When Women and Men Struggle to Communicate

Mansplaining.

I know from experience that just seeing that word caused different reactions among readers who believe it exists or doesn’t exist, who find the term accurate or insulting, who now feel understood or irritated. And while this doesn’t capture the whole picture, the line of who reacted how can be drawn between female and male.

If you’re a woman, you’re far more likely to agree “mansplaining” happens, to say you’ve experienced it, and to object to its use. If you’re a man, you’re far more likely to disagree that it happens, to say you haven’t seen or done it, and to object to the use of that word.

But what if I told you that women tend toward a communication style that really irritates men? Have you ever heard a husband say, “I wish she’d just get to the point”?

Well, he’s got a point.

Women are more likely to meander in conversation, sharing personal stories, including details, and checking for understanding as they speak. We often do this because it’s not the point that matters as much as the connection we feel from interacting with the person we’re talking to.

But that’s not how many men approach communication. So it’s understandably annoying for him when figuring out the takeaway feels like an impossible game of Where’s Waldo?

Yes, we’re different.

I’m not highlighting “mansplaining” and “womeandering”—yes, I made that up, and it should totally become a word—to get us upset about the opposite gender’s real or perceived communication flaws. Rather, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how men and women discuss sensitive topics.

From blog comment threads to Facebook post replies to my own interactions with my husband, I’m reminded how much our distinct perspectives play into conversational conflict.

Men tend to be more to the point, even gruff at times, to offer direct advice, and to feel disrespected when their feelings or points are not acknowledged. Meanwhile, women tend to tell stories as a way to convey that someone isn’t alone, to offer more detailed advice, and to feel personally hurt when their feelings or points are not acknowledged.

What’s your communication style?

Does this describe all men and women? Of course not. As I often say, stereotypes exist for a reason, but they’re not all-encompassing. The gender continuum really looks more like this:

So you may identify strongly with what I said above (the ends), more in the middle, or in that overlapping part where you’re more like the other gender. Okay, fine. And just to be clear—not identifying with something labeled as men/women doesn’t make you any less masculine or feminine. God just made a variety of us. Still, it’s helpful to understand some generalities to communicate well with the opposite gender on social media and in face-to-face conversation.

And be sure not to take the stereotype for granted with your own spouse. Rather, ask your beloved which, if any, of the following common gender differences apply to them.

MENWOMEN
Converse for informationConverse for connection
Wants to get to the pointWants to share how she gets to the point
Talks more easily shoulder-to-shoulderTalks more easily with eye contact
Responds by offering solutionsResponds by offering sympathy/empathy
Display less tone variation and gesturesDisplay more tone variation and gestures
Views strong challenges as disrespectfulViews strong challenges as insensitive

How does this apply to real life?

If you went back and read blog posts I wrote specifically to women and others specifically to men, you’d see a difference in how I communicate. I also change my approach in the comments section depending on who I’m dealing with, which includes what I can glean about their background and personality as well as their gender. Because men and women tend to respond differently to different approaches.

But too often, we forget this in regular conversation—here on my blog and in my Facebook group, but most especially in our marriages.

Indeed, I was flummoxed this past weekend when I said something I thought was helping my husband and he felt challenged and disrespected. I didn’t intend that, but looking back, I can see how it came across to him that way. The gap in perception was mostly about gender communication differences.

What’s the solution? Well, we each need to give a little. But the burden to adapt seems to lie more with the speaker. That’s what you see over and over and over in Scripture: commands and advice about how we speak to one another. Here’s a sampling:

  • Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23).
  • Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
  • Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).
  • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:19). 

We won’t get it right every time. It really is hard to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. But it’s worth trying, because by making that effort we show love and respect to others, avoid some unnecessary conflict, and experience our own personal growth as we become more other-focused and simply kinder in how we communicate.

What it all means when talking to your spouse.

Now scroll back up and look at the table on what men and women tend to do. This time, instead of seeing whether you identify with the gender you are, ask what your spouse is like and how you could change your speech to cater to their needs. What if you both did that? Wouldn’t your discussions immediately become more productive?

I’m working on this, and I hope you will too.

