I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)
Part I. The Care and Feeding of a Man
My granddaughter got a box of worms in the mail today.
I was at their house helping my daughter, Sara, with a few projects for the morning. Her kids were at a summer session at church, so Sara and I worked together until it was time to pick them up. She went to get them, and I stayed in the garage with the door open.
The FedEx truck pulled up, and the driver got out and handed me a small package. I took it in the house and went back to work.
When Averie came home, she was excited to see the box. She pulled the tab to open it, took out the packing material, pulled out a small round box, and opened that. She was thrilled to show me the contents: dozens of short, wiggly worms.
Averie has a pet bearded dragon, a cool-looking reptile named Leia (after Princess Leia of Star Wars fame). She saved her money to purchase her and keeps her in a terrarium up in her room. It has a shelter for Leia to sleep in, a food bowl, rocks to climb on, and a heating lamp to sun herself on the rocks.
It also has a hammock.
Leia is one happy bearded dragon. Why? Because she’s well taken care of. Averie spent a lot of time studying bearded dragons before she bought one. She studied what they eat, how they sleep, and what kinds of conditions are ideal. She cleans out her terrarium on a regular basis, and even takes Leia for walks in the backyard on a leash.
I’d be happy too!
Even adults put lots of energy into studying our pets to find out everything we can about them. With that knowledge, we don’t complain that they don’t talk or play team sports with us. We discover what they’re like and what they need to thrive, and we do everything to make sure their needs are met. We have realistic expectations. When that happens, we find a lot of joy in having them around.
That’s true with men as well. Women have specific, unique needs, and men have different needs. If those needs are met, they’re free to grow into the men they were designed to be. If those needs aren’t met, they’ll spend all their time in the hammock.
As we begin this book, let’s hear what those needs are, directly from the source. We’ll look at what’s going on inside a man’s head, both from current research and from his own perspective. Studying men and learning as much as possible about them will give women the best chance for developing fulfilling relationships in the future.
Chapter 1. Men Are from Earth, Women Are from Earth
Over the years, we’ve bought a lot of do-it-yourself furniture. It’s become a familiar process:
· Open the box
· Look for the instructions (or at least my wife looks for them)
· Lay out all the pieces
· Try to follow the instructions
· Get frustrated
· Eat cookies
The instructions read as though they were written by someone who had never seen the actual pieces. Their “step-by-step” process becomes more like “stop-by-stop.” We think, If I stay focused, I’ll figure it out. But it doesn’t happen.
Does it seem like the same thing is often true of men? You find one you like, and the picture on the box looks promising. But when you look inside, there are no instructions. That’s ok, you think. He comes preassembled. You won’t need to figure out how to put the pieces together.
But it’s not just the instruction manual that’s missing. There’s also no operation manual to describe how he works. You can’t find the power button. He turns on all by himself at random times and turns off suddenly when you least expect it. He usually seems to work ok, but there seems to be no way to control him. Most of the time he does what you expect him to do.
Then there are those unexpected times when he doesn’t cooperate. You think he’ll help with the housework and instead he plops down on a couch and plows through a bag of Cheetos while watching people run around a field on a big screen.
I don’t remember signing up for this, you think. You expected a life partner and teammate but feel like somebody programmed him incorrectly—and there’s no way to fix him. You’re ready to put him back in the box and return him for a different model.
That’s when you notice the warning labels on the box that you overlooked:
· “Fragile” (he needs an ego boost to keep functioning)
· “This End Up” (if he gets upset, he doesn’t work right)
· “Batteries Not Included” (he runs out of energy at the worst times)
So, what do you do when there’s no operation manual? You end up writing your own.
Most women have experienced something similar with the men in their lives. So they talk to each other, trying to figure out what those men are thinking. But without knowing exactly what’s going on in a man’s mind, it becomes an exercise in futility. They write their own operation manual from their own female frame of reference. It’s what they know.
