Do Guys Even Have Feelings - How He Communicates - I Wish He Had Come with Instructions - Mike Bechtle

I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)

Part IV. How He Communicates

I heard a woman say once that “male communication” was an oxymoron. If he’s male, he can’t communicate. If he communicates, he must not be male.

That’s an unfair stereotype that can keep real communication from happening. Men usually have the capacity for amazing communication skills, but they look totally different from a woman’s. Men have deep feelings but express them differently. They tend to go silent, but that doesn’t mean they’re disengaged.

It’s tough for men because they know they’ve been stereotyped in the media as unfeeling, uncaring, and uncommunicative. They know it’s not true, but they’re not sure what to do about it.

In this section, we’ll give those men a voice. Let’s explore their motives and perspectives to find out how they really communicate.

It’s a chance to become bilingual—to learn how to speak “male.”

Chapter 9. Do Guys Even Have Feelings?


Archie Bunker, the fictional husband and father from the seventies television show All in the Family, was the poster boy for negative stereotypes about men. Played by Carroll O’Connor, he was the gruff, bigoted stereotypical male who exemplified everything negative about men. The show was wildly popular, in part because so many women resonated with the stereotype.1

If it weren’t for these perceptions, it would be a lot harder to come up with material for television comedies or movie story lines. No one questions if they’re true or not. We just assume that they’re accurate and the plot builds from there. We think, Yeah, he’s a typical guy.

Of course, every guy is different. Some guys will be more like these stereotypes and some will be less. By exploring these perceptions, we’ll find some principles we can apply to the vast majority of men, and good reasons behind those principles.

Before we determine if they’re true or not, it will be helpful to revisit the male brain to see how it influences a man’s emotions and actions.

What’s Going On in His Head?

Earlier, we talked about the structural differences between a man’s brain and a woman’s brain. Women have more “white matter,” the connective tissue that links the two hemispheres of the brain. Men have more “gray matter,” which means they generally use a single section of their brain at a time. Women connect everything to everything, while men don’t make those same connections.

In other words, we all have the same way of taking information in (through the senses), but we process it very differently. Advances in brain imaging have allowed researchers to study those differences and see exactly what takes place. Here are some of the recent discoveries that apply to a man and his emotions:

The left side of the brain contains our ability to process language. Men have fewer brain cells there, and number of brain cells predicts performance. More brain cells mean better performance. So if women have more cells there, it follows that they tend to be better at language and communication. The more they use those skills, the better they get—and that section of the brain actually grows.

Because of the larger amount of white matter in a woman’s brain, she processes incoming information differently than a man. Single words are processed in the same way by both men and women, but sentences are processed differently. Men process information in a single, specific area on one side of the brain, while women utilize the same area on both sides of the brain. It also means that women can think and feel at the same time, while men tend to do so separately.

Women tend to use more of their brain to listen and speak. It doesn’t mean they’re better communicators; it just means communication tends to come easier for them.

Women have a greater supply of estrogen than men, which impacts the number of neurons used when they’re upset. That’s why women tend to experience stress more intensely than men. Estrogen also impacts learning and memory, so they hang on to information longer and better than men.

Women release the hormone oxytocin when they’re under stress, which helps them bond with other people. Men release oxytocin too—but more often during hugs and sexual encounters. Women talk with others about their problems and feel better when they discuss solutions, gain empathy from others, and get input about their thoughts. Men don’t typically have that chemical release, so they’re not drawn to bringing others into their circle when they feel that pressure.

Men can identify more obvious emotions like anger and aggression in the facial expressions and body language of others but have trouble distinguishing more subtle cues such as worry and fear. Women usually pick up those signals more easily when they occur.2

The problem for communication comes when a woman processes things in a certain way because of her brain chemistry and assumes that her man should be doing the same thing. After all, the situation is the same—so why should he see it any differently? With that perspective, the logical conclusion is that the man is just being stubborn or lazy or unresponsive. He needs to work on his relational skills and just get better, right?

Wrong. It’s not a behavior or character issue. It’s a brain issue. As long as a woman feels the need to change the way a man operates, she’s setting herself up for failure and frustration. Those differences are real, so she needs to find ways to capitalize on them.

