A common scenario plays out on American sitcoms nearly every television season. A husband and wife are facing a serious problem. The wife is upset and wants she and her husband to discuss their feelings about the situation. Yet every time she tries to engage her husband in meaningful dialogue, he finds an excuse to put her off. As the wife’s efforts to confront him escalate, the husband’s escape tactics become more and more comical until the wife finally catches him sneaking out the back door of their house, fishing tackle in hand. Trapped at last, the man confesses that discussing the problem makes him uncomfortable.
Since time immemorial, psychologists—and women—have assumed that men avoid talking about problems due to feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable with their emotions, or because of a society that degrades men for appearing “weak.” However, a new study from researchers at the University of Missouri reveals that men simply view discussing problems as a waste of their time.
The study shows just how differently males and females view disclosure. Girls believe that discussing problems results in positive outcomes, such as helping them to feel understood, valued, comforted and less lonely. Boys, on the other hand, see almost no positive outcomes. For them, talking about a problem does not solve the problem or alleviate negative feelings about it. In fact, says researcher Amanda J. Rose, it can make the problem seem bigger. Therefore, boys are more likely to seek other coping methods, such as focusing on other tasks or relieving stress through activities like sports and video games.
Researchers gathered this data through four separate studies that involved surveying and observing nearly 2,000 children and teens. The boys’ claim that discussing problems is unhelpful to them was not simply an excuse to avoid talking or dealing with negative emotions. They did not indicate that discussing problems would cause them any more embarrassment or angst than it would for girls. They merely saw talking as ineffective compared to other actions they could take. This discovery may help women who feel stuck in relationships with uncommunicative partners to better understand the male psyche.
“Women may really push their partners to share pent-up worries and concerns because they hold expectations that talking makes people feel better,” said Rose. “But their partners may just not be interested and expect that other coping mechanisms will make them feel better.”
Rose indicated that the findings could help parents as well when teaching children healthy ways to deal with problems. Girls can naturally become overly fixated on discussing problems, leading to depression and anxiety, while boys never learn to open up. Parents can encourage a more balanced approach by pointing out to boys instances in which discussing problems can help them, while showing girls other ways to cope with stress. However, parents shouldn’t have too high of expectations in getting boys to talk simply by creating a safe environment for them to do so. For boys, parents need to emphasize what talking will accomplish.
The study, entitled “How Girls and Boys Expect Disclosure About Problems Will Make Them Feel: Implications for Friendships,” will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Child Development.