Q: My wife complains that I don’t talk to her enough. I really want to make her happy, so I’ve been trying to talk more. Sometimes this works and we have great conversations. But other times, when I try to give her advice, she ends up frustrated with me and I end up with my foot in my mouth. Any suggestions?

A: Great question! The differences between how men and women communicate present real challenges. Understanding the unique challenges men face can help you (and your spouse) become the kind of partner you’re working toward. Here are some pointers that can help you achieve your goals:

Learn to listen; Listen to learn

To be a good communicator, you need to be a good listener. This may sound obvious, but it’s easier said than done. The only way to become a better listener is to discover what your partner needs from you. To do this you must find out what your wife needs by asking your wife. This simple step is overlooked by so many men. Don’t assume you know what your partner needs and don’t assume she needs what you need. This is where men get themselves into hot water.

Many men report that they have the most difficulty when their wives say “I just need you to listen.” Here’s an example of two wives who need their husbands’ support. These women both want their husbands to listen to the events of their workdays. See if you can tell what’s different about the men’s reactions.

Carol: You won’t believe the day I had at the office! I was on overdrive all day and just before I’m ready to leave, Lorna has the nerve to dump twenty pages of notes in front of me and says she needs them organized into a letter before I go.

Tim: Geez, I hope you didn’t do it! You’re always letting her take advantage of you. We need to work on getting you a backbone. Tell her that you have a kid you have to pick up from daycare. And if that doesn’t do it, go over her head and tell management.


Paige: I am bone-tired! Ella’s out all week, and I did the work of three people before lunch even, and then Matt assigned me a huge project at the end of the day. And of course, as usual, he needed it yesterday.

Jonas: How frustrating! Boy, he’s never been sympathetic to your schedule. No wonder you’re exhausted. What did you tell him?

In both of these responses, the husbands feel protective of their wives and frustrated that the women had such a rough day. But notice that Tim immediately moves into problem-solving mode and tells Carol what to do. She did not ask Tim how he would handle the issue. Therefore, his reaction assumes she didn’t know how to deal with the situation on her own and his response also assumes that this is what Carol needed from Tim. As you can see, Carol was just venting, and what she was looking for in that moment was a sympathetic ear, not a Mr. Fix-it.

In the second response, Jonas shows that he understands Paige’s frustration. This is an empathic response rather than a problem-solving response. He also asks a question, which demonstrates active listening and shows that he is interested in what happened.

When your wife wants you to “just listen,” in essence she is saying that she wants you to understand what she is going through.

Why men screw this up: (Ladies, pay attention…)

The main reasons men have difficulty listening to their wives:

~ They feel protective of their wives.
~ They hate feeling helpless and inadequate.

Neither of these reasons is inherently bad, but when combined, they prevent you from giving your wife what she needs. Here’s what happens: Your wife comes to you with a problem or a dilemma. It doesn’t take a master of intuition to determine that your wife is in distress. The distress you witness causes you to feel helpless and tense (vicarious helplessness). You leap out of empathic mode (where you just listen and try to put yourself in her shoes) and leap into protective, problem-solving mode. Your wife then feels frustrated and belittled. The communication process has broken down.


Many men misperceive the role of listener as a passive activity with little value. This is a dangerous mindset that often prevents men from giving their wives what they need. Challenge this mindset, because it only stands in the way of a fulfilling, intimate union.

If you communicate an understanding of your wife’s experience and this is what she needs, then you’ve helped her. Helping your wife in this way is not a passive activity! Continuously remind yourself that whenever you make your wife feel better (through empathic listening), you’ve been active. You need to practice and get used to communicating in this way. Before you know it, empathic listening will become second nature.

Remember: the best person to determine what your wife needs is your wife. And the antidote to feeling like an inadequate husband is to give your wife what she needs. Write this on a Post-it note and read it every day.

Author's Bio: 

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Rich Nicastro, Ph.D. is a relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples protect the sanctuary of their relationship.