Understanding Men

A lot of contradictory science has resulted in a lot of contradictory books and articles about men. You could spend a lot of time researching the subject. I believe what you are about to read will take you a long way in understanding men.

But first, a warning. We have to talk here in generalizations about men, and you aren’t married to men. You are married to one particular man, and not everything I write will apply to him. Every man has a lifetime of different experiences that has made him what he is today – a unique individual.

Understanding men should not be a game of chance. Discuss these generalities with your husband to understand him better

You have to decide: for anything you read, does he fit that description? It may be spot-on, close to, similar to, or absolutely nothing like him. I can only talk here about the general traits and tendencies of average American men, though they vary greatly in every conceivable way.

You will also read generalizations about yourself. And as you know, there are all kinds of women out there, too.

So our task here is not so overwhelming. You don’t need to figure out all men, just your man.

The Male Brain and Emotion

The first thing to know in understanding men is that the male brain is different from the female brain. It has all the same structures in all the same places. But the wiring is different. Men have fewer neural (nerve) connections between the left and right sides of the brain, which may be why men process emotion differently.

However, it doesn’t start out that way. The brains of baby boys and girls are remarkably similar. They change over time. [1]

Genetics, environment, and cultural upbringing all play a part in this change. [2] Brain science is not yet able to determine which causes what, but has demonstrated that men and women differ in the workings of our brains during emotional experience and memory formation by the time we are adults.

When it comes to experiencing emotion, women engage the brain’s emotional system more readily than men. Men rely more on recall of past emotional experiences associated with factual events or objects when evaluating current emotional experiences. [3]

The most fascinating brain fact I found, however, does not distinguish between the sexes: Emotion is required for the proper functioning of reasoning. Just as too much emotion impedes clear thinking, so does too little. The reason this is so is not known, but neurologists found that people who suffered damage to areas of the brain having to do with certain emotions also lost the ability to make rationally personal and social
decisions. [4]

Because of this, and because of the pervasiveness of emotion in our experiences, the power of reasoning over emotion is often modest. [5]

So, the human brain is marvelously complex and varied. Life experiences and cultural upbringing from infancy to adulthood play a large role in shaping the brain, and in shaping it in gendered ways.

Growing Up Male & Female

Childhood has a great impact on how we are as adults. This is a key point in understanding men (as well as women). We have all learned patterns of behavior that make us acceptable males and females. This goes beyond just sex roles.

It begins at birth with the names we are given and the clothes we are put into. Parents describe their babies differently, according to sex. For example, newborns are more likely to be described by their parents as delicate if they are girls and firmer if they are boys, even when having the same length, weight, heart rate, reflex, etc.

And parents treat their babies differently, too. Fathers rate baby girls as cuddlier, and mothers rate their baby sons as cuddlier. While still in the hospital, mothers breastfeed their newborn sons more, but talk more to their daughters.

In a study of motor development, mothers rated their baby sons as more able to crawl down steeper slopes. But girls were able to crawl down equally steep slopes. In fact, the baby girls were more willing than boys to try even steeper slopes.[6]

Thus, we are perceived differently by others according to gender from the beginning.

Early on, we identify ourselves by sex, define the genders as having certain traits, and assign gender to objects. What children see as male have attributes adults would call dangerous, angular or rough. What they see as female adults describe as happy, soft or graceful. Children as young as 3 identify an angry-looking character as male.[7]

Though living on the same planet, we grow up in different, gendered worlds.
So, from very young ages, we identify more and more with our own sex, and associate and regulate our behavior based on gender, along with our needs and motivations. At the same time, we avoid and learn less about what doesn’t fit our gender. And so we slip into different worlds. Women’s lack of understanding men and men’s lack of understanding women has been a lifelong process.

As described in Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, boys are taught to live in a world where the emphasis is on status, while with girls the emphasis is on connection.[8]

Status is characterized by independence, difference, hierarchy, competition, impersonal information, power, one-upmanship.

Connection is characterized by intimacy, community, solidarity, closeness, personal information, consultation, consensus, rapport, friendship, sameness, interdependence.

