She says I don't listen to her
February 5, 2012 8:09 PM   Subscribe

My wife says I'm terrible at listening to her. What does this really mean?

I'm not one of those guys that just stares at the TV and nods every now and then to make her think I'm listening.

I give her my full attention when she comes to me with a problem. I try to give her constructive feedback, a way to work through it. Positive reinforcement. "Things will be ok." "We'll do X, Y and Z and then problem solved." Yet this devolves into accusations of "you're not LISTENING to me!"

I took this to mean she wants sympathy for her problems, not solutions. So in other situations, I'd sit back, STFU and let her talk as much as she needs, not offering feedback beyond simple apologies for her grievances. I don't give my opinion since she doesn't want to hear it. Then she accuses me of ignoring her.

I feel like she's searching for a specific response from me, but I don't understand what it is she wants. She doesn't want to discuss solutions to her problems, and hugs and consolation aren't what she wants either.

I've tried discussing this shortcoming of mine with her but she refuses, saying it's "a waste of time" because I "just don't get it."

What is it she's looking for?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (52 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yeah, she doesn't want constructive feedback. She wants you to empathize with her: "I'm sorry that you're feeling that way. I understand that you're pissed off."

She doesn't want you to say "Instead of doing X, do Y."

Even though the latter is more rational.
posted by dfriedman at 8:10 PM on February 5, 2012 [28 favorites]


She wants you to say that you understand how she feels.
posted by artychoke at 8:11 PM on February 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


nthing dfriedman x100.
posted by royalsong at 8:13 PM on February 5, 2012


I don't understand, "you just don't get it" would be all the more reason to explain it better to you, wouldn't it? I would sit down with her and tell her I would like her to tell me exactly what she wants and why she's dissatisfied with me, or she can STFU about it.

She can't expect you to "get it" telepathically and then be mad that you didn't.
posted by Tarumba at 8:13 PM on February 5, 2012 [13 favorites]


I suggest summarizing what she says, and repeating it back to her. Sometimes its nice just to hear your thoughts from someone else's mouth.
posted by tinymegalo at 8:15 PM on February 5, 2012 [16 favorites]


Yes, she's looking for empathy and what is often calling mirroring.

If she is talking about something that happened at work -- say, she spent all day working on a report about Problem A for her boss, then her boss came into her office and said he needed a solution for Problem B, then the next day at a meeting complained about not having the Problem A report -- what she wants is for you to say something like, "god, that must have been so frustrating! He tends to do that a lot, doesn't he? Did you say anything in the meeting?" This demonstrates that you are in tune with her feelings and are looking to hear more from her, but not that you are dismissing her or telling her what to do.

Does that make sense?
posted by scody at 8:15 PM on February 5, 2012 [65 favorites]


Without actually hearing these conversations it's hard to say whether or not you are actually listening or not. One thing I know from experience: have you tried asking questions instead of always with the definitive statements? Personally, just "question"-->"answer" makes me feel like I'm talking to a Ouiji board instead of having an actual conversation and being listened to.

Also, figuring this thing out is important. It's worth going to a neutral professional who can see both sides of the story and help you work through it together.
posted by bleep at 8:15 PM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think this is something a lot of couples grapple with. My boyfriend's first impulse is to try and fix things and a lot of times I don't want to be told what to do-- I usually KNOW what I have to do already and having someone else say "do this and problem solved" feels very superficial in terms of listening. For example if I'm having trouble with a close friend, the root of the problem could go a lot deeper than the fact that she ditched me last Thursday, and I need him to be patient and open enough to really hear what the true problem is (for example, maybe there's a pattern going on here, or something more complex than mere one-off flakiness. Maybe I don't resent the flakiness, but the disrespect that comes across in all areas of our friendship, etc.) These are the kinds of insights that come of being actively listened-to and bouncing ideas around.

