Rebecca Hirsch, AMFT
Symmetry Counseling Chicago
I will often see couples who are attending couples therapy to work on their communication. While many couples have deeply rooted patterns in how they communicate that are unhealthy and ineffective, many miscommunications and conflicts stem from gender differences in communication. Typically, not always, men are problem-solvers while women prefer validation and empathy.
Let me paint a picture that may seem all too familiar to you. A woman is getting ready to go out and is trying on different outfits to see which one looks and feels best. We all have those days when nothing seems to look good on us, and we aren’t feeling as confident as we would like in our appearance. She may say to her partner, “I feel like nothing looks good on me tonight!” or she may comment on her figure not being where she’d like it to be. Men, being the problem-solvers they are, will want to provide feedback on how to get rid of the problem, such as by saying “Why don’t you go on a diet?” or “Come to the gym with me this week”. A man may also want to try to fix his partner’s mood and make her feel better by saying, “You always look beautiful.” Often times, neither of these answers will satisfy the woman nor make her feel better. This is a perfect example of a man seeing his partner in distress and wanting to help her by problem solving for her. However, what a woman is often craving is validation and empathy. As humorous as it may sound, in this situation, a response a woman may like is, “I was feeling the same way last week! I hate it when my clothes aren’t fitting right.”
While this example may be humorous and may simplify the issue, I often see communication issues that stem from differences in communication when it comes to problem solving vs. wanting validating and empathy. In the example above, the man may feel frustrated that he cannot provide the answers and solution that his partner needs. It can easily escalate due to him feeling invalidated and that his solution to the issue was not good enough or heard. On the other hand, a woman in this situation may feel unheard and hurt. When a couple like this enters therapy, I will often hear someone say, “I never feel heard”, or “I don’t feel like my opinion matters at all.” While neither partner is meaning to communicate that implicit message, it is often the message that the partner is receiving, and will therefore react accordingly.
A great way to start to change this dynamic is to be curious with your partner. When you feel yourself start to problem-solve when you partner gets home from work and has had a bad day, slow down and ask yourself, “Does my partner need me to help brainstorm solutions to their problem, or are they seeking something else from me?” Since none of us are mind-readers, and nor should we be, an excellent way to respond to your distressed partner is, “I am sorry you are so stressed, is there anything I can do to be helpful?” This kind of response will allow the distressed partner to vocalize what they need from their partner, whether it is problem-solving, receiving empathy and validation, or they may even prefer to drop the subject and move on. Regardless, slowing down and asking your partner about their needs is a good habit to practice. By practicing this, it will also allow space to directly ask for what you need. The woman in the above example could say, “I am feeling really down about my appearance today. I just need you to listen and acknowledge that this is stressful for me.”
Unhealthy communication is one of the top reasons that couples attend counseling together. While most issues are much more complex and nuanced than the above example, this dynamic is often played out in day-to-day miscommunications and conflicts. If you and your partner are struggling communicating, it may be helpful to try couples therapy and address the issues head-on. Contact Symmetry Counseling Chicago if you and your partner are interested in developing healthier communication by consulting with a couples therapist.