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Saturday, February 22

The Words Your Upset Wife Needs to Hear

Not to be sexist, but…

My father is an inch shorter than my 6-foot 2-inch (188cm) mother. Despite the example of grandma and grandpa, though, amongst my siblings and our many children, nearly every opposite-sex attachment has involved taller males connecting with shorter females. My tall daughter shudders — literally — at the idea of dating average-height men.

Lesson? I’m not confident socialization is the most compelling explanation for gendered differences.
Little girl handing a flower to a littler boy
It’ll never work out. (Image credit:
Here’s my theory: There’s something fascinating and compelling about people who aren’t us. Perhaps that’s part of the reason most humans are drawn to people of the other sex: They’re mysterious, and mystery is interesting.

But here’s the thing about that mystery. While it’s interesting, it also leads to confusion and misunderstanding…and quite often, hurt feelings.

Problème de jour

It might surprise you how often counseling clients come to me with the same problems. One of the most common?
  • “She gets upset when I give her advice.”
  • “He doesn’t listen. He just tries to shut me up.”
The difference between sexes on this particular point isn’t just a sitcom tv trope — though it certainly is that. For clients who are hurting, it’s very, very real and very present.

During one couples’ session, Jill* told me she was incredibly frustrated that her husband, Owen, was such a stone-cold monster. Our conversation went like this:

“He has zero compassion. Zero! My mother had ovarian cancer, and I just found out that I have the BRCA gene. I’m devastated. You think he cares? He doesn’t have an ounce of compassion.”

Owen: “Are you kidding? As soon as we found out, I went online and did research. We talked for 45 minutes! I printed out four pages of documentation. You have a 75 percent chance of being safe. You buy lottery tickets where your chances of winning are less than 1 in 14 million! In fact — ”

Before he could say another word, Jill was shouting. “Listen to you! You’re quoting statistics at me! You’re a damned robot!”

It was my turn to interrupt. “Stop, stop, stop…Let’s slow down here.” They both slumped back, looking defeated.

Assume good intent

I looked at Jill. “Does Owen have good intent?”

Begrudgingly, she agreed that he did have good intent. “But his way of talking to me when I’m upset is terrible!”

“So he’s basically a good guy with a clumsy technique.”

She nodded.

“So if his technique were a little more empathetic, you’d be happy? Or at least, happy in the way he communicates?”

“It’d be a huge help.”

“If you want a better outcome, men, be willing to change tack. (Image credit: US Navy on

I turned to Owen. “I’ve got a tool, man. You game?”

“Sure,” he said. “Nothing else is working.”

Follow the script

I asked Jill to correct me if I got it wrong.

“Owen, you get to tell her all your statistics. I promise. You can tell her about your research, about your gut instinct, and even about your own emotions. OK?”


“Hold on. You already did that, I know. But here’s the trick. You can’t lead with that. That’s the second step. You completely missed the first step.”

I noticed Jill starting to smile.

Owen looked skeptical. “Go on.”

“The first step is really simple, and it works. Here it is: Put your arms around her and tell her it’ll be okay.”


“And nothing. That’s it. Do it again. Say the same thing six times if you have to. Keep saying it until she settles down.”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“She will. Guaranteed. And after she does, you proceed to phase two, which is where you get to quote statistics and spill your own gut.”

“That’s never going to work.”

Jill’s eyebrows went up.

So I asked her: “How would you respond if he did that?”

“That’s all I want!”

Owen wasn’t on board yet. He turned to her. “I’ve been telling you it would be fine. I quoted all the statistics proving it!”

“But you didn’t say the words.”

“You just want to hear words?”

Those words. And a hug.”

“You want me to tell you it’ll be okay? You want to hear everything will be fine?”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I want. I want to know you’re on my team, and that we can fix anything, and that you care!”

“You know I care!”

“I really don’t. You quoting me statistics sounds exactly like you don’t care. If you reassured me first, then I’d be happy to hear why you think it’ll be okay. But when you tell me why first, I feel like you’re dismissing me, and minimizing how I feel.”

Basic differences

I jumped back in. “Voila. When it comes to arguing, that really is the difference between men and women.”

We talked more about the idea that in both superficial and intimate relationships, men tend to start with a fact set; women tend to start with the emotional, interpersonal experience. Call it sexist, but it really is a whole lot easier to get women to discuss facts than it is to get men to discuss emotion. All it takes to shift women, to instill relational confidence, is a hug and a reassuring sentence.

Owen sat and digested this for a moment. But he still had an objection. “So what if she’s upset about me, instead of about something external? What if she’s mad because I’m late or because I forgot our anniversary or something? Won’t that sound condescending?”

“It could, if you’re not sincere. This isn’t a ‘shut her down’ technique, and if you misuse it, it will definitely backfire. So want to know how to do sincere?”


“You start with an apology — for your mistake if you made one, and for being at odds with one another if you didn’t. It sounds like this:

“‘I’m really sorry. I see how upset you are. I know the past can’t change, but let’s figure out how to solve this so it doesn’t happen again. Is that possible?’

“Only then, after the two of you figure out a solution, do you attempt to put an end to fight with the hug and reassuring words. Don’t do that part prematurely.”

Jill reached over and squeezed Owen’s hand. I was relieved to see him return the gesture.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book by LauraMaery Gold, LMFT. Read more at Publications page of The Relationship Institute.

 *All client names and identifying details are changed.

More from The Relationship Institute

More tips on holding onto boundaries while being a nice person. Read Just Say Yes. To Everything. Even Your Kids.

And read about a better alternative to venting in The Fast Fix for Spinning Thoughts.

AiKi Relationship Training uses a martial-arts metaphor to coach relationship, communication, and life skills. Visit our digital library, schedule training events, and sign up for our newsletter to receive free therapeutic advice for improving your relationships.

LauraMaery Gold, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with couples and parents. She is also executive director of The Relationship Institute and the author of oh-so-very-many books on family concerns. She lives with her husband in a 400-year-old castle just outside of Paris.