I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)
Part III. How He Acts
Central Park in New York doesn’t have a great reputation.
I’d heard about it for years and seen it on television and in the movies. It’s a background for crime dramas and sinister scenes in scary films. National news reports describe murders and attacks that take place there. I always pictured it as a place where you couldn’t walk without your life being in danger.
Earlier this week, I was in New York for a speaking engagement and staying about three blocks from Central Park. I decided to go to the park for a run one evening. I went online to see what people were saying about it in terms of safety. Most of what I read said that there were some areas of the park that were questionable, but mostly at night and off the main roads.
So I was a little nervous, even though it was still daylight outside. I entered the park cautiously, looking around constantly to make sure I wasn’t going to get in trouble.
That’s when I realized I wasn’t alone. In the time I was there, I probably saw five hundred other runners. Horse-drawn carriages took other people on tours, and hundreds more people walked or played on the green, rolling hills and rock formations. It was incredible and amazing, one of those experiences I’ll never forget.
And I almost missed it because I had accepted an incomplete perspective.
That happens in relationships with men too. There are a ton of stereotypes the media has portrayed about men that are incomplete or untrue. “Men don’t have feelings” or “men don’t listen” are just a couple of the generalizations that many people have come to accept as true.
But that perspective can keep women from experiencing the best that a man has to offer. We need to expose those stereotypes and challenge them. We can learn what’s accurate about men and what comes from urban legends. We can find out why men really act the way they do, and what it really means.
Chapter 6. Why He Can’t See Dirt
Men do things that irritate women.
I know that might come as a surprise, but it’s true. Irritating things usually show up after a relationship has been going for a while, not at the beginning.
When a relationship starts, you’re attracted by the good things. The irritating things are there, but you haven’t noticed them yet. “Love is blind” becomes a reality as you’re enamored of the man’s charms and wit and looks and humor. It takes time for the irritations to start showing up.
The first time he burps in public, it catches your attention. You assume it was an accident, because you know he wouldn’t have done it on purpose. It does seem a little strange, though, that he didn’t say “Excuse me.” It’s not until a few months later, when he wins a burping contest with friends, that celibacy begins to sound attractive.
I recently asked some female co-workers what irritated them most about men. They were quick to respond.
“I ask for his opinion about something, and he just says, ‘I don’t care.’”
“He falls asleep on the couch watching television, but wakes up when I change the channel and says, ‘Hey! I was watching that!”
“I just finish cleaning the kitchen and he comes in and messes it up.”
“When we go someplace, he always wants me to put his stuff in my purse so he doesn’t have to carry it.”
“He doesn’t notice when I get a new haircut—or if he does, he doesn’t compliment me. He just says, ‘You changed your hair.’”
“He talks on his phone when we’re out to dinner.”
“He leaves the toilet seat up. Doesn’t he know what that means for a woman when she gets up in the night?”
“He wants to take me out but wants me to plan it.”
“He can’t see dirt.”
Let’s take that last one. Is it true that men can’t see dirt? I reviewed a number of different sources to see if there had been any research on it. I couldn’t find anything except blog posts and humor articles describing the phenomenon.
I think there’s a different question: When women see “dirt,” exactly what are they looking at?
Men think of dirt as a clump of mud on the carpet, black smudges on the countertop, or spaghetti sauce that jumped onto their shirt. It’s something obvious. Anything more subtle doesn’t qualify as “dirt” in their mind.
So when a woman says, “The kitchen is filthy,” she might mean that it’s been a long time since it’s been scrubbed. It often reflects the fact that since food is prepared in the kitchen, it feels unsanitary if the counters haven’t been wiped down with something that kills germs. It’s not obvious grime as much as just knowing there’s a thin layer of something that needs to be removed.
A man walks into a kitchen that has been described as filthy and wonders what the problem is. He doesn’t see clumps of mud, black smudges, or pools of spaghetti sauce. If she asks him to clean the kitchen, he won’t know where to start, what to do, or how to know when it’s done.
Several years ago, my wife and I discussed the issue of chores around the house. Since I work out of a home office, I’m around on the days when I’m not traveling or leading seminars. Diane is self-employed, but works with clients outside the home. So we’re both in and out during the day. In general, I normally handle repairs and she handles the bulk of the cleaning. We both mow the lawn and water plants and do other chores, and if one of us washes our own car, we’ll typically wash the other’s car as well.
For the regular household chores, we agreed that I would be responsible for scrubbing the toilets weekly, cleaning our guest bathroom each week, vacuuming twice a week, and collecting the trash the day before pickup. Those are actually chores I don’t mind much, because I get a sense of satisfaction when I polish things, and if I complete those things then Diane feels like I’m contributing fairly to the chores.
When I started doing these chores, I discovered that Diane and I had a different idea of what “clean” looked like. She didn’t want to come in and clean after me, because it would imply that I wasn’t doing a good job, and I really did want her to be pleased with my work (I wanted to be the hero). So I asked her to show me what clean looked like when she did it.
