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.
Marianne J. Legato, MD, Ph. D. (hon. c.), FACP is an internationally renowned academic, physician, author, lecturer, and pioneer in the field of gender-specific medicine. She is a Professor Emerita of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and an Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Dr. Legato is also the Director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine, which she founded in 2006 as a continuation of her work with The Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University. She received an honorary PhD from the University of Panama in 2015 for her work on the differences between men and women.
At its core, gender-specific medicine is the science of how normal human biology differs between men and women and how the diagnosis and treatment of disease differs as a function of gender. Dr. Legato’s discoveries and those of her colleagues have led to a personalization of medicine that assists doctors worldwide in understanding the difference in normal function of men and women and in their sex-specific experiences of the same diseases.
She began her work in gender-specific medicine by authoring the first book on women and heart disease, The Female Heart: The Truth About Women and Coronary Artery Disease, which won the Blakeslee Award of the American Heart Association in 1992. Because of this research, the cardiovascular community began to include women in clinical trials affirming the fact that the risk factors, symptoms, and treatment of the same disease can be significantly different between the sexes. Convinced that the sex-specific differences in coronary artery disease were not unique, Dr. Legato began a wide-ranging survey of all medical specialties and in 2004, published the first textbook on gender-specific medicine, The Principles of Gender-Specific Medicine. The second edition appeared in 2010 and the third edition, dedicated to explaining how gender impacts biomedical investigation in the genomic era, won the PROSE Award in Clinical Medicine from the Association of American Publishers in 2018. A fourth edition is forthcoming.
She also founded the first scientific journals publishing new studies in the field, The Journal of Gender-Specific Medicine, and a newer version, Gender Medicine, both listed in the Index Medicus of the National Library of Medicine. She has founded a third peer-reviewed, open access journal, Gender and the Genome, which focuses on the impact of biological sex on technology and its effects on human life.
Dr. Legato is the author of multiple works, including: What Women Need to Know (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Eve’s Rib (Harmony Books, 2002), Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget (Rodale, 2005), Why Men Die First (Palgrave, 2008), The International Society for Gender Medicine: History and Highlights (Academic Press, 2017), and most recently, The Plasticity of Sex (Academic Press, 2020). Her books have been translated into 28 languages to date.
As an internationally respected authority on gender medicine, Dr. Legato has chaired symposia and made keynote addresses to world congresses in gender-specific medicine in Berlin, Israel, Italy, Japan, Panama, South Korea, Stockholm, and Vienna. In collaboration with the Menarini Foundation, she is co-chairing a symposium on epigenetics, Sex, Gender and Epigenetics: From Molecule to Bedside, to be held in Spring 2021 in Italy. She maintains one of the only gender-specific private practice in New York City, and she has earned recognition as one of the “Top Doctors in New York.”