Both sexes want both status and connection, and individually we want them in varying degrees. But we go about getting them in different ways. Look at how children play.

Girls tend to play in small groups or in pairs with a “best friend.” Everyone gets a turn at play, which usually does not involve winners and losers. They often just sit and talk, and are more concerned with being liked and connected. Status is achieved very subtly and is not the primary focus of their play.

Boys’ play is very different. It tends to be more organized, with leaders and rules, winners and losers. They jockey for status by giving and resisting orders, and telling stories or jokes. They engage in one-upmanship with boasting. Connection is achieved through acceptance of the friendship hierarchy that forms.

The merging of a couple's lives is really a collision of different and gendered worlds

Having been raised with the different motivations of connection and status, the sexes can interpret the same event or situation differently. Recognizing these contrasting worlds of connection and of status doesn’t make them vanish. On the contrary, recognizing them helps us understand where others are “coming from.”

As we grow into adults, one sex’s gendered ways become ever more mysterious to the opposite sex. Going into marriage we feel happy at the merging of our lives without realizing that it is a collision of two different worlds. Most couples, lacking this realization, judge each other by their own gendered standards. This explains why so many marriages are troubled and the divorce rate so high.

So, understanding men, and your husband in particular, is your best tool for bringing your worlds closer together and fixing your marriage. Let’s get into some particulars.

Men and Seeking Help

One of the things males have learned about independence is to not ask for help. Relying on others frames them as being “one-down.” So men seek help less often than women whether it is a physical problem like substance abuse, or a psychological problem like depression. In fact, in the matter of depression, men are very unlikely to seek treatment. And men ask fewer questions than women when they do seek help. [9]

But “men don’t ask for help” is a very broad and general statement, and we know that it is not always true. Men who don’t generally seek help actually will when, among other things, a situation can be interpreted in such a way that it is okay to do so. That is to say, they seek help when it would be what other males would do.

While you may think that it is silly of men to behave that way, remember that women behave in similar ways. For example, many women think it is unfeminine to talk about their accomplishments. They look upon it as boasting, seeking status, engaging in one-upmanship. These are “male” traits. But there are situations where recounting one’s successes is okay, because other women would do the same, such as in a job interview or in encouraging teen girls to set goals.

For both sexes it comes down to this: we regulate our behavior based on what we have learned and believe is appropriate for our genders. And we don’t understand why the opposite sex behaves in certain ways simply because we haven’t really learned what it means to be the gender we aren’t.

Researchers Michael Addis and James Mahalik suggest that five basic social-psychological processes are at work in men in certain help-seeking situations:

  • Is the problem “normal?” That is, would other men seek help in this situation?
  • Does the problem reflect on oneself in some way? For example, if a man is a professor, would seeking help call his intelligence into question?
  • Could help be offered in return? For example, if a man gets help from his neighbor to fix his car, would he have the opportunity at some later time to help fix the neighbor’s car?
  • What will be the reactions of relatives, friends, and other men of importance in his social network to his seeking help?
  • Will seeking help appear as a loss of control to the one seeking help? How will he view himself? What is the risk to his self-image in relation to the help he might receive?

Understanding men in the context of their getting help for marital problems means knowing that men have more to overcome initially than women do. Women have learned from very young ages that it is okay for them to talk about problems and get advice from others. Men haven’t.

The Meanings of Talk

For men, conversation is more about impersonal information, and getting and keeping attention, whether by demonstrating knowledge or by story/joke telling. It has a feeling akin to public speaking. As Deborah Tannen says, “For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order.” [10]

For women, conversation is more about personal information that creates interaction, connection, and involvement. It has a feeling akin to private speaking, even when in a public speaking situation.

At work, at a party, at bowling or a ball game talk is more impersonal, so men will talk more. But in the privacy of the home, talk is more personal and so men naturally talk less.

Wives tend to get frustrated trying to get their husbands to talk. Even idly asking, “Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout?” gets little response. That is because lots of men simply judge their passing thoughts as not having the importance or significance to justify talking about them, as not worth verbalizing. Men don’t have the same motivations as women do for talking.

