By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.
In the movie The Prince of Tides there was a particular scene that sticks out in my memory. The adult son, played by Nick Nolte, is standing on a pier with his aging, alcoholic father, who is baiting a fishhook. “You know, I love you,” Hurt says to his father. Without looking up, the father replies after a brief pause, “The Padres beat the Dodgers last night. Did you know that?” He then furtively raises his eyes from the task of preparing the hook to glance at Hurt in a cryptic fashion. Women hearing that line might be inclined to say, “He’s unable to communicate with his son.” Men, on the other hand, see through the disguise. They know the father is communicating, “I love you, too.”
This kind of communication, however, is typically one of the things that drive women crazy about men. If a daughter was professing her love for her mother, the communication between the two would most likely be more responsive and exude a feeling tone that was rich, if not effusive, with emotion-laden expression. The more obscure brand of communication that men are noted for is what often gives women the impression that men are not good communicators and are not in touch with their feelings.
What men seem to intrinsically know, however, is the fact that even when they are talking about sports, business, politics or women they are also sharing feelings. They just do it in code or through actions.
Linguist, Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., in her book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, presented ground-breaking research confirming what we suspected all along, which is that men and women have innately different communication styles. Her thesis is that men engage the world as individuals in a hierarchical social order in which they are either one-up or one-down. She states, “In this world, conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others’ attempts to put them down and push them around. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.”
If we trace male behavior back 40,000 years when the masculine societal role was more clear-cut, men were hard-wired to be warriors and hunters. Their communication styles needed to be quick, to-the-point and decisive. Self-preservation and basic survival demanded that men cut off their emotions and think, plan, strategize and take action. Men needed to be wily and cunning and intimately connected to their animal instinct. Since a man is genetically driven by his provider-protector mode, he tends to be non-emotional. He does this so that he can focus on the problem, determine what’s wrong, figure out if it’s a threat that has to be dealt with, and then find a way to deal with it. He doesn’t want to be caught with his back to the door. He wants to stay free and have a clear view so he can determine what moves he has to make. His sense of personal independence, therefore, is held in the highest regard.
Tannen contrasts the masculine scenario with information that suggests that women tend to approach the world as individuals in a network of connections. “In this world,” she states, “conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. They try to protect themselves from others’ attempts to push them away. Life, then, is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation. Though there are hierarchies in this world too, they are hierarchies more of friendship than of power and accomplishment.”
Women’s roles have historically been based on their capacity for giving birth, raising children and homemaking. Their primal instinct is to sit on the nest while men’s primal instinct is to circle the nest. The nesting instinct combined with the capacity for child rearing sets women up to be natural face-to-face communicators. The satisfaction of basic needs is more readily attained through intimate exchange. Men tend to be programmed to survey and surmise from a distance. Their natural inclination is to follow objects moving through space and make solitary and often crucial decisions regarding what they see. Their communication process with others is a more shoulder-to-shoulder approach as they scan the horizon and assess the situation. Women are therefore predisposed for interdependent, collaborative relating and men are geared-up for independent, isolated decision-making.
Communication between men and women is a continual balancing act, juggling the conflicting needs for intimacy and independence. If women speak and hear a language of connection and intimacy, while men speak and hear a language of status and independence, then communication between men and women can truly seem like they are speaking entirely different languages as suggested by John Gray in his book, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.
In our contemporary culture the demands of survival have shifted requiring men and women to adapt to an ever-changing role structure. More and more women are working outside the home sharing the provider responsibilities with men while more men are improving their parenting skills and sharing the duties of homemaking. This raises the expectations that through shared experiences men and women are going to have an easier time communicating. It has been my observation, however, that the only thing that has been raised is the stakes. The external stresses on men and women have dramatically increased, putting more internal pressure on them to communicate even more efficiently and effectively. The difficulty is that communication seems to be at an all-time low judging from the high divorce rate and manifest evidence that couples appear increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of their relationships.
In my psychotherapy practice with couples I find myself constantly called on to help men and women comprehend and accept their different communication styles. It is important that the individuals realize that because they have unique ways of conversing it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are incompatible. I attempt to help couples build a bridge to span their different emotional languages. It’s a bridge that allows them to cross from their own ends at different rates and to meet somewhere over the chasm that separates them.
When I evaluate a couple’s capacity for communication, the first thing that I assess is the degree of safety that exists between them. I believe that if they can feel safe with each other, then they can also be vulnerable with each other. Vulnerability essentially means capability of being wounded. Each individual needs to feel safe to be open, trusting that the other will not wound him or her. This sets the stage for intimate contact. True intimacy therefore stems from a couple’s ability to be authentically honest and vulnerable with each other in a safe environment.
The language of intimacy expresses, “We’re close and the same.” The essential element providing connection here is symmetry. The symmetry of connection is what creates the presence of community or the feeling that, “We are in this together, struggling for the same thing…closeness.” This understanding allows us to relax into the realization that, “Even though we are different and have unique ways of expressing ourselves, we want the same thing.” This shared awareness reinforces the feeling of mutuality, which is the basis or foundation for satisfying communication.