Male-Female Communication: Male Compartmentalization & The Female Need for Words

There are exceptions to any rule, but there are many rules and patterns that come up over and over again among males and females. One very common pattern is a significant difference in the way males and females organize information in the conscious part of their minds. If you’re currently in a relationship with an opposite sex partner and you’re feeling frustrated by the way he or she communicates with you, I recommend you read this post and any others that I have on verbal communication. Understanding some of the natural differences between male and female communication styles can go a long way towards reducing the hurt feelings and exasperation that often occur in close relationships.

Now from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep again, your mind, body, and soul are being flooded with new experiences. The information from every experience you have in a day is stored and held in your conscious. When you stagger home, weighed down by too many shopping bags, you quickly dump them into the entryway of your house just to get freed up from the weight. You don’t care how you set them down, you just want them off of you. That initial drop off point in your home is like your conscious. The cupboards and closets where you will eventually put away all of those items in an organized fashion represent your subconscious. It’s when you go to sleep for more than just a catnap that all of your day’s memories get sorted and filed away by your subconscious. But as long as you’re awake, the bags keep stacking up higher and higher in that entryway.

Now some days are good and some days are lousy. Maybe at work, a coworker is really rude to you. Maybe your boss gives you hassle or a customer is a royal pain. Maybe there’s a crisis situation that triggers an exhausting adrenaline rush. High stress moments are like liquid items in your grocery bags that break open and start seeping through their bag, making a mess. Messes are a drag, and will have to be cleaned up. Some messes are easier to clean than others. When the milk carton gets punctured, you can wrap it up in paper towels and chuck it. But when a wine bottle gets smashed, you now have to look out for glass shards. Some messes feel more urgent than others. Dairy products will start smelling foul pretty quickly. Wine stains.

Let’s say something crummy happens to your wife when she’s at work. Now she’s got a busted milk carton in one of her “work” memory bags that’s stacked up in her entryway. When you come home that evening, your wife is quite upset about that leaking milk and it’s all she wants to talk about because her conscious mind can’t stop staring at that leaking milk and stressing about the mess it’s making–a mess that neither you nor your wife can clean up at the moment.

Suppose what happened was that your wife’s boss reamed her out because a customer left a complaint about her that wasn’t based on accurate information. Now your wife is feeling humiliated, angry, and worried about what her coworkers will say when they hear about it. It sounds to you like the crisis has passed. Her boss chewed her out, and that’s it. You know your wife is a good employee. You can sympathize that it was a rotten experience for her. But there’s clearly no point in dwelling on it all night. So after you nod and say, “That sucks, but it’s over now.” You then say, “So, what’s for dinner?”

Your wife responds by glaring daggers at you. Uh-oh. Clearly you just stepped in it, but when? How? You listened, you empathized. It seems that you checked off all of the “good husband” boxes. So why did she just morph into an ice princess who is now saying you can get your own food because she can’t be bothered? That seems a bit unwarranted. After all, she just works half days while you grind out a 12 hour shift. You can distinctly recall her cheerfully volunteering to make dinners on work nights, so this can’t be a case of you not holding up your end. What is her problem?

The Advantage of Crates: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

When men haul in their daily bags, they dump them in a pile same as women, but right from the start they are a bit more organized. As a man, you have large wooden crates set up in your entryway. Each crate has a label on it. Work. Mariage. Parents. Health. Kids. Home. Finances. Fun. When you haul in your bags, you instinctively toss them into their appropriate crates. A bag full of work memories that you collected during your shift gets tossed into the Work crate. The bag with the memories from the conversation you had with your mother when she called you on your lunch break gets tossed into the Parents crate. Things are still in a jumble, and all the items in the bags need to be sorted through and stored away into the various cabinets and closets of your mind’s house. But your jumble is more organized than your woman’s jumble. Those crates you use also give you the ability to form some nifty stacks. In fact, as a man, you’re always stacking and re-stacking your memory crates so that the one on top is relevant to the memories you’re collecting right now.

When you come home from work, you obviously don’t need the Work crate on top anymore, because you won’t be collecting any new work memories until the next day. So you stack the Home crate on top of the Work crate, effectively hiding the Work crate from view. Sure, it’s still there, but you can no longer rifle through its contents without first unburying it. And why would you want to bother digging out a crate that you don’t need at the moment? That wouldn’t make any sense. In fact, it would be annoyingly inefficient to have to constantly uncover crates that you don’t need in your current situation. And yet, for some strange reason, your wife keeps trying to get you to do this very thing.

