In the beginning…there was a him and a her – and nobody’s agreed on anything since. In this column, we present both sides, as if we may eventually come to a conclusion…you decide!
For most men (if my sample size and corresponding data ring true), there is for us, perhaps nothing more frustrating in an argument with our significant other, then the age-old response of being told “nothing’s wrong,” when clearly something is. Most of the time it goes something like this:
He: “What’s wrong?” She: “nothing.” He: “no really.” She: Really (while not looking you in the eye), He: “No really, I must know.” She: “I said nothing!”[(Etc., Etc., ad nauseam) squared!]. If this little skit alone is set to send you into a tailspin, rest assured that you are not alone.
First, if you’ll allow me, the harsh (and oversimplified) truth: we don’t care! I know it’s terrible, right? Still. You have to understand: as men, it is not in our DNA to be able to compute this ambiguous data. We are taught, from a very young age to speak up for what we want, assert our direction, handle conflict directly, etc. I can practically hear my father’s direction as I type. This does not mean we always do this, but it’s our aim, or at the very least what’s considered good and admirable amongst men. So, when you don’t say what’s wrong, we really cannot be bothered to pry it out of you (“at least, initially” he said, in attempts to be heard-out).
To take it a step further, consider this: If something is wrong, it is likely something I did. I, being me, likely did what I intended. So, if you are quiet about something, that something is likely in disagreement with me. If you are quiet about it, I am not responsible for changing anything, as for all I know…nothing is, in fact, wrong at all. So…exactly where is the incentive for me to pry it out of you? Ha! Brilliant! Oh, unless that is, the incentive is actually a healthy relationship that I would like to last longer than the ten minutes it takes you to pack your things and leave me. With that in mind, some suggestions for The Modern Fighter of Quiet, The Hero of the Unspoken, The Super Man-usurper of passive aggression, The…I digress.
I think it’s fair to say that for me, one that has already walked through the fire on this enough to have permanently-scorched feet, there are generally three phases of dealing with this. Think of this as phases in the progression of a married man fighting his natural instinct.
Phase 1: “No – pretty please, just tell me, I must know! Tell me, tell me, tell me!”
Pushing like this is generally a bad idea. You can do it if you want, but it is generally not recommended, as by the time she actually tells you, it may be in the form of an explosion. So, do this if you want an immediate answer—at your own peril—but be prepared to have all types of unresolved conflict and coffee cups simultaneously hurled at you in the process. Conclusion: Danger! This does not a happy couple make.
Phase 2: “Well if you are not brave enough to say it, that is your fault, not mine”
The downward spiral of this should be fairly obvious. This is only going to exacerbate to your partner as exhibition that clearly you do not actually care how they feel at all. Conclusion: While a welcomed short-term fix, bad long-term indicator.
Phase 3: The great pause button of a relationship.
…And then one day it hit me (or maybe she did—I can’t be sure). Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between one and the other. Maybe she is not, in fact, putting off or stifling her own voice in some way at all; additionally, it is possible that she is not ready enough to say it (or even, place it) just yet. It seems that sometimes, this is actually just a function in which to buy one more time to properly think about and process how she feels, so that she might not actually make matters worse. This makes a lot of sense, of course, given that we, as men, are not as likely to process how we feel at all. In fact, if you know how to do that, please write in and explain it to me—I jest! Conclusion: Welcome this time-out for all of the potential elucidation it might offer. In the end, the conversation will be the better for it. Unfortunately, it does mean that things may go unresolved longer than you would otherwise like.
So, in the end, the best advice I can give, is this: despite the fact that this great big relationship pause button may go against everything that is natural to you as a man with a want to fix the thing, it is in your best interest to let her tell you when, and if, she wants to. She will either decide that in the end, it is not important enough to bring up at all, or that it is; at which point she will deftly approach you in a way that tricks you into thinking she was right (JOKING). Either way, hitting pause for a bit may just be the best thing for you.
Editor’s note: Please pay no attention to the fact that in the end the man comes to exactly the same practical outcome as he would have, had he just listened to his wife in the first place. (This is clearly a misrepresentation of the data.)
Men have been searching for the one sentence to explain all that seems to lie behind the response “nothing.” The most popular explanation is a quote from Homer Simpson: “when a woman says nothing is wrong, it means everything is wrong.” If you don’t communicate, help around the house and with the kids, give your wife special attention, or try to understand her needs, like Homer does to his loving doting wife Marge, then yes, everything is wrong. ‘Nothing’ is me giving up.
I can’t generalize and say that every time I say “nothing is wrong”, or any woman says it, that there is something fundamentally wrong with our relationship and everything feels off. There is no one definition, or Holy Grail, that will explain this ambiguous and seemingly loaded response. I have my moments, when I’m tired, hungry or just plain grumpy, nothing is wrong, but I’m not feeling like myself right now. This is the first level of nothingness. No one has made a transgression against me and I’m not harboring any angry feelings. It’s not that I don’t want to talk; there just is nothing to talk about. All I need is a hug, or maybe a spontaneous dinner out for a change of scenery.
Take it up a notch to where I’m having a bad day, but I don’t want to let it all out, and end up being the whining wife. Men are so good at internalizing their emotions without letting it affect their day. Mine may be more obvious, but that doesn’t mean I need help working through my internal discovery. I just need you to help a bit with the housework, or give me extra loving attention (not that kind!) to remind me how special I am.
These first two scenarios have nothing to do with you. It’s all about me and things happening in my life that I need to work out on my own. I need your support, but not your advice. Your insistence that it’s about you, and our relationship, makes me wonder if you’re the one with something to hide.
No doubt, there are times when I say “nothing, I’m fine”, but there is something festering in my mind, eating away at our great love. I can’t just unleash a gush of emotions, because I believe you will judge what you have difficulties understanding. I probably also remember all those times I tried to talk to you about how I’m feeling, and your eyes glazed over as you timed your “uh huh baby” just right, even when I get to the part where the monkey did the Macrena on my head. If you aren’t listening, I’ll stop talking. At this point, you’ve entered a danger zone where signs of affection are not enough. I need you to show me you want to listen, understand and fix the problem, without making me feel petulant and peevish.
If my significant other is given a ‘nothing’ response in anger, and with an incredulous look, it’s my way of saying “you should know exactly what is wrong and by asking that question you’ve made it infinitely worse”. At this point I’ve dropped hints, made comments and shown my displeasure at the thing that is bothering me most. Asking “what’s wrong” shows me that you have ignored everything I’ve been trying to tell you, and makes me feel like there is nothing more I can say or do to fix the issue. Men, at this point your best bet is to try as hard as you can to figure out what is the matter, and go back to your significant other with an acknowledgement of the problem and a way to solve it. Brownie points if you can fix it first then have the conversation.
If you decide to just ignore everything until I come to my senses and I am able to simply communicate with you in a way you understand, you risk entering crisis mode. Or, the ‘Homer Simpson’ mode, where everything is wrong and with that one word I’m letting you know that I can’t tell you what’s wrong through words or actions, and I can’t begin to think how to fix the problem. It has, at this point, grown so big in my head I don’t know where to begin, or if I even want to.
So men, listen from the get-go and try to understand those little signs we women throw around. Never, ever make her feel like what is happening inside is insignificant or petty. If you don’t want the ‘nothing’ response, you have to give time and attention to the relationship. Let her know that her feelings have been heard by making small changes, or drastic ones if need be. If you do that, you will get everything.
He said/She said is a bazaar column resurrected from old issues no doubt just to see us fight in the office. It’s working.