Actions Speak Louder than Words

I learned something new about men this week. I’d like to share it with them. Guys, listen up: Women take your behavior personally. You know how, in every chick flick, women will take the tiniest thing, say the WAY a guy said something, not WHAT he said, and discuss, dissect and deconstruct it for the next 30 minutes? We really do this. Women spend hours on the phone, at brunch and in salons, discussing small details of masculine behavior because a) We are analytical by nature – we need to understand stuff and b) You don’t tell us what we want to know, so we have to guess.

So, over the millennia, women have developed interpretive skills. We’ve done this by discussing, dissecting and deconstructing your every move while we crouched in menstrual huts, ground wheat at the mill, drove rivets into B-51 bombers, and enjoyed a half-caf nonfat latte while texting at Starbuck’s. Are we obsessed? Pretty much. Is this adaptive? Probably not, but neither is throwing up when you’re pregnant, and we do that too. Is it important? Yes. I am offering you crucial information, so please pay attention.

Now, most of the men discussed in chick flicks are single. You don’t see a lot of married women interpreting spousal behavior on screen, mostly because the 18-35 set thinks singles make better entertainment. But that doesn’t mean that behavioral interpretation stops at the altar. I bet you thought so. Nope, we do it forever. Everything hubby does means something to us.

And that’s where you guys make your mistakes. In every marriage, each partner will do things that make the other crazy. That’s just marriage. But some of the things we do hurt you. And some of the things you do hurt us. And if you keep in mind that we continuously interpret your behavior and that actions speak louder than words, you can avoid the angry, tearful confrontations that result.

Here’s an example. Thursday morning, I had to do laundry. I am forbidden from carrying heavy loads while I’m great with child, so I dragged my laundry basket down the hall, bumped it down both flights of stairs, to the washer. I lifted the washer’s top and in it, there was a wet wash that my husband, Matt, had initiated the night before. I opened the dryer and in that, there was a dry wash that he’d completed the night before. So in order to start my wash, I had to first unload the dryer into his laundry basket, then switch his wet clothes to the dryer and start the dryer. Then and only then was I able to load my clothes into the washer. I grumbled as I did so, then tromped up the stairs, exhausted and out of breath. (I can work out for an hour and not break a sweat, but laundry and stairs completely wipe me out. Doesn’t make sense, but there it is.)

Exasperated, I emailed my husband and told him that if he wants to stay up until 3 a.m. (because he does) that’s his decision, but when he does it and I find routine household chores undone the next day, it frustrates me. Because somehow, factoring in two jobs, a two-hour nap in the afternoon and a 9:30 bedtime, I manage to shop, cook, change diapers, entertain our daughter, run errands and keep the kid and myself in clean, matching clothes.

So while I know that he spends less time at home than I do, he is here and awake from 6:30 p.m. until 3 a.m., amounting to 8 ½ hours in which he could complete those chores. And when he doesn’t complete them, it makes me feel like he doesn’t care about me because he expects me to pick up the slack or, if I refuse, I’m still angry all day. Ultimately, the message his neglect sends is that he just doesn’t care. I added in the email, that I wasn’t angry right then. I just wanted to explain how I felt because I want him to understand how his behavior affects me.

Well, he was pretty upset about that email. We talked about it that night and never reached a meeting of the minds. He said he forgot about the laundry and apologized and couldn’t understand why I kept pushing. Besides, he said, he’d gotten much more responsive with daily chores such as the dishes. I could not understand why he was upset when I was never, in fact, angry. My objective was to explain how his behavior affects my feelings and all I wanted was to make him understand. I also explained that when I brought up the dishes, I referred to an ongoing pattern that had revealed itself over years’ time. He took that to mean that I didn’t give him any credit for recent improvement.

Last night, as I brushed my teeth, I heard the garage door open. What’s he doing? I wondered. Rose was already in bed and the garage is below her room. We avoid using it when she’s asleep. Should I go down there? He could be fighting an axe murderer right now. Then, as I popped a zit, I heard him come down the hall. He opened the bedroom door, winded, and said, “Make sure you close the garage door when you come up. I found it and the door to the house wide open.”

“It was?” I said, “Oh, yeah. I left it open because there were groceries in the car and you like the garage door open when you unload. I’m sorry. I thought you’d be right down.” He’d forgotten to unload the groceries.

“Whatever, just make sure you close the door,” he said, as he left the room.

Well, looks like the shoe was on the other foot now. To me, leaving the doors open was an oversight, meant to be helpful, forgotten. To him, it was a grievous security breach. Truth be told, I’m glad he spotted it because I completely forgot and I don’t feel comfortable unless all the doors are locked either. But to Matt, my behavior demonstrated a lack of concern for his values and my family’s safety.

So it’s clear that both men and women react to spousal behavior as a personal affront. So where’s the chasm? Why can’t we think about each other when we leave the laundry undone or forget about the garage door?