You come home from work and your wife asks, “How was your day?”

In your mind, you toss your bag of fresh work memories into the Work crate which you’ve kept readily available all day. When she asks you how your day was, you look down at the Work crate and its contents. It’s just the usual pile of stuff. Nothing to get worked up about. So you shrug and say, “Fine.” Then you mentally pick up your Home crate and set it down on top of your Work crate. Feeling satisfied with your efficiency and properly set up to gather new memories for the Home crate, you head off to take a shower before dinner. But just as you turn to leave, your wife snaps, “Fine? That’s it? That’s all you’re going to say?”

You turn to look at her in surprise. “Yeah. It was fine. What’s for dinner?”

She crosses her arms and pouts. “You never give me any details! It’s so frustrating! I feel like you’re shutting me out all the time!”

What on earth is this little tantrum all about? You are instantly feeling annoyed. Why is she making such a big deal about the same old boring Work memories? Huffing loudly to make your annoyance known you move your Home crate onto the ground so you can access your Work crate again. Then you mentally rifle through those bags, trying to find something interesting to pacify your wife. “Um…it was the same old thing. We got the usual number of calls for tows. Oh, when I was out on the road trying to hook this one guy’s truck up, this semi came along and nearly flattened me.”

Your wife’s eyes widen in alarm. “What?! How can you not tell me about that?! How can you say your day was ‘fine’ when you almost got killed?!”

“Because I forgot about it until just now,” you answer honestly. Good grief, the woman is so high maintenance!

“See? This is why I press you! If I don’t, I’ll never know what’s going on with you because you don’t communicate with me! It’s like you don’t want me to share your in your struggles!”

Good grief, now there’s an overreaction. You’re sorry you bothered to dig out your Work crate again. You should have just stuck to your original story because now she’s following you around, insisting on a detailed report of every moment of your day. The more she presses you, the madder you get because you are tired of talking about a crate that doesn’t matter anymore. You’re home now, and you just want to think about what’s in your Home crate. But she won’t get off your back about your Work crate, and now she’s trying to help you fix every little smashed up item in your work bags. Okay, so there’s a few busted jars and some dented cans. So what? It’s nothing you can’t handle. You wish she’d stop acting like it was such a big deal.

“Look, will you get off my case?!” you finally snap. Meanwhile, in your mind, you firmly set your Home crate back on top of your Work crate. “I’m done going over my work day! I’m home now and I want to relax! Why can’t you understand that?”

Your wife looks like you just slapped her and she runs into your bedroom and slams the door. You sigh in exasperation. So much for relaxing.

No Crates, No Peace

While men have the ability to compartmentalize the information in their conscious so that they can then focus on one section of memories at a time, women don’t have access to any crates. Women just have one open floor space available to them, which means all of their memory bags get piled up in a disorganized jumble. Work, Home, Kids, Parents, Friends, Health–all the bags end up piled on top of each other in a frustrating mess. Without crates to section things off, messes can’t be corralled to a single crate. Instead, things ooze all over the place, making clean up a lot more difficult.

When you have something go wrong at work, it’s stressful, but the resulting mess is contained in your Work crate. You then have the option of completely hiding that mess from view by simply stacking another crate on top of your Work crate. Hiding messes like this gives you some delicious peace of mind. You still know the mess exists, and you plan to deal with it eventually. When you get up in the morning and go to work, you pull out your Work crate and glance over the contents. If there are messes, you start to fix them…at work…which is the only place it makes sense to deal with work issues. You certainly don’t want to ruin all of your downtime at home by fussing around with your Work crate.

Now women would love to have the option you do, but they just don’t. The female conscious simply doesn’t come equipped with those nice wooden crates that the male conscious has. We can try to build crates for ourselves, but it’s very hard to do, and any crates we do manage to build tend to be flimsy and bust apart easily. Women are stuck with one big pile of unorganized memories with all of the categories mixed together. When there’s a big spill in one of our bags, the sticky stress starts oozing out all over the entire pile, seeping into cracks, and making it impossible to touch anything without getting sticky hands. This is why when you ask your wife how her day was, she tells you about the bottle that broke in one of her Work bags. When you then ask her about the kids, she gives you a little information, then returns the conversation to her Work bag and the sticky mess inside of it. You keep trying to get your wife to change crates, but she doesn’t have crates: she just has one big pile. And to your wife, there is a crisis happening on her pile because that sticky ooze is going everywhere. She keeps bringing it up because it’s distressing her. You’re getting frustrated because you deal with sticky messes all the time, and it’s really not so hard: just stack a crate on top of the crate with the mess. Out of sight, out of mind. But your wife doesn’t have crates, so she finds it very invalidating when you keep telling her to “just put it out of your mind” or “don’t worry about it.”

