Maudlin and Associates ™
Karen Maudlin
Psy.D., CPCC
Kenneth Davison
Psy.D.
Cindy Takiguchi
LCSW
Manette Galván Turner
LCPC
Robert Gregory
Ph.D.
Daniel Doebler
LCPC
Trevor Simpson
LCPC


Mike and Sarah are married. They are both accomplished attorneys who successfully communicate with their clients and colleagues each day. So why can't they talk with each other? And why, once Mike does start to talk, does Sarah unintentionally yet consistently cut him off?

Mike and Sarah are more normal than you think; they're living proof of just how difficult it is for members of the two genders to get on the same wavelength.

The challenge of women talking in a way that makes men want to listen has plagued the race ever since Eve arrived on the scene. Men often feel overwhelmed with information from their wives, and women feel shut out by their husbands. Both men and women come by these communication troubles honestly. It all started years ago in what they each learned in their relationships with dear old Mom.

My Momma Told Me
Men get their first lessons in communication with women when they are boys interacting with their mothers- who generally, although this is changing in the current generation, are the primary caretakers and disciplinarians. As boys proceed through normal development, they become more independent by testing limits and disregarding their mothers. This is natural and necessary. To become his own person, a boy actually learns not to listen. It's hard on mothers, who may overload their sons as they try harder and harder to hang on to that feeling of connectedness. Meanwhile, boys spend more time engaging in activities with other boys that require less verbal communication and more just being together and doing things.

In contrast, adolescent girls separate from their mothers in a verbal way, often launching an all-out verbal offensive. This can be painful at the time, but if all goes well, it results in moms and daughter relating with separate but still connected status. Along the way, young women learn to value cooperation, empathy, and developing and maintaining relationships.

This glaring gender difference is at the root of the communication problem between wives and husbands. Women who are adept at expressing emotions and needs are often frustrated when they find their men are not. Wives often carry an undue sense of responsibility to "get their husbands talking." Because of this underlying pressure they may swamp their spouses with communication attempts, inadvertently following in the path of their mothers-in-law took when their husbands were boys.

These communication differences show up constantly as husbands and wives process information and experiences together in family life. Men typically take a problem-solving approach: "Let's solve the problem. In the process we'll understand each other." Because of this men are more inclined to debate or challenge information from their wives. They're not being intentionally antagonistic; they're merely attempting to explore the issues.

But when a woman brings up a subject or area of conflict, her primary desire is to be heard and understood. She's most concerned about the relationship. She wants to see that her comments and ideas are well received, and then the problem-solving can begin: "Understand me first, then help me solve the problem."

Jumping Across the Gender Gap

Obviously, both husbands and wives start out with good intentions but get increasingly frustrated as their wavelengths get crossed. A few pointers may help you get on your spouse's wavelength.

TIPS FOR WOMEN

1. Stick to one topic at a time. Women tend to look for connections, so each issue may seem related to another. But only one topic can be effectively discussed at a time.

2. Discover and state directly how you feel and what you want. Women are trained to look out for other people's needs and not their own. Often women need to stop and think hard to answer the question "What do I want and need?"-preferably before starting a discussion with their husbands. More often than not, wives figure out their needs verbally while reviewing several topics out loud with their husbands. Unfortunately this process tends to overwhelm husbands with too much information. By the time a woman's need is clear to her, she's lost her listener.

3. Be selective. Give some thought to which issues are important, at what time to discuss them, and to what extent (delete unimportant details). More is not better.

4. Slow down. Women usually talk faster, interrupt more and talk over their husband's words. Give him time to collect and share his thoughts.

5. Don't assume bad motives- that because he doesn't know what he feels, or doesn't share what he feels, that he's trying to hurt you. Often men can't identify their feelings as quickly as women, and once they do they might be unsure of how to communicate them. Listen to yourself: If you sound like a nagging mother to you, you probably sound that way to him.

6. Avoid the martyr syndrome. Don't just assume you have to bend to your husband's ideas or wishes without thinking it through yourself and communicating with him. He may not expect such martyrdom of you. It usually isn't necessary to give so much that you have nothing left.

TIPS FOR MEN

1. Cherish your wife. Express the many thoughts and feelings you have about her. Even a simple "I'm totally exasperated with work, but it's great to see your face at the end of the day" can make a huge difference. Be affectionate when you appreciate something she does.

2. Enjoy the freedom. Look at this relationship as an opportunity to extend the freedom you received from separating from your mother into bonding with your wife.

3. Take the initiative. Most wives will fall over with delight when a husband says, "I want to talk to you." Discuss your expectations regarding your relationship. Men frequently have great solutions but don't feel confident expressing them.

4. Talk to your wife. Some men find it easier if "talk time" is scheduled- say, an hour of uninterrupted time once a week. This way they dont' have to wait for inspiration to check in with their wives, and they don't need to feel guilty that it's not happening.

5. Lower the defenses. Often husbands become defensive due to their own sense that they are not as verbally skilled as their wives or because of the way their wives approach communication. Or, when you were growing up, you may just have learned too well not to listen. If you find yourself becoming defensive, try instead to relax for a moment and hear your wife's concern. This is hard to do, but when your wife knows that you care about how she feels, she is more likely to listen to you and your ideas for resolveing a situation.

6. Take time out. If you're too upset or need time to sort out your feelings, say so, and take time to collect your thoughts. Tell your wife, "I need a break to think this through; let's talk tomorrow at 6:00." Your commitment to resolve the issue will satifsy your wife, and she will probably respect your expressed need for space.

If you and your spouse keep getting stuck as you work on communicating, don't hesitate to seek professional help from a licensed marriage and family therapist. But whatever happens, agree to keep talking. It's a great day when two people really connect. It's a goal worth working toward.

Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist who specializes in marriage and family therapy. She is in private practice in the Chicago area.