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The “Brutally Honest” Syndrome: Some Gender Differences

I try for the most part to write blog articles about non-romantic friendship issues but in this case I’m making an exception and examining a marital communication problem. It’s one which comes up frequently between men and women and I think it deserves to be addressed.

Lynn, a female client, complained during an individual session that her husband Norm was so “brutally honest” she had gotten into a pattern of avoiding conversations with him. She said, “If I express an opinion with which he disagrees, he will ridicule me. Recently, when I told him I enjoyed the wine we had been served at a friend’s house, he said, ’I can’t believe you actually liked that swill. Your taste is up you’re a–.’

“When I suggested we go to the Denver Museum of Art last Saturday, he said, ‘Have you lost your mind, what on earth gave you the idea I would even consider wasting one of my two days off in that dump?’”

I asked her if she had tried telling him how it felt when he spoke to her in such a manner and she said, “Yes, many times. I tell him it hurts my feelings but it doesn’t do any good. He thinks I’m whining and he tells me to toughen up—that I’m too sensitive.”

I asked her if he acted this way during their courtship and she said, “No, never. It was only after we got married that he began to talk to me in this manner.”

While I sat silent, pondering my next question, she volunteered more information. “You know, he’s no different than all the husbands in the group we socialize with. They’re all like that. When the men are sitting around talking they are incredibly mean to each other. They seem to enjoy it but when I listen to the way they insult each other it makes me cringe. They argue and bicker and say things like, ‘You’re such a dumb ass! You don’t know what the f—k you’re talking about,’ and ‘You’re an idiot to buy that piece of s—- car–it looks like you found it in a junk yard.”

She sat thinking for a moment and then said, “Norm is close friends with Frank, and the two of them kind of set the tone for the group. They’re actually proud of their rudeness. It’s so constant and annoying that I and the other wives refer to Norm and Frank as the ‘Normally and Frankly Brutal Twins’—and they think the nicknames are funny! We wives think they’re all from a different planet.

Given her deep concerns about their relationship, I suggested she ask Norm to attend our next therapy hour. She did so and in response to her request he called and expressed the desire to first see me by himself in order to, in his words, “check me out.” I agreed to do so and we set up an appointment.

He opened the hour by commenting on my office setup, which is in the lower walk-out half of my home. He said, “Huh! I was expecting a real office. This is a hokey setup.” I said, “What makes you say that?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know; my guess is that if you knew what you were doing you’d be in an office building like all the other shrinks.” I chuckled and said, “Well, the good thing is that you’ll get to evaluate me during this hour. If you decide I know what I’m doing, maybe you’ll agree to some marital counseling. Obviously it’ll be your call.”

When Norm saw that I didn’t take his insulting banter seriously he relaxed and we had a good talk. As he spoke it became clear that he loved his wife and knew something was wrong but had not yet figured out he needed to relate to her differently than he did to his male buddies. I explained that what he calls being “honest and frank” is, from his wife’s perspective, mean spirited and hurtful. I told him she was hungry for intimacy and romance but the way he talked to her made such closeness impossible. I added, “Spouses are supposed to be each other’s best friend. When you talk down to her like that she sees it as evidence you don’t cherish or respect her.”

He said, “So, what’s the alternative? Do I have to be all syrupy and drippy and kiss her behind?” I asked, “Norm, you’re assuming there is no middle road. You’ve framed it so that the only available choices are insulting her or being phony and kissing up. There’s another option; a respectful, tactful approach that is still honest. It’s something I teach couples and it works.”

Fortunately, at this point I managed to get Norm’s attention and he agreed to come in with Lynn and learn more appropriate ways to communicate.

This therapeutic scenario with Lynn and Norm is one I have encountered many times over my decades of working with couples. I believe there are two important differences between men and women which contribute to this problem.

Men and women have different definitions of intimacy
During courtship, men are tactful, respectful and romantic. They are not being phony—they mean everything they say and do. But for them, courtship is an achievement issue. They are trying to “win the woman.” Once they win her they then slowly but surely shift into a different way of relating, one whose focus is building a more comfortable life—i.e., making more bucks, getting a bigger house, building an estate, etc. For men these activities are intimate and their way of saying, “I love you.” Naturally, they want sex and are occasionally romantic but certainly not to the same degree they were during courtship.