So here’s where we come to the million dollar question: what on earth are you supposed to do when your wife is stressing over the state of her memory bags? It’s not like you can march into her mind and clean up the goo for her, and she seems to also find this impossible to do. So if you can’t fix whatever it is, then what is the point of talking about it?

Empathy vs. Solutions

One of the things that men find particularly frustrating about women is how women insist on bringing up a problem, then shoot down every solution a man comes up with for how to solve that problem, while simultaneously acting like he’s doing it wrong.

The man thinks, “If you don’t like any of my solutions, then why can’t we just change the subject?”

The woman thinks, “Why isn’t it freaking obvious to you that what I want is some empathy?? Why do you always have to try to fix everything? Not everything can be fixed–don’t you get that??”

Well, no, he doesn’t get that. And to be fair, he is offering you a solution that works great for him: just hide the crate. It’s not your man’s fault that you don’t have any crates. And how is he supposed to instantly understand life without crates when he’s never experienced it?

Due to the fact that women have no crates, they are used to having to live with unresolved stress. Like men, women often can’t resolve certain problems until they are in the right situation. Most workplace problems can’t be fixed at home, and vice versa. While men can rearrange their crates to get pending problems out of their faces for a while, women have to learn to live with all pending problems in their faces all the time. Because this is what they are used to, they accept the fact that there will always be some unresolved mess in their face, and they understand that having a problem free pile just isn’t possible. But they do get tired of having to slog on in the face of pending problems, just as a man would get tired of having to hobble around on crutches while he waits for his leg to heal.

When you say to your buddy, “It’s such a drag dealing with this darn cast,” what kind of response are you looking for? You don’t expect your buddy to give you a way to instantly heal your broken bone, because that would be ridiculous. You understand that you’re just going to have to be patient and wait for your body to stitch up your bone. But sometimes, you want to vent your frustration out loud because it just gets old.

Empathy is very comforting to women. Empathy gives them a stamina boost and helps them press on in the face of problems they can’t fix. When you give your woman empathy, it’s like plugging in your phone that’s down at 20% and bringing it up to 30%. It’s still running low, but it’s got more juice than it had before.

Your wife feels crushed by something mean that her close friend said to her. When she tells you about it, it becomes very clear that you can’t do anything to fix this particular problem. You might try to fix it by suggesting that your wife cut ties with her friend or “just forget” about what was said. These kinds of suggestions will likely go unappreciated because what your wife wants is empathy not solutions. The friend has crushed your wife’s feelings and like bones, feelings take time to recover. Your wife is going to have to be patient and wait for the recovery process to happen, but meanwhile, it would give her a helpful stamina boost if you empathize with her.

So what does empathy look like and how exactly do you express it? If you have no practice in this area, a great way to start is to listen for moments that your wife expresses how something makes her feel, and then verbally affirming those feelings.

Your wife says, “I was so upset when Sandra said that to me. She really hurt my feelings.”

You say, “Of course you were upset. (validation) That was such a hurtful thing for her to say.” (empathy)

Your wife says, “I can’t believe she said something so mean.”

You say, “I can’t believe it, either. (empathy) It was completely uncalled for.” (validation).

Empathy is when you say things that convey a message of “If I were standing in your shoes, I’m sure I’d feel the same way you feel.” Validation is when you convey a message of “From over here, I can see why you are interpreting the situation like that. I can respect the logic of you are using.”

Empathy is easiest to express when you really can imagine feeling the same way as your wife does. Sometimes, you can’t honestly empathize. Maybe you’re fine with your body size, but your wife feels embarrassed about how fat she is. So when a friend says to her, “Um, maybe that dress isn’t your best look,” your wife interprets that comment as, “Hey fatso, dream on. You can’t fit in a dress that size, oinker.” You can’t honestly empathize with this crisis, because perhaps you can’t imagine someone talking to you like that and not finding it funny. Or maybe you think your wife is misinterpreting her friend’s motivations.

