I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)
Part II. How He Thinks
Chapter 4. Men Are Just Tall Boys
“Mommy, watch! Daddy, watch!”
When kids are little, their parents probably hear that phrase a hundred times a day. Anytime kids learn how to do the slightest thing, they want their parents to notice and respond. They figure out how to do an unwieldy somersault: “Mommy, watch!” They blow bubbles for the first time: “Daddy, watch!” They go higher than ever on the swing: “Mommy—Daddy—watch!”
It doesn’t stop with watching; they also want participation. “Push me,” they say on the swing. “Come with me,” they shout as they go exploring. “Read to me … sit with me … can I come too?” They’re learning about life and want to share every moment of it. They want their parents to be there for them and with them. They want them to celebrate their accomplishments and cheer their attempts and encourage their progress and share their joy.
They want to be known. They want to be loved. They want to be respected.
My kids are grown up now, and nothing has changed. Though their need looks different, and they’re much more sophisticated about it, they still crave recognition and approval.
It matters to them that they matter to us.
Guess what? That man in your life? Nothing has changed. He wants to be known. He wants to be loved. He wants to be respected … by you. He might get kudos from a lot of other people at work and in life, but none of it matters as much as what he gets from you.
The Birth of Needs
Everyone is born with that need to be valued—to matter to somebody else. If kids are raised in a healthy, loving environment, they get the message that says, “I’m glad you’re here. You have value just because you’re you.” If they are raised in a toxic environment, they hear messages that say, “You don’t matter.”
When boys are little, those needs are real. If they’re not met, the drive to fulfill those needs doesn’t go away. So they look for alternative ways of having them met. Sometimes those ways might be harmful, but they stick with them if they work. Those techniques are all they know, and they are better than having unsatisfied needs.
It’s like the scenario where a woman stays in an abusive dating relationship. Everyone can see that it’s dangerous and toxic and it’s destroying her sense of self-worth. “You need to get out of that relationship,” they tell her. But she’s afraid that if she leaves she won’t find someone else who wants her. So she stays in that harmful situation because she’s afraid of change (or afraid that an alternative wouldn’t be any better).
A man finds value from good early experiences and feels devalued if he has bad experiences. In either case, it’s his reality. It’s all he knows, and it was scripted in his mind very early in his life. He’s hardwired to seek value throughout his life.
Jerry was one of those boys. His dad didn’t know how to have a real relationship with him, so their connection centered on sports and his dad coached his teams as he went through school. They memorized statistics of players of their favorite teams and went to games together. At home their conversations centered on the day’s statistics, and the sports channel was always on in the background.
As an adult, Jerry wanted a closer relationship with his dad. But his dad didn’t know how to do it. They could talk about sports, but Jerry longed for his dad to ask him about his family, his life, and his other interests. He wanted to know that his dad cared about who he was. He tried to reach out to his dad, buying him gifts or going to games together. He wanted his dad to tell him that he was proud of him. But no matter what Jerry did, there was no real change.
That’s not an isolated story. Adult men have the same basic needs they did when they were little. If those needs weren’t met by their parents while they were growing up, they have a drive to make it happen later in life. Often, a parent dies without a son gaining the approval he seeks, and it impacts his choices for the rest of his life.
Study the Child
From a brain perspective, men are pretty simple. Watch what goes on in the head of a boy, and you’ll probably have a good idea what goes on when he becomes an adult. He gets more sophisticated in his approach, but the basic needs are still there.
I once heard that you can observe the basic personality of a six-year-old and get a pretty accurate idea of what they’ll be like as an adult. (If you have a six-year-old, you’re probably starting to panic.) By the time they hit age six, they’ve figured out how people perceive them, made decisions about how much value they have, and have developed their basic tools for negotiating life. They have decided whether other people can be trusted or not, sensed if they have integrity, and watched what adults do that seems to work for them in life. They’ve determined what their reality is and have made choices about how to function.
If that’s true, we could probably work the opposite direction. Study an adult man carefully—discover his motivations, his temperament, the way he relates to others, and the amount of trust he has in relationships—and you can probably get a good idea of what he was like at age six. In fact, that would make an interesting conversation with older adults who knew him at that age. There’s a good chance you’ll recognize that boy in your man.