Wives, however, often interpret this shift away from the initially intense, consistently romantic courtship behavior as a disappointing “bait and switch” situation. Referring to this, one deeply disappointed wife said, “I bought what I thought was a superior product but when I went to use it I discovered everything on the label was a lie.”

Men learn to relate to others by talking to other men
The primary way men talk to each other about their relationship is in code. When a man says, “You’re a dumb son of a bitch and I’m going to kick your ass at pool,” he’s saying, “I love your company and I’m having a great time.” Men generally hug each other goodbye only if they’ve had a couple of drinks and then they almost always accompany the hug with some macho utterance—e.g., “Take care, you dumb son of a bitch.”

If you watch professional athletes greet each other at the beginning or after a game they never establish eye contact and they do more of a constricted, one armed bounce off each other rather than a hug. Warm male contact in a competitive context is easily seen as a sign of weakness.

So, the point is this: After a man meets a woman, courts her and marries her, he then slides into his less romantic definition of intimacy—one he learned from his dad and from other men—and he then relates to his wife the same way he has historically related to his male friends. Unless he learns at some point that this will not work, his marriage will suffer and maybe even come to an end. Why? Because women are wired differently. They expect to be cherished and adored and the typical male style of relating via insulting banter and brutal honesty flies in the face of this expectation.

I hope this brief examination of a couple of the basic differences between how men and women prefer to relate increases your awareness and enhances your ability to talk about these differences in a way that allows your relationships to thrive.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below

When Friends Move Away

One of the more difficult challenges a friendship can face is when one friend moves away. I personally experienced the difficulties that such a move causes when I moved away from a city where I had friendships of twenty years duration.  I discovered some hard facts about the effect of such a move. 

Fact: The burden for continued contact falls on the friend who leaves.  With the exception of a few calls made to me right after I moved, most of my friends assumed that I would be the one calling, writing or E-mailing. There is a logical reason for this.  When I left town I did not disrupt my friends’ usual social routine.  Yes, they initially missed me, but only one small cog had fallen out of their social machine and so, from their perspective, the machine was working just fine. On the other hand, having moved to a new area where I knew very few people, I initially felt lost.  I thought often about the friends I had left behind and missed them very much.  I called to maintain contact with my old friends, but the number of calls I made far exceeded the calls that came back to me.  Life continued as usual for my old friends and they had adjusted to my absence. 

Fact: Friends sometimes resent the person who moves away, interpreting it as a personal rejection.  They may not be consciously aware of their resentment, but the reaction is not uncommon. I discovered this when the wife of one of my friends described his reaction after I’d informed him I was moving. He said, “I feel like I was slapped in the face.”  When I asked her how she interpreted his remark, she said: “I think he feels abandoned by you.” 

Fact: Some friends do not know how to maintain a long distance friendship.  Ralph, one of my patients, told me that after he moved away from his hometown, his then closest friend, Stan, called him only twice over a five year period.  Surprisingly, Stan’s wife, during a visit with Ralph and his spouse while on a business trip in their area, told them Stan still considered Ralph to be his closest friend.  

Ralph, while telling me the story, was perplexed.  He said: “I don’t get it.  I have called and E-mailed Stan numerous times and never get anything more than a lukewarm reception on the phone or a cursory email response.  When I’ve suggested ski trips or visits, he has consistently put off making any commitments. When I have shared joys or fears with him by E-mail, he has not responded.  How can he believe that we are still close friends?  He has made little or no effort to stay in touch for five years. Best friend? I think he’s living in a dream world.” After discussing with Ralph his specific history of relating to Stan, it became clear that Ralph had been the one to initiate almost all of their socializing.  Once Ralph left, Stan did not know how to reach out and do the things necessary to keep the friendship alive.  Further, since Ralph was no longer living in town, the geographical distance acted as a kind of inertia builder in Stan. Ralph finally realized that his friendship with Stan was over and made a conscious decision to let go of it.  He said, after making this choice, “It’s a sad state of affairs.  I miss the guy.  We shared a strong intellectual bond. I miss talking with him. We had even re-built an automobile together and we had great talks during that project.” 

As you can see, long distance friendships can suffer if both people do not make an effort to maintain an ongoing connection.  While it is not easy to do,it can achieved if the friendship is highly valued and both make a conscious decision to stay in touch on a regular basis.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

A Case of Understanding

A woman friend of mine recently teased me about my habit of watching the NBA playoffs. With her tongue planted not so firmly in her cheek, she laughingly said it was a mindless pastime and that my concern about who won and who lost was beyond her understanding. I told her there were many reasons I watched, but one of the most compelling was that televised sports are, to me, the most honest things on TV. And compared to the current shallow, so-called news-talk shows, they are far more meaningful.

