Some of the most common gender differences I see in relationships regard communication styles. For example, it is not uncommon for a woman to want to talk through things and vent about her concerns. However, many men interpret this as a request to fix the situation. It makes sense -- if someone we love is hurting and tells us that, why wouldn’t we want to do what we can to “fix” it? But interestingly, the woman often becomes irritated because she says he isn’t listening to her or is trivializing her concern. And the man gets annoyed, because he thinks she isn’t taking his advice to make the situation better.
If you recognize this pattern in your relationship, what can you do about it? The best approach is to be clear about your expectations from the start. For example, if everyday when you get home from work you like to tell you partner about what happened and share your frustrations, state up front what you’re looking for. “Hi hon, can I just vent about my day? You don’t have to do anything. I just need you to listen.” And if you’re on the receiving end you could say, “I noticed I’m getting really irritated listening right now and frustrated that I can’t do anything. Do you want me to help you fix this problem, or do you just want me to listen?” This will make a big shift in communication and avoid hurt feelings.
I think there can also be a third category, depending on your personality. Sometimes people share stories and ask questions because they are on a “fact finding” mission. They want to gather perspectives so they can come to a more informed decision for themselves. So recognize this as a middle area, and clearly state your intentions for the conversation. “I don’t need to vent, but I’m also not looking for a fix. I’m curious about your ideas around this topic just so I can gather information.” With this clarity, the partner who is giving the feedback will be less likely to feel discouraged if you don’t take their advice.
Like developing any new habit, it can take time to create this new pattern of interaction. Being clear about your intentions and expectations is a great practice in transparency. In the long run, we’re much more likely to get our needs met when we own them and articulate them from the start.
(Originially posted as part of the Love & Sex Blog for Pacific San Diego Magazine.)
~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sociologist, Sex Therapist, Sexuality Speaker, Sexologist