Guys, picture the scene. You have had a long and tiring day. So has your wife. You’ve made dinner while your wife corralled the kids for homework. After eating, getting the munchkins to bed, and cleaning up, the two of you finally have a few precious minutes of peace before bedtime. Maybe that home-improvement show will be just the mindless downtime you both need to unwind before you head upstairs to bed. Although, now that you think about it, maybe you should head upstairs for another reason . . .
And that’s when your wife, snuggling next to you on the sofa, says, “Well, I just found out that Mom is thinking of moving to warmer weather. I have no idea what we are going to do without her being here to watch the kids while we’re at work.”
And just like that, the night goes in a very different direction than you were expecting.
Why does it so often tend to work that way? Many men have asked me over the years, Why is it that my wife so often wants to talk about the deep issues of life, marriage, and family right as we are thinking about heading to bed?
I hear you. You love your wife and want to be there for her, but you find the timing very perplexing. An out-of-the-blue discussion of a major issue is not what most guys are planning on as their brain winds down to sleep. So based on many years of interviews and surveys of women, including for our book For Men Only, here is what I suspect is going on—and what to do about it.
Here’s the big picture: By raising this issue at this time, your wife is saying three things to you. Learn these and work with them, and you’re the hero.
She is saying: “I want to connect with you.”
What you can do: If possible, engage in the conversation without trying to hurry it along.
Now, you may have been anticipating an entirely different way of connecting! But tonight as you climb into bed, your wife says, “Honey, I’ve been needing to ask you about something. What did Jonathan say to you after you caught him looking at that inappropriate stuff on his phone?” Or “I got a call from the grandkids today. I’m really worried that Jessica and Doug aren’t taking them to church anymore.”
Here’s what you need to know: Although your wife is indeed wanting to discuss an actual issue (more on that in a moment), she is, first and foremost, wanting to connect with you. To the degree that you haven’t had time during the day (or several days) for an involved conversation, she has probably been feeling a bit distant. She has been storing up this topic in her heart, wanting to share it—not just with a girlfriend or her sister or with her journal . . . but with you. An out-of-the-blue deep question is a signal. It means that she’s looking for engagement. For time together. So to the degree that you can pivot and engage in the conversation without getting impatient or trying to hurry it along, it will make her feel loved and connected. Especially if you can listen to her feelings rather than racing toward a solution.
What if you can’t pivot? What if you’re exhausted and your brain is shutting down? The key is to explain that and then make a date (that you will proactively keep!) to have the conversation as soon as feasible. In other words, “My talk with Jonathan was good, but we have some follow-up to do. The thing is . . . right now, I’m so tired that I’m going to forget stuff. How about as soon as we get the kids off to school, let’s sit down and have some coffee and I’ll tell you all about it.”
She is saying: “In order to think this through, I need to talk it through—and I’d like to do that with you.”
What you can do: Cultivate understanding of how her brain works . . . and help her process out loud.
You may have seen from experience that men and women sometimes process emotions and thoughts in different ways. And in this case, actual differences in our brain wiring may be behind two specific things that are going on.
First, in general, most men (more than seven out of ten) prefer to think things through internally—in other words, think about something and then talk about it. Most women are the other way around—due to their brain wiring, most women instinctively want to talk something through in order to think it through. Which is why 95% of women don’t want a solution handed to them before they have had a chance to process and think out loud for themselves.
So if your wife is a process-out-loud sort of person, instead of you jumping straight to the short cut of the solution so you can go to sleep (“Well, let’s just offer to take the grandkids to church with us next week”) recognize how her brain works and that she is actively wanting to think it through.
She is saying: “This is bugging me and I can’t go to sleep until I figure out what would make me feel better.”
What you can do: Listen without judgment that she needs something to make her feel better!
The second way you see the brain wiring in action comes when the topic is something that is bugging her and she wants to process it so that she can go to sleep.
Briefly, imagine our brains are like computers with one or more windows open. In most cases (roughly 75%), men will have one mental “window” open at a time. It is as if you focus on that thought or topic, close that window, then open up the next one. It’s a very sequential process and, once bedtime arrives, you are generally able to close the last window and go to sleep.
Many women have a different experience. In fact, our research for For Men Only found that 87% of women have many windows open at once. All day, we women bounce back and forth between the thoughts we are processing. Did the kids finish their homework? Is my boss still upset at that error? Has the dog been out? Did we sign that permission slip? By the time we crawl into bed and try to close out our mental desktop, there is often a worry-window that has been sitting there all day, bugging us, that we haven’t been able to focus on yet. And if we don’t focus on it, we’ll probably be lying awake with our mind whirring for a while. Because unlike with the brain wiring of most men, the brain wiring of most women isn’t set up to easily “close out” an annoying mental window.
Your wife may be reaching out to you because discussing the issue will help her figure out what would make her feel better. This might mean that she processes toward a “solution” (as mentioned earlier) or it might simply involve her figuring out what would quiet her heart even if it doesn’t solve the actual problem. For example: “Maybe we should offer to take the grandkids to church at some point, but first . . . I think I just need to have a heart-to-heart with Jessica about where they are. This is a marathon and not a sprint, and I don’t want to come across as pushy.”
So guys, the next time the clock hits 11:00 pm, and your wife rolls over and wants to discuss something, understand that she doesn’t want to cause sleep deprivation! She is sending a signal that she is looking to you, the most important person in her life, for engagement on a topic that matters. If you can’t engage right then, she will understand—especially if you establish a pattern of following through on the conversation shortly thereafter. But no matter when you talk, the good news is this: your work to understand her will signal something as well—that you care.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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