And if you’re looking for ways to have more productive conversations about sexual intimacy, check out my recent release, Pillow Talk: 40 Conversations about Sex for Married Couples.

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Related post: Why She Communicates the Way She Does (and It May Not Be What You Think) at Generous Husband

38 thoughts on “When Women and Men Struggle to Communicate

  1. Leslie

    My husband and I are definitely stereotypical in our communication styles as you described above, and I think we’ve made some progress towards understanding that about each other. I try to shorten my stories and accept his (in my opinion) gruff “how to fix it” responses. And he shows more patience with my spaghetti noodle stories than he used to — he used to have no patience at all and mostly ignored what I was saying. Now he tries to pay attention and sometimes even shows some empathy.

    What I struggle with here is that, even though I understand that we are different, I involuntarily feel very unloved after most conversations with him. I feel like he’s not really interested in my story, which he admits that he’s not, and therefore not interested in me. Like I said, I understand the differences and that his way of communicating doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me, but I can’t seem to shake an almost empty feeling I have after talking to him about something that I thought was interesting. My mind understands, but my heart hurts and longs for intimacy with him in a way I don’t know that I can ever have. I can’t ever just be me; I have to think constantly about where to shorten my story so he won’t lose interest, and I have to guard myself against the “fix it” answer I know is coming that I don’t want.

    Reply
  2. SCM

    After 23 years of marriage and more stress in life, my style has really irritated my husband to the point we have almost separated. We are working on it but it’s very hard to change perceptions. And yes I feel like it’s up to me to change so that I am not misperceived. It’s a lonely path however. But I’m accepting little by little that this is what God would ask of me and learning to seek Him first.

    Reply
  3. Bobthemusicguy

    Good article, J. Here are two other examples of communication gaps between groups and a couple of suggestions of a solution.

    I’ve studied languages most of my life, and when people with different languages try to communicate, there must be some give and take as they each try to help each other. Success depends on their priorities. Am I trying to prove something by insisting that the other person learn my language first? Or do we help each other and grow in relationship? When I was in high school, we hosted a German Air Force lieutenant. His English was better than my German, but we both had much to learn from each other, and we both got better in each other’s language. More important, a friendship grew through the effort.

    In churches, there is often a huge divide between groups who, often vehemently, insist on a particular style of worship, especially the music. I’m proud to be part of a church that goes out of its way to deliberately draw the body together in true blended, multigenerational worship. And all of us have benefitted. To be sure, every Sunday, there are songs that are going to not appeal to some segment. But we are committed to body unity. That means that all of us put ourselves aside sometimes.

    If we think of communication as sort of a dance, we learn about give and take. I learned square dancing as a kid, and through it a valuable lesson. At any given point in the dance, one person or couple are the focal point, and in the next figure, the same couple may be simply standing and watching. The constant give and take, the mutual submission in love, is the essence of unity, in a church, a friendship, and especially in a marriage.

    Right before Paul tells the Ephesians about wife’s submitting tho their husbands, he tells ALL believers to submit to ALL other believers in love and reverence for Christ. By recognizing the real general differences in communication you discuss, but then deliberately going about seeking to strengthen a relationship through mutual submission, husbands and wives together reflect the relationship between Christ and the Church.

    Reply
      1. Bobthemusicguy

        One other thought, from a secular movie, Arrival. The lead character, a linguist, posits that language is the foundation of civilization and is “the first weapon drawn in war.” Whatever the merits of the movie, the pont is well taken. In marriages that turn into war, language and communication, or the lack of these, or the misunderstanding of these, simply feeds the fire. But correcting this area is often the means to healing.

        Reply
  4. Tony

    Funny that I should run across the following today. A meme/image that describes the types of headaches people have.

    Migrane: picture of a small part of the head colored in red to depict areas of pain.

    Stress: picture of a small part of the head colored in red to depict areas of pain.

    When my friend tells a story about someone I’ve never met and includes names, dates and what they ate for lunch that day: Whole head colored in red to depict areas of pain.

    Reply
    1. Ashley

      Not that this is what this post is about, but the person who came up with that meme has never had a migraine. They affect the whole body!