I watched her clean our guest bathroom step-by-step. From my perspective, she was cleaning things that weren’t dirty. She cleaned mirrors that didn’t have spots, wiped counters that had no visible impurities, and cleaned floors that didn’t show any grime. When she was done, it didn’t look any different to me than it did before she started.
Today, I clean the bathroom exactly the way that’s important to her. I don’t see the dirt, but I don’t care. It’s important to her, so I do it her way out of respect for her.
Vacuuming is the same thing. I know dirt gets on the floor, but I don’t see it. I’m guessing it’s really dust, not dirt. But Diane knows it’s there and that it needs to be removed if the house is going to be clean. When I vacuum, I’m not doing it to remove dirt. I’m doing it to make symmetrical lines in the carpet so it looks clean. I’ve often thought I could take a stick and draw symmetrical lines and accomplish the same thing.
After months of vacuuming, Diane decided it was time to clean the carpet. Again, I didn’t see any dirt, but she was convinced that our grandkids would develop some lifelong disease if they played on it. So I rented a self-service carpet cleaner, followed the instructions, filled it with hot, soapy water, and did a few passes across the carpet until it was time to empty the holding tank.
When I did, the water was black. Not light gray, not medium gray. Black. I realized Diane had been right. I couldn’t see the dirt, but it was there. I don’t know if she could actually see it, but she sensed it. Guys don’t do that.
I could give multiple examples of things men do that irritate women. But they usually don’t do them intentionally. Women are frustrated that men can’t see dirt, and men are frustrated because they can’t see the dirt their woman sees. It just reinforces the fact that men and women see things differently.
It’s not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong, which is a conversation that’s doomed from the start. It’s recognizing and valuing the true differences in each other.
Because of how their brains work, men aren’t that complicated. Women’s brains tend to connect everything with everything else, while men tend to focus on one thing at a time. So when men do things that are irritating, they’re not trying to irritate you. They’re just being men.
Case in point: recently, I was wearing a pair of slacks and evidently sat in something oily that left a small stain. It was close to the inseam on one leg, near the back of my pants. It didn’t come out in the wash, so Diane said that I needed to get rid of them.
She was thinking about the fact that I would be in a professional setting, standing in front of groups, and have a stain on my pants. I was thinking that it wasn’t a problem because it was in a place where no one would ever see it. We talked about it, and it was helpful to hear her reasoning and to express my perspective. I ended up keeping the pants, but she’s ok because we talked it through. I know it still bothers her, but she decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting.
And no one has ever seen the stain. I don’t think.
Instead of becoming frustrated with each other because we think the other person is crazy, Diane and I have learned to explore each other’s positions. That’s become a key for us. Sometimes one of us will defer to the other because the “battle” isn’t that important. Other times we’ll simply live with the differences—not because we understand but because we appreciate the reality of those differences. We care more about our relationship than who’s right.
So when my favorite black pullover sweater got a major hole in the armpit, she was going to throw it out. “You’re constantly raising your arms when you’re talking, so it’ll be obvious,” she said. “You can’t wear that.” My first response was, “I’ll wear a black T-shirt under it, and nobody will know the difference.” I was serious, and so was she.
Her position made more sense than mine, so I let that one go. Again, sometimes you have to pick your battles.
It Goes Both Ways
Men have similar questions about women, but often don’t think to ask.
· They wonder how you’re able to see dirt that they don’t.
· They want to know why you make the bed every morning when you’re just going to get back in that evening.
· They have no idea what to say when you ask them, “Does this make me look fat?”
· They want to know why you go to the restroom in groups when dining out.
· They want to know why your description of a situation sometimes takes longer than the actual situation did.
Here’s a common example that’s the reverse of the dirt question. Men wonder, Why can’t women see the importance of sports on television? Many women love sports, but it’s much more prevalent with men. Men often enjoy sports because it fits with their need to conquer and win. They don’t spend a lot of time analyzing that need; they just enjoy it and find themselves drawn to it.
So when they’re in the middle of watching a game, they aren’t paying much attention to anything else. Their male brain has chosen that one thing to focus on, so everything else diminishes during that time. When a woman asks a man a question during a game, he might not hear it. His brain is focused on what’s happening in the game, so the question is almost like a familiar voice coming from outside. It doesn’t quite register. The woman gets frustrated because he’s more interested in the game than in her, and it increases her frustration with his game-watching habit. Meanwhile, he’s confused because he doesn’t know what he did wrong.
Dealing with the Differences
It goes back to the bottom line: it’s not a matter of who’s right or wrong; it’s recognizing that we’re different. When a woman feels frustrated with a man because of his actions, she usually responds in one of three ways:
1. She tries to change him.
2. She keeps it inside.
3. She talks to him about it.
Let’s explore each of those options.
1. She tries to change him.
This one is probably the most ineffective response and sets the relationship up for even more conflict. It’s based on the assumption that the man’s behavior is wrong instead of different, and needs to be fixed.
I read a lot of articles and books about this topic when I was writing, People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys. I found lengthy discussions about the reasons people do what they do and different approaches to dealing with frustration in relationships. But it always boiled down to one question: Can I change another person?
