I love my wife and want nothing more than to care for her and carry her burdens. So when she shares a problem with me, I do what most men do: I try to help her to solve the problem. My flawless logic goes like this:
A. Wife has a problem.
B. She is feeling emotional stress and turmoil because of said problem.
C. If I can give her a solution and solve her problem, her emotional stress and turmoil will go away.
D. I am an awesome husband.
The only problem with my logic is that approximately 50% of married people don't operate that way. (Hint: It's the 50% that are missing a vital Y chromosome.) When I quickly move through steps A, B, and C above, I rarely end up reaching the reasonable outcome of D.
Wives Don't Want You to Fix It, They Want You to Listen
This is a marriage principle that most of us have heard before. In "For Women Only," Shaunti Feldhahn says, "When (a woman) is sharing an emotional problem, what she is feeling about the problem is actually more important than the problem itself." She goes on to coach husbands with this little nugget of wisdom: "Instead of filtering out her emotions to focus on the problem, learn to filter out the problem in order to focus on her feelings."
If you are a woman reading this, you are most likely thinking, "Yes! That captures it perfectly!"
If you are a man reading this, you are probably thinking, "That's the dumbest thing I have ever heard." It is just plain illogical to the male brain.
I've got bad news for husbands: just because it doesn't make sense to you, doesn't mean it's not true in the eyes of your wife. You can argue that it doesn't make sense, but empathetic listening is still what your wife needs on most occasions.
She is likely capable of solving her own problems. She just needs to know that you are on her side and willing to hurt with her. It's what women do for other women and it's a skill that husbands would do well to learn.
This is captured most perfectly in the classic video "It's Not About the Nail." If you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth a few minutes of your time.
Husbands must be aware of these truths and work hard to offer a compassionate and listening ear to their wives. As I heard one couple put it, "Sometimes I just need him to hold the bucket while I throw up a bit."
But there is one circumstance that requires a much more advanced level of empathy from a man. It's a situation in which even the most sensitive husband often forgets to listen.
How Should A Husband Respond When HE is the Problem?
It's one thing when a wife is sharing her problems about work or her frustrations with the kids. But what is a husband to do when her emotional turmoil is because of him? When the hurt she is sharing is rooted in something that he has (or hasn't) done? In that moment, a man can choose one of three responses. Two are bad and one is good.
Response #1: The Husband Goes Defensive
After his wife describes her hurt, the husband begins to explain his perspective. His logical mind is convinced that if he can just explain his actions and motives, she will understand and her hurt will go away. This is a husband's response 97% of the time. Unfortunately, it is a response that has never worked in the history of mankind.
It fails because what his wife hears is this: "You a moron. If I can just explain what happened, you will understand." The husband doesn't mean this, but it is how it sounds to her. If the A, B, C process above doesn't work in other situations, it won't work here.
Response #2: The Husband Falls on His Sword
If response #1 above won't work, the temptation is to go to the other extreme. This is where a husband agrees with every bit of criticism and says something like, "You're right. I am a horrible husband. I did, in fact, wake up this morning and immediately develop a three step plan to tick you off. Will you ever be able to forgive me, the slimy scum-sucking pig that I am?"
While it may seem to the husband that this is what his wife wants, it doesn't work for a couple of reasons. First, it is disingenuous. Secondly, a man has to look at himself in the mirror. If he knows that he had good intentions but inadvertently failed his wife, it's not right to make him fall on his sword like this. A wife who desires this response is likely blind to her own shortcomings.
Response #3: The Husband Validates Her Feelings
Just as a husband should patiently listen to his wife when she is venting about an issue at work, he must work hard to listen when she is venting about him. Sure, his natural inclination will be to defend his perspective, but he must learn to bite his tongue and truly listen to his wife. If he has hurt her, even accidentally, the best way to resolve the hurt is simply to listen.
I don't mean to sound like Dr. Phil, but powerful things happen when a husband "validates his wife's feelings." It doesn't mean that he understands them completely, but he can at least offer words that communicate, "I can understand how you feel that way. Given the circumstances, your emotions are legitimate."
When a husband gives the gift of "validation" to his wife, the conversation has room to move towards reconciliation. His empathetic listening (filled with phrases like "tell me more" and "that sounds awful" and "I'm so sorry") has the power to diffuse her emotions. It's sort of like she's a balloon filled with air that is about to pop. Listening to her gives her the opportunity to release some of the air and calm things down. By contrast, when he digs in to defend his position, the balloon stays full. It only leads to greater conflict.
Once a husband has listened, offered some empathy, and validated his wife's feelings, he can quickly pray about next steps. Perhaps God will lead him to share his side of the story now that she is ready to listen. Or maybe not. At that point, it won't matter all that much. Remember, she wants him to listen, not to fix it.
Let's All Work to Get This Right
The content contained in this post is written by me, but more importantly, it is written for me. I know and teach these principles yet still struggle with doing the right thing when Jenifer and I are in conflict. So don't think that doing this comes easy to me or any other man. But husbands, we can still work at it. God will help you to learn these skills if you will ask Him.
Wives, you can do your husband a favor by sharing your hurts in ways and with a tone that doesn't feel like an attack. When we are attacked, we naturally move to defend ourselves. That's not just men; that's everybody. Our words must be spoken in ways that express a desire to be "one" more than a desire to be "right."