The Listening Man

Winner: 2014’s Blog of the Year #9

How do I get my husband to listen to me? Every time we “talk,” before I’ve even finished my thought he’s interrupting me guessing what I mean (and he’s usually wrong). And then every single time he tells me that the way I feel about something is wrong. I’m tired of being wrong and now I’m finding myself attracted to a guy at work. He’s overweight he’s not very good looking but he listens to me. My co-workers think I’m crazy to be attracted to this other guy because my husband is a very good-looking successful guy but I don’t even feel like my husband even really sees me. Am I crazy? What should I do?

signed,
Unheard

319 Relax and Succeed - A woman can't change a manDear Unheard,

Let’s start off with this: no. You’re not crazy. But you’re also not alone. When it comes to women’s concerns about their marriages this would be one of the top three complaints I hear in my practice. If it makes you feel any better for his prospects for change; I myself was this husband at one time. Here’s hoping yours doesn’t need the divorce I did before he clues in.

I can tell you that he’s not working against you from his perspective. There is an innocence in your husband’s actions, as frustrating as they might be. Men are solvers. We’re task-oriented. We see a challenge, overcome it and move on to the next one. So when a wife brings up a concern, a male ego will interpret this as a request for help—even if you explicitly state it is not.

I’m speaking in generalities here but most men will only listen to the “problem” up until they feel like they understand it and then they do one of two things: in the first they’ll conclude that from their perspective you are wrong and then they’ll think they can debate you out of your feelings. They might actually have some success at that if they were leading you in a good direction, but to be successful at that they would have to listen and since not-listening is why we’re here….

319 Relax and Succeed - Most people do not listenIn the second case the man does agree there’s an issue, but their response will be to immediately begin to apply their own problem-solving techniques to the task. These involve using their skills and working around their dislikes or their fears and the end they seek will be weighed by their values. If you’re married a lot of those things will overlap. But never all of them. And so your feeling of being crushed or having no space is common because you’re not actually in your marriage, your husband is married to himself and you’re a stand-in.

It gets to the point where many women’s views are routinely dismissed to the point where the women are passengers in a relationship bus driven by their partner. His passengers might suggest another route, but he won’t take those suggestions seriously simply because—from his perspective—he’s the driver and he’s on a route. Where to go is obvious and logical from his perspective. That’s why he’s so dismissive of your views. He earnestly doesn’t see them as valid when applied against his logic.

The only part he’s forgetting is that there’s also a logic to your psyche. That his views aren’t right–they’re just his. He’s not aware that we’re all psycho-logical beings with our own set of perspectives, values and insights, so he’s not taking your values into proper account. He’ll believe in an external, objective reality.

319 Relax and Succeed - The art of listeningYour attraction to the man at work is entirely logical. If you’re psychologically crushed by your husbands inability to permit and respect your opinions, then anyone who makes room for them will almost draw you toward them like a vacuum. You have pressure in your relationship and the guy at work is offering space. Space for you to be. Not be a part of what he’s doing. Just room to be yourself. If your opinion is always seen as invalid or wrong you can’t be yourself.

I’m not sure how old you are but there are pretty common patterns of this throughout the western world. Women are taught by advertising and past culture to beg for acceptance and to base that on their appearance and their charm but only recently on their capability. So even strong women will have been raised in an environment which strongly encourages them to be more passive peacemakers. Men on the other hand are taught to take charge, analyze and respond. A good example of this is coaching.

I heard an interview years ago with four Olympic level coaches who also worked in professional sports leagues. All had coached men and women at the highest levels. Two of the coaches were women and two were men. What all four agreed on was that there exists a key difference in male and female dressing rooms.

319 Relax and Succeed - You can lead a manAll of them agreed that for a woman to call another woman out in the dressing room would almost certainly undo the entire team. It would create so many hurt feelings, so much politics, and worse it would create “sides” to the issue which means half the team is actively working against their own team.

In a male dressing room, again all four coaches agreed it was common and expected that players were seen as having direct control over their own play even in a team situation. So if a defenseman feels his winger isn’t checking his man, then he’ll yell at him in the dressing room and tell him to do so. And that generally won’t disrupt the dressing room, it will make it tighter. People will feel that each individual is being held to account and because they see their play as theirs and not the teams, they’re comfortable with that. The problem in your marriage is that your husband is attempting to coach you rather than being on a team with you.

Men are particularly worse for this when they’re young. I remember seeing a younger friend and her boyfriend at a Farmer’s Market. She would gleefully approach a piece of art and want to discuss its qualities and her boyfriend would break her heart by dismissing the entire experience with his opinion as to its dollar value. Obviously curators don’t organize art galleries by price or value-for-dollar but he couldn’t see that. He thought the value is what should be analyzed, not the beauty. And in doing that calculation his girlfriend found him a little less interesting and attractive.

319 Relax and Succeed - I have learned a great dealI wish I had better news for you, but how this usually goes is that you quietly build up resentment-arguments in your head until you start actually imagining yourself being with the guy at work instead. Even if he would end up doing the same male thing, he would at least initially appear better because when he’s courting he needs to listen so he can learn what to do. Once he feels he’s sure of what to do, that’s when things turn bad.

You don’t want to be changing your partner into what you want or you’re just doing the same thing he is. The women that succeed at this are those who are in some way able to communicate the issue to their partner in a profound way. Many times it’s someone like me that gets hired to make this clarification and to communicate the gravitas of it all.

If the man can grasp this subtle difference in perspectives then many are actually quite quick and responsive because they really do love their wives. But he can’t get yelled or cried into that state. Men largely work with logic, so you need a way to communicate the idea so that he can appreciate its value to him personally.

319 Relax and Succeed - Sometimes we need someoneEither you or someone you hire will get this idea across, or you’ll slowly drift toward a listener somewhere in your life, or you will try a separation or go straight to divorce. But until there is some upside or downside that will suitably motivate your husband to look more closely at how his assumptions are crushing his spouse, I’m afraid you shouldn’t expect this situation to change.

I hope he’s not like me and that he doesn’t need to get divorced to learn. But even if you have to do that, it’s not like there’s only one road to happiness in life. My ex wife is now married to the ex of a woman I know and she speaks very highly of him and they apparently have a wonderful family.

For my part, I’m thrilled she found someone who’s behaved more respectfully and that she’s happy. And it’s not like my life’s been bad either—I can’t even find a life I’d trade for I like my own so much. And if it makes you feel any better, I’m truly grateful to my wife for leaving me. I’m so sorry I put her through certain anguish before she had to make that decision, but in the end it lead to better things for both of us and every woman after her benefitted greatly. However it unfolds, I wish you the very same good fortune.

peace and a hug. s

Scott McPherson is a writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and nonprofit organizations around the world.

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