Sometimes I just need to talk in order to figure out what the real underlying (as opposed to easy, superficial) issue at stake is. When my friends vent to me about their issues I never attempt to "solve" it for them, but rather ask non-judgmental questions, like "I hear you talk a lot about the terrible way your boss treats you. Does he treat your colleagues that way? Yes/No? Why do you think that is?" as opposed to "Just quit. There, your problem is solved." If you can't think of any good questions to ask you can always say something like "Wow, that sounds really challenging. I'm so sorry you're going through this, is there anything I can do?"
posted by np312 at 8:19 PM on February 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


The expression my wife uses is "have her feelings validated." You vary between two poles: at one, you get so immersed in solving her problem that she doesn't feel like you understand that she's actually upset (this might be counterintuitive). At the other, you give so little feedback she actually wonders whether you're paying attention.

Somewhere in there is a way to communicate to her that you are listening, and what she says does matter to you. Seeing a counselor might be a really productive thing to help the two of you through this before it becomes really corrosive.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:19 PM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, people don't often know what precisely is making them feel uncomfortable, or why, or what you can do to help. That knowledge is in her brain somewhere but sometimes it's just behind a door that we haven't found the key for yet. That in itself is frustrating. So asking her exactly how she wants you to behave in conversation probably isn't going to yield good results, at least at first, because if she knew that she'd probably have told you already.

That's why talking to a neutral professional can help you and/or she talk through it and get to the bottom of it. And if she's not willing to do that, well, I don't know.
posted by bleep at 8:19 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm guessing she wants you to say "that must be so frustrating for you!" or "you must be so upset!" or "I'm sorry, that's awful!" or another variant. Basically, she wants you to listen to what she's saying and then validate her feelings by reflecting back whatever emotion she's feeling (as MoonOrb says). But that's just a guess. You should ask her, sometime when things are calm, if she can give you an example of what sort of response she's looking for. You could also pay attention to how she responds when you are venting about something. Also, a good counselor could efficiently and effectively help you both figure out how to improve your communication in this situation.
posted by k96sc01 at 8:21 PM on February 5, 2012


Wrong:

I'm having a problem.
Have you tried X? X is the solution to the problem.

Right:

I'm having a problem.
I've had that problem, too. I hate that problem. Do you feel sad about this problem? How have you solved this problem in the past? You know, when you've told me about your problems in the past, you said you liked to do XYZ to feel better. Can I help you get XYZ?

This is straight out of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus playbook. You need to recognize this minefield when you see it, and when you do, act appropriately. Don't make too many declarative statements. Just ask more questions.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:25 PM on February 5, 2012 [15 favorites]


She doesn't want you to fix it, she doesn't want to talk to a wall, she wants to be heard. Active Listening will help you show her you hear her.
posted by cecic at 8:28 PM on February 5, 2012 [10 favorites]


Wrong:

I'm having a problem.
Have you tried X? X is the solution to the problem.


I don't really have an answer for the OP, but I think most people are missing an important part of the question: He says he has stopped giving solutions.

His attempts to listen without giving solutions is also being criticized. He needs help with that part.
posted by spaltavian at 8:28 PM on February 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


I can't say anything about you, but my instinct as a dude-type individual, when I hear about a problem, is to find a solution to that problem. My wife isn't interested in my solutions. She's a grown woman and can find her own solutions. What she wants is for me to listen, tell her I understand and sympathize, and then ... that's it. There is no other part.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:29 PM on February 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


Because all he gives her now are simple apologies, spaltavian.

He needs to practice active listening that people above have summarized.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:31 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


She is looking for empathy. If you don't fully understand what empathy is, post some specific conversations she has complained about when you have either 1) offered solutions or 2) been accused of ignoring her. Ask for what would have been a more appropriate empathetic response from the Metafilter community, and you will begin to understand what your wife is truly seeking from you in the way of communication.

I have noticed that men tend to want to "solve" problems, when in reality, we're not looking for black and white solutions, but rather a shoulder to cry on and someone capable of putting himself in our shoes who "gets it."
posted by zagyzebra at 8:34 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ask her questions about the problem. Don't try to solve it for her. Don't let her ramble on forever.

What a lot of women want (myself included) is someone to actively listen without evaluating.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:34 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


And to have you offer to help, in a way that isn't critical. It's great to empathise, but help also makes that mean something.