That can be dangerous, because those male differences can be seen as problems to be solved. I’ve seen a number of books that focus on two approaches:
1. Fixing those differences
2. Coping with those differences
Both of those can be unhealthy. They ignore the fact that differences are essential for a relationship to grow and thrive. That’s the third option, and the one that lays the foundation for this journey: how to embrace those differences.
I know you’re eager to start working on those differences. But the best way to explore and embrace our differences is to start with a solid foundation of our similarities. There are more similarities between men and women than there are differences. If we can capitalize on the ways we’re alike, we’ll be much more inclined to appreciate the ways we’re different.
Focusing only on the differences can make it feel like you got a raw deal. It feels like it won’t get any better, and you’re stuck. When that happens, you feel like you have to take care of yourself and meet your own needs, since your man isn’t interested in doing so. You signed up for a relationship but it feels like you’re still alone.
That’s why it’s so important to start with the similarities. Focusing on the many ways we’re all alike gives us a balanced perspective of our relationships. The basic needs we have as humans apply to everyone.
Simply stated: the similarities between men and women are really similar. The differences are really different.
The Foundation of Similarities
My son, Tim, was married less than a year ago. The other week I asked him, “So, what have you discovered about marriage that you weren’t expecting?”
“How much fun it could be,” he replied. “But also how different we are—and how good that is.”
I asked him to explain. “In college,” he said, “I dated girls that were just like me. I figured that the thing that drew us together was how similar we were. We liked the same things, had the same tastes, and even shared a lot of the same personality traits. I thought that if you were going to find your soul mate, it would look like that.”
He continued, “But Lucy and I are total opposites. Everything about her is different, and that’s what makes it so much fun. I never know what to expect. And she sees things differently than I do. I think I’m right about something, and she brings a whole different perspective that makes me rethink everything. Everything turns out better when we work together than when we try to see whose idea is right.”
I’ve thought about his answer a lot in the past couple of weeks, and realized the wisdom of my son’s perspective. Most of us are drawn to people who think the way we do. It’s comfortable and familiar. Those similarities make it easy to connect with others and provide a great place to begin any relationship.
But everybody’s unique. People who connect with others through similarities are often split apart by their differences over time. The similarities were comfortable; the differences are uncomfortable. When those differences start to show up, it’s easy to focus on them and let them overshadow the similarities. We think the other person has changed, but we’ve really just hung in there long enough to see their uniqueness leak out.
It’s true in every relationship: marriage, business, dating, family, and friendships. We gravitate toward our comfort zones and avoid the uncomfortable. So in a crowd, I’ll hang out with you if you’re a lot like me. When you start telling me about the lint collection you keep stored in your refrigerator or your interest in subterranean termite species, it gets a little weird and I excuse myself (unless I share those interests). We start with similarities and divide over differences.
The Home Court Advantage
Similarities provide the “home court advantage” for relationships, whether personal, romantic, casual, or business. So as we study the differences between men and women, we should also take some time to reinforce our similarities. How are we alike? What do we all need?
Look at some of the similarities both men and women have that provide this foundation. To varying degrees, we all need to be:
· Loved—we have a place in someone else’s heart
· Respected—someone admires us for our personal qualities, achievement, or status
· Needed—someone has a vacuum in their life that we fill
· Focused on—another person is intentional about caring for us
· Noticed—we capture someone’s attention rather than being invisible
· Valued—someone would feel a loss if we were not in their life
· Refreshed—someone brings a casual lightness into our life
· Trusted—another person feels safe in our presence and shares their life openly
· Listened to—when we talk, someone wants to understand, not just to reply
· Encouraged—others give us fresh strength to continue when ours is lacking
· Shown commitment—there’s someone who we trust won’t give up on us when things get crazy
· Allowed to dream—dreaming is risky and creative, and we need someone who doesn’t put us down for those wild ideas for the future
There could be more items in this list, but the point is clear. We have a lot more similarities with others than differences, simply by being human.