She smiled and said, “I just don’t get it—overgrown men in shorts fighting over a ball—what’s so interesting? Can you explain what it is you find so riveting?”

I saw this as an interesting challenge. Could I explain to her why I was such a committed sports fan? I had some ideas about why but had never put them down on paper. Clearly, I had very little chance of converting her to sports watching but perhaps I could help her understand what motivated me to do it. I came up with the following letter of explanation.

Dear Mary,

Your question, What’s so interesting about sports? got me thinking. Hopefully, the  following will clarify why I enjoy watching sports and how it has held my interest over the years.

1. As a fan I’m always looking for the “perfect game.” Such a game is characterized by:

   —Opponents with an equal level of skill

   —Opponents who are equally well conditioned

   —Opponents with equal tactical and strategical skills

   —A level playing field

   —A contest where the outcome is unknown until the very end

Perfect games can give fans a unique high. The drama of such games is so intense and appreciated that they become legendary.

2. I appreciate the psychology of “momentum.” When both teams or individuals are playing well, momentum can change to the opposition in a heartbeat. Maintainance momentum is fragile and can change X number of times during a given game. Great coaches and athletes know how to bring about such shifts, and it’s fun watching the strategies and tactics they use in order to do so.

3. Teams are made up of players who are young and old, experienced and inexperienced, and the development of the intangible but important qualities of leadership and team chemistry is interesting to observe. Seeing players develop leadership confidence and watching them learn to gracefully exert it with teammates and bring about team chemistry is psychologically fascinating. 

4. Sports operate within a true meritocracy. As an athlete, you either perform under pressure or you are off the team. The ability to meet that pressure is a monstrous challenge. You’re scrutinized by your coaches, scores of writers and millions of fans. You cannot fake acceptable play. You must perform. Watching players learn to perform under pressure and change from being merely good to consistently great is inspiring and immensely entertaining.

5. With individual sports like tennis and cycling, watching players grow from inexperienced to experienced—from immature to mature—is intriguing. Talented young players are challenged to compete gracefully while millions watch and evaluate them on TV. Some don’t meet the maturity challenge even after years in the spotlight (e.g., tennis player Serena Williams’ graceless remarks when she loses). Some succeed (e.g., Rafael Nadal’s graceful post-match speeches whether he loses or wins).

With team sports, learning to be unselfish and to gracefully accept one’s given role on the team is a major challenge. There is a saying: “Until age 18, sports is a character builder, but after 18, it is a character revealer.” Self absorbed, non-team players are traded, fall by the wayside or end up playing for second-rate teams.

In his book Life on The Run, Bill Bradley, the ex-senator and legendary New York Knicks basketball player, wrote that he was asked why he continued to play past his prime. He explained that the willingness of an athlete to accept a lesser role on a team once it becomes clear he has diminished skills is a powerful opportunity for personal growth. We cannot be permanently at the top of our game, athletically or otherwise, and the willingness to contribute in a meaningul but diminished role is a sign of maturity.

For all these reasons, sports have held my interest for sixty-plus years (I was an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan by age eight). Naturally, whether my favorite team wins or loses is important to me, but it is not nearly as important or interesting as the above. I hope this letter gives you some insight into why I’m so passionate about sports watching.

Not surprisingly, my friend, in her answering email, wrote, “I understand now what it is you’re enjoying. I didn’t know sports offered so many things to appreciate. Sadly, it still seems like a waste of time to me. But I’m glad you get such fun and stimulation out of it.”

I’m fine with my friend’s reaction. All I wanted was her understanding of what I found worthwhile about sports. She gave me that. Sometimes when friends take an open-minded look at our passions and beliefs, they’ll choose to share our passion and sometimes they won’t. It is our openness to another’s experience when it is different from ours that makes the enrichment of a given friendship possible.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

When Preoccupied Friends Are Thoughtless

During a recent therapy session, my client Rick wondered out loud about how to handle an on-again, off-again problem with his close friend Steve. Rick described the following scenario.