The answer is a simple one, and true in most cases: no.
Think about how hard it is to change ourselves. We commit to losing weight but give up when a chocolate chip cookie crosses our path. We promise ourselves we’ll have a better attitude until someone else’s crummy attitude affects us. We decide to read more but have trouble turning off the television. We have great intentions, but those habits and patterns have been in place for a really long time. Even when our desire is strong, changing ourselves usually feels like a losing battle.
We’re not alone. With a few exceptions, everybody is pretty much who they were five years ago. If we can’t change ourselves, how futile is it to think we can change someone else? In fact, think of how we feel when someone tries to change us. In most cases we resist, because it feels like they’re saying we’re not good enough the way we are. It implies that until we change, they’re not satisfied with us.
Real relationships happen when two people accept each other as they are, including their differences. When that happens, they feel safe in the relationship. When they feel safe, they’re often motivated to change. They know they’ll still be accepted the way they are, whether they change or not. They’re valued for who they are, not who they aren’t.
That doesn’t mean you have to excuse a man’s poor behavior. It means discerning between behavior and wiring, recognizing whether something comes from his male brain or from his choices. If it’s from his maleness, it’s part of who he is. Trying to change it will lead to frustration. If it comes from his choices, you still can’t force him to change—but you can influence him.
2. She keeps it inside.
This response is more than just ineffective; it’s toxic. It starts with low-grade irritation but turns into industrial-strength bitterness over time. When we don’t deal with the issue, we never “get over it.” It gets stuck inside, growing and festering until our attitude toward the other person becomes more and more negative. We try to act like nothing is wrong, but it’s building on the inside.
When a crisis happens, it all explodes at once. We feel better, but everyone else is wondering, “What was that all about?” and there’s a big mess to clean up.
It’s like shaking a can of soda. Pressure builds in the can, but no one sees it. There are protective walls that keep everything inside. But pop the top and soda will spray everywhere.
We’ve all had situations where we had a strong emotion (such as anger) building up for days or even weeks. We don’t tell anyone about it, and it swells inside. If conversations do happen, they’re often lightly laced with sarcasm, hinting at the pressure that’s behind the words. If we choose to have a genuine heart-to-heart conversation about it, that would release that pressure. Just talking to another person about what we’re feeling is often enough to release the power it has over us.
Someone said, “In the absence of facts, we tend to make up data to support our beliefs.” That’s true when it comes to men and women. You get frustrated with a partner because of something he does but you don’t talk about it. You interpret his motives through a female perspective when his motives might be totally different. He probably isn’t trying to ruin your life. In fact, he probably doesn’t even realize what he’s doing.
Whenever we assume what another person is thinking or feeling, we’re usually wrong. It’s that simple. We’re not them, and we don’t have their brain, so we can’t see what’s going on inside that brain unless we ask.
That leads to the third approach.
3. She talks to him about it.
This response is the only healthy one and is only possible when she accepts the reality of the differences in how men think. It means having an “exploring” conversation rather than an “accusing” one. It’s a conversation that needs to take place early, before assumptions start to build up.
Emotions can become the trigger for recognizing the need for this conversation, signaling to us that something in the relationship needs attention. When a woman can’t understand why a man does something, it’s appropriate to approach him to explore.
“But he gets frustrated when I try to talk to him about this stuff,” you say. “He feels like I’m picking on him.”
That’s why the approach is so critical. If it comes across as accusatory, he’ll automatically be on the defensive. If it comes off as exploratory, it’s seen as a sign of respect and affirmation.
Listen to the difference in how these two sentences come across to a man.
“You’re always looking at your phone when I’m trying to talk to you. You care more about that stupid phone than about me.” (Accusatory)
With that approach, a man feels like he’s done something wrong and is in trouble. It makes him defensive instead of open to what you’re saying.
“I need your help in figuring something out.” (Wait for response.) “I’ve noticed that a lot of times, when I come to talk to you, you’re looking at something on your phone. I’m not sure how to handle that, because it feels like you’re distracted or like you’re not that interested in what I’m saying. Am I reading it wrong?” (Exploratory)
In that second approach, you’re more likely to get the response you’re after. It’s not guaranteed, but you’ve opened the conversation with respect, making it about what you’re feeling instead of what he’s doing. He might not give you the answer you’re looking for, saying something like, “I’m just good at multitasking.” That response probably isn’t accurate, but you’ve opened the door for future conversations. You treated him with respect, and you did it before emotions escalated. It’s a conversation you can revisit later as an open dialogue.
Winning with Influence
We can’t change other people. We can only change ourselves. By changing the way we approach things, we influence others and keep our communication channels open. When that happens, they might choose to change.
The key for women dealing with the differences in men is threefold:
1. Recognize the reality of those differences.
2. See them as different, not wrong.
3. Make choices in how to respond to those differences in a way that values the relationship.
When men feel that a woman accepts their male differences without trying to change them, it gives them the safety to change themselves because they want to please that woman.
If your man learns your definition of dirt, he might even begin to see it.