Lion Goodman discovers the key to understanding how women communicate and how men can learn to speak their language.
I was talking with my friend and colleague, John, about my relationship, and its challenges. I smiled and said, “Women’s emotional reactions have baffled men forever.”
With his typical wise and cosmic perspective, he smiled, and asked, “Would you like to understand feminine emotion?”
What? Someone who actually understands women’s emotions? And can explain them? I said. “Lay it on me, Bro!”
A few minutes into his discourse, I stopped him to get a tape recorder. I knew I had to share this information with other men. We really need to learn about this major difference between men and women. It will save us SO much trouble. If it enlightens you, please share it with all the men you know.
John spoke of “the feminine” and “the masculine,” but it’s easier to write about the genders – men and women – than those two cosmic principles. Please translate my language from “men” to “masculine” and “women” to “feminine.” We all have both within us.
John began: “There are many differences between men and women, including brain design and function, the way they feel and know the world, and different beliefs indoctrinated into them by their families and culture. I’m going to focus first on how women process emotions, and how that gives them a different experience of the world.
“Women have a much better memory than men, especially when there’s an emotional component. Women attach their memories to their emotions – and also to their defense mechanisms. Your woman has specific memories of you. She remembers who you have been, and everything you’ve done in the past. She still reacts to those memories, and she operates, and makes decisions, based on her memories of who you were a year ago, and three years ago, and five years ago.
“If you hurt her feelings last year by acting in a particular way, or if you said something unkind, that pain still lives in her. She feels the possibility that you could do it again – even if you’ve changed significantly since that time. If you ever act like her absent father, or her mean brother, or her careless first boyfriend, she sees that you have the same potential to hurt her as they did.
“Her decisions and reactions are based on all of those memories – including her subconscious ones – as if you were those people, unchanged, today. I know this seems like a problem. But it’s just feminine nature. It’s a very strong influence on her feelings and her reactions.
“Here’s another thing: most women don’t differentiate by time when it comes to emotions – their emotions are all tied together across time. They re-experience their previous emotions as if they were all happening now – and this can be quite intense.
If a situation today is at all similar (in any way) to what happened in the past, then emotionally, this situation equals that situation. In computers, this is called ‘fuzzy logic.’ In the brain, it’s called ‘the cortex’s associative matrix.’
“Men process emotions and emotional memory very differently. It’s not better – just different. Men don’t carry a gestalt that combines incidents-plus-feelings-plus-people-plus-consequences that women live with all the time. When a man experiences something emotional, it’s simply related to the facts of the matter at the moment. He will typically look for a direction he can move things, or a structure he can correct, in order to get past it.
Men see events as discrete from each other (even if they’re not). Women correlate their feelings to the structure and evolution of the relationship, and they project it forward into the future of the relationship, and it’s expected development. Men interpret things simply. They look to see whether they feel good at the moment, and whether their woman is happy at the moment.
“Women experience events as a huge set of related constructs and dominoes that all correlate across time. ‘If he did this and that, it means this and this, and that. And that’s going to mean this… and this means that could happen, and because of what happened ten years ago, it’s going to mean that, too. And then we’re going to have children, and they’re going to grow up and be like this because of that, and then my friends will think this about it, and they’ll react in that way, and my God, then what will happen?’
“This kind of thinking and speaking is totally baffling to men. A man’s thought process is more linear: this, then this, then this, then that. Women experience everything multidimensionally (which makes them good at multitasking).
From a woman’s point of view, the way women process information and feelings makes perfect sense. To men, it’s like an alien language. These processes are just very different from each other. They have the potential of being complementary and supportive of each other, which starts with understanding.
“When it comes to information about relationships, women can run rings around most men. They understand thousands of facets and dimensions of relationships, and consider them all at the same time, including all the nuances of personal and interpersonal relationships, expectations of social and interpersonal decorum, etc. And this ability is built right into their energetic DNA. It’s the world they live in.”
I listen, stunned, my head swimming, trying to comprehend all that John was saying. The best I could do was to say, “So emotionally, we’re completely outgunned and outclassed, right?”
He laughs. “No, not at all. However, these differences must be understood and accepted. Otherwise, when a man attempts to communicate with a woman on an emotionally-loaded issue, he’s likely to be overwhelmed by the woman’s rapid-fire communication. He’ll go into information overload. She’s going to say, ‘What about this, and this, and this, and this?’ He won’t be able to deal with all of those complexities, because he can’t process all of the emotional dimensions as quickly as she can rattle them off.
“He’s going to think she’s being defensive, or that she’s talking gibberish, or she’s adding extraneous information. As a result, he might get angry and frustrated, or try to shut down the conversation. All she’s doing is communicating her emotional reality. She’s living it from moment to moment, and she assumes that it’s all vital information he needs to know. She’s trying to deal with what she sees as his lack of understanding of the emotional reality of the situation. She wants to establish a clear, trustworthy and shared understanding of the situation that they can both work from and negotiate from.
“It’s how she understands the world, and how she makes decisions, moment by moment. It’s how she takes care of her own well-being, self-esteem, and her own place in society. It’s how she cares for and manages all of her relationships.
“This is why men appear emotionally unavailable to women, and why they appear to be less emotionally involved in the relationship. He doesn’t have the ability to process her emotional communications. It’s one reason why men don’t listen more to women, and they appear to be living on different planets. Men can learn this language, but they have a hard time keeping up. There’s usually a time lag for him to get and understand her feelings.”
I manage to say, “I’ve heard that men know one thing at a time, and women know everything at once.”
