Learning to Listen More, Trying to Fix It Less
Crises are opportunities to learn more about love and life. Carlin and I have been dealing with a crisis that began on March 20, 2023 when she slipped on a wet sidewalk and called me. “I fell. I need help. I’m near the corner of Mendocino and Redwood.” Luckily she was only a few blocks away and I got to her quickly and with help of a neighbor who happened to be an EMT we got her in the car and to the ER at Howard Hospital, which was only five minutes away.
In Part 1 I described the initial stages of the partial hip-replacement surgery and the small stroke that occurred during surgery that caused some memory and speech problems. In Part 2, I talked about the intimacy and exhaustion that comes with 24/7 home health care. Being a Caretaker was a new role for me and in Part 3, I described the deepening of our love that has occurs once I wholeheartedly embraced the calling.
Here, I want to talk about the challenges of letting go of the “fixer” role that has been so much a part of my identity for so long. As a therapist and marriage and family counselor one of the main complaints I hear from women is that
“he doesn’t listen to me. He always wants to fix me before I can even tell him how I’m feeling. He makes it all about him, when I need him to tune into me.”
Like most challenges as a therapist, I’ve found it much easier to help other men become better listeners than to make the changes in my own relationship. I learned my “fixer” role early. When I was five years old my father was hospitalized with what was called “a nervous breakdown,” which I didn’t understand. My uncle Harry went to visit my father every Sunday and my mother wanted me to go with him. It didn’t occur to me to ask why my mother didn’t go, but being the dutiful son I was at the time, I accompanied him.
“Why do I have to go,” I asked, in a shaky voice, holding back my tears.
“Your father needs you,” he told me. His voice was serious and his eyes told me I had an important job to do.
“What’s the matter with him?” I wanted to know.
Silence. In our family we didn’t talk about such things.
I went with my uncle for a full year trying my best to fix whatever the problem was with my father. Like most children, I felt somehow responsible for my parent’s pain, that it was my job to fix it. In my childhood fantasy, I feared if I didn’t fix my father and be the “good little man” my mother expected me to be, I wouldn’t survive. If I could fix things, everywhere would be happy and our lives would return to normal and I could be a kid again. Many of us are forced to give up our childhood at a young age and become the “adult” to parents who are dysfunctional in one way or another.
It’s Not About the Nail: You Always Try and Fix Things When I Really Want You to Listen
There is a Youtube video that has always given me a laugh, appreciation, and insight. It’s Not About the Nail helps us better understand communication, listening, and the ways men often get so focused on fixing things, we don’t take time to listen. What I’ve learned about listening from this short video and how I can apply it to being a better husband.
- When my wife is upset, in pain, or unhappy, I immediately go into “fix it” mode.
It hurts me to see someone I love in pain and I feel I must make the problem go away. Whether I had anything to do with the problem or not, I feel it is my duty to fix it. Although the problem may be minor or serious, if I don’t fix it quick I think something terrible will happen. I act like it is a life-or-death event that only I can fix. There isn’t time to hear her feelings. I must act now.
What I need to remember to do: Take a deep breath…and then take another deep breath. Take at least three, before I open my mouth. There is a book I recent bought and am reading called STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World by Dan Lyons. In the introduction, Dan speaks truth to my fix-it-mode mind.
“I’m telling you this as a friend, so please don’t take it the wrong way. But I want you to shut the fuck up. Learning to shut the fuck up will change your life.”
It has certainly helped improve my relationship. Sometimes I have to, literally, bite my tongue to keep my immediate reaction to say something helpful. But with practice, it gets easier.
- From my perspective, the problem seemed obvious, and the solution self-evident.
Not only with clients I have seen over the years, but with my most intimate relationships, the problems the woman was dealing with seemed obviously harmful to her. The solution to her problem seemed obvious to me. I just had to give her the solution or solve the problem for her and everything would be fine. Often the solution I offered had to do with treating me nicer or for her to stop doing something which was obviously wrong.
I was sure I knew best and if she would just accept the logic of my solution, everything would be fine and she would thank me for my wisdom. This perspective never seemed to work. Too often I assumed the reason it didn’t work was because she was…pick a word, too– emotional, stubborn, foolish, confused, resistant, etc.
What I need to remember to do: Let go of my obsession to be right, so that I will be loved. I need to let go of my inflated ego that tells me I know best and if I tell her the right answer to her problem she will thank me in the long run. That approach rarely works for children and never for adult women. Even if the problem is obvious and removing the nail will help, my repeatedly telling her will only bring the response, “It is NOT about the nail.” And it really is not about the nail, it is about listening and respecting the one you love.
- Though I would deny it, there is big part of me that believes that men know best.
Like everyone I grew up in a society that has a bias in favor of one sex–during my formative years it was usually men—and under stress I usually default to my male biases. I still am influenced by my childhood T.V. heroes who were almost all males and shows like Father Knows Best. Consciously, I know that is hog wash, but deep down inside I carry the responsibilities of the world on my shoulders and if I don’t know best I better “fake it, ‘til I make it.”
What I need to remember to do: There are certain things I am better at doing and certain things Carlin is better at doing. But life is complex, problems have multiple causes, and solutions work best when we figure things out ourselves or we ask for help and are willing to listen to the person who gives us the advice we are asking to receive. When I am convinced I know best, I don’t wait to be asked, I just jump in and give her the benefit of my manly life experience, as though her womanly life experience didn’t count. Learning to listen to my wife requires that I quiet the voice in my mind and tell it to just, please, S T F U.
As always your comments are appreciated. I need all the help I can get. Come visit me at www.MenAlive.com.