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.”
“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.
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