“Over the years, whenever Steve finds a new lady friend, he becomes so undependable it falls under the heading of irresponsible and disrespectful. I have no problem with Steve having a relationship and making me lower priority. Heck, I’m married with a kid, so I’m not that available to hang out anyway. The problem is that once Steve is in a romantic relationship, he stops keeping his word. He’ll call me, suggest we get together for a beer, agree on a time and place, and then he simply doesn’t show up. He doesn’t even bother to call and cancel.

“It’s so predictable. Once there’s a lady in his life, he acts this way, not just with me but with all his friends. This is his third serious relationship in the last five years, and during each one, he has blown off our get-togethers on a regular basis.”

I said, “Rick, I don’t blame you for being hurt and annoyed by his behavior but I can’t help wondering why you haven’t yet confronted him about it. What’s your reasoning?”

Rick said, “My fear is that if I confront him, he will see me as judging him, be hurt, and stop being my friend. I think part of the problem is that we have always had an easygoing, laissez-faire friendship. I guess the quick answer is that I’m not sure if I have the right to do so.”

Rick’s dilemma asks an important question, one that does not have a simple, formulaic answer. My daughter Shannon, in a discussion about the same topic, framed the question in the following way. She asked, “How does one make a distinction between accepting people for who they are versus being appropriately assertive about one’s own rights within the friendship?”

She could not, in my opinion, have framed it more accurately. I believe in order to make the distinction she refers to, one must have the ability to look inward and identify one’s feelings and then identify those specific behaviors that cause the hurt feelings. Then, once one determines if the hurtful behaviors are or aren’t a departure from the implicitly agree-upon rules for the friendship, one can make the distinction.

For example, in Rick’s case, he has clearly identified his fears of being low priority and of being disrespected by Steve. Additionally, and importantly, he can tie specific behaviors by Steve to these feelings. When Steve doesn’t bother to show up or bother to call and cancel a get-together, he is being disrespectful of Rick’s time, energy, and feelings. Finally, Rick said that when Steve is not in a romantic relationship, he does not have a history of breaking appointments in this manner. It is clearly a breach of their implicit agreement over time about how they will relate to each other as friends.

My Recommendation:

It seems to me that if Rick wants to keep this friendship healthy and honest, he must not sell Steve short. If he assumes Steve will be defensive and withdraw, he is not giving Steve the opportunity to honor their friendship by changing. Further, by not confronting Steve, he is continuing a pattern of storing up resentments against him that could, over time, kill the friendship. In his words, Rick said, “I’m so hurt by this situation that I’m tempted to dump the guy as a friend.”

It seems Rick’s best shot is to at least let Steve know how he is feeling and what Steve is doing to generate those feelings. He can soften the message if he likes by first stating that he knows Steve is in love and so preoccupied with his new lady that he may be unaware of the liberties he’s been taking with their friendship.

Note: A communication technique called a “Feeling Message”  facilitates the kind of tactful confrontation I am recommending that Rick have with Steve. It is one of the best tools for mending and strengthening friendships. Click here to learn more. 

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

Crises and Friendship

Experienced shrinks know that folks are more open and less resistant to change during a crisis. The most obstinate, chauvinistic husband, once the wife he loves demands a divorce, can be surprisingly receptive to what he previously viewed as abhorrent, touchy-feely couple’s counseling.

This openness to change and new ideas can also occur during health crises. Folks who discover they have only a short time to live often become open to spiritual ideas and religious practices they previously had shunned. They also discover their IRAs and stock portfolios aren’t much comfort during such times and often develop a deeper appreciation of their relationships with supportive friends and family.

I recently experienced a health crisis and, predictably, my defenses came down. Feeling very vulnerable and mortal, I found myself appreciating and assessing my friendships. I discovered that I missed one friend very much-a friend I’d been close to for a very long time but with whom I’d had a falling-out some time earlier.

As I struggled with my post-op difficulties I sat thinking about how short life is and how permanent death is. Then, not wanting to go another day without my friend back in my life, I decided to call him and try to patch things up. The false pride and stubbornness I had been feeling and which had contributed to the friendship impasse seemed to dissolve in the light of such a powerful perspective. I called and he very gracefully responded to my overture. We had a satisfying catch-up phone conversation and it was clear that we would be close friends once again.

If we adopt a positive attitude, the tough times can give us important and helpful perspective. Toward the end of my dad’s life, when he was struggling with serious, debilitating health problems, he never complained. When I asked him how he managed to handle his situation so stoically, he said, “There is a saying-‘I felt bad because I had no feet until I saw a man with no legs,’-things can always be worse, Ron. I’m thankful I’m alive.”