When a husband isn’t speaking, it is likely because he has no information that he thinks he needs to tell his wife. But without conversation, she feels a lack of connection, a loss of intimacy, or a loss of his interest in her. Her remedy is to talk.

Without recognizing the differing meanings of conversation, and without recognizing each other’s needs, the relationship begins a downward spiral, creating distance between husband and wife.

Styles of Talk

This same downward spiral in a relationship can also begin with not understanding men’s and women’s different conversational styles. We don’t recognize them because males and females have grown up in different, gendered worlds. The difficulty in conversing comes in trying to interpret each other’s meaning or intent through the critical lens of our own styles. [11]

One example of a conflict of conversational styles is when you talk about problems that come with some sort of emotional upset. When you begin talking, you are not really in a problem-solving frame of mind. You’re actually trying to figure out your emotions. [12] What you are looking for is connection and understanding. In talking to your husband, you want to know that he understands your feelings.

What you may not realize that talking about a problem, emotional or otherwise, seems to him like an invitation to offer advice. When anyone mentions a problem to a man, it is his natural inclination to think that person is looking for a solution. And in offering a solution, he honestly believes he is being supportive.

Remember that he is filtering everything you say through the lens of his upbringing, experiences and conversational style. Which is what you do, too.

Here is another, and more specific, example. A couple is going out to dinner, and the man tells his wife, “Be ready by 7:30.” The way he talks, he always seems to be telling her what to do, and she resents it. She feels this is another one of his attempts to control her.

Many women will agree. He isn’t asking, and he isn’t looking for agreement on when they should leave, which is true. But, is he trying to run her life? Through lifelong conditioning of speaking and listening in a certain manner to gain connection, many women do not feel that the way he talks sounds like he is trying to connect with her. It does sound like control.

(Some men do try to control women, and I don’t minimize that fact. Domination has roots in communication. But it also has roots elsewhere, and so will be dealt with separately. This example is not attempting to deal with that subject.)

Many men, however, see the man’s intent differently. In his mind, the man is only giving his wife information that will make the evening run smoother. He is not intending to exert control over his wife, but does not see a need for a long-winded explanation: “The dinner reservation is for 8 o’clock, the restaurant is only 10 miles away, but we have to pass through a congested area, and the restaurant does not have valet parking. If we leave by 7:30, we will get there in time.” He thinks he is being efficient in his talk, giving out only what she needs to know.

But the man is trying to make a connection with his wife, through the act of going to dinner with her and making sure the event goes smoothly. His wife simply does not understand his style of speaking, and he does not understand the impact of his style on her. He consistently talks this way because he has learned to do so from a young age.

Is it fair to make either one out to be the bad guy?

For the most part, any normal style of talking is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. A style is just a style. Understanding men gets easier, life gets better, and your marriage gets happier when you recognize that each of you has learned a different speaking and listening style, one that is different from the other.

Unspoken Messages

Talk is full of unspoken messages. This is true for both men and women. Tone of voice, inflection, gestures, the arrangement of words, implications, the occasion and the setting of the conversation, who is talking to whom, what is uppermost in your mind (win, compromise, authority, soothing the other, etc.) – these are just some of the elements found in unspoken messages. Different experts focus on various aspects and use different names, such as metamessages and hidden messages. I lump them together and refer to them as unspoken messages because they are all so closely related.

It is easy for you and for your husband to miss unspoken messages that each of you intentionally send. Why? Because you and your husband talk differently. Each of you thinks yours is the right way to get your message across. That’s only natural. At the same time, you each have an expectation that the other, wanting to get the same message across, would say it the same way.

For instance, if you say, “Let’s go for a walk,” your unspoken message may be, “I want to be with you, hold your hand, talk about stuff, and feel intimate friendship with you while we take a stroll.” If he says, “Let’s go for a walk,” you hear that same unspoken message. However, if he says it another way, “I’m going for a walk,” he may have that same unspoken message in mind, and assume you will want to come along. But you hear a completely different message, one that doesn’t include the invitation and the desire for connection. Hurt feelings ensue.

