Theresa came home from work complaining that her boss was making unrealistic demands. Her partner, Phil, immediately told her what she should say to him, how she should approach the subject, and offered ways she might lighten her workload. Theresa felt deflated, as though he hadn’t “heard” her.
Meantime, Phil complained to Theresa that he couldn’t seem to find time for the big renovation project on his home office. Theresa nodded and listened empathetically. She said she totally understood how it felt to be overworked and overcommitted. Phil felt as though he was talking to a wall.
What’s happening here? Well, it turns out that men and women seek, and also offer, different types of help. Theresa wanted to vent and she wanted sympathy — not practical solutions, at least not yet. Phil wanted Theresa’s ideas about how he might clear his schedule, not just someone to complain to. Both partners offered help, but not the kind their partner wanted.
Once you understand that “help” can sometimes be gender specific, you can be a better helper to your partner, and you can learn to ask for the type of help you really seek and need.
Having observed and interviewed hundreds of couples since 1986, I have found that happy couples have certain qualities in common. Among these is the feeling that their partner is there when they need them. If you want to increase the happiness in your relationship, learning to give and receive help is essential.
In Part I of this two-blog series, we’ll look at the issue of asking for help through the lens of gender differences. In Part II, I will show both genders five ways to ask for help.
How Men Offer Help, and What Women Want Instead
Relationship research shows that men typically like to give what we call “instrumental support” to their partners — the kind of help characterized by advice and answers to a problem. Men like to “fix” or “solve” the problem so that it goes away. So, if your partner is telling you about a difficult time with a client and you respond by asking her to make a list of the positive and negative things she likes about work or tell her how to negotiate a better contract, you are giving her instrumental support.
Interestingly, this type of support is not always effective for women, because studies find that women typically prefer to receive “emotional support” — the kind of help characterized by empathetic or comforting feedback. A woman wants to feel as if her romantic partner is on her side, but she does not necessarily want to take action right away. So, next time she is complaining, for instance, about a heated dispute with a relative and you want to show your support, try just listening to her, and then console her, or tell her how difficult this problem must be for her, or simply let her know you can really hear and relate to what she’s feeling.
How Women Offer Help, and What Men Want Instead
Women are great at giving emotional support, but it’s not always what the man wants. When a man is having a bad day at work, research indicates that the most effective way she can support him is to give him advice and try to solve the problem with him. Instrumental support is not the same as solving the problem for him. It means he wants concrete feedback and validation during his own problem-solving process. As the partner, you might listen to his laments, and then say, “Are you going to bring this up with your boss? How do you think he’ll approach it?”
Give the Type of Help That’s Needed
Always bear in mind that the type of support you give to your partner must match the type of support your partner wants to receive; otherwise, it is not supportive or very helpful. Men and women, at different times, may crave either type of support — instrumental or emotional. I always tell my clients and workshop participants that the next time your partner is in need of support, ask him or her, “Are you looking for some practical advice, or would you prefer that I just listen?” Asking them which type of support he or she wants is an act of real sensitivity and caring.
In Part II, you’ll learn five ways to ask your partner for the type of help you crave.
Dr. Terri Orbuch (aka The Love Doctor®) is a relationship expert for OurTime.com, as well as a professor, therapist, research scientist, and author of 5 best-selling books, including “Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship.” Learn more about her at: DrTerriTheLoveDoctor.com.