Say What You Mean
We know that men find it more difficult to decode nonverbal expressions than women do, especially those on the female face. Unfortunately, women tend to use a lot of these nonverbal signs to communicate. This can lead to a situation that both parties find very frustrating. You may feel that your needs are being ignored, while he is exasperated by the subtlety of your cues.
So say what you’re thinking – out loud! I have found that it helps a great deal to verbalize what I need, even when I feel the signals that I’m sending are crystal clear. Saying “I’ve had a really terrible day” works better than a hangdog look. Instead of casting a reproachful or injured glance after a man aims a painful barb my way, I try to say something like, “that remark really hurt. Did you mean it?” Often, the response I get is a look of real surprise – more evidence that he wasn’t ignoring my feelings but was just unaware of them.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of making it clear – verbally – when you’d like something or if something is bothering you. If he asks you what’s wrong and you say “nothing”, chances are very good that he’s going to believe you. That phrase is a conversation ender, like putting crime scene tape around what’s bothering you. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care; in fact, it might mean the exact opposite. When men are upset, they tend to go at it alone; the result is that they will respect your implicit instruction to leave you alone.
What message is it that we’re really sending when we say that nothing is wrong, even when something clearly is? One possible interpretation stopped me short when I tried to shut my daughter out after an upsetting day seeing patients. “You’re not really saying that nothing’s wrong”, she said, “you’re just saying that I can’t help you”. She was right. Lost in my own emotional turmoil, I had unknowingly cast her as yet another irritant, something much more hurtful (and untrue) than I intended. And even though she’s not a doctor, talking about the intricacies of a particularly frustrating case that night did help me tremendously.
If you genuinely can’t talk about something at that particular moment, say that too. “I’ve just received some very upsetting news, and I’m too devastated to talk about it right now, but I want your consolation and advice later. Can we talk about it at dinner?”
If you begin by doing this, I believe that you’ll notice a considerable difference in the quality of your communication with your partner, almost immediately – and a long-term benefit as well. There’s a great deal of comfort and security in communicating with someone who saying what they mean and not hiding anything up their sleeve. After a while, your partner will begin to trust that you say what you mean, and he’ll relax, because he doesn’t have to worry all the time that he’s missing or misreading something.
Remember my friend John, the one who asks if I have time to talk about when he calls? He also does me the tremendous service of telling me what he needs my urgent attention on those rare occasions when he does. I never have to hope I’m reading the tone of his voice correctly, because his verbal communication is reliable. It’s yet another reason why I am always happy to hear his voice on the other end of the line. Women tell me, “I don’t want to have to ask him to unload the dishwasher. I want him to see that I’m tired and offer”. Of course, it’s lovely when the people in our lives anticipate our needs and go out of their way to do something special – even if it’s a simple gesture, like making an unasked-for a cup of tea. But expecting it without getting going to the trouble of making our needs known is nothing more than setting a trap.
Asking for what we need and hope for from a beloved partner is far more effective than what I call the global negative: “you never listen when I talk” or “you don’t care about how I feel”. As tempting as it might be to make an accusation like that, it only makes the accused feel like he can’t succeed no matter how he tries. It’ll be easier on both if you just ask him to put the dishes away.
Dr. Marianne Legato, Professor Emerita of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University is an internationally known academic physician, author, lecturer, and specialist in gender-specific medicine. She is founding member of the International Society for Gender Medicine and also the founder and director of The Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University and its next iteration, The Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine. These enterprises are the first collaborations between academic medicine and the private sector focused solely on gender-specific medicine: the science of how normal human biology differs between men and women and of how the diagnosis and treatment of disease differs as a function of gender and sex. Her ground breaking textbook on Gender-and Sex Specific Medicine has been published in 2017 in the 3rd edition.
She has published extensively on Gender and Sex Specific Medicine, both scientifically and for the lay public. She is also the founding editor of the journal Gender Medicine, and the Journal Gender and Genome, published for the scientific community. In 1992, Dr. Legato won the American Heart Association’s Blakeslee Award for the best book written for the lay public on cardiovascular disease. She is a practicing internist in New York City and has been listed each year in New York Magazine’s “Best Doctors” since the feature’s inception in 1993.