As easy as it is to miss intended unspoken messages, it is just as easy to perceive something that wasn’t there to begin with. [13] For example, you look at your husband and ask, “What’s wrong?” because his brow is furrowed. Since he was only thinking about what to have for lunch, your expression of concern makes him feel under scrutiny.

Women are more likely to perceive hidden meanings because they have been attuned to reading meanings their entire lives. Men aren’t as good at it because, as boys learning to converse, they didn’t see other boys and men really focusing on the unspoken, and so didn’t hone that skill as much as females did.

And since men tend to focus on messages and women on unspoken messages, men and women can easily take any comment in different ways.

Men Don’t “Read” Women Well

Men tend to feel that they, and you, should just be able to say stuff straight out. “If you want something, just come out and say it.”

You, on the other hand, may feel that he should know you well enough to often know what you want. “After all this time, you should know what I want without my telling you.”

Well, again (and you may be getting a little tired of reading this, but it’s true and more important than you think), you learned from childhood to talk and listen differently. Being understood without coming out and saying what you mean has always given you a big reward in feeling connected and involved. You are more attuned to how things are said and to the unspoken. [14]

Raised to value status and independence more, men naturally talk more plainly in order to get their different reward. (Men want connection, too. But they don’t focus on it as much as women do, and so it comes to them in different ways.)

Of course, this does not mean that men are unable to pick up on non-verbal communication. It only means that, in general, they aren’t as good at it as women. And in a troubled marriage, a husband will have greater difficulty “reading” his wife than other women. [15] Perhaps this is because of the history with his own wife, and his current expectations based on that history.

What Men Need

Willard Harley, in his book His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, divides a couple’s individual emotional needs into 10 categories. Your needs and his needs can fall into any one of these basic categories, but chances are they will not all be the same. [16]

And when you prioritize your lists of needs, the lists won’t match up, either. What is most important to him will generally be least important to you. And what is most important to you will generally be least important to him.

Your husband is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad for having different needs, nor for giving them different priorities. And neither are you. They are what they are. The big mistake is where you think his needs are the same as yours, and then trying to satisfy those needs for him. Your efforts will be unappreciated because you are addressing the wrong needs.

From his day-to-day clinical work, Harley saw that men most value the needs for sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, physical attractiveness, domestic support, and admiration. Women most value the needs for affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and family commitment. Again, anyone of either sex can have any of these needs, and value any one of them greater than others. Additionally, these needs can change from time to time.

Many people believe they can figure out their spouse’s most important needs intuitively. What’s worse is that many believe their spouse should be able to figure theirs out intuitively. But your spouse isn’t a mind reader, and neither are you. The book contains a questionnaire to help you identify and prioritize your emotional needs so you can communicate them to one another.

While I do not consider His Needs, Her Needs to be authoritative (it is based solely on Harley’s clinical work and not any research that could be duplicated and verified), still, it is a good read. I could relate to much of what he writes, and think it could help you in understanding men, and even yourself.

Men, Sex, and Affection

Yes, men like having sex more often than women. Testosterone has a lot to do with that. In understanding men, though, you need to understand what sex means to them: For most husbands it is more than just a physical need. Sex fulfills important emotional needs, too.

It has been said that women talk about their emotions and men act out their emotions. For example, when a woman is angry or frustrated, she expresses it in words. When a man is angry or frustrated, he goes off to hit a punching bag, pull weeds, or get drunk or stoned. When you desire intimacy and connection with your husband, you often turn to conversation. When he desires intimacy and connection with you, however, he turns to actions instead of words. For him sex is the most intimate action he can do with you. Your willingness and desire to participate tells him how important he is to you.

According to Shaunti Feldhahn in For Women Only: What You Need to Know about the Inner Lives of Men, 74% of men surveyed would feel empty if their wife regularly offered sex reluctantly or simply to accommodate the man’s sexual needs. 66% say that it is very important to feel sexually wanted and desired by their wife, with another 31% saying it is somewhat important. “[S]ex makes him feel loved – in fact, he can’t feel completely loved without it.” [17]

Your husband may view sex differently than you do. Neither of you are wrong in your views
So, your husband may see sex as a demonstration of his affection, and not realize that you may see it as a confirmation of affection.

