencing connection and intimacy. For women, talk is for interaction and to feel closer to each other. Telling things is a way to open up and be vulnerable, and listening is a way to show that we care.

“When I ask him what he is thinking, he says “nothing”! How is that possible?,” Julie says. For Julie, like for most women, it is natural to express her fleeting thoughts and opinions. Men usually assume that their passing thoughts and feelings are not worth uttering. Speaking them would give them more weight and significance than they feel they deserve. While Julie naturally speaks her thoughts and feelings in private conversations with people she loves, her husband naturally dismisses his thoughts as soon as they occur as “not important enough”.

A particular scene used to repeat itself in our home. I would ask my daughters “How was school?” and the flood gates for a really lively communication filled with feeling would open. “It was a great day. At lunch time, I asked my friend B how her first date with C was and she told me… And my drama teacher today, guess what he said when… And I am planning to apply for drama council… what do you think, should I do that?… I am mad at myself though because I made some really silly mistakes on the math test…” etc.

Then I, or one of the girls, would ask my partner, “How was your day?” He would say, “Good…” Pause. Three pairs of eyes were looking at him expectedly. We could literally see his wheels turning. “They want more… okay, what happened today?” He would then embark on a list of factual events of the day. “I first did this… and then so and so came… and there was so much traffic on the way to… and then I had a meeting with so and so.” Looking around the table I would see the girls eyes glaze over and think, “It’s not just me who is tuning out.” What happened there? We hadn’t asked him to list what he did, we had asked him to connect with us on a feeling level. What we really wanted to know was how he felt during his day. We wanted to be able to experience his day second-hand through his thoughts, feelings and opinions.

So now we have a joke in our house. When we are trying to connect through words, thoughts and feelings, I will say “Okay. Tell us about your fleeting thoughts and feelings you had today! You know, the ones that you figured weren’t worth mentioning.” He can then laugh because he understands that his way of communicating is not lacking. We are just requesting to connect through feelings and thoughts, which to him seem unimportant. At that moment, I am asking him to speak the female genderlect for a bit.

women tend to connect

What does it on the other hand mean for women to speak the male genderlect? One way of speaking the male language is to connect through jokes and “ribbing”. Just as men often aren’t comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings, we are often not as skilled at joking around and teasing others.

Another situation in which we might have to shift into the male genderlect is when we are in a position of authority as a boss or teacher. When I was studying to become a teacher, many of my fellow male students chose to teach high school rather than the elementary level. One said to me, “What I like about high school is that I can pull the trouble makers (male students) aside and let them know very clearly that we can have fun unless they piss me off. I can tell them if they piss me off that they’ll get kicked out. That always works!”

I remember wondering back then if that would work as well for a female teacher. I also remember thinking that it seemed really exhausting to me to have to discipline like this. For men, domineering over others through language comes more naturally, for women it is like learning a new language, the language of power and status.

In public situations, meetings for example, the roles are often reversed. Most men are more comfortable putting themselves on display, claiming public attention for what they have to say.

If you have a silent man at home who says “there is nothing to talk about”, keep in mind that for many men, being home means being free from having to prove themselves to others through verbal communication. They are free to be silent. For women on the other hand, home is a place where they are free to talk.

Nagging owls

Unfortunately, our differences in communication have given us women a bad rep as well. Have you ever wondered why women get labelled as “nags”? That is the result of the interplay between women’s and men’s different communication styles. Many women are inclined to do what is asked of them, especially if asked nicely; “many men are inclined to resist even the slightest hint that anyone, especially a woman, is telling them what to do. A woman will be inclined to repeat a request that doesn’t get a response because she is convinced that her husband would do what she asks, if he only understood that she really wants him to do it.” (Tannen, 31)

Her assumption is that he just didn’t hear her or forgot what she asked. She cannot fathom why he has an issue with being asked to do something. “but a man who wants to avoid feeling that he is following orders may instinctively wait before doing what she asked, in order to imagine that he is doing it of his own free will. Nagging is the result, because each time she repeats the request, he again puts off fulfilling it.” (Tannen, 31)

Another gender difference shows up when a decision needs to be made. Many women feel it is natural to consult their partners. They expect decisions to be discussed first and made by consensus. The discussion itself for women is evidence of closeness, caring and involvement. Usually, they are not asking their partners to make the decision for them.

Men on the other hand often feel hemmed if they can’t just act without talking first. How often have I heard men in my sessions or in my circle of friends complain “I feel like I have to ask for permission!” What women perceive as connection is seen by men as a lack of independence and being controlled by the woman, and therefore they fear being perceived as incompetent and weak.

For most women sharing

Men and women are frequently talking at cross-purposes when it comes to expressing feelings or troubles. When we share with our girlfriends how we feel, they are usually very good at sympathizing. One way they show us that they are empathizing and that we are not alone with our challenges is that they match our problem with a matching trouble. They might share that they feel the same or have had a similar experience. For most women the message itself is not the main point of complaining. It’s the metamessage that counts: Talking about a problem is a request for an expression of understanding. Troubles talk is intended to reinforce rapport between the person sharing and the person listening.

Men often tend to give the gift of advice or solving a problem over the gift of empathy. “But whereas many women appreciate help in fixing mechanical equipment, few are inclined to appreciate help in ‘fixing’ emotional troubles.” (Tannen, 52) In fact, women are frustrated when they do not get that closeness and understanding but rather advice which sends the meta-message “We are not the same. You have the problems. I have the solutions.”

Mutual understanding is symmetrical and connects. Giving advice is asymmetrical. “It frames the advice giver as more knowledgeable, more reasonable, more in control—in a word, one-up. And this contributes to the distancing effect.” (Tannen, 53)

So next time your partner does not validate your feelings but suggests a solution to your emotional struggle, remember that he missed the meta-message. You might need to say, “Honey, I don’t need a solution. I just want to bounce something off you and express my feelings. It would make me feel close and safe if you could just listen and acknowledge my feelings.” Then give him a chance to speak the female genderlect as best as he can.

Angelika

Relationship Coaching

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

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