If she doesn’t, it’s like moving into an apartment complex after owning a home. The apartment comes with a set of rules that seem to restrict one’s freedom because homeowners can do whatever they want on their property. But an apartment has noisy neighbors, shared space, and regulations to make sure everyone gets along. That’s the downside, and it’s real. The upside is that when the toilet breaks or the stove doesn’t work, somebody else takes care of it.

Relating to a man has a set of “rules” and might feel restrictive. Now it’s two people to consider instead of just one, and there needs to be some change if these two are going to learn to partner together. The upside is that when problems arise, you don’t have to face them alone.

It’s not a matter of which one is better; it’s about weighing the differences and adjusting to them. That’s why a relationship between a man and a woman isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s about valuing the differences and finding ways to work as a team, joining two perspectives into one.

Don’t Believe the Media

Watch any sitcom or most talk shows, and you’ll see a stereotype of men perpetuated as though it’s “common knowledge.” Men are assumed to be bumbling disasters in relationships. Women love them but have to control them to get anything done. Men are nice to have around and they have their strong moments, but they have to be coerced or manipulated into accomplishing anything. They’re seen as emotionally clueless and don’t know how to meet a woman’s needs (or even desire to).

The other swing the media takes is portraying men as superheroes or ruggedly handsome leading men who take great risks to save the day and be the hero.

From the men I’ve talked to, neither one could be further from the truth.

A man does want to be hero and save the day—but primarily for the most important woman in his life. He knows he won’t be rescuing a galaxy from destruction but fantasizes about doing it at home. At the same time, he sees the sitcom caricatures of men and doesn’t know what to say to counter it. “That’s not me,” he might say. “But how do I convince a woman that I’m different?”

Those caricatures of men turn into urban myths—things that are commonly believed but not accurate. Let’s explore those myths to see what’s under the surface.

Myths about Men

Let’s revisit some stereotypes about men. They’re common beliefs about men held by women (and even men) and can damage relationships if they’re held on to for any length of time. That’s why it’s important to find out what’s true in each case, so we can have an accurate perspective to work from.

Myth #1—Men don’t have feelings.

This is the biggest myth of all, and the one that bothers men the most.3 Men absolutely have feelings, and those feelings can be intense. Watch a baseball team win the World Series or a football team win the Super Bowl, and you’ll see a display of emotion that’s totally uninhibited. The team rushes together, hugs each other roughly, jumps up and down as a group, slaps each other on the back, and runs around the field in celebration. During the game itself, they can be fueled by emotion that drives their performance.

At the same time, men deeply feel the “softer” emotions like sadness, fear, worry, and sensitivity. In fact, most men have a large chunk of insecurity that’s just below the surface and impacts the way they handle life.

Men have usually been brought up in a culture that tells them it’s not masculine to show those softer emotions but it’s ok to show the harder ones. Just because these feelings aren’t obvious doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, it’s even tougher, because these men don’t have the tools to express those emotions—so those emotions often get stuck inside. Sometimes men convert feelings like sadness into something more acceptable, like anger.

Men feel emotions deeply. They just don’t always know what to do with them.

Myth #2—If men do have feelings, they don’t want to talk about them.

Many men didn’t grow up with a dad who was good at showing emotions, so they didn’t have a model to learn from. They weren’t raised to show vulnerability. They were taught to be strong, not needy.

Most men won’t ask for directions. It’s an extension of that desire to appear in control. They also don’t want to admit that something hurt their feelings, because it makes them feel weak. A man will fight another man instead of telling him that he was hurt by his words.

Women tend to express their emotions verbally, while men tend to express their emotions physically. When they feel strong emotions, they often find physical outlets to express them such as lifting weights or playing violent video games. That’s not necessarily why they engage in physical activity, but releasing the emotion becomes a fringe benefit.

Men will talk to other men about what they’re feeling, but they keep it short and simple.4

“Man, I’m really bummed about what’s happening with my in-laws,” he’ll say.

“Yeah,” comes the response, “I hear you. Those relationships can be tough sometimes.”