It is this perspective which can allow us to transcend petty grievances and to take the high road with our friends. It can also allow us to find a humorous way to frame difficult times. Somehow, being able to laugh at our predicaments makes them more bearable. Sometimes even dark humor works.

In this vein, Ron-a musician friend–was for many years a serious amateur photographer. There was nothing he liked better than getting up at 5 AM and climbing a mountain or walking a desolate area and taking photos. He has a wonderful eye and I looked forward to his annual Christmas cards, each of which would feature some wonderful nature scene. He worked hard as a musician and as a frame-shop owner and saved for his retirement. His plan was to travel the world, take photos and eat in fine restaurants. Then, soon after he retired, he developed a spinal condition, lost the use of his legs and became wheel chair bound. Some time after this occurred we were at a restaurant sharing a meal and I asked him how he was holding up. He said, as though talking to himself, “Ah yes-retirement–welcome to the f—  golden years!” Then he laughed, shook his head, and said, “Hey, man-when I’m sitting talking with a friend, I’m a ten! When I’m alone and trying to get around using that damn walker I’m a two!”

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

Humility and Friendship

Howard, a buddy of mine since high school, told me about his friend, Marvin. He explained Marvin’s popularity in the following way. “When he is asked his opinion about something, he will give it but will always follow it with a disclaimer–‘Heck, I don’t really know. I’m just guessing.'”

It is Howard’s opinion that because Marvin never risks offending anyone by having a strong opinion he is popular. While I agree with Howard’s explanation of Marvin’s popularity, I’m not sure Marvin’s approach is in his own best interest. Discounting one’s own opinions on a regular basis does, I believe, take its toll. I believe one can have an opinion without offending others. However, Marvin’s approach sure beats the other, argumentative end of the opinion continuum-i.e., “You’re wrong and I’ll tell you why.”

I personally find the combination of humility and humor to be attractive. It does not surprise me that funny, self deprecating people are usually popular and do not want for friends. For example, Woody Alan’s film comedy protagonists are usually fellows who have little self esteem and are quick to admit it. However, they couple their humility with ironic wit and insight and thus we find them appealing, entertaining and non-threatening.

My friend Manny, a talented composer and conductor, is genuinely humble and also very funny. One evening my wife and I were watching PBS talk show host Charlie Rose interview Riccardo Muti, the talented and articulate Italian conductor. During the course of the interview Muti was asked what it was like conducting Mozart compositions. He responded enthusiastically and said something to the effect, “When I conduct Mozart’s compositions it is as though I and the orchestra are floating in the cosmos hand-in-hand with God.” 

A short time later, while chatting with Manny on the phone, I brought up the Muti interview and quoted his description of how he felt when conducting Mozart. I then asked Manny, “Do you have a similar kind of experience when you conduct Mozart?” Manny paused, then said, “Nahh…we just fly around the neighborhood a little.”  I still laugh when I replay Manny’s answer.

On another occasion, I asked Manny, after he had conducted a retirement city’s community orchestra, how the concert had gone. He said, “Great—when we finished there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.”

As much as I admire genuinely humble folks, I strongly dislike false humility. When I read an interview by some famous athlete who brags about himself on a regular basis but then, when interviewed says, “My mother taught me to always be humble,” I think of the following quote: “Humility is like underwear, essential, but indecent if it shows.” 

In this vein, a related quote-“Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less”-reminds me of the story about the famous Italian tenor. On his first date with a lady he talked about himself non-stop for two hours and finally, with a big magnanimous smile, leaned forward and said to her, “Well, that’s enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think about my new CD?”

One great advantage of being genuinely humble is that it keeps one’s mind open and allows one to clean up and heal those mistakes and hurts which inevitably occur between friends. There is great truth to the saying, “Humility leads to strength and not to weakness. It is the highest form of self-respect to admit mistakes and to make amends for them.”

Following are a number of quotes about humility which I have found to be either amusing and/or thought provoking.

“If you would have people speak well of you, then do not speak well of yourself.”

“We’d like to be humble but what if no one notices?”

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”

“I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty … But I am too busy thinking about myself.”

Bob Hope to President Kennedy when being presented with a gold medal for services to his country: “I feel very humble but I think I have the strength of character to fight it.”

“The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.”