Affection and sex are intertwined. One can’t exist in a happy marriage without the other. And the withholding of one leads to the withholding of the other. As Willard Harley writes, “It’s quite a vicious cycle. She doesn’t get enough affection, so she shuts him off sexually. He doesn’t get enough sex, so the last thing he feels like being is affectionate. The solution to this tragic cycle is for someone to break it.” [18]

Taking the position that your husband must be the one to break the downward spiral could be a losing stance. Affection and sex act synergistically, and either one of you can make the first move to turn things around. And when the direction of the spiral is firmly moving upward, you really won’t care who went first.

How the ‘vicious cycle’ gets broken is the important thing. Just offering sex without actually desiring him does not meet his need for intimacy and connection. His showing affection to you will likewise be meaningless if his goal is simply to get more sex. Or if that is how you interpret it when it isn’t actually his goal.

Find out what sex means to him. Ask. And let him know what sex means to you.

If he combines affection with sex, let him know how important it is for you to also receive affection in nonsexual ways. Let him know how he can express his care for you. Be specific, such as give you a hug before he leaves for work and again when he comes home. Men appreciate straight talk, so give it to them.

But many women will say, “If I have to ask for a hug (or whatever you want), then it doesn’t mean anything.” That’s a valid point. Let’s talk about it.

Getting the Affection You Want

As mentioned in the section Growing Up Male and Female, and what is essential to understanding men (and women), is that the sexes have learned to get what they want in different ways. That presents a challenge in marriage, because many people try to meet their spouse’s needs in the same way that they want their own needs met. Put another way, they demonstrate by example.

This has several drawbacks. The first is that sometimes people just don’t pick up on clues very well. The second is that your feminine-oriented example may not satisfy his masculine-oriented version of your need. The third goes back to what I said in a previous section: one spouse’s high-priority need is very likely not the same as the other’s. The example goes unnoticed because the need doesn’t have priority.

If the two of you talk about how you like getting your needs met, and which needs are more important to whom, then deliberately meeting those needs in those desired ways has meaning.

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[1] ^ Lise Eliot, Ph.D., "Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It", Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2009. P. 5.
[2] ^ Turhan Canli, et al., “Sex Differences in the Neural Basis of Emotional Memories,” Retrieved Nov. 2, 2011 from pnas.org. 2002.
[3] ^ Tatia M.C. Lee, et al., “Neural Activities Associated with Emotion Recognition Observed in Men and Women,” Molecular Psychiatry, Vol. 10, 2005.
[4] ^ Antonio R. Damasio, M.D., Ph.D., The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999. P. 41.
[5] ^ Damasio. P. 58.
[6] ^ Eliot. Pp. 66-67.
[7] ^ Beverly Fagot, et al., “Theories of Gender Socialization,” Ch. 3 in Thomas Eckes, Hanns Trautner, The Developmental Social Psychology of Gender, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Inc. 2000.
[8] ^ Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation", HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2001.
[9] ^ Michael Addis, James Mahalik, "Men, Masculinity, and the Contexts of Help Seeking," American Psychologist, Jan. 2003.
[10] ^ Tannen. You Just Don’t Understand! P. 77.
[11] ^ Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., "That's Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships", William Morrow & Company, Inc. 1986.
[12] ^ John M. Gottman, Ph.D., "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last", Simon & Shuster, Inc., 1994. P. 170-171. NOTE: While this book contains good information, it is better suited as a supplement to "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work". If you read only one, read The Seven Principles.
[13] ^ Tannen. That’s Not What I Meant! Pp. 136-137.
[14] ^ Tannen. That’s Not What I Meant! P. 134.
[15] ^ John Gottman, Ph.D. & Robert Levenson, Ph.D., “The Social Psychophysiology of Marriage,” in Noller & Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Perspectives on Marital Interaction, Multilingual Matters LTD, 1988.
[16] ^ Willard F. Harley, Jr., "His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage", Revell Books, 2011.
[17] ^ Shaunti Feldhahn, "For Women Only: What You Need to Know about the Inner Lives of Men", Multnomah Books, 2013. Ch. 5.
[18] ^ Harley. P. 44.