Mr. Fix-It: Emotional Communication Across Gender Lines

“My emotional state is not a piece of IKEA furniture.”

I found myself saying this to my partner the other night. I was working on a stressful project, hadn’t been feeling well, and was jumping through some annoying bureaucratic hoops at my university. I wanted to talk about my frustrating feelings and my partner wanted to help “fix” them. I’m now laughing at what a ridiculous gender cliché this is.

I know I’m far from the first person to feel frustrated when her partner tries to “fix” rather than listen and I have some hope that with some patience and understanding, partners can “get” each other a little more. I also wonder, since this issue is often attributed to the psychological differences between men and women, if people in same-sex relationships grapple with it too.

I was trying to figure out a way to explain to my partner why I felt so frustrated with his strategy. Then, I got an idea for a metaphor that I hoped would elucidate what was going on for me.

In line with my previous statement (which, admittedly, could have been much more gently put), I suggested he imagine a giant bowl with just a few components from 10 different pieces of IKEA furniture. A couple EXPEDIT shelves, a piece of a MICKE desk drawer, several screws from a MALM dresser, etc. – all of it in an indistinguishable heap and none of it able to fit together. Not even the minds behind IKEA hacker could make anything useful out of it. It cannot be fixed, but it can be sorted (and here’s where the empathy part comes in). Instead of, “what do you want me to turn all of this into? How can I fix this?” ask, “Is this bit a MALM screw?” In other words, “Are you stressed because you want that project to be successful?” Or “Are you frustrated because you wanted more cooperation from your school?”

Generally, when I’m having a bad day, all I want is some help clarifying what I’m feeling and to know that my partner understands. I don’t expect him to fix my state of mind and make me happy all the time. This was a relief to him to know that I didn’t consider him responsible for this. He was frustrated because he wanted me to know how much he cared and wanted to make my life more wonderful, and my escalating frustration seemed to imply that I thought the contrary. Once he felt seen for how much he wanted to contribute to my well-being and I felt empathized with, our conversation softened a lot.

Don’t get me wrong—his task-oriented gendered experience is often a great asset, like when he uses that wonderfully-male spatial ability to build us some nice EXPEDIT shelves. But with emotional communication, occasionally we hit an impasse that has to be deconstructed. As I said in my last post about miscommunication, living with another person, especially one with a different gender experience than your own, can feel like living with an alien. Until the Universal Translators get here, I’ll have to stick to empathy and IKEA metaphors.

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About Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs, MPH is a NYC-based sex educator + blogger. She's the founder of Sex Geekdom, a global community for sex educators, researchers, and other folks who love having geeky conversations about sex.