[Note: last month’s post began a three-part series helping wives understand the way their husbands think. All these posts are adapted from Gary’s newest book, Loving Him Well: Practical Advice for Influencing Your Husband. This post also has much relevant information for husbands, so I hope both genders will take advantage of this information.]
One of the most common frustrations in marriage is that the wife thinks her husband is nearly robotic when it comes to emotions, and the husband may think his wife is overly emotional. Stereotypes aren’t always true and can even be destructive, but in this instance, when it is true, it really is “a brain thing.”
Every man has been told that women want us to “listen” instead of trying to solve their problems, and that’s a fair request. But wives need to know that holding back from problem solving is literally (that is, physiologically) painful to a man.
Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist who studied at Yale and Harvard and is now on the faculty of UCSF Medical Center, offers the following common interplay between a husband and wife:
DANIELLE: “I just want Neil to listen, give me a hug, and tell me how he knows I feel. But he goes into robot mode and starts telling me what I should do.”
NEIL: “That’s not how I see it. I already told her I feel bad about all the pressure she’s under. She wants me to listen to her and be sympathetic, but then she won’t listen to my suggestions . . . Seeing her cry and not being allowed to help her is torture to me.”
Wives, will you please consider Neil’s last sentence: “Seeing her cry and not being allowed to help her is torture to me”? You think he’s being insensitive; to him, not trying to make her feel better is what seems insensitive.
There are two emotional systems that work through our brain. Bear with the technical lingo for a moment, but basically women tend toward the MNS (the mirror- neuron system), and men toward the TPJ (the temporal- parietal junction). A woman expresses empathy by mirroring a person’s distress and concern because her brain clicks toward the MNS form of emotional processing. The male brain expresses empathy by a process called “cognitive empathy,” which focuses brainpower on stopping the problem instead of understanding the problem. It’s still empathy, though it may not feel like it for you. In order to solve a problem, other areas of the brain have to be stilled, which in this case is the MNS. The TPJ system works to protect the male brain from being “infected” by other people’s emotions so it can fully focus on solving the problem (Dr. Brizendine discusses the brain science behind this in her book The Male Brain).
Two days after writing about this concept for my book Loving Him Well, my wife requested special prayers. She had a very bad reaction to a very bad antibiotic and was still suffering some side effects of neuropathy. Almost immediately after she described her numb lips and a few other effects, my first words were, “Maybe I should take you to the Mayo Clinic this summer and get everything checked out by experts.”
Totally wrong thing for me to say/do!
Number one, we live in Houston. Anything you can find at the Mayo Clinic you can find here. Number two, Lisa simply wanted me to listen, empathize, and pray for her. And because I was researching brain differences, I knew that’s what she wanted. I had been duly warned by Dr. Brizendine and had even put some of this in writing, but my default brain response remained, “How can I fix this?”
We men can and should learn to listen first, but maybe God knew what he was doing when he wired this fixit mentality into the male brain. At the very least, you might want to give your husband the benefit of the doubt. Instead of seeing him as insensitive, consider the fact that his response is what seems most sensitive to him. He’s trying to be sensitive, and it’s confusing to him when you won’t let him be that way. It’s like having an adolescent son who is hurting, and you instinctively reach out to touch him— and he acts like your physical touch is repulsive and pushes you away. You can’t imagine that he doesn’t want to be hugged, and it’s both hurtful and confusing to you that he doesn’t. You want to show that you care, and he won’t let you! That’s how your husband feels when you resent him for wanting to get involved or offer advice.
I’m not saying you have to give in and let him fix things; I’m saying it’s important to learn to understand him, talk about this dynamic, and figure out a way for the two of you to address this together. You may well know how to fix the problem even better than your husband does, and it’s completely legitimate for you to just want to talk about it.
I’ve learned (though I’m far from perfect in living this out) that when Lisa shares a frustration, my first and only response is to be understanding and empathetic. Several hours later, it’s all right for me to come back to her and say, “I’ve been praying and thinking about what you shared with me earlier. Have you thought about maybe doing this?” If there are hours between her sharing and my “solution,” she typically receives it a lot better. I suggest talking over this solution with your husband. You may not want to hear his suggestions, but in stopping them, you are asking him to shut down the empathy function in his brain. That’s risky. Instead you can set up a win- win by explaining, “Honey, when I share a hurt, what I really want is for you to hear me, understand me and show empathy. There’s a time and a place for problem solving. When I first share the problem with you isn’t that time or place. Wait at least a few hours.”
Gary Thomas, GaryThomas.com