“To be humble to our superiors is duty; to our equals, courtesy; to our inferiors, generosity.”

“Flattery is all right so long as you don’t inhale.”

“Nobody stands taller than those willing to stand corrected.”

“Lord, where we are wrong, make us willing to change; where we are right, make us easy to live with.”

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

True Friendship

 Whenever I hear somebody rave about a restaurant which I believe serves mediocre food, I’m faced with a dilemma.  I must choose between telling them I don’t share their opinion and saying something benign and glossing over our differing perceptions.  When I do the first I worry that folks will infer that I don’t respect their ability to distinguish between good and bad food.  When I do the second I worry they’ll mistake my reply for agreement. A friend of mine, when I told him about this concern, said, “What’s the difference.  Good or bad food is in the eye of the beholder; no one is right or wrong-it’s all opinion.”

I don’t agree with this position at all.  I believe there is a basic truth sitting out there and if we are discerning enough–that is, if we pay attention over time–we can spot it.  If I prefer Chef Boyardee spaghetti to a dish of Mario Batali’s home made pasta I’m demonstrating a lack of awareness. My palate is simply not yet discerning enough to know the difference. I’d add that if I were to prepare a dish for Mario Batali he would find umpteen things he would have done differently and I am convinced he’d probably be correct on all counts.

I find the same thing to be true with music.  I’m not a fan of rap music but I’m sure there is good rap and bad rap and some knowledgeable folks out there who have thought about and listened to a lot of hip hop music can probably tell the difference.  I know this is true because there is good jazz playing and bad jazz playing and I believe I can tell the difference.  It is your perfect right to prefer Kenny G. to Miles Davis but I can assure you that Kenny G.’s music is puerile and boring by comparison and if you listen to both with an open mind you will, over time, most likely recognize this to be true.

Because there is basic truth in the world, certain folks who are truly talented are likely to be appreciated as such and their endeavors will hold up over time. The endeavors of those who are not particularly talented (but may be good at salesmanship) are likely, over time, to fall by the wayside.  For example Billie Holiday’s recordings are still selling well and she’s been gone for almost fifty years.  The recordings of Theresa Brewer, a pop singer from that same era, are all but forgotten. Further, it’s a safe bet few present day music fans even know who she is. She was a mediocre singer who sold her songs with a couple of vocal tricks and over time her music did not hold up.

Let me clarify-I am not talking about preferences. If someone prefers spinach over kale or jazz over classical, there is no “basic truth” involved. I’m arguing that awareness, experience and time will allow us to make determinations about the quality of an endeavor, be it music making, cooking, wine making or painting. Even in the incredibly murky arena of politics, time and perspective allows us to separate the good politicians from the not so good. 

I make these points because I think the ability to be a true friend is an endeavor which can be assessed over time. There are charming folks in this world who form friendships easily but cannot maintain them. When we pay attention to the behavior of our new acquaintances we can usually, over time, spot those qualities or behaviors which do or do not allow the relationship to deepen and become richer.

The ability to build and maintain real friendships is a highly valued quality. One has only to attend the funeral of those with such ability (assuming they have not outlived their friends) to see and hear about their importance and value in their friends’ eyes. Happily, such qualities can be learned and refined. The qualities that seem to be essential to friendship are genuine interest and inquiry, respectful communication, empathy, thoughtfulness, supportiveness, absence of judgment, and loyalty.

If you read through the friendship articles posted on this site you will find these friendship qualities discussed and analyzed. Our goal is to help visitors to this site improve their friendship skills and enrich their social lives.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

Outies and Innies

Dr. Jim Mikawa, a good friend and former professor of clinical psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, had a fascinating theory about people.  He calls it the theory of “Inner versus Outer Directness.”  I have found it quite useful, particularly when it comes to analyzing friendships.

Dr. Mikawa believes that people, for reasons that aren’t clear, fall into one of two categories.  “Outer-directed” people (“Outies”) are those who are very sensitive to others’ needs and are often oblivious to their own.  They are natural caretakers, rarely make waves, seem to instinctively know how to please others, do not impose their will on others, and prefer to do what others want.  They are not good at recognizing their own internal states, which explains why they don’t know what they want.  If you ask an outer-directed person what he is feeling at any given moment, he will most likely stare at you, confused, and respond, “Gee, I don’t know.”  Because Outies are so good at meeting other peoples’ needs, they are generally well-liked.

