It seems like a day does not go by in my office without hearing the lament, "He won't tell me how he's feeling!" or "How can I get him to talk to me?" And if I don't hear it in the office, I hear it at home, in my own head.
Likewise, male clients, in my experience, present more of a challenge than female clients because "He won't tell me how he's feeling!" So take comfort women: it isn't you. He won't even tell his therapist how he's feeling.
And of course, the all important disclaimer. Not "all" men fall into this feelings-communication paradigm. Just as not all women are comfortable sharing their feelings.
Its amazes me, though, the variety of ways so many men dodge stating how a distressing incident made them feel. It also amazes me how persistent I am in the unlikely pursuit of extracting such a deeply rooted male taboo.
"That's a thinking statement, Mr. Client. Remember, I'm asking you to focus on how the event made you feel. We're looking for a feelings label."
Occasionally we get there, but pretty frequently we don't and I'm left scratching my head.
On my better days I rely on the work of Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. When I read her book, "You Just Don't Understand," a light bulb bigger tan Dallas lit up. Ah. So that's why.
Tannen studied communication patterns in males and females and concluded, "For males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence. Females, on the other hand, use conversation to negotiate closeness and intimacy; talk is the essence of intimacy, so being best friends means sitting and talking. For boys, activities, doing things together, are central. Just sitting and talking is not an essential part of friendship. They're friends with the boys they do things with."
So often women use language to get closer, to connect, to relate. Men most reliably use language to establish their independence and know-how, to set themselves off from others.
With a fervor akin to a sales rush at Filene's, many women engage in what Tannen calls "troubles talk." Picture yourself having lunch with one of your closest friends. How long does it take you to confide what is bothering you? Before the server brings out the water? We almost can't wait to get at the heart of our troubles.
Now picture your man and his friend. How long does it take for them to get beyond talk of sports, work and lawncare? And what is it about this sports talk, this exchanging of scores and stats. What does this serve? Tannen says it's a form of establishing status and dominance. Here's what I know about the high status team. Here's the player I admire, the team I like, who I think will win. I'm on the side of winners.
So back to the man on the couch. I have to reach for something different. Focus more on what he can do differently, what his plan of action will be. How he's been successful in similar situations in the past. What his strengths are. Let go of the feelings talk, at least until I gain more traction.
And that's what I suggest to many of my women clients (and my slow learning married self). Understand that often, a man's communication style is fundamentally different from ours. More importantly, respect it. Respect that troubles talk and feelings talk isn't something he's going to be good at. Certainly not something he's going to be eager to do.
Years of patience, practice and concrete examples of how you want him to respond to you, these are your best bet (depressing, I know). I've seen brain scan research that supports the notion that the male brain does not have near as many or as rich connections between the language center and the emotional center. So when they get emotional? They don't feel all fired up to talk about it. Often they want to distance from people, get their feelings under control, and then go hit some golf balls. Or mow the lawn. Or pop open a cold beer and watch the game. The Men Are From Mars guy called this "going into his cave." Whatever. He's not letting us in. He doesn't want his feelings on parade.
Ask me how I know this. It took me a long time, and a reading of Tannen, no, several readings of Tannen and a few bangs of the head against the brick wall to finally figure out I may as well have been asking for something in ANSI/ISO SQL programming language. You know how you ask your computer tech friend why you keep getting those virtual memory messages? And then he answers (because it's almost always a "he," isn't it?), you knod in feigned understanding, and then go home and call Computer Geek anyway? Well, its like that. He doesn't "get it." If Tannen's work has merit, and I believe it does (wish she was wrong) he's not going to like it at all if you insist he stumble around in a coversational domain in which he has little competence. In a language he can't establish dominance in. Instead he may just turn the Astros game up louder.
So if you're aiming for more quality talk with your man, start out with conversations he is comfortable with. Ask what he did today at his job. What basketball team he thinks is going to dominate in the NBA championship. How he is going to conquer his nemesis, the grass fungus.
Typically it's you and your women friends that have the need for troubles talk, not him. So help yourself fulfill your need with a receptive audience, your girlfriends, and often. Prioritize get togethers and phone calls. Take walks and go to lunch. Write in your journal. Email. Blog. Blog some more.
For a longer summary of Tannen's book, read here.