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Are Men at a Verbal Disadvantage in Relationships?

Some men struggle to match a spouse’s verbal fluency in relationship talk.

Key points

  • Some male partners may lack verbal fluency when trying to describe their inner worlds to spouses.
  • Couple's therapy may be slanted toward the partner who can express their experience more clearly.
  • Some male partners can learn to speak the language of the relationship but may need patience and direction.
"Friendship" in traditional Chinese characters
Source: "Friendship" in traditional Chinese characters

I see this happen all the time with couples. So much so that it’s almost a cliche, but that would imply it’s not real, and it is genuine and excruciating for both husband and wife in these situations.

The wife usually makes the same kinds of complaints: “He only wants to talk about his work.” “He just sits there.” “I have no idea what’s going on inside him.”

The husband often shares the same awareness as a man expected to be fluent in Chinese. Men may feel they’re disappointing their spouses and don’t know what to do about it. So they come dutifully to sessions, sit there mostly in silence and suffering,

What can be done about this? I think there’s a lot of room for a better understanding here. First of all, just as women rightfully complain about being expected to act like men in the corporate world when they have their own unique style and substance to bring to the board room, men have every right to expect patience and understanding from women in the relational field.

Men speak a different relational language; while they can be taught to “speak Chinese” to use the above metaphor, it’s not their native language and likely never will be. A man talking about his work is speaking his native tongue. He is also talking about himself—just not quite as directly.

The couple’s therapy field often feels slanted against men because it requires relational language, and some men aren’t as adept as their wives. It seems effortless for a therapist to learn more from a wife because she can be articulate and an advocate for her own experience in the relationship. Frankly, some women make the therapist’s job easier because they express themselves clearly and directly. To complicate matters, men will often put a bad face on a good case because they don’t know how to express their side clearly.

I’ve begun using the “learning to speak Chinese” metaphor with men because it helps them understand it is a foreign language they are being asked to learn. It also implies that it is something that can be mastered with commitment and diligence.

Men want to have happiness in their relationships and within themselves. If shown how to communicate in a way that isn’t shaming and blaming, it may be a surprise how well they can learn Chinese. Anyone who speaks a foreign language knows it reshapes the way you see the world when you have the vocabulary to express feelings fluently. By learning to speak Chinese, men are opened up to a whole new world—the one within themselves.

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