      Reply
      1. J Post author

        Yeah, I’ve had one migraine in my whole life, and it was enough to make me feel loads of empathy for people who suffer from them. Awful experience!

        Reply
  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Great post, J. And, lucky(?) you, you’ve inspired a sonnet.

    Communication is a tool,
    something like a loom.
    It builds a product, as a rule,
    but connexion has to bloom.
    The threads of all our words
    on the speeding shuttle fly
    to kisses or crossed swords
    or tears from downcast eye.
    We want to see the picture
    but the only line of sight
    is by the sacred stricture
    of a tapestry wove tight.
    Our words must both hug and solve,
    and thus does God’s design evolve.

    Reply
  6. Chris Taylor

    Early in our marriage, my husband got particularly frustrated when I was giving one of my Rube Goldberg versions of a story. He finally told me I should just get to the point. I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about. I was just sharing about my day! What was this “point” thing he was talking about?

    We’re still trying to get this one right in our marriage. Most of the time I tell him in advance if my point is to feel heard. Our compromise is that I start with the main plot point that he would be interested in so he can just settle in and stop wondering when I’m getting to the point. He listens, and he agrees to wait at least an hour before trying to fix anything I shared. It isn’t ideal, but it’s what’s working for us now.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Great idea! I’ve heard it really helps those guys for their wives to start with main point, then go backward and fill in the gaps.

      Reply
  7. Bobthemusicguy

    An expansion of my language analogy above: When someone is yelling in Greek and the other is yelling back in Swahili, the answer is not to keep yelling and hope that somehow you can get resolution. You need a translator to help bridge the gap.

    That’s the role that folks like you, J, and other Christian marriage bloggers fill. And in the cases that need deeper help, a trained counselor can meet that need. If getting a translator is the obvious solution in diplomacy or business, how much more can we benefit from “translators” in our marriages? Once communication skills are honed and a couple are communicating successfully, the intermediary isn’t needed. And it’s not shameful to ask for help when it’s needed.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Great point! If you can’t even understand your spouse’s language, maybe it’s time to make an appointment with a professional counselor. They can help translate and help you rehearse ways to communicate more effectively.

      Reply
  8. Ashley

    I do get that men and women’s communication styles are different. But one thing I will never understand is that one spouse can work on things she is naturally not good at (physical touch) to speed her husband’s love language, and meet his need for connection, yet he won’t reciprocate with her emotional need of conversation and relational connectedness. Marriage should be mutual. I know my marriage was very toxic, and thankfully I’m out, but I wonder how often this level of selfishness exists.

    Reply
  9. Debi Walter

    J, This is so good. It fits right in with the Cherish mindset and learning to cherish mybspouse in a way that is beneficial to him, not me. I love the differences list and plan to share it with our Marriage Community Group.
    Thank you for putting the time and research into the Bible verses as well. This takes your point to the next level of conviction. It’s for Hig Glory that we learn to do this well.
    Now to put this to practice. 😎

    Reply
  10. Interrupted Wife

    My husband and I are direct opposite of the typical couple. One of the main things that is driving a wedge in our relationship, as far as I am concerned, is his constant interruptions. I can’t even get a complete sentence out to express my view on something without him interjecting and interrupting. So I have basically given up on communicating with him because i feel disrespected, not valued and not listened to. I have mentioned it every time it happens and yet he doesn’t seem to think it is that big of a deal and I should just get over it and that’s just how he communicates. That just drives a bigger wedge between us.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I read a great book by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., a long-time linguist, and she pointed out the issue about interruptions and how what that means is different in different cultures and families. In my husband’s family of origin, you didn’t interrupt, so he considered interruptions rude and disrespectful. But in my family, talking all over each other was viewed as a sign of interest and engagement, so if I did it to him, it wasn’t from a motive of disrespect. The answer for us was for him to understand that my motives were not bad, but for me to understand how it came across to him. Maybe you could have a discussion like that with hubby?

      And yes, I really try now not interrupt. I forget sometimes, but I try.