Constructive criticism that's not asked for is often pointlessly obvious. Unless I'm asking for fresh ideas or advice, I've probably already considered your solution, which is likely to be useless as you don't know the full details of my problem, only what I've been complaining about. Your constructive advice instead implies that I'm stupid, a sort of like teaching grandma to suck eggs feeling.

This of course does not apply if I ask for advice or ideas of course. Then it's simply asking what I've already considered and looking for fresh thoughts with sympathy.

There's also offering to help in a way that doesn't pass the burden of managing that help back to me. I'm upset and overloaded, so don't just ask a broad "What can I do?" question. That adds another practical and emotional task on to me where I have to figure out what you could do most usefully, what you would be capable of doing, and what you would like doing. It's just more damn work.

Instead, either offer something very specific, e.g. "I'll wash the dishes and make you some tea so you can rest a bit and think about how to solve problem X" or ask me something specific off a list, like "Do you have any errands to run today? I'll do them." If you can think of something on your own, that's even better because it shows you've noticed personal quirks and habits of mine, e.g. buying a favourite author's book as a cheer-up present.

Even if I don't take you up on them, it shows that you're not just making sounds with your mouth - you're actually trying to help me and make things better, without making me feel like an idiot.

YMMV, but sympathy alone drives me crazy because it feels like just lip service. Directed help makes a huge difference. This of course goes both ways and I don't think is gender specific.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:35 PM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Responses like:

"Hmmm, that must make you upset. I can certainly understand why you feel bad."

...can seem detached. She wants to communicate with you emotionally. How does her suffering make you feel? Don't just put it into words (this is why e-mail isn't enough for couples in love); feel your emotions about her, fully, and let those emotions show on your face and in your voice. Don't force it -- you're not an actor, nor should you be in this context -- just don't prevent yourself. Focus only on her and your feelings about her (not your feelings about her boss or her particular solutions to her problems or your frustration at not being able to fix everything), and you might have a good start at figuring this out.
posted by amtho at 8:51 PM on February 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think one important thing that hasn't been mentioned explicitly yet is the idea of relating what she's telling you to previous conversations occasionally. So if she's complaining about X, you can say something like 'wait a minute, isn't x the one who did y last week? Ugh!' This shows that not only are you listening NOW, but you were listening last time, too, and you think she is important enough to remember these details.
posted by rosethorn at 8:53 PM on February 5, 2012 [35 favorites]


Okay, I'm going to add more to my answer above. I am the goddess of expecting my husband to read my mind and thinking that if I have to tell you what I need, then you're just doing the thing because I told you to, and not because you want to do it or because that's how you really feel. (For example, in my world, telling my husband something like "I need you to tell me you love me more often" only would accomplish him saying it because I told him to.)

So, it's not wanting solutions or wanting you to say "I understand how you feel" or "I'm sorry you're sad." but instead I want to hear that you actually understand what I'm saying. If I say, "Jane at work keeps trying to get me to type things for her!" I don't want you to tell me to complain to HR or say, "I'm sorry, I understand how that would make you feel frustrated." I want you to say, "Geez, she's a jerk. Does she think you're her secretary or something? The nerve!" This would tell me that you understand what I am saying and you don't think I'm mad because I hate typing or because my fingers hurt or something. I want you to say something that shows you understand where I'm coming from.

Sorry if this makes no sense and these are ridiculous examples. I am a person who is bad at communicating trying to communicate my lack of communication skills.
posted by artychoke at 8:54 PM on February 5, 2012 [33 favorites]


She's looking for conversation. Engage her on what she's talking about - don't offer what you think are solutions, and don't just go, "Uh huh, I'm sorry, that sucks." When you just jump to the "I'm sorry, that sucks" response, it probably sounds like you're blowing her off. But offering her solutions when she didn't ask for them makes it sound like you think you know better than she does, that she couldn't have thought of those things herself. Talk to her about what she's actually saying, seem interested.

