Yesterday I discussed the basic reason why most women behave badly towards their husbands and boyfriends, namely that often when wives act out it is because they don’t feel safe.
When a woman bonds to a man, she has put her trust in him to protect her and her children, and to provide for her. When she feels at risk, she looks to the man in her life to do something about it, and if he can’t or won’t her natural response is to feel angry and betrayed. Accordingly, women who are dealing, even with everyday stresses or ones that her man can’t actually help with may lash out at their man.
This isn’t just a cultural expectation either, this is the result of thousands of years of conditioning acting on our very DNA – there is a strong involuntary biological component to this pattern. The impulse to nag, shout, or bully a man when a woman feels unsafe comes very fast, and it takes a great deal of discipline and self-awareness to negate it. The kind of emotional awareness and impulse control that we are talking about is very commonly offered to boys in almost every culture, but at best, most cultures consider it optional for girls. Many people prefer to simply believe women are mercurial and make excuses for bad behavior, such as the notion of “A Lady’s Perogative” in Anglo-Saxon cultures.
There is also a very literal testing element to this process. Even women who aren’t feeling very insecure or safe sometimes feel an instinct to be unreasonable towards the man in their lives. They do this to get their man to make a display of strong masculinity. If the man stands up to their behaviour, she can feel safe that all is well with him, and he is still a good choice. This is usually followed by a surge in her sexual attraction to him. For many women, a little bratty behavior is a form of foreplay.
So what constitutes “acting out”, and what is the best response? I am going to discuss that at length here.
[Note: This article ended up easily four to five times the normal size for an article here, so I am breaking it down into multiple parts. This is 2a. Expect 2b, 2c, etc. to follow, then part 3.]
Complaining and Gossiping are Not Acting Out
First it is important to know that complaining and gossiping are acting out. These are a tool many women use to process feelings. When a woman comes to you to talk about problems, conflicts at work, or the bad behavior of others, she is just trying to get things off her chest. She just wants you to listen and let her know that you care. The best thing to do when a woman comes to you to tell her about her rotten day is to listen, while occasionally letting her know you appreciate how that must have made her feel. Phrases like “That must have been frustrating,” or “I imagine that didn’t make you feel very good.” will make her feel loved.
If your wife is constantly complaining and it is taxing your relationship, the best thing to do is to learn ways to draw boundaries ahead of time. If you can put her after-work conversations into a context where there is a time limit, that will help a great deal.
For example, with two clients of mine whose wives are particularly prone to complaining, I got them to take the initiative. After work, they would tell their wives “I will make us a cup of coffee so we can sit for twenty minutes, and you can tell me all about your day. Then we’ll help the kids tackle their homework and get supper gong.” The wife now knows that her husband want to hear about her day (which helps her feel loved), knows there is a proper time to have the conversation (during coffee), and that there is a natural time limit (somewhere around 20 minutes.) This will let them wait patiently until their husbands are ready to hear the complaints, and encourage them to choose which stories they want to talk about. Eventually, this becomes a ritual in the households of my clients, the coffee talk helps their wives feel loved and listened to, while helping the husbands create boundaries so that their wives’ stories aren’t draining them. Of course, the irony is, once it became ritual, the wives felt less and less need to complain. After all they knew their husband would listen.
Another strategy is to make sure your wife has a few female friends that she sees regularly. Women know how to listen to other women far better than we do. If she has girlfriends to talk to, she can meet part of her need that way.
If you find that your marital conflicts come from complaining or issues listening to each other, you might want to check out Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray. This book is a classic on the communication styles of Men and Women and how to bridge them in a relationship.
Nagging and Playing “If You Don’t Know, I Won’t Tell You”
In most cultures, mother-daughter relationships are very intuitive. Mothers tend to anticipate their daughters’ needs and try to meet them ahead of time. Boys, on the other hand, are usually quite deliberately taught that they won’t get something unless they ask for it. Because of this, many women grow up believing that love means that the other person magically knows what you need.
