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He’s a Problem-Solver, She’s an Empathy-Giver—Neither Wrong, Just Different

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Have you noticed that everyday problems and burdens cannot typically be shared, discussed, and dealt with between you and your spouse in the same way that you have handled similar situations all your life with your same-sex friends or siblings? For example, a wife comes to her husband with a problem she faces. His first instinct is to try and solve her problem, just as he would with another man who comes to him with a problem. He kicks into solution mode. Most men operate analytically. This is the way he helps his guy friends, who probably say something to him in response like, “I should have come to you weeks ago. Thanks.” They truly appreciate his recommended solution.

However, when he tries to solve his wife's problem, she will say to him, "I just need you to listen to me and stop trying to fix me." He is taken back. He is trying to help. Can’t she see that? Instead of words of appreciation such as those he hears from his buddies, he hears her words to mean, "You are an insensitive, unloving jerk." He feels disrespected, so he pulls back and disengages. He no longer has any interest in understanding and empathizing.

She can tell he has turned cold and leaves the room crying. Later, she tells him not to touch her. He withdraws in anger. They are now on the Crazy Cycle: without respect he reacts without love and without love she reacts without respect.

On the rare occasions that a husband may come to his wife with a problem, she tries to match his problem with a similar problem she had, doing so to demonstrate that she understands and empathizes. This is the way she engages her girlfriends.

Most women operate with an emotional, empathetic connection first. They will volley back and forth with their stories. Then both will express sorrow for the other's negative, painful experience. Then the girlfriend with today's pain will continue her story while the other settles into listening intently, looking eye to eye, and nodding with compassion.

But when she does this with her husband—telling him that she has had a similar experience—he feels like she is dismissing his troubling experience. He feels she is saying she had it equally bad or worse and got though it just fine and so will he. He needs to be less stressed and get over it, like she did.

At this point, he feels disrespected and snaps, "Quit telling me that what I am going through is no big deal." In disbelief she looks at him. She feels stabbed in the heart. Trying to do the loving thing she ends up feeling very unloved. She shouts, "I have no idea what your problem is, but it runs deeper, far deeper, than whatever it is you're going through right now. You need therapy." She starts crying while he shouts, "This is a fine how-do-you-do. You tell me to share my heart with you and when I do, you end up telling me I need to see a psychiatrist. Fine. See if I open up again." They are on the Crazy Cycle.

Part of the God-designed pink and blue differences between men and women is how they prefer to handle problems—even others’ problems.

Most men are natural problem-solvers. Give them a puzzle and they will find every last piece. Present them with an unresolved situation and they will not rest until the best solution, at least in their mind, has presented itself. And when their wife, the love of their life, has had a bad day at work, they don’t want to go to bed until he has fixed everything for her.

On the other hand, most women are empathy-givers. Though they certainly may know the solution, or hope to find one, their natural strengths lie in being a shoulder to cry on, an ear to bend for the friend who needs to vent. Go to a woman with your problem, and you can be assured that she is listening intently, cares deeply, and hurts right alongside you. You, indeed, have a special friend to walk through your problem with you.

Are there exceptions? Yes. He may have the gift of mercy and serves as the pastor of visitation. He bleeds when others are cut. He walks in to listen to their hearts and to pray with them. Or, she can be a trial lawyer who has little tolerance for those who gush their fickle feelings with no facts to back up their accusations. She shows them the door after handing them an invoice.

Generally speaking, though, in the marriage a husband leans toward being a problem-solver; the wife bends toward being an empathy-giver. Neither is wrong, just different. But if he is not aware that his wife may not be wanting him to fix her problems for her, only to listen to her like her girlfriends do; and if she is not aware that when she shares empathy with her husband and relates her own personal stories, he is prone to misinterpret her heart—then just as easy as the couples found themselves in the examples above, two people can find themselves on the Crazy Cycle.

-Dr. E

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Wives, are your husbands problem solvers? When you present a problem to him, does he kick right into problem-solving mode? How do you feel when he does this?
  2. Wives, have you ever shared with your husband that you just need him to listen to you, not solve your problem? Did this help? Were you able to tell him this before he turned on solution mode and risked having his feelings hurt and your rejection of his solution?
  3. Husbands, are your wives empathy givers? When you present a problem to her, does she ever start sharing relatable stories of her own? How do you feel when she does this?
  4. Husbands, have you ever confessed to your wife that sharing your problems with her is hard enough for you, and that you already know that doing so is not going to work like it does with her girlfriend? Have you ever told her beforehand what you want from her when you share your problem? How might that help?