Imagine how our relationships would thrive if we tried to meet each other’s basic needs instead of focusing on our differences. If we were intentional about capitalizing on our similarities, we might not need this book. Meeting the needs all of us share provides the solid foundation that allows us to handle our differences when they arise.
When you’re trusted, respected, listened to, and encouraged by someone, how does it feel? What if you could focus on the men in your life with that agenda? By being intentional about building into the lives of others, you set the stage for healthy, effective relationships. Male bosses become real people whom you can relate to instead of feeling like you just have to please. Your co-workers and friends become people whom you share life experiences with. The man you’re romantic with and your sons are different from you, but you share more in common with them than you might realize.
When differences cause friction, they can take all your energy and focus. “Men are just crazy,” you say. “I can’t figure them out.” It’s true, and it can be frustrating. If you’re not wrestling with those feelings right now, you may be there soon. It’s real, and it’s ok.
But on a journey of exploration, we start with our similarities. They’re just as real as our differences, and they’re critical to keeping our relationships healthy.
Here are several principles we can start with:
1. Similarities are good, and they’re comfortable. They draw people together.
2. Differences are good, but they can be uncomfortable. They can push people apart.
3. Healthy relationships come when the similarities aren’t forgotten and the differences are celebrated.
The Power of a Comfort Zone
Trish told Jon about a troubling conversation she had with a friend. Jon listened and asked a few questions. A few days later, Trish brought the subject up again, and Jon didn’t remember talking about it.
From her perspective, it looked like he was uncaring and insensitive. But Jon didn’t feel that way at all and didn’t understand what happened. He knew he had hurt her but didn’t know why—or what to do about it.
Like Trish and John, we all see life through our own “lenses.” We’ve developed those lenses over a lifetime of experience and found the ones that work best for us. We don’t usually question those lenses because everything seems obvious to us when we look through them. But if we assume that everyone has the same lenses that we do, we’ll have trouble communicating with others.
Let’s focus on understanding others’ lenses, not changing them. None of us like to have people trying to “fix” us. We want to be accepted for who we are, even with our idiosyncrasies. When we feel accepted, we feel safe. When we feel safe, we’re more likely to make changes on our own.
Men are different from women, but they’re not completely different. Our similarities provide comfort zones in our relationships where we can be ourselves.
People often say we need to “leave our comfort zones.” That’s appropriate for goal setting and moving forward in our lives. But in relationships, comfort zones are important. It’s not realistic or practical to be constantly stretching. The comfort zone is where we live, relax, and regroup. It’s where we recharge and gain energy for the next adventure. It’s where we are … well, comfortable.
Exercise is a good analogy. When we lift weights, we push our muscles out of their comfort zone. That exertion is how those muscles grow. But once we’re done, those same muscles need time to recover. Growth comes from repeated cycles of exertion and rest. That rest period—the comfort zone—prepares those muscles to be stretched again in the future and builds their capacity for greater work.
In relationships, our similarities provide that comfort zone. That comfort zone should make up the biggest chunk of our relationship. When differences arise, they strain that comfort zone and take us to challenging places. Understanding those differences allows us to move back into our comfort zones. But if we don’t understand them, we can get stuck in a constant state of frustration.
The longer we’re away from our comfort zone, the less safe we feel. It feels like someone has bolted the door of that comfort zone and we’ve lost the key.
When I’m on a business trip, I don’t get to relax the way I do at home. I’m catching flights, returning rental cars, finding meals on the run, interacting with clients, and speaking in front of groups all day long. Making close flight connections is always a little unnerving, and it’s easy to feel exhausted by the time my plane hits the tarmac. I’m almost home, but still have to make the drive back to my house. Pulling into my driveway feels like I’ve arrived at an oasis in the desert after being in the blazing sun all day. I can finally relax. I’ve arrived at my comfort zone. That’s where I recharge for the next journey.