The problem, of course, that wives are not little girls whose needs are easy to anticipate. We are not mothers who are precision-honed to read our child’s every motion. And men usually learn that love means wanting to give people what they want – when they ask for it. This fundamental disconnect leads to two of the nastiest behaviors that can create conflict in a marriage: Nagging and the game “If You Don’t Know, I Won’t tell You.”
Nagging is different from complaining about the challenges of the day and gossiping about coworkers. It is a set of aggressive demands made in a angry or whiny tone. And it usually comes along with insulting language and a lot of superlatives. Some examples of nagging include:
- You always do this! You always come to these things half-assed and then are too damn scattered to make it right.
- I can believe you! You are so insensitive! You should have known better than to say that. Are you even listening to me?!
- I asked you to take out the garbage a thousand times!! You never listen to me!!
“If You Don’t Know, I Won’t Tell You” usually starts with a woman acting angry, giving the silent treatment, or generally behaving in a rude, passive aggressive manner. If asked if she is alright, the typical answer is “I’m fine!” or “I’m not talking to you.” You know something is wrong at that point, but she point blank refuses to tell you what it is, preferring to punish you with passive-aggressive behaviors and guilt.
Both of these behaviours come about because a woman feels like her man is not paying attention to or caring about her needs. She nags because she feels like her husband is ignoring her (and her needs/wants) and she needs to express her feelings of being neglected. Nagging is a way of still asking for what you want, while IYDK,IWTY is emotional brinkmanship: she will not let her man feel loved until he guesses her needs and makes her feel loved first.
The solution to this behavior is two-stage. First, assertively shut down the behavior itself. Second, to meet the need.
Assertively shut down the behavior by validating the feeling, but telling her the behavior is not acceptable. Start with eye contact, stand up straight, if you are angry let is show on your face, but not in your actions or your voice, because those will only be read as threats. Say something like:
- “I understand you are upset right now, but the way you are speaking to me is not acceptable.”
- “I love you, and if I could I would do anything for you. Right now, though the way you are talking to me just makes me angry. Why don’t you try again by telling me what I can do for you?”
- “The way you are behaving is hurtful to me, and I think that you know that. I would never hurt you on purpose, I expect the same from you. So let’s start over, and you tell me what is really going on.”
- “Sorry, I am not going to play this game. When you treat to me that way, it only ticks me off. If you actually want something from me, I expect you to tell me.”
- “I am not interested in putting up with disrespect right now. I won’t listen to any more unless you change the way you are talking to me.”
If the behavior continues, walk away. Go for a long walk or a drive if you have to. If you say you won’t put up with it, and she continues, you have to follow that up by removing yourself from the situation. Come back later and she will likely be shocked enough by your removal to be willing to talk.
If you just handle it without shutting down the behavior, you will teach your woman that she can get what she wants by bullying you in this manner. You need to set a boundary on the way you are spoken to first to make sure she knows that the nagging itself is not the reason you are acting.
Once the behavior stops, then go through a quick analysis, what could you be doing right now to fix the situation to make her feel cared for:
- Is there some immediate problem like a leaking tap, car stuck in snow, burnt dinner, that you can handle?
- Are there promises that you need to fulfill?
- Do you have unfinished projects, chores or tasks to handle?
- Does she seem overwhelmed by the tasks in front of her?
- Is there a persistent issue like budget that has become an immediate problem?
Figure out what you can do right now as an action to address it. For the examples above:
- Handle the emergency with as much cool as you can.
- Acknowledge the broken or strained promise and solve it.
- Make a clear plan to complete the project.
- State when the chores will get done.
- Step in and do some of her chores.
- Call an accountant and make an appointment.
The key is to take some action as soon as possible to get it handled, and to do so without complaint. Put your best stoic face on and handle it. To keep it from happening again, make sure that you remain on top of things at home for the next little while by using the questions above to keep on top of other potential flash points.
Eric Berne’s book Games People Play covers a number of other instances where people try and get others to act like their parents by behaving badly.
[to be continued]