“Yep. I’m not sure what to do. Have you had trouble with your in-laws?”

“Oh, yeah. But we worked it out over time. It’s tough to know what to do.”

“I guess. Hey, did you watch the game last night?”

For a guy, that’s all he needs or wants. But when he talks to a woman about what he’s feeling, it’s different. She wants to know the details of what he’s feeling, but he doesn’t even know them himself. If she presses to find out, he either withdraws and clams up or gets upset.

When a woman says she wants him to share his feelings, he’s found it to be a selective request. She wants the soft emotions but not necessarily the hard ones. He doesn’t have much experience with sharing those softer emotions, so he feels like she’s forcing him to fly an airplane when he’s only driven a car.

There’s a concept we talked about earlier that’s worth repeating: it’s risky for a man to share his emotions with a woman, but he’ll try if he trusts her. If she brushes him off, makes light of what he’s feeling, or tries to force him when he’s not ready, he won’t try again. If she responds with safety, patience, and care for his emotions, he’ll be more inclined to share more in the future.

Myth #3—Men don’t understand women and don’t want to try.

In 1995, Dr. Alan Francis published a 120-page book called Everything Men Know about Women.5 It immediately became a bestseller and still sells well two decades later. Why did it become so popular?

The pages were all blank.

Men really do want to know what women think. But the process breaks down when a woman isn’t clear about what she means and he can’t figure it out. When she tells him directly, he understands. His nonconnective brain has trouble finding the hidden meaning behind her words.

He understands clearly what she’s feeling when she says, “I’m feeling upset because we agreed not to spend anything until payday, because we had those extra expenses for car repairs. So when you brought that new video game, it was frustrating.” But he can’t make the connection if she says, “You’re always spending money when we don’t have it!” because he doesn’t have all the information.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to understand. His brain just isn’t wired to assign meaning when it’s not direct. It’s even harder when multiple issues are presented at the same time.

Myth #4—Men are more interested in their work than in their woman.

A woman says, “Why is your job so important to you?” To a man, she’s hinting that it should be less important. He thinks, Why wouldn’t it be important?6

A man finds a sense of validation and value in his work. The drive to succeed, conquer, provide, and “win” are wired into his brain, and he’s spent a lifetime trying to become successful at his work. With that much effort, he’s looking for a strong return on his investment. When a man isn’t able to work, his self-esteem is at risk. He wants to make a contribution that matters. He wants to make a difference.

Comparing the importance of his relationship with his woman and his job doesn’t make sense to a man. He sees them in two totally different categories. To him, it would be like asking a child, “Did you walk to school, or did you carry your lunch?” The question is nonsensical.

If a man is unsuccessful in either category, it impacts his performance in the other. A man’s work takes a lot of time and energy, but it doesn’t mean he’s more interested in it than in his woman. It will take constant attention to find the balance between those two commitments. That’s what takes the most energy—loving both, and trying to give each the attention they deserve.

Myth #5—Men are afraid of commitment.

Single women often feel like men have a fear of commitment. To a man, that implies he doesn’t take his relationship seriously, desiring all the fun but none of the responsibility. It usually bothers a man to be seen as that frivolous because he knows the opposite is usually true. Several studies have shown that men are more likely than women to prefer marriage over being single for life, and are equally desirous of a strong family connection.7

The issue isn’t fear of commitment; it’s more about timing. They’re not in a rush to make a lifelong commitment because they want to be sure they’re making the right choice. Once they find the right woman and make that decision, they tend to be in it for the duration. It’s that long-term focus that makes them cautious of pulling the trigger.

Men take longer to study a potential relationship before committing to it because they want to see what the relationship will be like over time. They innately understand the “honeymoon stage” of any relationship, and want to move past that to see how she will handle real-life issues with him.

In other words, most men want commitment, and they want it long-term. So they take their time to get it right.

Myth #6—Men don’t listen.

A man’s brain processes information differently than a woman’s brain.8 Most men want to know what their woman thinks about things. Men tend to be succinct, while women tend to provide details.

