When a man tells a friend that he is having trouble with his carburetor, he expects that the friend will either take a look at his car or recommend a qualified mechanic. He does not expect the friend to ask, “How are you feeling about that?” In general, a man will mention a problem only in order to seek assistance with it. From an early age, men are expected to
fix things, take care of things, deal with things. Some of my clients. who have achieved considerable success as a result of their problem-solving skills, have difficulty understanding why these skills don’t serve them well in personal relationships. They don’t see that when their partner complains about a problem with her boss, for example, the proper response is not “Here’s what you should do,” but “Tell me more about that.”
A number of women have told me that they often use conversation as a method for clarifying their thinking. The notion of talking through a problem in order to determine what you think strikes most men as incomprehensible, if not loony. “If you don’t know what you think,” they would ask, “Why would you even open your mouth?” If there’s a problem, they would maintain, fix it. End of story.
My counsel to champion fixers does not require changing their approach to the world. The skills that have brought success in business frequently transfer to many other areas of life. Relationships, however, have a different set of rules. I encourage male clients to think of a relationship as a foreign country whose customs they need to master in order to gain permanent residency.
Instead of rushing in to fix a partner’s problems, they might think of themselves as attending a performance in a small theatre whose actors are wrestling with problems onstage. You’re sitting so close that you could easily offer them advice, but instead you consider the possibility that the playwright is presenting a commentary on the problem-solving process, so you sit back and observe how the situation plays out.
Or these fixers may usefully think of themselves as genies, summoned to offer three wishes. A genie must be asked before taking action. Seeing a partner in trouble, they can appropriately ask, “Would you like me to help?” But if their partner declines the offer, their role as problem-solver ends. “But what if I already know the answer?” It doesn’t matter. “But what if I’m a lot better at this than she is?” Same answer.
Often women seek emotional support from their partners, which is not the same as problem-solving. It may be a cliché to ask “How do you feel about that?” but often an acknowledgement of and respect for a partner’s feelings will contribute much more to the relationship than a solution, no matter how brilliant. For in this realm, the most important thing is not the problem but the relationship, and emotional support can strengthen a relationship in ways that simply fixing a problem cannot.
For over-eager fixers, the best advice may be to engage not with the problem, but with the partner.
Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.
Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.