I have three grandchildren, currently ages five, eight, and eleven. It’s fascinating to study them and watch them grow and develop. I don’t know how they’ll turn out, but I find myself projecting them into the future, picturing them as adults with their current temperaments. I’m guessing I’ll still recognize some of those childhood characteristics as they mature.
In a sense, men are just tall boys. That doesn’t mean change is hopeless. Anyone can change if they have the intrinsic motivation and the support of others. But it’s tough, and it’s not guaranteed. It’s hard to make changes in our own life, and it’s just as hard for others to change themselves.
One of the best ways to begin understanding the man in your life is to look at the little boy inside. His basic needs are still there, and they still need to be met. When you see behaviors and attitudes that seem unreasonable or hard to understand, they might be symptoms of an unmet need.
Why Men Don’t Change
My wife’s parents live in Bakersfield, California, and have a cabin they built in the mountains about ninety minutes away. To get there, you have to drive through a steep, winding canyon. The Kern River at the bottom is filled with house-sized boulders, producing breathtaking rapids. Most of it is too dangerous for swimming or even whitewater rafting, but some people still try. In fact, there’s a sign at the entrance of the canyon with changeable numbers that says, “351 people have lost their lives in this river” in an attempt to keep people out. Every year, we see the number go up. The thing that makes it dangerous is exactly what makes it so spectacular.
That river started as a trickling stream thousands of years ago. Over time, it began to cut a groove in the earth. That groove became the banks of a stream, then a river, then a canyon. It’s the same river. But given enough time, its impact deepens.
Sound like your man? He’s fascinating and inviting, but sometimes you feel like you’re negotiating the rapids in your relationship. Like the steep canyon that has been formed by the river, the choices he made as a boy have carved the shape of his manhood. His adult behavior isn’t new; it started a long time ago and formed who he has become. Every time a man repeats a behavior, it cuts the canyon just a little bit deeper. When you enter a relationship with a man, you’re experiencing everything he has been in the past. And the older a man gets, the more those patterns are established.
More than just habits he’s developed, those patterns are his operating system. Over the years, they have become the way he negotiates life. Where did those patterns come from? There are two primary sources, environment and genetics.
Environment is a big influence, especially the people who were in a boy’s life as he was growing up. For example, a boy looks to his parents to have his needs met and learn about life. Their presence or absence shapes that boy’s beliefs, attitudes, and choices about how life works. It determines the initial path the river takes when it’s just a trickle. But once the tiniest groove has been established, the river begins to stay in that path.
There are siblings, extended family members, neighbors, and friends who are part of that environment as well. A boy doesn’t realize he’s watching those other people, but he’s observing how life works by seeing how they handle it. There’s no formal training course or an initiation event that turns him into a man.
He wants to know how he’s supposed to do life, so he looks for a role model to watch and emulate. If he doesn’t get a good role model from his parents, he’ll look at sports figures, successful celebrities, or older boys to pick up those skills. Sometimes he even engages in high-risk activities to find that sense of achievement and worth, or he might disengage his emotions and just ignore that need.
A man can change what he learned from his early environment, but it won’t be easy—any more than it is easy for a river to take a new path. We can stand at the top of the canyon and dig a new channel, but it’s going to be tough to convince that river to try something new. In the same way, it’s easier to learn to understand what brought your man to his current place in life than to hope for an totally new direction.
The second factor is genetics. The hormones that determine his maleness are hardwired in. He is born with unique characteristics that make him male rather than female, and trying to change them would be like turning an oak tree into an orange tree. We might love the shade the oak tree provides, but we get tired of raking the leaves. Yet wishing for fruit on an oak tree is an exercise in futility. A better way to avoid frustration would be to take a class on how to turn oak leaves into mulch.
When we talked earlier about the physiological structure of a man’s brain, we learned that women have more connective tissue between different parts of their brains than men. Men have more “gray matter,” so they tend to compartmentalize their thinking, while women tend to make connections.
In relationships, women tend to think horizontally. Relating to others is a matter of connection, and they’re focused on the dynamics of relationships between different people. Watch a group of small girls playing together, and they’ll often play “house” or “school,” where each one plays a specific role in the story. One might be the mom or teacher and assign roles for the others to play. The conversation centers around group dynamics, making sure everyone is happy or engaged.
