Saturday, February 6, 2010

Androids and Husbands

Something that comes up over and over again in our marriage is the differences in how men and women comfort each other. (And yes, as a preface, we're working in stereotypes here. Sorry. Our marriage just happens to fall in line with stereotypes. Each marriage is its own unique snowflake though and you should be no means feel excluded if the roles are reversed in your home!)

Growing up with my mom, two sisters, and an unusually empathetic dad (whether by nature or by virtue of HAVING all those girls, we'll never know,) I went into marriage accustomed to having every bad mood noticed and every crying jag responded to with compassion and probably a nice long talk followed by chocolate. It seemed natural and expected to me that this was how EVERYONE responses to another person's sadness, provided they aren't a HEARTLESS BEAST. Naturally, then, when Jim often seemed completely oblivious to my bad moods- or worse, got annoyed by my subtle body language and slamming of cabinets and would seem completely bewildered by what I considered quite OBVIOUS cues of emotional distress- I began to wonder if I had in fact married a heartless beast by accident.

Over the years, Jim did learn that when I was angry or upset about something, I often wasn't prepared or able to just march right up to him and calmly announce the fact, then have a rational conversation as to the cause of the mood followed by a session of brainstorming re: possible solutions. He got a lot better at reading my moods and realizing when I was sad or upset about something, and he even learned when to immediately approach me and when to give me a while to stew about it. But I still found it upsetting that he often just wanted to fix everything, or that if I seemed un-comforted after five minutes or so, he would sometimes give up and leave me alone- and even if he stayed, it was obvious that he very much WANTED to get away from Teh Crazy Lady.

What I found most upsetting was that I had to coach him on all of this. Of course it meant a lot to me that he at least wanted to comfort and support me, but I COULD NOT understand how a person who truly loved me could honestly be so clueless and insensitive sometimes. It seemed there were two options: either he didn't really care about my feelings very much after all, or he was in fact some kind of Emotionally Stunted Android who just wasn't capable of being the sort of caring, sensitive partner I had set out to marry. I wasn't sure which option was more depressing.

And then, FIVE YEARS into our marriage, we had a conversation that literally made me a happier person overnight. We had been having a perfectly normal conversation that had somehow disintegrated into me sniffling and staring moodily out the window and scrubbing dishes much harder than they required, and Jim sitting on the couch with his head on his hands, looking a little angry and also a little defeated. Though at this point I have no idea of the specific subject causing the fight, I know it had to do with my getting sad about something and then Jim responding in what I found to be pretty much the exact opposite of what I needed.

Out of nowhere he said something like, "You know, I’ve never been in charge of comforting anyone before we got together. I’m a guy. I’m not like you- I didn’t have sisters and friends and people who needed me to make them feel better all the time. It was never my job to make someone feel better until you. I’m literally practicing on you- so I'm sorry I mess it up sometimes, but I'm really not TRYING to make you sad.”

While this may seem like a cop-out or an excuse, to me it was a startling insight which had honestly never occurred to me before. In my relationships with other women, it has always come as a given that if one of us is sad, it is the job of the other to listen, empathize, comfort, reassure and SAY THE RIGHT THINGS. Right, yes? And I've been learning the Right Things To Say since I was like four years old. Is it possible men don't relate this way, and that in fact Jim really was- and is- learning an entirely new skill set here? Is it possible that there was a third option all along, other than Uncaring Spouse and Android Spouse? And is it possible that all the archaic stereotypes are mostly true, and men really just have trouble getting our sensitive little lady feelings, much less responding appropriately?


  1. As I was reading the part in this where you said "he often just wanted to fix everything" I was nodding my head vigorously. This is a lesson I had to learn in my own marriage. When they see us hurting, our guys just want to fix it! I am a little like this myself, especially regarding my kids. Also my mom tended to be a ranter and raver so it made sense to me growing up to find a solution for what was going on to get her to CALM DOWN!!
    I think it does take time in a marriage to "learn" the other person's way of dealing with and expressing emotions. I think it says a lot about your husband that he was able to express to you how he was feeling about the whole thing in such a way that you yourself had a relevation.

  2. WOW. This is such a spectacular post. SO RIGHT ON. I nodded the whole way through.

    My husband is EXACTLY this way. And on top of it, he is an only child, whereas I am a MIDDLE in a semi-large family. I am almost HYPER aware of others' moods and emotions. And he is the polar opposite. It is, hands-down, our BIGGEST struggle.

  3. Erin- Yes! I also feel like I'm hyper aware of people's moods and any weird little tensions or connections going on that other people might be oblivious to. Sometimes it makes family gatherings almost overwhelming- I'm always spotting little tiffs and ruffled feathers!

  4. You know, that makes so much sense.

  5. Torsten is the same way. He's learned a lot but it's definitely required some coaching. Luckily I am pretty good at clearly expressing what I need without getting angry about it. Not expecting him to read my mind is probably a huge part of why we work so well together.

  6. I have to coach Hubby on practically everything related to inter-personal relations. He had one brother and I think they're both a little stunted in this area. Like I have to tell him to say "uh-huh" every once and a while when we're talking on the phone because sometimes I think we've been disconnected or something.

  7. This is so interesting and I'm loving the comments as well. I guess if anything I relate to the stereotypical male POV here. I get wicked uncomfortable if someone needs to be comforted, and never know what to say/do. I grew up in a house full of Emotional Cripples, who didn't really show it if they were upset, and if they DID accidentally show it, you were supposed to pretend you didn't notice.

    Tosc, who is very sensitive (for a guy), once told me I was "cold-hearted" after my lack of reaction to one of his moods. I was PISSED, and told him that if that's what he thought, then he didn't really know me, blah blah. And obviously I'm NOT cold-hearted, but I guess you wouldn't know it based on my inability to comfort in a non-awk manner.

    It totally DOES have to be learned, whether it's how your partner wants to be comforted, or even your child. I certainly don't want to RAISE any emotional cripples either, you know?


    ...though this did help, because I realized that Hubs was an only child in a family of emotional cripples, which is a great phrase.

  9. Yup. Definitely lots of coaching required. I sometimes get tired of repeating the line about wanting comfort/sympathy not being the same as asking him to fix it. TT gets very wound up until that message sinks in. Until the next time.