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Bridge the Gender Communication Gap

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Ava has had a hard day as Director of Nursing in a busy hospital. She changes hats from taking charge in the high paced world of health care, to being the caretaker of her six and seven year old. She drives the baby sitter to the train, prepares dinner, helps the kids with homework and showers and gets them to bed. Finally, the kids are nicely tucked away in bed, snug and warm. Ava awaits her beloved husband and “knight in shining armor,” Ethan who will be home soon to take her into his arms, understand her frustrations, listen to her–not just her words but to her very being and to literally “walk a mile in her moccasins”.

Ethan, a financial advisor, has had a stressful day having seen ten clients with no break, not even stopping for dinner. He has been looking forward to relaxing when he gets home. He missed the kids and knows they are asleep, but his wife will be there to greet him and he can finally eat and kick back in front of the tube with a nice non-alcoholic beer and low cholesterol turkey burger.

Ethan pulls into the driveway, grabs his two heavy brief cases that remind him of the weight he has felt throughout the day and opens the door. Ava greets him, follows him to the table, and immediately begins to recount the day’s problems. Ethan thinks “Oh no, is this going to be my eleventh client? Let me listen and maybe it will end soon.”

Ava thinks, “Once I tell Ethan all that has happened today and he understands what I’ve been through I will feel so much better.” When Ethan walks in, Ava lays out a panorama of events that paint a picture of much frustration supported by a myriad of specific problems.

Ethan’s eyes open wide. He is unable to keep track of the onslaught and quickly begins to think of solutions, so that he can get to his dinner. Though he tries mightily to keep up and figure it all out he realizes that Ava is not tiring, in fact she is growing in enthusiasm as she recounts the day. He realizes this could take a while and wonders when will get to the point. As he tries to listen, solutions are popping into his head. He thinks, “Let me share them and relieve her of her consternation so that she can move on from the abyss into the light of resolution; let me be the ‘mighty warrior,’ to come to her aid and let me get to my non-alcoholic beer and turkey burger.”

Although he feels a bit frustrated by the number of problems facing him, Ethan starts to take them on one at a time. If he is efficient, he will be able to get through these in short order, make some sense out of them and if he takes the initiative maybe she will listen and stop talking.

Ethan offers his logical solutions and expects to be appreciated for helping Ava through the confusion. But, alas, to Ethan’s surprise, Ava does not welcome the solutions. In fact, she begins to reject them and appears more tense and anxious. He wonders, “Is there something wrong with what I am offering? Or is there just something wrong with my wife? After all, I solve problems all day, and now I am being made to feel so helpless. Maybe she is just too negative and emotional.” Ava is thinking, “Why isn’t he listening? I just need to talk and unload. Maybe he just doesn’t care.”

As the curtain drops Ethan is feeling frustrated, incompetent and powerless and wonders why he made his wife so unhappy when all he’s tried to do is help her. Ava feels she has not been heard and that Ethan isn’t interested and doesn’t care about her feelings.

What’s happening here is common among couples. Ava has a need to vent and express her feelings, not to make a point but just to be heard. Being listened to is a way of knowing that her husband cares for her, understands and respects her feelings.  than, like most men, immediately tries to solve the problems put before him since the reason to talk is to get his advice.

Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and one of the foremost researchers on how language affects relationships, says women talk to establish rapport, share feelings and create intimacy. Men talk to report, solve problems, negotiate status and preserve independence.

In Couple to Couple Coaching with us, Ava and Ethan explored what they needed from each other regarding communication and both came away with a greater understanding. Ava needed to vent and share to feel intimate. Ethan talked when he wanted her thoughts and advice. Ava and Ethan agreed that from here forward they would tell each other what they needed from their communication rather than make assumptions. This helped them bridge the gender communication gap.

© Copyright 2011 by Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, therapist in Owings Mills, Maryland. All Rights Reserved.

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  • angela March 9th, 2011 at 5:33 AM #1

    One of the things that my husband and I decided a few months back is that both of us need a little time to decompress from the stress of the day instead of letting it all out the minute that we walk in the door. Give one another a little time to breathe and then talk. It has helped us reconnect with one another in a much better way than before.

  • rene March 9th, 2011 at 5:41 AM #2

    it’s not easy to fully understand your partner and react in a way that will make them happy. not only are there gender differences but also having been through a tough day at work and shouldering all the responsibilities most of us would rather just unwind than listen to somebody else about what went on in their routine day,even if it is our dear partner!

  • Ron March 9th, 2011 at 2:36 PM #3

    From all these years of being married if there is something that I have discovered, it is that arguments never take us anywhere and are only time-wasters. If you want to discuss something and find a real solution to the problem, then you need o do just that-discuss! Shouting and arguing is useless!

  • randall March 10th, 2011 at 5:44 AM #4

    No wonder gay and lesbian couples have a higher success rate- we already talk the same language in the relationship. There is not that initial gap to cover because we can relate in a way that different sex couples may struggle with.

  • Lori Hollander March 16th, 2011 at 8:39 AM #5

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’m glad you and your husband have found what works for you.

  • Lori Hollander March 16th, 2011 at 8:41 AM #6

    Yes, it is a stressful life! If you don’t feel like talking about or listening about the day, find another way to connect. It’s awesome when the relationship can become an oasis from the stress of the world.

  • Lori Hollander March 16th, 2011 at 8:43 AM #7

    Absolutely agree!! It’s all how you say it and in what tone. Often people don’t think they are yelling when their partner perceives that they are. Bob and I say, “Yelling is in the ear of the beholder.”

  • Lori Hollander March 16th, 2011 at 8:47 AM #8

    Very interesting! My husband, Bob and I are in practice together and work with gay and straight couples. We are very big supporters of Marriage Equality. We testified before our local legislature on the recent Marriage Equality bills.
    Thanks for sharing.

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