I was also going to say what rosethorn said - referencing previous issues is a cool thing to do, like if she's always complaining about some annoying person at work. When you can relate what she's saying to previous issues and make it an actual conversation where you're empathizing with her while allowing her to vent, she will feel more like you care about what she says in general.
posted by wondermouse at 8:58 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suspect what she is looking for is commiseration. No, first for you to understand the situation completely, THEN the commiseration.

Commiseration is different from sympathy. Because sympathy is something that someone who is feeling okay gives to someone who is upset. Commiseration is when both people are upset and they are complaining about it together.

So, you say you make "apologies for her grievances." HER grievances, see? You said "hugs and consolation aren't what she wants." Because you feel okay, even though you are offering her sympathy.

It's a start to demonstrate that you are upset that she is upset. But I think what she may be looking for is for you to be upset by the problems themselves, that are upsetting her. Or at least have some kind of negative reaction to them.

Here's an example from my life that I have talked about here before.

In college, I worked as a legal assistant for this really insane old man lawyer. He constantly directed anger, rage, hatefulness, and disgust towards me, whenever I'd make a mistake. But see, he'd hired me knowing I had 0 experience in a law office. And he gave 0 training. I think he had deliberately hired me (and the college girl before me and the college girl before her -- 13 people had quit just that year) because that was the situation he wanted to create. To have a girl there to take his rage out on. Once I learned enough by experience that I didn't make mistakes anymore, he always managed to find SOMETHING to rage about, he was obviously just looking for anything.

The problem was that I was desperate for the money. I needed the money in order to finish school on time. It was the only way that was going to happen. It wasn't that I needed help coming up with other solutions to graduate on time. I had laid awake night after night for weeks or months trying to figure out another way to make that happen. I had tried to get all sorts of other jobs. I had tried to get loans and couldn't. I had asked my parents etc. When you're in a situation like that, where you've spent hours and hours over the course of months trying to find another solution and the reality is that there IS no other solution, it is really irritating when you just want to talk about it with a friend, and the friend is trying to steer the convo towards solutions. For two reasons:
1. Because this person is not going to, in 5 minutes, come up with a solution that you haven't thought of in MONTHS of contending with this problem, and it's just tedious to have to rehash it and explain to the person why their suggestions will not work, even though you already know very well why because you went over the same idea in your mind a million times before. They don't just take you at your word that it won't work they make you explain why, and it's just tedious.
2. Because it's kind of acting like I am a little dumb or slow, for someone to act like they in 5 minutes of thinking about this problem will come up with something you haven't thought of in months.

So why did I tell people about this scenario I was in, if I didn't want their ideas for solutions? Because my self esteem and sense of reality was being worn down every day by this man. I was starting to lose my sense of being a competent and intelligent person. I was starting to forget that I didn't deserve to be treated like how he was treating me. I was afraid I would not be completely mentally and emotionally intact by the time I had made enough money to quit.

So I needed to get a reality check from my friends. I needed commiseration which means that I wanted them to be BOTHERED by how this man was treating me. I wanted them to be ANGRY about it. I wanted them to think that he was despicable. I just wanted to feel like they had my back.

Because that would be a concrete reminder for me, if his behavior was making other people angry, that I didn't deserve it, that it wasn't normal, etc. It would be a concrete reminder that I wasn't a piece of shit after all, because other people had my back and were on my side. I wasn't actually the scum of the earth because other people so obviously cared what was happening to me. This is what helped me get through it.

If they had sat there and patted my shoulder and said "Sorry to hear about that" and then turned away and like started playing video games, and obviously weren't that bothered by it, that would not have helped at all.

Hopefully this explains it somewhat.
posted by cairdeas at 9:04 PM on February 5, 2012 [80 favorites]


I also sent a memail, but yes, I want to emphasize that dfriedman's "your wife is just irrational!" response is not really a great one, not least because it's untrue. It's also pretty literally patronizing. "I have, in five seconds, thought of the obvious and easy solution to this problem you've been dealing with" is pretty insulting, as well as probably wrong. Your "easy solution" probably does not actually fix it, and not everything is fixable.

