My wife and I got married eight months ago. Whatever I suggest for the apartment — a paint color, a bathroom fixture — my wife immediately dismisses. For example, the living room couch she wanted was too huge for the space: a really awkward, uncomfortable fit. She kept ignoring objective facts about spatial relations — even after I pulled out a measuring tape and drew a schematic of the room. It occurred to me that her wanting it her way and ignoring my ideas are patterns in our relationship. This feels pretty bad.
There are those of us with special abilities in certain areas. Personally, I have a multi-decade track record in two areas: as a writer and as an automotive moron. (Lift your hood and I’ll identify all the parts: “There’s that round thingie and a bunch of intestine-esque tube-y thingies…”)
Hiring me to write something (ideally for dump trucks of money) suggests you have fabulous taste and superior intelligence. Hiring me to fix your car suggests you lack the mental firepower to pick your nose without assistance.
Men and women, in general, have different spatial abilities — in line with the sexual divisions of labor in the ancestral hunter-gatherer world: male hunters tracking and killing animals and female gatherers doing the “grocery shopping” 2 million-ish years before grocery stores.
Psychologists Irwin Silverman and Marion Eals find that women, across cultures, are vastly better than men — even 60 or 70% better — at “object location.” This is the ability to remember an array of objects in a setting, as well as their placement (relative to the other objects) — basically by pulling up a mental snapshot: “Those nice berries by the cliff; poison ivy near the river — by the dead tree where I found those yummo beetle appetizers.”
Men, on the other hand, are significantly better at “mental rotation”: turning a 3-D object around in their mind and predicting how the object would fit in a certain space — or hurtle through it. This skill allows the outfielder to catch the pop fly, but for Joe Loincloth, being ace at aiming his spear meant his family might dine on wildebeest mignon instead of mealymouthed excuses.
Granted, your wife — like most people — is probably not clued in to the wonders of evolved sex differences in spatial ability. However, you mention that her unwillingness to listen to you is a pattern in various areas of your relationship. And that’s a major problem.
Being ignored — especially by those who matter most to us — takes a bite out of our dignity. Contrast that with somebody giving us their attention — their full attention (meaning listening like we’re about to tip them off on tomorrow’s winning lotto numbers). They’re telling us they respect us. Whatever we have to say is important for them to hear.
That kind of listening doesn’t just come from the ears. Psychologist Carl Rogers, who used it with his therapy clients, described it as “active listening” and explained: “I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker.”
Listening deeply like this starts with setting aside the impulse to “win” — to hammer another person with what you believe. Admittedly, that can be a highly successful tactic — if you’re looking to persuade someone to bolt themselves even more tightly to their position.
Listening is a vital element of a healthy relationship — one in which spouses accept each other’s “influence,” explains marriage researcher John Gottman. This means each spouse makes the other a “partner” in their decision-making: respecting and honoring them and their opinions and feelings. For a marriage to thrive, spouses have to “share the driver’s seat.”
For your marriage to have a chance at thriving, your wife needs to see the benefit in acting as a “we” instead of pressing forward as a “me” (with a large piece of husband-shaped luggage). The direct approach — telling her she needs to change — is likely to be a fail, coming off as a threat to her getting her way and thus triggering not change but rebellion. Instead, tell her how you feel. (For example: hurt, disrespected, and embarrassed that your opinions seem of no interest to her.)
This should evoke her empathy — meaning make her feel bad that you feel bad — which could motivate her to take steps to change (which, by the way, would involve time, practice, and setbacks). Ultimately, she knows being a marital bully is way out of line — assuming her wedding vows didn’t include: “I promise to love, honor, support, blah, blah, blah — uh, providing my husband shuts his complainy yap about having to scale the Couch Alps whenever he wants to grab a beer out of the fridge.”
(c)2022, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail AdviceAmy@aol.com. @amyalkon on Twitter. Weekly podcast: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon
Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence,” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2018).