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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


Comment from jenbn
Time: November 5, 2009, 1:44 pm

I think all men and woman think the same way you described here! It’s so ridculous that men talk that way to each other, and I really just think it’s so crazy that men are wired so differently than women…oh well! That’s life! Good article…

Comment from Clair Killen
Time: November 5, 2009, 5:02 pm

How old are this pair? How long together before marriage? Hard to believe Norm didn’t reveal serious control issues in ways of dealing with others. They probably both fell short in meeting each others expectations. Sounds to me both
fall short when it requires honesty and courage to talk to each other. We hear her needs are not being met. What about his? Maybe his first wishes were for a win not really a marriage. The men with men stuff is another book. Ah the wheels within the wheels.

Comment from Misty
Time: November 5, 2009, 11:38 pm

You do such a nice job of identifying those culturally male responses without judgement, and your ability to do so makes it easy for men to listen better. Maybe women should try more of that…

Comment from CAM
Time: November 8, 2009, 12:57 pm

I’m thinkin your insights along these lines could fill a book that would be worth reading.

Comment from Dr. Carducci
Time: November 8, 2009, 7:09 pm

Yes…all good questions…but as I’m sure you can tell, the blog is about making a point, not about an in depth therapy exploration… Thanks for leaving a comment…I appreciate it

Comment from Kira
Time: January 10, 2011, 3:37 pm

That’s an interesting point. I see it all the time with my man and his friends. They obviously care about each other but they let the insults fly. I always assumed it was just them showing off their masculinity.
I never really thought of it this way. I suppose it’s easier for a man to joke insult a male that they enjoy spending time with rather than confessing their true feelings in front of people. Could you imagine if females worked that way? or to reverse it, what about if men worked like woman? I suppose even through the confusion it’s a blessing that we’re wired differently from the opposite sex, otherwise it would be awkward.

Comment from Dr. Carducci
Time: May 26, 2011, 2:00 pm

Hi Kira
Thanks for the comment. I agree…I can’t imagine women talkiing that way to each other.

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