The problem is that there is a chasm, but it’s not that obvious. It’s all about nuance. Nuance in the way we think and nuance in the way the world looks to each gender. “What the hell is nuance?” you guys are asking. Nuance refers to subtle differences that can completely change the message received. It is what women discuss when we dissect the WAY you said something instead of WHAT you said. “Oh, chick stuff,” you’re saying. Believe it or not, guys are intimately familiar with nuance, and you discuss it all the time.

Let’s say Ronnie Brown receives a long pass at the four-yard line. He bobbles it, recovers, then gets knocked out of bounds and the ball comes loose, landing in bounds. New England recovers it but the ref blows the ball dead. Was it a catch? The refs have to decide in seconds. Let’s say they call it a catch and Miami dinks it into the end zone. Imagine you are for Miami, and your bud, though you love him like a brother, loves the Patriots. You argue that Brown did, indeed, have possession because he recovered just before the tackle and your bud says no, he fumbled it and it should have been New England’s ball. You and your bud discuss this through the end of this game (Miami 21-14) and the next. You are discussing nuance. The subtle difference in this play, between a fair catch and a fumble – did he have possession or didn’t he? – is nuance.

With all of these subtle differences in the way we see things, how do we come to agreement? Based upon my conversation with Matt the other night, we probably don’t. What we can do is try to see our own behavior as an if_then statement. “If I leave dishes on the counter, then Maria will think I’m slacking and get all pissed off. Therefore I won’t get any tonight.” That is an if_then statement, followed by a logical (and accurate) conclusion. Ladies: “If I don’t close the garage door, then Matt will freak out. Therefore, it’s better for him to open it himself than for me to forget it again.” That’s also if_then statement followed by a logical conclusion.

It will take practice to think this way, but take heart. The “Actions Speak Louder than Words” doctrine works in a positive direction as well. I lost my job a few weeks ago. One of my first thoughts was, Oh, no, now we won’t have money for the fence. I’ve wanted a backyard fence since we moved in, so I can contain my daughter and keep her safe when we play outside. Without it, she hurtles toward the cliff, or runs out toward the road, stressing me out as I run after her. Being great with child makes this activity even more difficult. So to my great joy and relief, we’d planned to put up a fence this summer, before I lost my job.

I’d never shared the fence lament with Matt. Two days after I’d heard the bad news, Matt said, “I’ve been thinking about the fence. We can just buy it in pieces, whatever we can afford, and it should be done in a month or two.” I cried. For a long time. Matt knew how much that fence meant to me, and despite our financial concerns, he found a way to make it happen, job or no job. At that moment, and as the fence goes up, I am overwhelmed at how much he loves me, and I love him, section by section, more and more.

Communication between the sexes takes a lot of work and there’s a steep learning curve, but we maintain enough understanding to keep us together. And if that isn’t enough, we must remember that we love each other. Love fortifies our relationships enough to make us keep trying. And that’s the secret. That’s all we have to do. We may never get it right, but it’s enough for our partner to see that we just keep trying.

9 comments on “Actions Speak Louder than Words

  1. OK, I have to do it. I have to weigh in on this.

    Maria, you know you’re a good friend, and I think the world of you, but I respectfully must post something on behalf of the guys here. Don’t hate me.

    Let’s start with nuance. Guys don’t appreciate nuance, you say. (Even when it IS important to us, we don’t even realize it.)

    We understand nuance. The problem is that sometimes messages can be overly nuanced, or nuanced to the point where something is missing. Consider your post. You start the sixth paragraph saying “Angry, I emailed my husband and told him that if he wants to stay…” etc. etc. etc., and then, several sentences later, when you describe Matt’s strong reaction to that email, you say, “I could not understand why he was upset when I was never, in fact, angry.”

    Maybe that was just a typo, but I suspect it wasn’t. I have had arguments where what was being said seemed to change with the course of the conversation.

    That’s when nuance goes beyond nuance.

    But my main concern about your post is in hoping you understand that pointing out differences between men and women does not automatically mean one side or the other is right.

    I’m not talking here about the actions you and your husband took that annoyed each other — him leaving the clothes half done and you leaving the garage door open. I could see how both of those incidents were cause for complaint and anger.

    But look at all that you wrote about how women parse everything men say. Does that automatically make it right? More to the point, are we really obligated to stop and measure everything we do or say to make sure that there’s no way it could be interpretted as offensive, even if that perceived offense is far from what we were saying in the first place?

    Here’s an example. One woman I dated could get offended if I used a phrase like “Now that’s a horse of a different color.”

    “Are you calling me fat?” she’d say. (I swear this is true. You know who I’m talking about.)

    I would try to explain: “Of course not. I didn’t say YOU were a horse.”

    “But horse is on your mind. I make you think of a horse.”

