Few things are more frustrating than reaching out to your man for empathy, and instead he tries to fix your problems. The male propensity to want to fix things that are broken, while handy in many situations, is the curse that has haunted male-female relationships throughout the ages—as well as provided fodder for some pretty good comedy (“It’s Not About the Nail,” anyone?).
But what if I told you this curse could be broken?
Many women, after one too many disappointed attempts at connection on a bad day, have come to accept the male default to play Mr. Fix-It. But this defeatist attitude is a mistake, not only because men really can empathize with you but also because they really want to. More than that, the ability to empathize with one another is one of the secrets to lasting love and fulfillment in a relationship.
Therapists describe empathy as mirroring a partner’s feelings in a way that lets them know their feelings are understood and shared, which is the key to attunement with your partner. It’s what keeps a couple connected emotionally. So really, ditching empathy is just not an option for a couple who wants to be happy.
One night not too long ago, I was faced with the choice of either withdrawing from my husband, Joe (who is a major problem solver, bless him), or persisting at getting his empathy. Luckily, I chose the latter and stumbled across a trick that turned out to be a major breakthrough in our relationship.
I had been anxiously anticipating my period all month as I was hoping we might get pregnant. That night I finally got my period, and I was devastated. This wasn’t the first time we had tried and failed to conceive, and as the months since our wedding day turned to a year, each first day of my cycle was a deeper and deeper disappointment.
Infertility has been a very different experience for me than Joe. The main difference being that, as a result of the necessity of constantly being aware of the changes in my body throughout my cycle—not to mention the various poking and probing done to my body—it is difficult to go even one day without being aware that we’re trying to conceive. When the dreaded day of my period finally comes, the blood and cramping is yet another physical phenomena that stabs at my psyche.
For Joe, this uniquely feminine perspective of infertility is, understandably, difficult to relate to. But just because something is difficult to relate to doesn’t mean that he can’t relate. That’s what I discovered that night.
Seeing me in tears as I came out of the bathroom, Joe rushed to me and wrapped his arms around me. It kills him to see me so sad, and he wanted to help. My hero, the problem solver, started offering all sorts of helpful solutions. Vitamins we haven’t tried, procedures we could look into, experts we could talk to. But I was breaking inside, and all I wanted was to feel understood.
I could have told him he just didn’t get it or that I just wanted to be alone for a little while. But instead I asked him if he could tell me how I was feeling at this moment. It wasn’t a challenge, but the same part of me that longed to be understood also feared that this question would confirm my fear that I was all alone in this. Much to my surprise, Joe began to describe how I felt with perfect accuracy. With that simple invitation for him to participate in my suffering, he empathized with me beautifully. He swept me off my feet.
Simply telling a man, “I don’t want you to fix my problems” or “Will you please just listen?” often makes him feel like we don’t want to be partners; he can feel helpless and sometimes even emasculated. The message that is often lost amidst our complaints is that the only “fix” is for us to feel understood. If we communicate empathy as the solution, he will be eager to give it a try.
It’s not that Joe stopped wanting to fix my problem; that knee-jerk reaction to my tears and frustration will always be there (and I’m grateful for it). But maybe the solution to the age-old propensity of men to fix things when we need empathy isn’t to retreat—it’s to hand him the correct tool.
Of course, a solid relationship always takes both partners to work well—he still has to meet you halfway. But empathy doesn’t always come naturally to people (women included!). Suggesting empathy as the correct tool for Mr. Fix-It is a great way to connect with him on the same mission. With time and practice, he will learn the cardinal rule of attunement, according to Dr. Gottman: “Understanding must precede advice.” In the meantime, don’t leave him floundering around for the right solution to the problem. By choosing to persist toward greater empathy, you both may be surprised by just how well you understand one another.
Image Credit: Brandi Toole