When men hear intricate details of a woman’s conversation with her friend, they try to organize it into bullet points in their minds. If there are too many details to sort, their mind tends to freeze up and they can’t take in more information. It’s like a computer that locks up and has to be restarted before it can continue processing.

Women need to share the details. Men don’t always understand that, so they tune out when they can’t process all those details. To a woman, that comes across as not listening or caring.

My wife will have lunch with a friend whom she hasn’t seen for a while. That evening I’ll ask her, “So, how did it go at lunch today?” Typically, she’ll start at the beginning and tell me everything they talked about, how each of them responded, and what she felt about each part of the conversation. It might take ten minutes or more to describe that lunch meeting.

I go to lunch with a friend that I haven’t seen for a while, and Diane says, “Tell me about your lunch today.” I usually say, “It was good. He’s doing good.” She says, “Well, what did you talk about?” I search my brain for clues, but it’s blank. I spent an hour with my friend and don’t know what we talked about—at least not in detail. Since the conversation is done, I’ve filed those details away in my mental archives. The conversation is over and we’re done talking, so I don’t keep the details in current memory.

Over the years, Diane and I have learned what each other needs in conversation. When she goes into great detail about a conversation, I’ve learned to listen and let her talk. I don’t do it because the details are important to me. I do it because she’s important to me. When I listen, it draws us together.

At the same time, she’s learned not to feel hurt because I’m not sharing details about my lunch conversations. She knows that I’m not going to have much to contribute. Her brain makes all the connections of everything that happened. My brain focuses on the other person during lunch, and then it moves on to something else.

I’m not the norm in regard to listening to her details. It’s been a long, slow learning curve for me, and I realize that most men aren’t there yet. I still get impatient sometimes because I’m looking for bullet points. But I also know that Diane and I get stronger, together, when we allow each other to be who we are. It became easier for me to listen once I realized how important it was to her.

When a man is listening in silence, it doesn’t mean he’s bored. It probably means he’s listening more deeply, because the energy it takes for a man to listen makes it hard for him to respond at the same time. If he doesn’t answer right away, it’s because he needs time to think before responding.

A woman can bring that up during a comfortable conversation as something to explore together. “Can you help me think through something? When I’m telling you something I’m thinking about, you don’t say much back. I used to think it’s because you weren’t listening. But I’m wondering if it means you’re actually listening more but processing it inside your head. I’d love to hear your perspective.”

Myth #7—Men never tell a woman they care about her.

Men use actions more than words to express their feelings.9 They want to be romantic, but don’t always find it natural to use words to do it. They feel inadequate and embarrassed at saying romantic things (especially when they compare themselves with leading men on television), and they’re afraid of doing it wrong. So they use actions instead.

If a man sends flowers, it’s his way of expressing his feelings. Men don’t usually send flowers out of guilt (though it happens). It’s their way of saying “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “I was thinking about you” without having to say the words. When he plans a trip with you, it’s because he wants to be with you. When he gets your car fixed, it’s because he wants to do something to make your life easier and take care of you.

Don’t overlook these actions, assuming that they’re not as valid as a verbal expression. Savor the words when they come, but recognize the reality of his actions as an expression of his heart.

Myth #8—When a woman is upset, men are worthless.

Some man said, “Women don’t want you to put out the fire; they just want you to stand with them in the fire while they burn.” Men want to put out the fire. Women don’t want to face the fire alone. A healthy relationship draws from both perspectives to build a lasting connection.

Men care when a woman is upset, but they usually have no idea what to do. They want to fix things but they don’t have the right tools to fix emotions.

When a woman is upset, it adds stress to the relationship if she assumes that her man doesn’t care because he’s not meeting her needs at the moment. A better option is to give him tools. She can tell him what she needs and ask for it in a way he can understand.

When he sees you crying and doesn’t know how to respond, give him a suggestion. “I’m crying because (describe in one sentence what happened). I don’t need you to fix it. But I need you to come and hold me for a few minutes—then we’ll go out to lunch.”

You’ll get what you need, and you’ll give him a way to help you solve the problem. It’s a synergistic way to work as a team.

It’s a perfect example of a win-win solution.