I like this answer to a previous, nearly identical question.
posted by kavasa at 9:16 PM on February 5, 2012 [13 favorites]


So in other situations, I'd sit back, STFU and let her talk as much as she needs, not offering feedback beyond simple apologies for her grievances.

Are you responding to her with something like "I'm sorry to hear that" or "I'm sorry that upset you"? That can sometimes be really frustrating because you're not the one that caused the problem (right?), you're just the one listening about them. "I'm sorry about that" also often plays the role of conversation-ender, and crops up in my conversations as a marker of "well that sounds awful but we've discussed it to death and there's nothing more to do -- time to move on." So your wife might be frustrated because the conversation effectively finishes before she feels any better. (Sidenote: this is for conversations where you're nothing more than a third party listener; if she's trying to talk about a problem between the two of you then you need a whole different tactic.)

I've found it works better (both to give and to hear) something to the extent of "that sounds terrible/awful/ridiculous/annoying/insert adjective here! How did you handle it?" The first sentence validates their feelings, while the second helps them keep talking through the emotion they're feeling. Mirror things back to her as both summaries and validation: "so when Bob said X it really bothered you because Y? That would have driven me crazy. What happened next?" Sometimes it helps to make a short parallel to something you've experienced, like "Something similar happened at my work last year when A and B happened and it made me so angry. Can you believe that sometimes people just C with no regards for others?" It may sound silly, but sometimes when I'm so worked up about an issue I can't even identify my emotions until a person mirrors me back with "sounds like you're really scared/worried/angry/embarrassed" and it helps so much just to hear that from someone.

Pay attention to your body language, too. Practice facing her directly during these conversations, and for awhile do nothing else but listen to her. Nod along as she talks, and focus on making your face look emotional -- grimace when something bad happens, widen your eyes when something surprising happens, gasp or open your mouth when someone egregiously wrongs your wife. Cock your head to the side a little bit to show you're listening, and always watch her face even if she's pacing around and won't look at you. If you're a naturally stoic person don't go overboard; just a smidge of outer emotion will probably go a long way.
posted by lilac girl at 9:19 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe she doesn't want sympathy OR solutions: maybe she wants a conversation.

To show the difference, see these possible scenarios:

Solution
"Oh god, John came into work today and was a total asshole to me in front of everyone again."
"You need to tell the boss that you aren't putting up with this. Or go to HR."

Sympathy
"Oh god, John came into work today and was a total asshole to me in front of everyone again."
"I'm sorry. That sucks."

Conversation
"Oh god, John came into work today and was a total asshole to me in front of everyone again."
"Really, what did he say?"
"Well, it's not what he said, it's his tone of voice."
"Like seriously, what?"
"Well, I said, 'blah blah blah' and he told me 'blah blah blah', but he was totally rolling his eyes when he said it."
"Did anyone notice?"
"Sarah did. She told me I should talk to HR about him."
"I wonder what he'd do if HR gave him a telling off?"
"I bet he'd throw a fit and sulk like a baby."
"Ha, he's such a tool."

The first and second scenarios are not working for you. Try the third.
posted by lollusc at 9:27 PM on February 5, 2012 [103 favorites]


Let's say she tells you that her co-worker Jane stole her stapler for the third time this month. Here are some ways to respond:

1. I understand that you're pissed off.
2. Here's what you should do.
3. What are you going to do?

#1 would piss me off further. Of course I'm pissed off! I just told you she stole my stapler again! It sounds insincere and forced.

#2 would piss me off because you're taking away my agency to solve the problem. Jane took away my ability to staple papers, and now you're going to take away my choice about what to do?

#3 is the only scenario in which she has any control over the situation. It also shows that you've been listening and that you're curious about her opinion.
posted by desjardins at 9:29 PM on February 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are a lot of great answers in this thread, but I think lollusc just nailed it in the clearest way possible. I wrote out a whole long thing, and on preview I'm just going to agree with "She wants conversation."
posted by amaire at 9:31 PM on February 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


(Specifically, the reason she may be reading 1 & 2 as you not listening to her is that they work as a great way to shut the conversation down fast. It can come across as though you just want her to stop complaining (which might be true). She might be hearing 1 as "Fix the problem like this, and then I won't have to hear you whine about it anymore" and 2 as "I'm sorry, that sucks, now let's get back to talking about something more interesting."