      Reply
  11. K

    I would say my husband and I are pretty well matched most of the time as far as communication goes.
    I do question some of the assumptions though. Many men have jobs where listening is a really important skill. A man trying to sell a house or a car can’t roll his eyes or cut off an overly talkative woman if he wants to make a deal. A physician who is perceived as being dismissive is more likely to be sued than his counterpart that makes an effort to listen to his patients. They’ll call their moms, friends etc. and have a conversation quite easily. But then they get so irritated with their wife who doesn’t get to the point right away? Sorry I see that as a choice.
    Do they do that to their kids also. My daughter used to have this habit of starting a conversation with “Did you know….and then she would bombard us with random facts about cheetahs, bananas the country of Italy” Wouldn’t the right thing to do is to listen patiently and not shut the your kid down even if you really not be bothered to hear about a dozen random facts about a cheetah?
    I wonder why on earth a man would marry a woman if hearing her talk about random things was just that irritating?
    I can say the few times in our marriage where I felt my husband wanted to shut me down verbally for reasons that weren’t obvious to me were deeply hurtful. Why on earth would a man think his wife would want to go to bed with him if she knows simple conversation is deeply irritating to him. She would feel deeply disrepected.
    My mom is much more talkative than I am. She is an elderly person and I am really her main support system. Sometimes I would prefer not to hear her go on and on. But she is my mom and I owe her some degree of respect.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      So what I’ve learned is that my hubby, and many husbands, are willing to listen to all that stuff IF you start with the takeaway instead of waiting for that until the end. It’s not that they don’t care, but it’s harder for some men to follow a conversation when they are actively looking for the point and the discussion meanders.

      Example 1: “I went to the store today, and I ran into my friend Susie—you know her from Little League—and she said that the city council is passing a resolution. They’re meeting sometime soon, but I don’t know when. Did you know Susie started working for Jim Taylor? I wouldn’t have expected that. Anyway, so Susie says that…” Having more of a single-task mind, many men find that kind of intro confusing, because they can’t figure out the point.

      Try instead Example 2: “I found out today the city council is taking up a proposal to re-pave the main road in town. I was at the store when I ran into Susie, who told me. Do you remember her? Her kid was in Little League with us. Anyway, she was telling me how…” The sidetrack stuff isn’t so difficult that time around, because he knows the point of the story going in.

      This is not how I function, or the kind of communication I have with my girlfriends, but I know based on research, personal experience, and checking with men…this is easier for them.

      It’s not a matter of respect so much as us trying to communicate better. Now of course, if hubby still shuts her down (e.g., “I don’t want to hear about your day”), then yeah, there’s a respect problem.

      Reply
      1. Bobthemusicguy

        At the root of the problem is a lie: My way of communicating is the right (correct, better, or even the only) way to communicate, so you’d better just get with the program and do it my way if you want to get along.

        This goes both ways.

        Now, on behalf of us poor bubbas who have difficulties following a meandering conversation, I freely admit that I need to see the point pretty quickly or I will actually be lost. That’s the way my mind works. My train of thought is easily derailed, and if I start chasing rabbits, I sometimes literally forget where I was going. Now, I may be more extreme in this than many men, but it’s not rare. There’s even a name: abstract-linear thinking (Gregorc evaluation method).

        But I have found over the years, that as I make the effort to follow my wife’s train of thought, I have improved my abilities to listen. Again, think of languages. I can’t expect to communicate well if I assume that everyone must learn my language first before I’ll consider them worthy of my attention. It’s much more fun to learn to be multi-lingual.

        Also, I came up with a motto about 15 years ago, which has helped me, and which i’ve passed along to my sons: Don’t just listen to her words. Listen to her heart.

