Understanding Women

“Women! I just don’t get them.” Guys, do you think understanding women is beyond your comprehension? Well, you’re not alone. How can we live so close for so long to the opposite sex, be married to them even, and yet not be able to understand them?

There are a lot of contradictory scientific studies, which have led to a lot of contradictory popular books and articles. You could spend a lot of time researching the subject. I believe what you are about to read will go a long way in understanding women.

First, a warning! This article contains generalizations about women, and you aren’t married to women (unless you’re a polygamist!). You are married to one particular woman, and not everything here will apply to her. Every woman has a lifetime of different experiences that has made her what she is today – a unique individual.

And you thought I was going to say the monster in the other room. C’mon!

Understanding women should not be left to chance. Discuss these generalities with your wife to understand her better.

You have to make the call: for anything you read, you have to decide if she fits that description. It may be spot-on, close to, kinda-sorta like, or absolutely nothing like her. I am only talking here about the general traits and tendencies of average American women. But they do vary greatly in every conceivable way.

You will also read generalizations about yourself. And there are all kinds of guys out there, too.

So you would do well to talk to your wife about these things. A reviewer, who with her husband read one of the resources I use below, wrote that at several points each said to the other, “This is not how I feel, do not do this.” So don’t blindly apply everything here to your wife. Just know that you now have a really good starting point for figuring things out.

The Female Brain and Emotion

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

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

Genetics, environment, and cultural upbringing all play a part in the 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.

Women’s brains operate in ways that are as natural and normal to them as ours are to us. It’s a mistake to think of the male brain as “normal,” and the female brain as inferior. It’s not. It’s only different.

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 women (as well as men). 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]

Even though we live 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. Guys, our lack of understanding women and their lack of understanding us has been a lifelong process.

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

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

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

Both sexes want both connection and status, 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. A lot of the time their play isn’t even physically active; they just sit and talk. They 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. They jockey for status and engage in one-upmanship. 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 guys, understanding women, and your wife in particular, is your best tool for bringing your worlds closer together and fixing your marriage. Let’s get into some particulars.

“Women Are So Emotional!”

Guys, you know how sometimes a problem or disagreement can get you so angry, so twisted out of shape, that you can’t think about anything else or get your work done. You try to push the feeling aside and concentrate, but it just keeps coming back to distract and force you to deal with it.

This is how emotions generally are for women, even without an underlying problem, disagreement or anger.

An analogy used in For Men Only: A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women is pretty good. Women’s emotions often pop up, like an unwanted advertisement on your computer, and won’t go away until dealt with. And the level of emotional intensity doesn’t have to be nearly as high as with men in order to be so distracting.

Like that unwanted ad, emotions don’t appear randomly. There is a hidden reason why the ad pops up, and why an emotion just appears. Women have a natural need to figure it out because that’s what they’ve been taught since early childhood. The world doesn’t seem right to them until they do.

79% of women will agree with this. Especially if they are under 45 or have pre-teen children at home.[9]

So when your wife is trying to understand why she feels the way she does, remember those times when you couldn’t just “let go” of something, and know that she can’t, either. Even if it doesn’t compare as a big issue.

But why are women so emotional in the first place? Go back to the previous section and look at the descriptions of connection and status. Emotions are associated with all of those descriptors, but much more strongly for those of connection than for status. Since females naturally seek connection more than males do (even in infancy, girls look for connection by staring at people while boys are more likely to look at objects), and are raised to seek connection, what else could they be relative to men?

The Meanings of Talk

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.

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.[10]

Some women say what they think as thoughts occur to them, which makes them appear so talkative. Conversation is just a device they use to get and give consensus, affection, friendship, or anything else tied to connection. They get upset when their husbands don’t do the same, especially when invited to share: “What are you thinking about, honey?”

Now men have thoughts as often as women. But lots of men simply judge their passing thoughts as not having the importance or significance to justify talking about them, as not worth verbalizing. We 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 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 women and men also have different conversational styles. We don’t recognize that 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]

As an 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 that he is trying to control her. 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, understand the man’s intent. In his mind, the man is only giving his wife information that will make the evening run smoother. The dinner reservation is for 8 o’clock, the restaurant is only 10 miles away, but they have to pass through a congested area, and the restaurant does not have valet parking. If they leave by 7:30, they will get there in time.

He is not intending to exert control over his wife, but does not see a need for a big explanation. He is being objective and logical.

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. If the two of you recognize that each other has learned a different speaking and listening style, one that is different from your own, you two are going to get along better.

Still, you might be satisfied with the conversations you have with your wife. You might think the two of you have few misunderstandings. However, she may not be satisfied. For example, she may take things you say the wrong way, but not try to clarify them. Over time, she may become more negative towards you and you don’t know why. Women, much more often than men, cite lack of communication as a reason for divorcing.[12]

Women and “Problem” Talk

A big issue men face with understanding women is why women solve problems so differently from us. If we have a problem, we want to think about it logically and without emotional interference. Women want to talk about it, seem to bring up superfluous stuff and how they feel about it, and get mad when you offer a solution. What is going on here?

Well, two things.