It's not fair, because I'm sure that's not what you mean. But maybe she's had bad experiences in the past with people doing this because they DO want to shut her down.

Also, the first two response types kind of put you on an elevated level compared to her. In the first one you know the answer and she doesn't. In the second, you are okay, and she is not, so you are giving her a verbal pat on the head. The third option is to treat her more like a peer: you can't fix her, and you aren't feeling sorry for her; you're just chatting with her like a friend.
posted by lollusc at 9:32 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I really agree with lollusc, especially because if you think your wife is a competent adult, why would you assume that the solution you thought of in like five minutes is going to be a sudden revelation to her? Listening to her as a peer means helping her brainstorm, actively listening, and basically treating her as though you think she's good at living her own life (IE there's a reason she's not down with your "rational" response).

Plus: Sometimes there's not an easy solution, because there's shit that sucks that goes along with work, or because the consequences of enforcing a particular set of boundaries totally blows. In that case, commiserate with her and help her vent, listening actively and sincerely. The reason she might be careful about irritating her asinine boss (or whomever) might be because we're in such a shitty economy that any job is a good job. Or she might be afraid of alienating her jerk-ass friend because even though said-friend is a jerk, she's good for the occassional bout of babysitting. Or whatever. There's nothing more alienating than feeling like you're taking one of the team, and the team holds you in contempt.
posted by spunweb at 9:40 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, at least for me, I like feeling like my partner thinks I'm interesting. Getting a set of intructions? That's... well, one, that would totally bring on a knee-jerk "YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!" response and two, it doesn't make me feel like my day or problems are interesting to whomever I'm talking to.
posted by spunweb at 9:43 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's a good book on exactly this subject called You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and it's available at Amazon. It's by a sociolinguist called Deborah Tannen, so it's based in actual research. It addresses exactly the kind of breakdown you're describing. I really recommend it to both you and your wife--to help both of you see what you're trying to give and get from each other in these kinds of conversations (and why you're not getting what you want from them).
posted by yoink at 9:49 PM on February 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


You've gotten some good advice, and I don't have that much more to offer... However, you may find it helpful to alter how you're conceptualizing this disagreement a little bit.

Right now, you're thinking of it in terms like this: "I need to make her think I'm listening more." However, I suspect that when your wife says you're not listening, she really means something like this: "I need some sign that he cares -- about what I'm saying, and about me."

So, when you're reading the advice above, and when you're interacting with your wife, consider this: what are you doing to show that you care about what she's saying? What are you doing to show you care about her?

(And if your answer is, "Shoot, I don't care about what she's saying!"... You may want to ask yourself why she thinks you should care.)
posted by meese at 10:23 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


How does she listen to you?
posted by macinchik at 11:35 PM on February 5, 2012


White Men Can't Jump:
See. if I'm thirsty. I don't want a glass of water, I want you to sympathize. I want you to say, "Gloria, I too know what it feels like to be thirsty. I too have had a dry mouth." I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness.
posted by nickrussell at 1:35 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suspect she wants you to validate her feelings.

"Dude, that sucks. What a bunch of asshats you work for! What did you do next?"

This is not purely a male/female dynamic, btw. After seven years of marriage, it has recently come a surprise to me that my logic-driven husband sometimes just wants me to... validate his feelings. I am now working harder on sussung out when the right response is a)suggestion b) validation c) hugs d) an offer to break someone's legs. I have discovered that leading with b) means his response is often the best indicator of where to go from there but honestly, it's hard when the person you want to do the right thing with gives subtle cues.