Men, however, tend to view relationships vertically. Put a man in a group, and he’ll subconsciously study where he ranks in the pecking order. Watch a group of boys playing together, and it’s all about competition and “I can do that better” and who gets to be the leader. They’re constantly jockeying for position, comparing abilities or intelligence or status. They aren’t very experienced at it, so they’ll often compare the people they’re connected to. “My dad can beat up your dad,” they’ll brag.
That competitive spirit isn’t a character flaw; it’s part of his brain. It’s part of his drive to succeed and be on top in most situations of life. It’s that drive that makes him channel his energy and resources to compete for the woman he cares most about.
Guys want to be number one, which is why they don’t ask for help when doing things. They don’t ask for directions because doing so puts them in a position of admitting they can’t find a location on their own. (Of course, nowadays technology allows them to get directions on their own without another person involved.)
My friend Al is a seasoned woodworker. He lives about half a mile from me and has just about every tool imaginable. “Don’t ever go out and buy a tool when you need one,” he told me once. “If you need it, I probably have it. You can just borrow mine.”
My wife was with me when he said that, and she remembered it. Every few months after that, I would be working on a project at home and not have the tool I needed. In my mind, the obvious solution was to go buy the tool I needed. I would then have it in the future, when I might need it again.
Diane would say, “Would Al have that tool? Why don’t you just go borrow it from him?” I knew she was right, but I always felt irritated. I didn’t have a good excuse for not asking Al for help. But if I didn’t buy the tool, I might need it again in the future—which would mean I’d have to ask Al for help again.
A couple of times I went to his garage and we worked together on a project, using both his tools and his expertise. We had a great time. But if I needed to do it again, I would find myself looking for another way to do it. Sometimes I felt guilty and prideful for my unwillingness to ask for help. My wife couldn’t understand why I didn’t make the call when I needed something. After all, it just made sense, right?
But that’s because she’s looking at my vertical perspective through her horizontal perspective.
This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t seek out help from others. But the place to start is to recognize the reality of a man’s vertical perspective. I’ll ask for help, but it’s not my first inclination. I have a basic desire to be competent on my own, and that’s how it plays out.
It’s a cliché, but it’s accurate: it’s a guy thing.
The Drive to Win
When I first started studying this competitive side of a man’s brain, I wasn’t convinced. I never played sports in school and have only developed an interest in sports because of my kids. My son-in-law loves ice hockey, has season tickets for our local NHL team, and has spread that virus to his entire family. Even his youngest son, five-year-old Marco, will sit on the couch with me watching the game, providing colorful commentary the whole time about players and stats and rankings.
So I figured this trait didn’t apply to me. I’m not all that competitive, I convinced myself. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’m just competitive about different things. It’s more subtle, but just as real.
When I’m stuck in slow-moving traffic, I find myself scanning the other lanes to see if there’s a way to get ahead. I’m unsettled when I’m in the back of the pack instead of the front.
At work, we have a ranking system based on client satisfaction. A number of times I’ve been number one in the country, and it feels good. This year I slipped to number two. The guy who took the top spot is a great friend and deserved it. But I find myself driven to “up my game” to recapture that position next year.
When the rankings of my books on Amazon are high, I feel confident. When they’re low, it’s stifling. I have a number of friends who are authors, and I have made a personal vow to never check the rankings of their books. It messes with my head if I do, because I look at myself (and them) differently depending on where my books rank compared to theirs.
I’ve found that I’m not alone. Men subconsciously watch the rankings of their relationships the way they study the standings of their favorite sports team. Relationships are important, but in the male mind they’re trumped by perceived status and position.
Channeling the Beast
That vertical perspective explains our previous discussion—why men usually prefer action movies to romantic ones. Action films are about who’s conquering another person or a situation. Romantic ones are about connection, which fits the horizontal perspective most women have. That doesn’t mean men don’t care about romance; they just view it differently. If my wife and I are choosing a movie to watch, her first choice isn’t usually my first choice. But once the romantic movie starts, I’m fine with it. I enjoy it, but not the way I do something with more action.
If a woman takes the time to watch an action film with her man, she’ll probably recognize that there’s usually some type of love story in the middle that captures the male mind. Why does the hero go to such great lengths to come out on top? To capture the heart of his woman.
So it’s not an either-or situation. The more a woman recognizes how that male mind works, the easier it will be to recognize why he makes the choices he does. It’s not because he’s a jerk; it’s because he’s male.
It started when he was a little boy, and it hasn’t changed. He just got taller.