Let’s say you and your significant other are having an issue—one that isn’t a relationship killer, but is serious enough that it can’t be ignored. How do you deal with it?
Here’s what I do: I go into a mental huddle. I sit down, by myself, and I replay the situation in my head. I think about what exactly I might be frustrated with, what would need to happen for this frustration to go away, and what steps I can take to get myself there. Next, I think about what the issue might be for her, what exactly she might be frustrated with, and what an acceptable solution might be for her. From there, I decide how best to tackle the issue. Only then am I ready to talk about it.
Now, here’s what my girlfriend (and every other girlfriend I’ve had) does: She takes a poll. She turns to the people she trusts the most—family members, close friends, or even her therapist. She explains what’s going on with us and asks for feedback. Sometimes, this feedback leads to extended discussions. Afterwards, she assimilates the input she received from everyone, and she decides how best to tackle the issue. Sometimes, she takes the suggestions she received, sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes, she does a little of both.
It took a long time for me to figure this out, since I’m never privy to these discussions. But, I finally understand that this is how she deals with stressful situations. I understand that if she keeps her feelings to herself, she ends up getting sucked down a pit of fear and anxiety. I understand now that she needs to share her feelings with others.
And yet, I can’t help but be a little freaked out when she does.
I hate that she talks to people about our issues. I’m utterly terrified that her friends and family know intimate details about us—about me. Not because I don’t trust her to be discreet, but because that’s not how I deal with our issues.
To me, if our relationship is experiencing technical difficulties, we put up a giant “We’re fine! Just fine! Everything is fine! How are you?” billboard, and we keep everything to ourselves. I simply don’t want uninvolved people knowing all about our issues. I don’t want to show weakness. I don’t want other people—even my closest friends—judging us, and I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about my girlfriend.
Of course, I realize she’s not complaining about me. She’s not bitching about me to her friends. She’s not telling them what an asshole I am. She’s simply processing her feelings. I know that. And I respect that. Yet, I still have a hard time accepting it.
Oh, and before you bludgeon me with the irony hammer and point out that I’m announcing, publicly, to the entirety of the internet, that I don’t like my girlfriend talking to others about our relationship, let me clarify: I will neverwrite critically about the current relationship I’m in. If we’re dealing with any issues, I won’t discuss them until they’ve been resolved. That’s where I draw the line between my public stories and my personal life. I have no problem telling about the idiotic things I’ve done in the past. I also have nothing but respect for those writers who are comfortable sharing their dating lives as they’re unfolding. It’s just not me.
As far as the internet needs to know, Melissa and I have a spectacular relationship. And we do.
The point is, I tackle relationship issues by mulling them over, to myself, until I’ve figured out what I should do. My girlfriend, on the other hand, does so by discussing with friends and family. We just have different ways of processing.
So, whose way is better? Who’s right?
Well, we both are.
I learned recently that men and women simply handle conflict and stress differently. It took only a quick Google search to uncover a slew of studies that address these differences. Here’s one that sums it up pretty well:
“Stress responses may be fundamentally different in each gender, sometimes characterized as ‘fight-or-flight’ in men and ‘tend-and-befriend’ in women. Evolutionarily, males may have had to confront a stressor either by overcoming or fleeing it, while women may have instead responded by nurturing offspring and affiliating with social groups that maximize the survival of the species in times of adversity.”
It makes total sense. I instinctively want to solve our issues, I instinctively look inward for solutions. She, on the other hand, instinctively wants to talk about them. I want to fix first, talk later, while she wants to talk first, fix later. On one level, it’s good to know that this isn’t just a personal difference in how we handle stress. This is a gender-wide difference. This is something most heterosexual couples out there have to deal with.
On another level, though, I get that horrible sinking feeling knowing this to be a fundamental difference between men and women. Because it means there may never be a way of dealing with relationship issues that’s truly satisfying for both halves of a heterosexual couple. One person will prefer to share and discuss, while the other will prefer to self-diagnose and repair—or worse, confront and do battle.
So, where does that leave us?
I don’t know. If one person wants to talk to others, and the other person wants to solve it on their own … how can you compromise?
Maybe the best we can do is understand that our partner may handle stress differently, that neither person is right or wrong. And then, we agree to let them deal with it in the way that works for them, but with the caveat that we attempt to at least communicate to each other.
Then, we accept that there aregoing to be fundamental differences between us, and we learn to be okay with them.
I mean, what else is there to do?
This article was originally published at The Frisky in January 2013. Comments for the article can be found here.