    I could explain all I want that sometimes, for no particular reason, barnyard animals might pop up in my conversation. But no, my conversation was not allowed to include horses, cows, pigs or — off the farm and God forbid — whales.

    Because I had to be sensitive to the fact that, even though I explained that it wasn’t about her, and even though the context of the sentence in no way suggested that it was about her, she would see it that way.

    In another case, I pointed out a woman’s shoes at the mall because they were ridiculous, and my girlfriend said, “You know, when you point out someone else’s shoes, I feel like I should be wearing something like that, too.”

    No, I told her. Sometimes I’m making fun of what I see people wearing.

    But it didn’t matter. If I pointed, she felt the pressure.

    These are extreme examples, of course. The point is, guys want to be able to talk freely and they hope you know enough about them — that type of communication that goes beyond spoken words — that you don’t automatically lean toward interpretting their words in negative ways when there are perfectly neutral or even positive ways to see it.

    Now, I mean this within reason. Absolutely, guys can say some things that are absolutely cloddish. And I’ve heard women say some pretty callous things to me, too.

    Everybody needs to be aware of what they’re saying to a certain extent. And I’m sure women could respond with endless examples of dopey things a boyfriend or husband said.

    What I’m talking about is the over-analyzing, the compulsion to sift through their words looking for offenses. That’s what you seemed to be describing above.

    I hope that helps. And that we’re still friends.

  2. Ken, I love that you commented. There is nothing that I would like more than to have tons of comments on this page. Proves that people read it. And what writer doesn’t want to stir controversy?

    As for excessive nuance, I can understand your point. The truth is, sometimes our perceptions change over the course of an argument. I never said we were easy to figure out. We’re not. I think I made that point when I said we’d probably never completely understand each other. Maybe I didn’t. And thanks for pointing out that I said I was angry in the first place. You were so right that I changed that word to “Exasperated” because that really described my feelings more at that point. Angry was a convenient, if inaccurate, term. I was at the end of my rope and had to try to change something because if he kept leaving stuff undone, I thought I would lose it. But as they taught us at the newspaper, that’s too many words. So I skimped and look what happened. I appreciate your pointing it out, too because since I am my only editor, I miss stuff.

    On to the womens’ comments. I have to say that’s not exactly nuance. It’s insecurity. And as ridiculous as it sounds, if these women were insecure about particular things and made you aware of it, they were really asking you to avoid using the “offending” terms. And if you wanted to keep them around, you had to be aware of the things that bothered them. That said, I’m glad you’re not seeing these crazy bitches anymore and I hope you find a very sane, levelheaded woman who makes you happier than you ever thought you could be. But maybe there’s some value in your experience. Women’s insecurities run the gamut and according to our experience, we pick up these insecurities and never seem to shake them. We just have to look at our partner’s insecurities as a part of them, and recognize we have them ourselves. And they can run really deep so sometimes we just have no control and we ask you to tiptoe around them. For example, because of my abuse history, I hate being seen as a sex object (talk about ridiculous – I’ll send you a recent picture). Anyway after 5 years, I explained this to Matt and said that when he called me “Sexy” it brought up all of these old feelings and I just felt like that’s all I was good for. So he agreed to switch to “Beautiful.” It sounds ridiculous. He meant “Sexy” as a complement, but I couldn’t help the way I took it. And that’s just the kind of communication we, as a couple, need to have.

    Finally, I’m not saying all this interpreting is right. I said it’s probably maladaptive. I think if we didn’t spend so much time worrying about what men meant, we’d probably be running the world by now instead of you guys. Except that we have the babies and pregnancy can completely floor us. All I am saying is that we do it. We’ve done it for millennia and I doubt it’s going to stop.

    Thanks for your comments. Any insight into the male psyche is appreciated and quite useful. And of course we’re still friends. I love you, bud!

  3. I have to weigh in here too. The key to a happy marriage is a forgiving nature. Also, the ability to keep the big picture in mind at all times. My husband and I have been together for about 10 years and we are 2 very different people. One of the ways we are different is that he is the kind of person that can look at a mess and feel no compunction to do anything about it. I am not that kind of person. Not to say I am fastidious but in my 42 years on the planet I’ve gotten used to doing things a certain way, and one of the things I’ve gotten used to doing is washing dishes on at least a biweekly basis. One of the things that has bugged me about my husband since very early in our courtship is his evident ability to ignore the need to do dishes until every single dish, pan and pot in the cupboard is filthy, at which point, he will go out for dinner rather than wash them. Similarly, being out of underwear might not be a sign that laundry needs doing, but rather, a sign that it might be time to buy new underwear.

    These are deepseated character flaws as far as I am concerned, and yet, he is worth it all because I enjoy his company most of the time and besides, maybe I could ease up and we could compromise at doing dishes every couple of days.

    I am Felix to his Oscar. That doesn’t make either one of us right, it just makes us different. Vive la difference.

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