Also, while it fucking kills me to say this, read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. I read it like 18 years ago and threw it out but as a basic grounding in the sociology of gendered communication, it's useful.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:55 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


lollusc has it. She wants a conversation. I love my husband to death but he is sort of like you sound. We'll be in the grocery store and I'll say "hey, this looks cool, I wonder how you prepare it?" and he'll say "I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA!" (because he seems to think that I expect him to be a wikipedia of cookbooks or something), when what I would prefer is for him to say "I don't know, it looks kind of like an x, I wonder if it would be good braised?" or something. A conversation involves exploring things together verbally, not just answering a question or fixing a problem. It doesn't come naturally to everyone, but you can get better at it.
posted by biscotti at 5:18 AM on February 6, 2012 [10 favorites]


I agree with the above as to active listening, mirroring, etc.

But also, how's your communication otherwise? If your wife feels un-listened-to in other areas, then it will probably come to a head when she's upset about something else. For example, if you tell my grandfather something like, "There is a problem X with Y. This is caused by Z. I don't have the tools to fix Z. Can you fix Z?" he stops listening after the first sentence, runs off, and will come back a while later and proudly announce that he's found the source of the problem.. It was Z! And now that he knows that he can fix the problem! And it's hopeless to try and point out that you did tell him that and maybe he should listen... So you usually just try to ignore it, until suddenly all the simmering rage just comes out at once.

Anyway, the point is, make sure that you don't do that. (Home improvement projects really seem to highlight communication problems, in case you're not sure if you listen or not.)
posted by anaelith at 5:19 AM on February 6, 2012


Once you get this issue worked out you might talk with your wife about her being totally unreasonable about it. If she has a problem (how you respond to her), gets upset with you about the problem, and then gets upset with you when you ask her for some guidance, she's not being much of a partner. Good for you for taking the time and energy to work for your relationship.
posted by OmieWise at 6:12 AM on February 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why don't you ask her?
posted by bq at 6:23 AM on February 6, 2012


> So, it's not wanting solutions or wanting you to say "I understand how you feel" or "I'm sorry you're sad." but instead I want to hear that you actually understand what I'm saying. If I say, "Jane at work keeps trying to get me to type things for her!" I don't want you to tell me to complain to HR or say, "I'm sorry, I understand how that would make you feel frustrated." I want you to say, "Geez, she's a jerk. Does she think you're her secretary or something? The nerve!" This would tell me that you understand what I am saying and you don't think I'm mad because I hate typing or because my fingers hurt or something. I want you to say something that shows you understand where I'm coming from.

This is an excellent description of how a conversation should go (there have been others, but this is the one I happened to highlight as I went along). The one suggestion I'm not sure has been mentioned is this: see how your wife responds when you come to her with a problem, and try to remember her patterns of response and use them when the situation is reversed.
posted by languagehat at 6:31 AM on February 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I heard what I know is a sweeping generalization but it might be relevant in this case. "Men talk to pass on information, women talk to form connections."

I know it's not always true but it might be the case in your case. Your wife wants to feel closer to you, to feel a social connection more than to "solve" the problem, which she most likely know how to solve on her own anyway. It's not always empathy so much as understanding and working together to solve the problem. Biscotti sounds like she's married to my husband as we have many of the same conversational problems, sometimes a conversation doesn't have a goal it's just a journey together to establish connection.
posted by wwax at 6:52 AM on February 6, 2012


I just came in to recommend Tannen's book. It really is about exactly this thing. One of the things that many women typically do to show empathy is to share common experiences. "Jane at work asked me to do the report again." To which you would respond, "Ugh! That totally reminds of the time Tim had me do this project eight times!"
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:14 AM on February 6, 2012


FWIW, I heard you say that you had learned offering solutions was not what she wants and that you have stopped doing that.

At this point, you tried a few things that do not work, your wife is still explaining, "You're not listening to me," and you're here trying to figure it out without her help. I don't see any useful course other than asking her what she means. She doesn't seem to be listening to you when you say you don't understand what she wants (and did she notice that you have tried more than one way of listening?)

You both have to work on this.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:20 AM on February 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


You both have to work on this.

