Q: I’m a 28-year-old guy with an amazing girlfriend. She gets upset and sometimes cries, and I never know how to soothe her. I’m afraid to say the wrong thing, so I don’t say anything at all. Of course, she then gets more upset, thinking I don’t care. But I do care, and I want her to know.—Tongue-Tied
A: When things get emotionally fraught in a relationship, it’s tempting to wish for a simpler existence—like being a dog so all that’s expected of you is to not pee on the rug, and to sit still while the girlfriend dresses you up as a bee. In fact, if you’re like a lot of men, a female partner’s tears are liquid kryptonite, causing you to pretty much lose consciousness while appearing to be totally awake and ambulatory. Women may not entirely get this—or the extent of it—because of some sex differences in emotion processing.
Generally speaking, putting it in collegiate terms, the female mind majors in psychology; the male mind majors in physics—though individual male and female minds vary, of course. Research by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen finds that women tend to be the “empathizers” of the species, driven (from childhood on) to identify others’ “emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion.” Men, on the other hand, tend to be “systematizers”—driven to understand the inner workings of the blender.
The good news is, there’s a secret—even for the most emotionally inarticulate man—for comforting an upset woman: you don’t have to be Shakespeare; just don’t go all shutupspeare. For example, last week, when I was bummed about something—to the point of tears—I was on the phone with my boyfriend, and he said the sweetest thing: “I’m bad at this” (meaning knowing what to say) “but I want to help you feel better.” This made me feel loved—and better. Also, it was kind of sexy.
As an emergency measure—if even the words about not having the right words fail you—you can communicate your desire to comfort her with a hug, hair stroking and other loving gestures. Again, just be sure to make some kind of effort to soothe her, lest she add feeling emotionally abandoned by her boyfriend to her boo-hoo list.
Q: My husband’s parents asked to be in the delivery room while I’m giving birth, and he said yes—without asking me. Now he doesn’t want to tell them otherwise, which is weird because he isn’t usually lacking in assertiveness. I get along fine with my in-laws, but I don’t want them in there with me.—Horrified Mom-to-Be
A: There are those men who understand what it’s like to give birth—those who’ve passed a kidney stone the size of a decorative lawn boulder out a slim fleshy tube normally meant for urine.
You are not doing a one-woman show in the delivery room; you are the lead character in a medical procedure, one that can involve pooping while pushing, horror movie-esque blood spatter and impressive strings of screamed profanity (interspersed with tender maternal utterances like “GET THIS DEMON SPAWN OUT OF ME!”).
Sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out that we all engage in constant “impression management,” editing our behavior to control how others see us. (Choosing how much of our selves to make public is a big part of this.) Goffman explains that losing control—not being able to present our desired image—is deeply disturbing to us, leading to feelings of shame and compensatory strategies to clean up the damage. (Never looking your father-in-law in the eye again sound good to you?)
You say your husband generally isn’t lacking in assertiveness. Chances are, in the wake of his saying yes instead of “Gotta check with my wife,” he would feel bad about going back on it. (Maybe part of his impression management is coming off as a man of his word.) But back on his word he must go, because it’s your choice whether you make your private parts public parts. Not surprisingly, you feel you put your best foot forward with your feet in shoes under the dinner table—not in stirrups while the in-laws go sightseeing with the iPhone up the, um, Grand Canyon: “Look, Ralph . . . there’s a little fist coming out! Quick! Get a shot for our Instagram!”