A local Baltimore magazine published an article I submitted this week, entitled “How to be Married to a Man.” I highly recommend it for all people married to men. I know there’s an awful lot of you out there. Even if you don’t need couples counseling, I am hopeful these tips will help you out! Reprinted below with permission:
How to Be Married to a Man
You may be thinking, that I, as a man, am not the right person to be writing this article. After all, I clearly have very little experience being married to a man. However, it so happens that I have very close connections with someone who does have lots of experience in this area, and together we have collected some relevant sociological data.
The points I will share with you are grounded in the assumption that in general, men and women have dissimilar ways of doing many, many things. (I know that not all men do it “the man way” and not all women do it “the woman way” – we’re talking in general here.) Here, then, are a few tips for wives who are trying to survive and thrive through the experience of being married to a man:
1. If you don’t want him to solve the problem you are about to describe, tell him so beforehand.
Before I got married, I had been clearly taught that women often like to talk about their problems without having anyone jump in to solve them. Thus it was quite surprising to me when, after stepping into my role as husband, I would do precisely that – jump in to solve my wife’s problems right in the middle of her telling them to me. This is actually a reaction that is hardwired into many men, myself included. So my wife and I, after some time and much frustration, came to the following agreement: if she wants to share a problem with me and does not want me to solve it, she says before beginning, “I’m just saying…” That is our code for me to shut off the problem-solving mechanisms and engage the empathy apparatus in my brain (which really is quite effective, once the problem-solving machinery is on break). Not only does my wife proceed to get what she needs from me – a listening ear, empathy, affection – but I am relieved from the internal pressure that my brain puts on me to immediately start thinking of possible solutions. Truth be told, it’s very freeing.
This prefatory code is actually needed even though I already know that she probably just wants me clam up and listen. Apparently possessing the general knowledge is not enough for me to overcome my deep-seated male tendencies; an active intervention is needed.
You may be thinking, “Why do I have to do that? Can’t he just get it?” It’s a fair question. But the answer is no. He cannot. As a man, your husband is programmed to take care of you. In a man’s world, that means fixing your problems. “Just listening” is not a way that a man, untrained, identifies as taking care of someone else. As soon as you hint towards some kind of difficulty, his gears begin turning furiously to make the difficulty go away. Because he loves you.
To change that deep programming is nearly impossible. You can override it with a direct command, but probably not by subtle hints or wishful thinking. Yes, it costs you an extra couple words. I think it’s probably a worthwhile trade-off.
2. Recognize that he does not care if it’s pretty.
I cannot tell you how many times my wife has asked me to bring some fancy dish from the kitchen to the table and has reacted with horror when I brought it in the tin pan in which it was sitting on the stove. I understand somewhere deep in the recesses of my male brain that this is somehow not “pretty” or “aesthetic,” but it just doesn’t progress into any kind of real-world action (unless there are specific instructions, which is an entirely different topic in male-female relations).
The fact of the matter is, most men wouldn’t recognize an inanimate object as pretty if it bit them on the nose. And the truth is they really don’t care. I am much happier bringing the brisket out in a tin pan than trying to lay it out attractively on the correct serving plate because that is 90 fewer seconds until that beef is in my gut (see tip #3). Men do not generally seek aesthetics. Men seek functionality. I once tried storing a snowbrush for my car on a ledge above the coat closet. It came down minutes later on the orders of my wife, barred from that location as an “eyesore.” I really had no counterclaim; it was an eyesore. But boy, what a practical place to store it! Immediate access, perfect fit, and what else was I going to put there anyway? That’s how men think.
So what’s the upshot? First of all, if you are buying something new, say, a lazy susan, don’t try to justify the purchase to him by explaining how it looks just right on the table, or how it goes perfectly with your dish set, or how it’s really fashionable these days. Explain to him how functional it is: it increases space on the table; it distributes food more efficiently; perhaps most importantly, it will aid in getting food into his gut more quickly. You are much more likely to succeed with such an approach.
Secondly, in the case where functionality can definitely not be called upon – such as in the case of a pair of brown boots that are exactly like your black ones except they’re brown – it still doesn’t pay to try to convince him that your wardrobe had been missing something and that this was exactly what was needed. Rather, you are probably best off with the following approach: just tell him it makes you happy and you appreciate him buying it for you (even if he didn’t). Do not try to explain to him why it makes sense, because to him it never will. However, it is hopefully the case that the value of making you happydoes make sense to him. Most men want to make their wives happy. If you frame it as such, without trying to convince him of the logic of matching boots, you have a much better chance of success. (Note: this approach is not going to work if the boots cost $400 and you are already under financial strain and little Timmy needs braces. You need to be sure that the purchase/request is reasonable, that this is not happening every week, etc.) This is true for buying matching boots, replacing old carpeting, arranging furniture, hanging pictures, setting the table, and many other applications.
3. Feed him.
A hungry man is a cranky man. If you want him to be able to override his problem-solving circuitry or subdue his misgivings about those boots, he is going to need the mental fuel to do it. However – this is a bit tricky – he may not realize it himself. It will be easier for him to give you what you need if his system is well-oiled, but many men don’t have a good gauge (or they forget to look at it). You should be that gauge and make sure that he has nutritious, satisfying food to power his system. Often if he is in a vaguely grumpy mood, you can resolve it entirely by feeding the poor beast.
There is a deeper function of this strategy as well: because the average man likes food so much, and because it is so vital to his proper functioning as a sensitive and caring person, it is profoundly meaningful to him when you provide it for him, and, even more than that, when you take responsibility for providing it to him. He probably doesn’t take nearly as good care of himself as you would. He might grab an instant coffee and a cereal bar for breakfast; you can oatmeal, eggs, or whatever it is you know he likes. You can be the First Officer of his stomach. (My wife was designated Head Lunch Lady on our 8thdate and has filled that role ever since.) There is nothing that conveys to a man the sense that he is loved more than a hot dinner waiting for him when he comes home. For women who work and can’t pull this off, a plate in the refrigerator that is prepared and ready to pop in the microwave does the trick just as well. (Note that it has to be right in the very front of the fridge. You know he’s not going to find it otherwise.)
This is obviously not a comprehensive manual for spouses of men. It’s just a starter guide with a few tips to help you bridge the gender gap and maybe get you thinking about other ways in which you can be effective in managing the man in your life. I wish you luck in this challenging endeavor, and I hope that even as you attempt to overcome the hurdles that present themselves, you can do it with a bit of a smile.