        Reply
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  13. Afriend

    I seem to be the only one who has no idea what mansplaining means. Maybe cos I’m a man. Could someone explain please? I’m sure I’ve missed something along the way and I do understand that men and women communicate differently although I don’t think my wife and I fit the stereotypes.
    Thanks. Love the work you’re doing.
    God bless.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Mansplaining: “the explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing” (Google dictionary). It’s better called “male pattern lecturing,” a phrase used by Ann Demarais, Ph.D., interpersonal communications expert. And I don’t know anything about this blog as a whole, but this one article does a good job of outlining what this communication style is about: https://matteroffactsblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/explaining-mansplaining/

      Reply
  14. Mark

    I struggled with communication skills in the way I “vocally” expressed myself. Much of it had to do with mentoring and lack there of and also the way all of us is wired, whether we are a conformist or a free spirit. It should start in early childhood development, but also a reminder it is never too late as we mentor our own kids and grandchildren in how to communicate with others and especially as they grow into adulthood and begin their own relationships.

    Sounds hard, but not as hard as it sounds. I wish I had prayed and meditated to God much sooner as I would’ve discovered a more accepting heart and embraced a much more kinder way of discovering solutions and compromises.

    Reply
  15. Bobthemusicguy

    J, something that has helped me in communication is my many years of teaching experience. We were required to “reteach” material to make sure the students understood, and that means rethinking what I say and how I say it. Just because something is clear in my mind doesn’t mean I can assume it’s clear in my students’ minds. And the hardest things to teach were the things that were the most obvious to myself.

    Transfer this to marriage: I had to apply the same principles and find ways to clearly communicate my thoughts and feelings, and I discovered that it improved my listening skills. Not that I always easily follow what my wife is saying. It’s just that if I make a real effort, I do get better over time. Sometimes it does drive me a bit crazy following the “womeandering” (great term, by the way), but if I can do it for my students, I can surely do it for my wife.

    A helpful tip for the men out there who struggle to follow their wives’ patterns of expression: I actually try to make mental “sticky notes” along the way to guide myself. Example:

    She: I was at the grocery store this morning and ran into X.
    Me: sticky note about X
    She: We were in the last checkout line, and the cashier was the one who was so rude to me last time.
    Me: note, rude cashier
    She: When I got to the cashier, she was visibly upset about something. I thought, maybe I need to cut her some slack. After all, I always appreciate it when someone shows me a little kindness, like last week when I was feeling so sick but had to go to the store anyway.
    Me: see above note about X
    She: That was that Saturday when you were out all day at the auditions and the weather was so ugly.
    Me: don’t defend or excuse, just apologize and remember note about X
    She: Anyway, X told me her son is getting married this summer and she wanted to know about my experiences when our son got married last fall.
    Me: Yay! Finally got to X.

    Sometimes when our conversation has been interrupted, my wife and I will both forget what she was telling me. Sometimes we can get back on track, sometimes not. But what I learned is that to her, what’s most important isn’t always (or even usually) the FACTS of communication, but the FACT of communication.

    Reply
  16. Chris

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read involving marriage in a long while. I am a little late in reading it, but have to comment. Your writing here is incredibly balanced, something I rarely find in an article about marriage. My wife and I deal with communication differently, to say the least. She is the stereotypical wife and I am the stereotypical husband. She understands that if she is going to communicate something, I will offer solutions. If she doesn’t want solutions, she can talk to her female friends. On the flip side, it is my responsibility to listen to her stories, without offering a solution until the end. She needs to be heard and know that what she said matters. That is the best compromise for us. By the way, offering a solution does not make her obliged to take it.

    Reply
  17. E

    Love this article, J! It has definitely given me something to think over (once again). In the ‘womeandering’, I am definitely a stereotypical female, being told many times by my hubby and son to ‘get to the point!’ Or, after a long story ‘what was the point?’. But, I am not an empathetic listener – I’m a problem solver in this respect. But I think that’s an ISTP thing, I’ve read that ISTPs often get frustrated when people complain about something without solutions. This is one way that I know I communicate badly with my husband, sometimes when he is complaining about something, he just wants me to be a sympathetic ear, and not offer a myriad of possible solutions (or, if there aren’t any, a ‘suck it up’!)
    Something I am definitely working on!

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I’m quite familiar with the Myers-Brigg, so the ISTP makes a lot of sense. My hubby is an INTP, also a problem-solver. Hang in there! Every personality has its beautiful strengths…and some areas we could work on. 😉

      Reply

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