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Women Want Empathy, Men Crave Affirmation

April 18, 2017 | by Emuna Braverman

My new insight regarding differences between my husband and me.

I thought I had figured out all the differences between men and women, but I realized a slight variation on a theme the other day.

I was detailing to my husband all the preparations involved in getting ready for Passover – not just the constant trips to the grocery store, not just the trips to different grocery stores because each one is missing just the product you need and an expensive item is on sale somewhere else, not just the menu planning, not just the kashering of the kitchen, not just the fact that my oven broke just as I was about to engage in the aforementioned task (thanks for asking; it’s fixed now by the kind handyman who came Saturday night!), not just all the cooking, the serving, the dishwashing and repeat – but also the psychological toll, the obsessing about when to “turn over” the kitchen, what to serve that night, what the grandkids will eat the week before Pesach, when to clean the dining room and so on and so on.

When I paused to catch my breath, my husband responded with a vote of affirmation, “I am totally confident that you will get it all done.” And as supportive as they may sound and as reassuring as it may be to have his confidence in me, that’s not what I wanted! (Can you hear me screaming?)

I also knew that I’d get it done. I wasn’t concerned that Pesach wouldn’t happen. I wasn’t asking for affirmation; I was asking for empathy, for understanding of my psychological state. What I want to hear is “Wow, those are a lot of things to juggle at once! No wonder you’re overwhelmed (and impatient with me!)…” I don’t want nurturing sounds – not that kind of empathy – I want him to enter into the details of the situation and recognize the challenges.

Let me cite a totally different example. I struggle with my weight; my husband doesn’t. This isn’t necessarily a male-female difference but I think his response may be. I agonize over whether to taste that cookie or not – and then beat myself up if I do – and then complain to him. He is always flattering with the “you’ll always be beautiful to me” and “I never notice your weight” so it seems churlish to complain. But I want him to enter into my struggle. His attitude is “Stop kvetching. If you want the cookie, eat it. If you don’t, don’t.”

I want him to understand the struggle – the sense of success when I do, the sense of failure when I don’t (okay I’m a little nuts and maybe this is TMI), that this is a deeply emotional issue with complicated psychological resonance. I want him to appreciate it’s hard for me. Again, he gives affirmation but not empathy. It’s true he’s never had this struggle but I want him to try to understand…

Why is this so difficult for the male species? The obvious answer is because they want affirmation. When he says to me that he’s overwhelmed at work and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get everything done by the necessary deadline, he doesn’t want to hear that I understand and it must be really challenging for him. He wants (which is what I tell him!), “You’ll get it done; you always do.” He then breathes a sigh of relief and walks away.

One of our female students took a test recently. This student is extremely bright and competent but she had been out of school for a while and was quite nervous about her performance. When she passed the test, my husband said, “I didn’t doubt for a minute that you would succeed.” While true, this was not comforting. What she wanted was, “I know this was really stressful for you; you must be so relieved that it’s over.” She wanted empathy with her inner psychological struggles, not validation of her competence.

This can be a small thing or a big thing, applied to important issues or small. It can be a source of frustration when not understood and a source of pleasure when implemented. I’m glad there are still new insights available regarding gender differences (what you might call variations on a theme) and slightly embarrassed that I’m still learning them…


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