“Inner-directed” people (“Innies”) are the opposite.  They always know what they want, impose their will on others, and are less sensitive to others’ needs. Thus, they recognize their internal states, know why they feel the way they do, know what they want, and will push to get it.  Unfortunately, Innies are usually oblivious to others’ feelings and are often viewed as self-centered and uncaring.

On the surface, it would seem that the Outies have a great advantage over the Innies.  This is actually not the case.  Both have a problem since each type lacks one important area of awareness.  Outies rarely get their own needs met because they are too busy taking care of others.  Outies are often labeled by mental health professionals as “subassertive.”  On the other hand, Innies usually get their needs met, but alienate others in the process.  Worse, they don’t know why people become upset with them.  They are not intentionally inconsiderate, only unaware of the effects of their behavior.

A friend once described the Innies’ lack of awareness by saying, “They assume that the party doesn’t start until they get there.” Innies unconsciously cut a swath through the interpersonal brush, leaving dazed and depleted people in their trail.

Outies rarely get into trouble because of their behavior because they’re people pleasers.  There is nothing that a grade school teacher likes better than a class full of Outies.  All such students want to do is please the teacher and each other.  The children who get in trouble are usually the Innies.  They know what they want, and if it conflicts with the teachers needs, so be it.  Teachers are not impressed with the fact that the Innies get their needs met and do not care that the Outies don’t.  Teachers want order and predictability, and Outies deliver in these areas.

Dr. Mikawa’s theory included further important distinctions.  He pointed out that the growing-up process and the school of hard knocks help both the Innies and the Outies add balance to their interpersonal approach.  That is, over time they each develop awareness in the area that can be problematic.  The Outies learn to be aware of their own needs and the Innies learn to be aware of others’ needs.  Thus, individuals can fall into one of four categories:

1.  Outies without awareness

2.  Outies with awareness

3.  Innies without awareness

4.  Innies with awareness


What is the advantage of knowing which category you fall into?  Upon reflection, if you determine you are an Outie without awareness, it is important to begin asking yourself what it is you need from your relationships and from life in general.  You may discover that you are consistently taking a backseat to everyone around you and missing out on getting your needs met.  Innies without awareness, in my view, do not have much to look forward to each day because they spend their time pleasing others.

If you determine that you are an Innie without awareness, it is a good idea to begin watching others’ reactions to you during interpersonal dealings.  It is not a crime to be an Innie without awareness.  It is merely a state of poorly developed awareness about the needs of others.  Personal growth is an awareness issue, not a worth issue.

Dr. Mikawa theorized that, in terms of relationships, the ideal friendship is the combination of an Innie with awareness and an Outie with awareness.  If you think about it, this recommendation is really based on a more elegant version of the old “giver-taker” theory of relationships.  What makes it more sophisticated is that both the giver and taker have added awareness so that no one gets ripped off.

The most painful type of relationship occurs when two Innies without awareness team up.  All one hears is “Me, me, me.”  Screams of outrage are the norm and both individuals feel ripped off 24 hours a day.  Combine an angry, pseudo-liberated feminist with a rigid, self-centered chauvinist and you have the “Double Innie” prototype friendship.

An incredibly frustrating friendship occurs when two Outies without awareness spend time together.  Since neither knows what he or she wants, nothing ever gets decided.  Their dialogues go like this:

He: “What do you want to do tonight?”

She: “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

He: “I don’t know, do you want to see a movie?”

She: “It’s okay with me if you want to.  Do you?”

He: “Do you?”

She: “If you do…”–ad nauseam

One individual, admitting to a romantic involvement in this type of relationship, described it as analogous to “two people trying to drive a bus down a steep hill but the bus has no steering wheel, no engine, no brakes and all the windows are blacked out.”

All of us have friends who fall into one of these four “Outie-Innie” categories. I personally find it helpful to determine which category my friends fall into because it gives me some idea about what to expect.  For example, I have friends who, whenever we do something, structure the entire experience for me from beginning to end.  They know what they want and they go after it. I accept this because my expectations are in order.  It is what they do.  I have other friends who are very easy going and will bend in any direction that I prefer in terms of activities.  I enjoy this also.  The key is to develop your awareness so that you don’t take advantage of  generous outer-directed friends or get into unnecessary tussles with your inner-directed ones.

I hope that you, like me, find Dr. Mikawa’s theory both stimulating and helpful.  I believe it has important implications for friendships.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.