Women, you know what happens when you confide your troubles to your girlfriend. She drops everything and listens. She understands exactly what you’re going through, tells you your feelings are completely natural, and you end up having a good laugh. In other words, you get empathy, big time. It’s wonderful! You feel so much better! You might even wonder what the big deal was in the first place.
When you confide in your husband, you can also predict will happen: He’ll tell you how to fix your problem. If you’re one of the many Seattleites who, like me, are married to engineers, you can bet on it. This is not wonderful at all. You feel so let down. You’re sorry you brought it up. You both wind up massively frustrated. Since so many of us deal with this problem, I thought I’d give you some ideas for how to get the empathy you want from your engineer.
Let’s start by trying to see what’s going on inside each of you. You probably feel like he doesn’t care about you. And he’s not giving you what you need on purpose. It’s strange, isn’t it? When it comes to ourselves, we know we have habits that drive other people crazy, and that we blunder and hurt people’s feelings when we don’t mean to. But when others hurt us, it feels like they are in complete control and hurting us deliberately.
The moment when you need empathy is very fragile. It’s an emotional turning point. You’ll either feel a lot better or a lot worse very fast. If you feel in need, reach out, and then get THE LOOK, it really stings.
All partners of engineers know what I’m talking about. It’s that blank or frozen look that makes you feel he regards you as an inanimate object toward which he could not be more indifferent. The first time I saw my husband get THE LOOK we were in his car. I brought up something I was upset about and he stared out the windshield as though transfixed. I tried to figure out what was going on. Was he studying a traffic jam only visible to him? Did he suddenly develop an interest in bird watching?
Of course, I can’t say for sure what’s going on in your partner’s head. But from what I’ve learned from my husband, he’s probably not indifferent, he’s drowning. In feelings. Yes, feelings. Intense feelings. His fight or flight response is flooding him with stress hormones. It’s paralyzing his thoughts. It’s hard for him to describe how he feels, especially since he figures he has a good chance of saying the wrong thing and making you more upset.
Another possibility is that he’s steeling himself against feeling flooded because he’s been there before and doesn’t want to go back. That will definitely produce THE LOOK. If emotional conversations are your natural element, it’s hard to imagine how stuck he can feel.
At this point, it’s looking like a rough weekend ahead.
Where does this flooding come from? Ironically, it may come partly from his desire to be a good husband. He feels responsible for making you happy. Note the word responsible. Responsibility and engineers go together like software and bugs, and the thing they feel most responsible for is their families. He very likely feels unsuccessful as a husband if you’re unhappy.
Secondly, he feels useful when he’s solving problems and move things forward. When his friends bring up problems, that’s what they expect. You need him to meet you right where you are in order for your feelings to unfold and resolve. But this ‘stand still to move forward’ paradox goes against the grain for him. In fact, sometimes THE LOOK means he’s trying to think of an answer for you, so he can feel useful.
Thirdly, he’s an optimist. Talking about negative feelings feels, well, negative. Optimism follows naturally from being a problem-solver. His training has taught him a) There’s usually a solution, and b) There are many different ways to solve any given problem. By the way, this is one reason I enjoy working with engineers in general. When my client comes with an open mind and the belief things can get better, half my job is done. Plus, it’s fun to work with smart people. But enough about me.
With these possibilities in mind, it might be easier for you to imagine how “Just listen,” or “Don’t give me advice,” makes him feel blocked. He feels like you’re saying you don’t need him.
Instead, show him you do need him and how his empathy helps you:
“Remember when I got that awful performance review? You really understood how bad I felt. You made me feel like I wasn’t crazy. It helped me relax and calm down. Then I could start to think of a game plan. And once I feel understood, sometimes I do want to hear your ideas.”
It’s true we often want concrete advice-AFTER we get that double shot of empathy.
And don’t forget to tell him that with empathy, you get back to normal much more quickly, so you can enjoy your precious free time together. Now your weekend is looking up! Of course, now you have another problem: 3-D or romantic comedy? When I get that one figured out, I’ll let you know.
By Claire Hatch