“Sure,” he says. “Women process relationship information as a gestalt – a whole. Men process information one bit at a time. Without knowing it, women naturally communicate more emotional and relationship information than men can readily and constructively process.”
My mind was reeling, but curious. I felt a bit overloaded – sort of like talking to my woman. I asked him to give me a specific example, hoping that it would pull my thoughts back together.
“Okay, let’s imagine a guy who’s pretty sensitive. He’s been thinking that he wants more sex with his partner. He knows it’s a touchy subject, so he spends some time thinking about how he’s going to bring up the topic. In the past, it usually hasn’t gone so well. So he finds her in a good mood one day, and he says, ‘You know, honey, I love making love with you. It’s so good when we do! We’re both really happy, and we feel that beautiful energy between us. I’d like us to create more of that feeling in our relationship. What can we do to bring more of it in?’
“What do you think happens next?”
“It can’t be good.” I say. “I don’t know of a good way to have that conversation.”
“Right,” he says. “It goes terribly. She gets incredibly hurt, and thinks of him as some kind of brutish jerk for being so insensitive. He gets completely confused. He thought it was a great way to bring up a difficult conversation. He was being kind and straightforward.
“But let’s look at how she interpreted what he said. She doesn’t hear the facts: that he loves her, that he’s longing for more of her, and he wants to bring more pleasure into their life together. That’s how a man would hear it – as discrete facts.”
Based on my years of experience with women, I offer a guess: “She probably interprets it as, ‘I’m not good enough for you.’”
“Much more than that,” John says. “She has multiple interpretations all at once. She hears him saying: ‘There’s something wrong with you. You’re not satisfying me. You’ll never satisfy me. You’re not sexy. You’re not enough for me. I’ll never approve of you. You have to change in order to be worthy of my love and approval.’ And that’s just in the first few seconds.
“Then comes the second round. She thinks, ‘He doesn’t love me. I can’t please him. He’s destroying everything I’ve worked for in this relationship.’ She can’t even put most of this into words. There’s a core reaction happening at her depth, and she feels her world falling apart.
Then round three begins – her reaction to those thoughts: ‘You’re not seeing me as who I am — the source of love – and you’re not seeing everything I’ve done to show you how loving I am. After all the ways I’ve expressed my love to you over the years, you’re saying all that effort and love means nothing. You’re crushing my life. I might as well just give up, or die.’
“She feels the rug pulled out from under her most precious, loving emotions. Her intellect is off-line for all practical purposes. She can’t interpret what’s going on any other way. Her identity as a loving woman has been questioned, put on trial, and found wanting. It’s emotional death.
“You know that a person will do anything they can to avoid feeling those awful feelings. She’ll scream and fight, or collapse and cry, or dissociate, or withdraw, or call her girlfriends and talk about what a brute he was for saying that. And they’ll agree, because they can feel whatever she’s feeling, to its full depth and breadth.”
I’m breathing slowly, consciously, trying to keep up with the emotional wonderland John is describing. At the same time, I realize that this is what I’ve been dealing with in my relationships with women my whole life. Something is beginning to dawn on me – but I’m not sure what.
“So what can a man do?” I ask, innocently. “Should we just shut up and listen, and not engage? Or just do our best, figuring we’re going to lose the emotional battle anyway? What do you suggest?”
John looks at me with a mixture of compassion and pity. I know he respects me as a good man – it’s just that I’m a natural-born emotional blockhead.
He replies, thoughtfully, “It’s possible for partners to understand their different needs, and work cooperatively to mutually satisfy all of them. The first step for the man is to really understand how differently women process emotional information.
“Before you share anything that could be emotional wounding, you need to imagine how your partner might perceive it. Imagine that you’re her, and project yourself into her female body. Feel what it will feel like for her to hear what you have to say. Feel the impact on her emotional body. Then spend time thinking about how you might be able to buffer the communication so your partner can receive it. It’s not easy, but it will save you a lot of processing time later. And it’s also a good idea to create a protective structure for those kinds of conversations. Have an objective third person there with you, such as a friend or therapist. Or specify rules of engagement in advance. Create structures for communication safety.
“Women really want to see the good in their men. They try hard to replace and over-write past memories of hurts and discomforts. Their complex emotional process is truly a miracle, an intuitive marvel. It’s what makes relationships possible, and beautiful, and improve over time. But when they get triggered, all those emotional memories can come up automatically. Once that process is engaged, there aren’t any easy alternatives.
“Men are not really designed to interact constructively with women’s triggered emotional processes. It’s possible for men to improve in this area, and it’s possible for women to heal their tendency to react in this way, but it takes some wisdom and finesse on both sides. The solution is for both men and women to proactively disassemble the non-helpful elements of their communication and emotional processes, and to constructively shift their communication system so that they no longer interact in ways that produce pain in the first place.”
I consider the potential of all this new information, and say, “John, if you could develop a method to do that, you could win a Nobel prize, or get very rich.”
John laughs. “Yes, but most women see it differently. They see their process as a very empowering thing. It’s a defensive power tool in their relationship tool bag – a way for them to have leverage, defend themselves, and be validated. It serves them. In its positive form, it helps them remember, understand and manage all the various aspects of all their relationships.
“Our goal should be to become more conscious of the downsides on both sides of the equation, and also the positive aspects that enhance both people. Both men and women get themselves all tied up unnecessarily, and too often, they use it to blame the other person. It takes some work to become conscious, but it can be accomplished.
I said, “Okay, I now have a better understanding of women’s emotions. What can we do, as men, to start disassembling those non-helpful elements?”
Smiling, he said, “Ah… that will have to wait until you write the next article.”
Photo: Flickr/Morning Shadow
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