First of all, when she talks about troubles, she is likely not in a problem-solving frame of mind. She is really looking for connection and understanding. She wants to know that she is not alone in the way she feels. She wants to hear comments like "I know (or can imagine) how that feels," or "That happened to me, too, and I felt the same way." She wants to know that you understand her feelings.

She may not realize that talking about a problem seems to you like an invitation to offer advice. But if she hears "This is what you should do…" she will likely feel some separation from you. 60% of women in this situation say so.[13] She will hear, "You have the problem; I have the solution." You're talking to her like an employer to an employee, like a superior to an underling, instead of a friend to a friend.

Although you are being supportive by offering a solution, a solution is not what she is focused on. It’s her negative feelings about the problem that are the real issue. Connection, understanding, and being heard are the kind of support she wants. By not getting that, she feels distanced and isolated.

For heaven’s sake, never say she is wrong for feeling a certain way. Feelings are not right or wrong; they just are. And don’t try to get her to “look on the bright side,” either. She will likely interpret that as you saying she is wrong to feel as she does.

Unless her problem is with you, don't offer solutions unless asked. Empathize, but don't try to be Mr. Fix-It.
So remember, while your wife appreciates your help in fixing things, she doesn’t look to you to fix emotional things. As Jeff Feldhahn says in For Men Only, “For any man who wants to be a good listener, the good news is that we don’t have to shut off our ‘Mr. Fix-it’ nature. We just have to apply those skills to the right problem.”

Secondly, she is trying to figure out why she feels as she does. As researcher John Gottman discovered, she expects to understand her feelings about disagreements before getting into problem solving.[14] And that goes back to what I said above. When women feel emotional, they can’t just push it aside. The world isn’t right until they figure out why they feel what they’re feeling.

If the “problem” of her talk is about her and your relationship, don’t stress out. Use what you learned here to understand that she is honestly trying to make things better between the two of you. “[T]ry to see it as she does: a joint problem-solving session instead of an attack on you.”[15]

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

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 wife to miss unspoken messages that each of you intentionally send. Why? Because you and your wife 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 your wife says, “Let’s go for a walk,” her 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 you say, “Let’s go for a walk,” she hears that same unspoken message. However, if you say it another way, “I’m going for a walk,” you may have that same unspoken message in mind, and assume she will want to come along. But she hears 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. For example, your wife looks at you and asks, “What’s wrong?” because your brow is furrowed. Since you were only thinking about what to have for lunch, her expression of concern makes you feel under scrutiny.[16]

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, we didn’t see other boys and men really focusing on the unspoken, and so we 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.

The Mind Reading Expectation

Your wife may feel that you should be a mind reader. “After all this time, you should know what I want without my telling you.”

Of course, you feel differently. “Just tell me what you want!” We guys tend to feel that we should just be able to say stuff straight out. Why can’t our wives do that?

Well, again (and you may be getting a little tired of reading this, but it’s true and more important than you think), your wife learned from childhood to talk and listen differently. Being understood without coming out and saying what she means has always given her a big reward in feeling connected and involved. She is more attuned to how things are said and to the unspoken.[17]

Raised to value status and independence more, we guys naturally talk more plainly in order to get our different reward. (We want connection, too. But we don’t focus on it as much as women do, and so it comes to us 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, we 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.[18] Perhaps this is because of the history with his own wife, and his current expectations based on that history.

What Women 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 your spouse’s needs can fall into any one of these basic categories, but chances are they will not all be the same.[19]

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

Your wife 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 her needs are the same as yours, and then trying to satisfy those needs for her. Your efforts will be unappreciated because you are addressing the wrong needs.

From his day-to-day clinical work, Harley saw that women most value the needs for affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and family commitment. Men most value the needs for sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, physical attractiveness, domestic support, and admiration. 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 them 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.

Harley says that not getting enough affection is the number one reason a wife falls into an affair. Not getting enough sex is the number one reason a husband falls into an affair. “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.” So, what’s the difference between the two? “Affection is the environment of the marriage, while sex is an event. Affection is a way of life, a canopy that covers and protects a marriage. It’s a direct and convincing expression of care that gives the event of sex a more appropriate context. Most women need affection before sex means much to them.”[20]

But guys, don’t get the idea that you should give affection just to get sex. If that is what came to mind, you need to come up with better reasons for giving her affection. Otherwise, you’ll be in the doghouse for sure.

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 women, and even yourself.

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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] ^ T.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] ^ Shaunti & Jeff Feldhahn, For Men Only: A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women, Multnomah Books, 2006. Ch. 3.
[10] ^ Tannen. You Just Don’t Understand! Pp. 76-77.
[11] ^ Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., That's Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships, William Morrow & Company, Inc. 1986.
[12] ^ Tannen. That’s Not What I Meant! P. 141.
[13] ^ Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn. Ch. 5.
[14] ^ 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.
[15] ^ Shaunti & Jeff Feldhahn. Ch. 2.
[16] ^ Tannen. That’s Not What I Meant! Pp. 136-137.
[17] ^ Tannen. That’s Not What I Meant! P. 134.
[18] ^ 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.
[19] ^ Willard F. Harley, Jr., His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, Revell Books, 2011.
[20] ^ Harley. P. 44.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

For Men Only: A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women

For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men