This series has been designed to equip engaged and newlywed couples—and anyone else trying to create a great marriage! Over 18 years of research and 12 nationally-representative studies with more than 40,000 men and women, we’ve identified some of the most simple but essential factors that couples need to know. This is the fifth and final article in the series. Share it with those getting married!
I still remember staring in disbelief at the man across the table, as he answered what I thought was an innocuous question: “What would you be thinking if this was you, in this scene?” I was writing a novel, and one of my main characters was a man. I needed to capture what he would be thinking in a few quite personal scenes, but realized I had no idea what that would be! So on the spur of the moment, as Jeff and I were out to dinner with another couple, I described a scene in the book and asked what the other husband would be thinking in that situation.
He began sharing a few things and I was shocked. So was his wife. “What?!” “You’re kidding!”
I can also remember that man and Jeff looking at each other, confused. “What?” they asked, clearly surprised that we were surprised. “Of course that’s what we would be thinking.”
That one conversation led me to ask the same question to another male friend. Then another. Then I started asking the waiters who served the meals, or the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport. Over and over, I heard similar thoughts and feelings that lived deep inside the hearts of these men, that impacted them every day—and thus their wives or girlfriends every day—that the women in their lives had no idea even existed.
Those conversations started me on a path I could never have imagined. Very soon, I found myself being mentored and guided by Dr. Charles Cowan, the former chief of survey design at the U.S. Census Bureau, to conduct several nationally-representative surveys of men across the country, which informed the book For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men so other women could hear these things and investigate whether they applied to their husbands or boyfriends. Then we conducted a nationally-representative survey of women, for For Men Only, to even things up and uncover what men needed to investigate about their wives or girlfriends.
Then the research expanded. Under Dr. Cowan’s guidance, Jeff and I began studying teens, men and women in the workplace, and married couples. Then we started to explore marriage issues like money, and sex, and other topics like mental health. As I write this, 18 years later, I’ve conducted 12 national studies with more than 40,000 individuals.
And in all that time, I have seen no single issue more crucial to creating thriving marriages and preventing avoidable problems, than understanding the common insecurities and needs that hide down deep in our hearts. Some of these apply to all of us equally across the board (we all need affirmation, for example). But some, statistically, tend to be different between men and women (such as what type of affirmation most touches the heart).
Everything else I’ve written about in this series is important for marriage: the key factors for thriving in communication, money, sex, as well as the power of generous assumptions. But without knowing the hidden things deep in the heart of your spouse, you’ll be building good habits of action without understanding the why. Without really understanding the inner life of this person you are married to.
In other words: You have to truly learn your spouse—and be willing to consider that what matters most to them (or most hurts their feelings) might potentially be quite different than what would matter to you.
Here are three crucial truths to help you get started.
Truth #1: We need to respect the fact that some differences do exist, even if we can’t understand them perfectly
Today, exploring male-female differences can feel problematic. Do differences between men and women even exist? Is gender just a construct? Does acknowledging gender differences risk a slippery slope to implying inequality?
Believe me, I get it. I’m a strongly “girl power”-oriented personality and when I first started learning this stuff, I had all those concerns and more.
But as a researcher I began to see the existence of gender and certain gender differences as like gravity: I may not always like it, or fully understand it, but it just is. And to the degree that certain differences do exist between a husband and wife, working with the differences will help a couple thrive. While refusing to acknowledge the differences because “it shouldn’t be that way” will lead to the relational equivalent of leaping off the roof because gravity “shouldn’t” exist—and ending up in the hospital.
I should point out, it is just as important to acknowledge the clear and obvious “gravity-like” facts that a) many things are not gender-related (for example, on financial matters, men and women are almost equally likely to be spenders and savers, despite the stereotype otherwise), and b) the gender differences that do exist are not universal. In fact, across all our studies, roughly 25% of respondents were exceptions on any given surveyed topic. In other words, around one out of every four people didn’t feel the way that most of their male or female peers did. We must never claim “all men feel X” or “all women think Y” because that is just as untrue and damaging as saying the differences don’t exist to begin with.
We need to use the statistical differences as a starting point for investigating and learning the person we are married to.
So what are some of the most important differences? The next two truths will help you begin the conversation (“Is this true of you?”). If you want to go further, I strongly suggest you read For Women Onlyand For Men Onlytogether and discuss what does and doesn’t apply in your heart and your marriage.
Truth #2: We have different core insecurities—which means different things will hurt our feelings
Early in our marriage, one of the things that most puzzled me (and, if I’m being honest, at times irritated me) was: Why did that make him mad? All I did was ask some “minor” question or rib Jeff a little when we were at a cookout with friends, for example, and suddenly he would shut down.
Similarly, many a man has told me something like this one thirty-something man married 5 years: “She can get upset at something that isn’t a big deal and wants to talk it out when I’m mad and just want to be left alone. Don’t get me wrong: she’s awesome. But when I can’t talk, I can’t talk, you know? And sometimes it feels like she is testing me, and I don’t have a lot of patience for playing games.”
