Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Are men expected to read women's minds?

A recent letter from a husband in advice columnist Carolyn Hax's newspaper column asked: “Why do women expect men to be mind readers?” He then followed up with his reason for asking: “My wife has been grousing around lately. She finally erupted, ‘Just once I'd like to come home and find you made the salad for dinner!’”

He responds to his wife, “You want a salad? Call/text/e-mail and it's yours!” To which [the wife] replied with those killer words, “I shouldn't have to!”

I have sympathy for this man, but Carolyn Hax is not nearly so understanding in her response to him:

“Why do people attribute to an entire sex the behavior of one person?” Hax is calling out the guy for making a broad generalization and based on his question using her own broad generalization.

She defends the wife by saying the husband should “see her as a person . . . like you.” Well, duh.

Hax, being female, gives the feminine perspective on this: “. . . your wife has an idea of the way a romantic relationship is supposed to look. Apparently, she believes a loving mate will study her wants and needs, and then step up wordlessly to satisfy those needs.”

Toward the end of her lecture she tells the man, “. . . so ask her what the salad thing is really about — feelings, not food. “I feel discouraged/frustrated/lonely, and here's why” invites you into each other’s thoughts. That's what intimacy is about.”

Without answering the man’s question directly, Hax has gone over to the woman’s side and basically told the man he should be able to read his wife’s mind by knowing that the “salad thing” is not the real problem, it’s that he won’t find out what’s really wrong with her. And the poor man is left more puzzled than ever, compounding the mysteries of his wife’s behavior with the answer from another female.

A guy can unknowingly upset a wife who looks at him while he is grimacing and thinks the grimace is directed at her. Suddenly she may withdraw into a zone where she could be thinking, “What did I do to make him angry? Why did he give me that look? Did I under cook the fish we had for dinner? Is he upset with me over spending too much money? Why won't he say anything to me? What did I do and why won't he tell me?” Actually, he’s grimacing because he just saw on the TV listings his favorite Thursday night show, Survivor, has been canceled for an ice skating special. It would be great if he could read her mind and tell her, “Hey, honey, that sourball look wasn't directed at you, honest. I’m not mad at you and the fish you fixed for dinner was delicious!” He'd be a lot better off, because later, when he decides he’d like to get romantic with her she will turn a cold shoulder and then he’s left to wonder, “What did I do?”

He may ask, “Honey, what's the matter. Is something wrong?” to which she will probably respond, “Oh...it's nothing...I just have a slight headache...” rather than address her concerns. In this way the simplest misunderstanding can escalate.

Decades ago my wife and I had talks about this very thing. Many women who detect feelings with a finely-tuned female radar, expect men to be the same. We’re not. Men just have a different way of communicating than women, and the sexes often misunderstand each other. Men have a much more direct way. My old Army sergeants told me in no uncertain terms what they wanted, man-to-man; no non-verbal communication there.

I’m not surprised the man writing to Carolyn Hax assumes that women expect men to read their minds. In a way they do, because as Hax admits they expect their significant other to be responsive to their feelings and needs. Some simple advice for both men and women: it helps to tell your partner what you want. A simple request from her, “When you get home from work I’d appreciate you getting the dinner salad. It would help so much.” The guy can then say, “Sure! You want vinaigrette dressing on that?” and she can say, “I'd like Italian, because I’m fixing pasta.” Great. The guy has clear cut instructions. He’s thinking, “I know what I’m having for dinner and all I have to do is fix the salad,” and the wife is thinking, “Maybe tomorrow night I can get him to take out the garbage!” He probably will, too, if she doesn’t expect him to look into her brain and see what she wants.

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