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?