Yes! For some reason, among the community of people who are interested in the general differences between male and female communication styles, the takeaway always seems to be that men need to learn to communicate in a female style. I think that people would be a lot happier if both parties tried to communicate the way the other prefers. So, try saying this: "part of the problem here is that I have a communication style that likes to solve problems - that's why I was always trying to offer advice at first. But it also means that when you tell me that the way I listen to you upsets me, but don't tell me what you need or what I can do to fix it, I feel frustrated and confused, because that feels to me like a problem, but I can't find the solution on my own. It would help me to listen to you the way you want me to if you were to give me some concrete steps toward solving this communication problem we're having. In other words - the way I used to listen to you, with the advice and all, is the way I want to be listened to in this conversation we're having now."

And stop beating yourself up here. This is not a "shortcoming of yours" it's a shortcoming with the way that you're both communicating, and "you just don't get it" is pretty much always an incredibly unhelpful thing to say.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:47 AM on February 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


There was an episode of Modern Family ("Two Monkeys and a Panda") from last season that echoed this. Phil (the OP!) couldn't understand why his wife was getting mad at him when he was offering constructive advice on X, Y, and Z. Some women at the spa he was chatting with (the MeFites!) were trying to explain where Claire was coming from, and it finally clicked for him.
posted by jroybal at 8:07 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think you guys are missing the point: any possible reaction is getting shot down. The suggestions here have already been tried to no avail.

I would tell her that this behavior is rude and is an inappropriate way to treat your partner. If you want a canned response, there's an app for that.

The answer to "you just don't get it" is, "Make me get it. It's important for me to get it."
Otherwise, STFU is your best option.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 8:37 AM on February 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think most of the answers here make it clear that there's an option the OP hasn't tried. The suggestions here have not been tried yet.
posted by pineappleheart at 2:31 PM on February 6, 2012


I think you guys are missing the point: any possible reaction is getting shot down. The suggestions here have already been tried to no avail.

There's a lot of room between "solutions to her problems" and "simple apologies for her grievances." I've seen this sort of question get asked here before by men who seem to get caught up in the whole Men-Want-Solutions and Women-Want-Sympathy thing. In reality, the woman in this kind of situation just wants her husband to show that he is interested in talking to her about it, learning about it - not showing that he knows better by offering a pat solution, and not giving a canned sympathy response that just comes across as an uninterested.
posted by wondermouse at 4:57 PM on February 6, 2012


In reality, the woman in this kind of situation just wants her husband to show that he is interested in talking to her about it, learning about it - not showing that he knows better by offering a pat solution, and not giving a canned sympathy response that just comes across as an uninterested.

Yes, this. Another thing that I think she may be wanting to hear is a sense of continuity between conversations -- signalling that the OP is listening is such a way that the information/feelings/whatever she's sharing are actually registering with him, and that he is drawing upon that knowledge of her feelings from one conversation to the next. Hence my hypothetical response above, including something like "he does that a lot, doesn't he?"

The conversations we have with people we see a lot -- our partners, colleagues, siblings, etc. -- are often part of a larger narrative we tell each other and ourselves about our lives and our identities. I suspect she wants a sense that you are on board with these larger narratives of hers.

As to some of the responses in this thread who are dismissing her for not being clearer about what she wants: it is neither "irrational" to want this sort of connection with a partner, nor is she somehow being rude or manipulative for not being able to explicitly articulate this desire and how the OP might address it. Communication is tricky precisely because the ways in which we communicate (or desire to be communicated with) are often complex and unspoken, and the things that may seem instinctive to us aren't really instinctive to everyone.
posted by scody at 5:08 PM on February 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


I agree that you should try to have a heart to heart with her on this. It may be that she is resisting your efforts to solve this problem because that same approach is what is making her feel as though you don't 'get' her-- which is the problem.

Please don't think that she is trying to control you as some posters above have suggested. Her feelings are hurt- it happens, even with good intentions- this can be difficult to parse when you are upset about something.

Find a good moment- or create a good moment- to tell her how much you care for her and how much you want to be able to show her that you care. This will not immediately lead to solutions, but will the lay the ground work for both of you to sort this out.
posted by abirdinthehand at 6:02 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


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