We All Have “Stuff”
When we minimize our similarities, it’s easy to pigeonhole people (especially the opposite gender) and think, Well, that’s just the way they are. But much of the time, the things that frustrate us don’t come from being male or female. They come from the “stuff” we bring with us from our past.
“Stuff” includes those ways we have of handling life that are ineffective. Sometimes it comes from the way we were raised—whether we were nurtured or not, how we were disciplined, or how we were parented (by parents who had their own stuff). Other times, it comes from life experiences, where we’ve encountered a painful situation and didn’t know what to do. We didn’t like the way it felt, so we developed walls or strategies to keep from getting hurt again.
We didn’t get to pick our parents. We didn’t get to choose our socioeconomic status, our place of upbringing, or the experiences that others took us through. We were kids and didn’t have the tools to make adult choices. Little by little, we picked up whatever tools were available to us when we needed them.
As we got older, we moved toward adulthood with the tools we had. Some of them worked, some were ineffective, and some were missing. As adults, we still use those tools to negotiate life. Sometimes the tools work well, like well-practiced conversational skills. Sometimes the tools don’t do the job, such as when we’re trying to negotiate with a person who just won’t listen—period. Our tools aren’t working and we don’t know what else to do. We need new tools but don’t know where to find them.
That’s “stuff.” Stuff refers to the tools we don’t have or that don’t work—the things that keep us from handling life and relationships.
Everybody has stuff. Men have stuff. Women have stuff.
We start with the similarities, because those things draw us together. Then, when we look at the differences, it’s important to determine their source. When you find yourself frustrated by a man, it’s important to determine if it’s part of his maleness or if it comes from his stuff.
If it’s part of his maleness, it won’t change. It’s best to recognize the reality of it and learn how to respond and deal with it.
If it comes from his stuff, it doesn’t have to be permanent. It might be deep-seated, but it’s something worth exploring.
A man can get help with his stuff, but he can’t change being a man.
All Men Are Not Alike
It’s also true that we can’t profile men as all being alike. Every time someone says, “All men are (fill in the blank),” the statement becomes invalid. Men are different from women in fairly predictable ways, but every man’s differences are unique. One man might be more sensitive while another is not. One man tends to be driven by performance while another is driven by reflection.
As an introvert, I tend to be much more on the reflective side. I don’t make decisions quickly, because I find myself exploring all the options first. That sounds good, but it leads to procrastination.
An extrovert might be more spontaneous, taking action without spending a lot of time thinking through the options. They get a ton of stuff done, but their decisions might not always have the best outcomes.
So just as there are similarities and differences between men and women, it’s true of men as well. There are a bunch of ways they’re alike, and there are ways that each one is unique. When you put their similarities and differences side by side, the similarities win. The differences are relatively few in comparison. It’s important to study them, but only after getting a rock-solid view of the similarities.
The journey we’re on is to explore the ways in which men are different from women but similar to each other. The strategy is to grasp the basic characteristics that apply to most men in general, then see what each one looks like with each individual man.
I’ve heard a lot of teaching on this topic suggesting that men need to either be catered to or conquered. Those are dangerous positions that make it tough to build real, healthy relationships.
If men need to be catered to, it suggests that a woman is supposed to please a man. “That’s just how men are,” the books say. “You have to change and accommodate them.” That disrespects both men and women by implying that men are always right and women have to change.
If men need to be conquered, it assumes that their differences are negative. It sets up a battle between the sexes where women need to show their strength to succeed in relationships. That position also disrespects both men and women by assuming that somebody’s always right and somebody’s always wrong.
The only option that results in healthy relationships is to recognize the reality of those differences and see them as ingredients for an amazing connection. It’s more than accepting those differences; it’s celebrating them.
There’s nothing more fascinating than exploring another person. As two people grow, their uniqueness can become a never-ending source of mystery. Ask any couple who has been together for decades, and they’ll talk about the new things they’re still discovering about each other. They’re not in a constant battle for compliance; they’re in a partnership to live in wonder.