I was jogging along the East River a few weeks ago, rocking out to mindlessly distracting hip-hop on Pandora, when I heard a cry for help. The man in distress was 21-year-old Justin Bieber, and he was really confused about how to be in a relationship with a woman (and probably pretty unsure about the best way to style his hair).
Challenges with syntax aside, the gist of his new song is that this lady is unhappy in the relationship, and he is feeling rather confused about it all. The Biebs poses several vague-ish dilemmas:
First it’s the “when yes means no” situation:
When you nod your head yes,
But you wanna say no
What do you mean?
Then there’s the classic “go, but don’t go” predicament:
When you don't want me to move,
But you tell me to go
What do you mean?
Then things start getting metaphorical (big trouble!):
Said you're running out of time,
What do you mean? What do you mean?
Better make up your mind
What do you mean?
I tried to tune it out and just keep time with the catchy beat (I mean, it’s not the first time Justin Bieber has been in need of serious relationship help!). But his repeated question, “What do you mean?” began to pull at my heartstrings.
You see, I can’t even count the number of times I wish that past boyfriends had sought out a deeper understanding of the feminine perspective when they didn’t know what was going on or how to communicate with me. So for all the confused men and misunderstood women out there, here’s my answer to the proverbial question, “What do you mean?” This one’s for you, Biebs.
01. She is not your bro.
Ah, yes, the very thing that draws you to her is the very thing that confuses the hell out of you. It’s the age-old problem between the sexes. At one point Bieber offers up a helpful solution: “Be more straightforward!” he shouts out as the song is coming to a close. Sigh. Now do you see why I feel the need to help a brother out?
Guys, I know you want to communicate with your girlfriend the way you do your bros, but it just doesn’t work like that. In her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, explains that ignoring men’s and women’s differences when it comes to communication doesn’t do anyone any favors. “Pretending that women and men are the same hurts women because the ways they are treated are based on the norms for men,” Tannen explains in her book. “It also hurts men who, with good intentions, speak to women as they would to men and are nonplussed when their words don’t work as expected or even spark resentment and anger.”
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but generally women don’t want to have to spell it out for you. Now, I don’t mean that we consciously speak in riddles. I mean that our communication patterns naturally tend toward a desire for discovery. Dr. John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, explains that it is understanding what women seek. A woman wants you to seek her, to discover her needs, and then meet them. This requires asking her questions and listening. “Remember, you don’t fully have to understand her point of view to succeed in being a good listener,” Dr. Gray explains.
How can men combat this? Rather than Bieber imploring his lady friend to be more up-front, he could try this. “Let her know you don’t understand but want to. Take responsibility for not understanding; don’t judge her or imply she can’t be understood.”
02. Take the lead, Biebs.
I hate to break it to you, man, but it’s very likely that a lot of this confusing behavior is a result of your lack of decisiveness. Whether a woman likes a man who takes the lead or not, she almost always wants the guy she is with to know what he wants. To be honest with you, Biebs, it seems like you are doing a whole lot of wondering and not enough articulation of what you want and what you mean.
If I were the object of your affection in this situation, I would want you to take a little more initiative in the relationship. In fact, I have been in relationships with twentysomething cuties like you, and their lack of initiative did cause me to act a little indecisive. I wanted to be with them, but they weren’t always pursing me in a way that made me feel desired and respected. To get what I wanted, I would pull away just enough to make them wonder and thus seek to discover me a little more. Sure, I should have just told these guys that I was not impressed, but I stupidly wanted to be with them despite their tomfoolery (something like Bieber Fever, I imagine).
Dr. Gray also explains in his book that women frequently need to be reassured. “When a man repeatedly shows that he cares, understands, respects, validates, and is devoted to his partner, her primary need to be reassured is fulfilled.” Dr. Gray goes on to explain where men can go wrong here. “A man commonly makes the mistake of thinking that once he has met all of a woman’s primary love needs, and she feels happy and secure, that she should know from then on that she is loved. This is not the case.”
You say you want this to work? I guarantee all confusion will be cleared up if you tell her what you want from the relationship and continually reassure her of your feelings and commitment. A little vulnerability on your part will go a long way in helping her to “make up her heart” (as you put it) and feel comfortable enough to be straight with you.
03. It might be a maturity thing.
Perhaps we should back up and ask one important question. Why don’t you want “this thing to end”? It sounds like a bit of a nightmare, quite frankly. Sure, she is beautiful, and you want to be her boyfriend and all that. But if you are seeking to discover her as a woman and being clear to her about your feelings, and she is still acting all over the place, then this girl likely has some growing up to do.
A self-possessed woman knows what she wants in a relationship and won’t vacillate between hot and cold. In fact, she is much more likely to put you on notice or drop it (it being your relationship) like it’s hot if you aren’t pursuing her in the way she needs to be pursued. Mature women don’t have patience for drama and certainly have no desire to take a man on an emotional roller-coaster ride.
I know that Bieber isn’t the first man who wishes someone would explain to him why women won’t just spell it out for them. Honestly, I wish more men were humble enough to ask for help. Maybe writing a song isn’t the best approach. (After all, that’s a little passive, which is what we’re trying to avoid.) But if more men were to reach out to women for help when they are struggling with the nuances of the feminine dialect, there would be a lot less frustration and a lot more happy couples.