It turns out that what is often running underneath these patterns is anything but “minor” or “not a big deal.” Because a husband and wife frequently have two different sets of core insecurities. These vulnerabilities in our hearts operate like a hidden, raw nerve that we can easily trigger and hurt our spouse—because we didn’t even know it was there!
For women, across all our surveys, the question or insecurity tended to be: “Am I loveable? Am I special? Am I worthy of being loved for who I am on the inside?” And this vulnerability doesn’t go away just because a woman gets married to a great guy. It just morphs to “Does he really love me? Is he glad he married me?”
Here’s an example: Suppose Rachel and Dale get into an emotional conflict, and he gets angry and heads downstairs to his home office. In Rachel, the nerve has been hit. So as Dale disappears from view, his face tight, her gut may be roiling with one question: Are we okay? Dale doesn’t realize that (he’s just trying to cool off, and hoping she’ll cool off) but for Rachel, as for many women, this is a truly uncomfortable, painful feeling. It is not “minor.” It will probably keep roiling until she is reassured.
Thus, it makes all the difference if Dale will say, before he heads downstairs, “I just can’t talk. I’m mad and need some time to cool off. But we’re okay. We’ll talk later.” He has just soothed that raw nerve and sent the message “Yes I really do love you”—which is what her insecurity is subconsciously doubting.
For men, across all our surveys, the question or insecurity was usually not “Am I loveable?” Instead, it tended to be: “Am I able? Do I have what it takes to be a good husband/dad/salesperson? Am I any good at what I do? And this vulnerability doesn’t go away just because he is a great husband or has the best sales numbers in the region. It just morphs to, “Does she think I’m doing okay as a husband or father? Does she look at what I do and say it is good?”
For an example, let’s consider what might have caused the emotional conflict above. Suppose Rachel asks Dale to take their toddlers with him when he goes to the grocery store, since she’s about to hop on a Zoom meeting. When he gets back, she sees them shivering and asks, “Why on earth didn’t you put on their coats!?” In Dale, the nerve has been hit. His gut is roiling with one thought: I’m a total failure. She thinks I’m incompetent as a dad. For Dale, as for many men, her comments aren’t “minor”: even though he may not be able to articulate it, this painful thought is truly where his mind goes.
Which is why he may say something that makes her hidden insecurity worse (“Well, don’t ask me to handle the toddlers next time, since I can’t do anything right”) and the emotional argument unravels from there.
Thus, it makes all the difference if Rachel will realize that she just said something painful and soothe the raw nerve: “I’m sorry. I really appreciate everything you do for the kids—and for me. I was confused and worried, but I shouldn’t have snapped at you. Thanks for taking them.” She has just soothed that raw nerve, and sent the message, “Yes, I really do think you are a good father”—which is what his insecurity is subconsciously doubting.
It is crucial to emphasize that just because men and women tend to feel certain insecurities more acutely, it doesn’t mean that we don’t feel our partner’s insecurities at all! To some degree, we all share the doubts and worries that come with being human. But these are, statistically, those feelings that men and women seem to feel most acutely.
The amazing thing is, though: these vulnerabilities also present an opportunity to care for our spouses well. That is our final truth for today and is the key to unlocking your spouse’s heart.
Truth #3: We have different core needs—which means different things will say “I care”
These raw nerves have a flip side. Just as they can be “hit” and cause pain, they also present an opportunity to make your spouse feel very loved.
Think about something you personally are insecure about. Think about how you would feel if your spouse in some way sent this message: “This thing you’re so insecure about? You don’t have to be. You’re amazing.” There would be a very deep emotional impact, right? You would feel cared for.
As you can imagine, this is our chance to try to build our spouse up in a really powerful way. (Editorial note: this applies to the vast majority of marriages, but not all. Where there is abuse, a spouse could “try” forever and make no headway: they should focus on getting help, instead.)
Thus, because men tend to subconsciously wonder, “Does she think I am any good at what I do?” it is life-giving to him when his wife says simple things like “I’m so proud of you for working so hard for that bonus” and “thank you for helping the kids with their homework.”
And because women tend to subconsciously wonder “Does he really love me?” it is life-giving for her to feel pursued, through simple efforts like when her husband puts his arm around her when they are out at dinner with friends, or texts her during the day to say, “I love you so much. I was just thinking about you.”
We may rightly point out that women need to hear words of appreciation like “thank you,” too! And that men need to hear “I love you.” Absolutely! But what we’ve found is that the impact just isn’t comparable. It often feels really nice . . . where the words and actions that speak to the deep places of the heart feel life-giving. Like water to a thirsty soul.
So let’s be willing to see and respond to the thirsty soul of our spouse. Let’s learn a few things. Let’s lean in and care for them in the way they most need. And then let’s see what happens next. Because hopefully, the results we see will be the best possible incentive to continue—and be encouraged for a lifetime.
Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn are best-selling authors who speak at dozens of Date Nights and Marriage Events each year, conveying lots of practical encouragement with lots of laughs. Email NOwens@shaunti.com to explore what they might bring to your event. They live in Atlanta with their two young adult children. Sign up for Shaunti’s weekly blog (with new research and practical tips) at Shaunti.com.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Check out the online courses of Shaunti’s research and teachings at SurprisingHope.com.
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