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Updated: Jan 31, 2020

In couples, it’s not unusual to find mismatches in how people respond to problems. Typically, men want to jump right into problem-solving mode while women want to talk about the problem more or express how they’re feeling about it. (Occasionally, I run into situations where the gender roles are reversed, but this is one area where I’ve found the stereotype to be generally accurate.)

It’s also true that women complain about how men are emotionally clueless and “just don’t get it,” while men complain about women being irrational or emotionally complicated. Therapists typically counsel men to slow down, listen, and offer some sort of validation to their partners. This is well-intentioned advice and, in some cases, may actually prove useful, but I’ve never found it particularly satisfying. There’s something lazy about it. It’s sort of like saying: “What can you do? Men are from Mars and women are from Venus” without bothering to truly explain what is happening. A second problem with this line of advice is that it can backfire if the man applies it in a formulaic way (e.g., reminding himself to make eye contact, nodding frequently, and saying “I understand” every few minutes). In these instances, instead of feeling understood the woman is likely to feel patronized, which only makes the situation worse. She concludes, “He just doesn’t get it,” while he throws his hands up in frustration, concluding, “Nothing I do makes any difference.”

Now, let me say in advance that I don’t have a perfect solution to this problem. Instead, what I can offer are two concepts from very different fields that I have found helpful: the first from method acting and the second from a martial art called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Before method acting rose to prominence in the late 1930s, actors were generally taught to adjust their face and posture in order to convey different emotions. The resulting performances tended to be stylized, precise, and somewhat exaggerated. In contrast, method acting involved trying to recreate the character’s inner experience as closely as possible. If the character is depressed, a method actor will focus on a personal experience that involved demoralization or grief and trust that this inner experience will shine through. (Think Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind,” vs. Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.”)

Among highly trained actors, both the classical approach and the method approach can produce amazing results. But for those of us with no acting experience, the method approach will transmit emotions in a far more powerful and convincing manner. Don’t believe me? Try this simple test. Stand in front of a mirror and do the following things with your face: narrow your eyes, furrow your brow, and clench your jaw. Notice what you see and then relax your face. Now this time, close your eyes and think about the last time somebody really pissed you off. Allow yourself to remember the details and really sink into the experience. Then, open your eyes. I’m willing to bet that the second condition produced a much more convincing expression of anger. (The first, probably looked more like someone feigning anger during a game of charades.)

The point of these examples is that adjusting one’s focus and attitude is far more important than pantomiming something you don’t feel. Within the context of couples’ communication, if a husband is genuinely interested in understanding his wife’s experience, this attitude will shine through all on its own. In fact, going through an inner checklist of active listening skills is likely to distract him from what is truly important: emotional connection.

OK, so how does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fit into this? For those of you who are unfamiliar with the art, a brief explanation is necessary. BJJ is a form of wrestling that involves controlling your opponent through an understanding of leverage and the application of various “submission” techniques (e.g., chokes, shoulder cranks, hyper-extension of the elbow, etc.) If you get caught in a submission, you “tap out” to signal defeat and your opponent releases the hold before any injury occurs. Then you start the process all over again. To gain proficiency in this art, one must spend thousands of hours on the mat, get submitted and submit others countless times, and learn from the experience. It is one of the few martial arts where knowledge and timing is far more important than strength and speed.

This is where the concept of “connection” comes in. In practically every position, there are ways you can physically attach yourself to your opponent to increase leverage. For example, in order to escape from a headlock there is a sequence of moves one must go through (e.g., tuck your chin, get off your back and onto your side, retract the bottom elbow, etc.), but the magic ingredient is pressing your upper shoulder into your opponent’s back. Without this, you might get out, but it’s going to involve a lot of effort and struggle. With the shoulder connected, the escape is almost effortless.

It was only recently that I began to see the parallels between the concepts of physical connection in BJJ and emotional connection in couples’ communication. In a Jiu-Jitsu match, if you apply pressure before establishing the proper connection there is a lot of wasted effort – you strain and make big movements, but your opponent hardly moves. When I watch some couples communicate, I feel like I’m seeing something similar. Men who jump directly into problem-solving mode without first establishing an emotional connection with their partners, are setting themselves up for wasted effort and frustration.

Neither of these analogies is perfect. In BJJ, your goal is to make your opponent as uncomfortable as possible, whereas with couples the goal is generally to demonstrate support for your partner and reduce distress. Similarly, method acting is focused on creating a convincing facsimile of emotion, while the goal in couples’ communication is for people to develop a genuine sense of caring and curiosity about their partner.

It may help to think of these concepts as tools rather than precise explanations. The purpose of tools is simply to be useful and, in this case, reminders of what is important: emotionally connecting with someone before offering advice and, when problems arise, trying to replace feelings of frustration with an attitude of curiosity.

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