When you can’t empathize,you can still validate. Validation is just a matter of trying to see the logic that your wife is using. If you know that your wife is very insecure about her waistline, then it’s logical for her to expect other people to take digs at her about how fat she is. Once we intentionally listen for certain comments, it’s very easy to imagine we heard them. So, sure, it’s quite valid that, given your wife’s insecurities, she has taken her friend’s comment as an insult. Here’s where you can validate your wife’s feelings by saying, “I can understand why that felt like such a hurtful comment.” You can also build her up by saying, “But for what it’s worth, I think you’re beautiful.”

Empathy and validation are critical lifelines to women. Females have instinctive communication rituals that they use to frequently empathize and validate each other. One of the reasons these things feel so vital to women is the way their minds hold information. If women could use crates to group their problems and keep stress messes confined the way men can, they wouldn’t feel so drained by unresolved problems, because those problems wouldn’t constantly be in their faces.

The male ability to compartmentalize information being stored in the conscious is like being able to take a painkiller that totally knocks out your headache for four hours at a time. You know the headache will return and that you’ll have to eventually do something to solve whatever is causing it in the first place. But for now, you can just pop a pill to get peace.

Because women can’t compartmentalize, they can’t self-medicate like men can. Instead, they need someone else to ease their headache by giving them a dose of empathy and validation. Empathy and validation are very powerful stress reducers for women, and they can sometimes bring the same level of relief that compartmentalizing brings men.

Once your woman starts calling you her boyfriend or husband, your efforts to validate and empathize with her become a lot more effective. Women are very sensitive to the concept of social ranks, and the higher they rank you in their minds, the more your opinion matters to them. If you use your power well, you can easily score major hero points with your woman. Because validation and empathy are such priceless commodities to women, demonstrating that you are a reliable source of these things will cause your woman to feel very bonded to you and will inspire her loyalty.

Why She Nags

Now because men and women can’t see into each others minds, they naturally assume that the opposite sex thinks the same way they do. Men assume women have crates, so at first, they talk to them as they would another man. When a woman is stressing over a mess in a crate that isn’t relevant to her current circumstances, a man’s first response is to say, “Whoa, stop stressing and use your crates.”

In the same way, when a man even hints at a problem to a woman, her instinct is to fly to his aid by pouring on the empathy and validation. Because women are stuck living with unresolved messes always in their faces, they assume men are having the same life experience. This is why your woman becomes so concerned and suspicious when you give her such short status updates. I’m fine. Really, I’m good.

Women’s unresolved problems are always in their faces, which is why they always have plenty to talk about when they get together. It baffles men how their wives can chatter on for hours with the same women they just hung out with less than 48 hours ago, because how can the ladies possibly have anything new to tell each other? When men listen to the conversations and hear that the same topics are being covered yet again, they just can’t fathom how women aren’t bored out of their gourds. And yet what’s happening in these exchanges is women are giving each other stamina boosts by empathizing and validating. Since empathy and validation are both expressed by making affirming responses to information being shared (“so true”, “I totally agree”, “you go, girl”), information has to keep being repeated to make these responses possible. So while repetition can be very tiresome to men, for women, it’s vital to keep giving each other a description of their pending stress messes so that they can boost each other’s stamina for having to constantly live with those messes in their faces.

When your wife keeps haranguing you for more information, she is often after two things. First, she’s trying to protect her bond with you by pumping you for details. In the world of women, words are everything. Words communicate status, closeness, and value. When women want to insult each other, shove each other away, or punish each other, they stop giving each other status reports. A withholding of details strongly communicates a message of “I’m just not into you” or “You don’t rank with me” or “I don’t trust you.” Girlfriends and newlywed women often read these hurtful messages into their men’s extremely brief status reports, and then they panic and start trying to figure out how they can get back into their men’s good graces.

When women exchange status reports, the main focus is on their current, unresolved problems. Women know that they’re all walking around with multiple unresolved problems, so if a woman just talks about one of her problems and pretends that’s the only problem she has, other women know she is lying and intentionally keeping them at arm’s length. How many problems a woman shares with her friend, how detailed the descriptions of those problems are, and the kinds of problems she shares are all ways that she communicates critical information about the status of the relationship. If many problems are shared, the friend knows she is considered more valuable than a casual acquaintance. If many details are being shared, the friend knows she has earned trust. If very embarrassing or highly personal problems are shared, well, that’s the highest compliment a woman can receive.

For women, words are everything. So when you give your natural male short summary of your day or of your lunch with so-and-so or of your phone conversation with your father, your woman feels disappointed, hurt, and confused. She wonders why you are pushing her away. You’re not pushing her away, you’re just being a man, and men don’t need words the way women do. In your mind, your wife is great, and definitely someone you’d turn to if there was a real crisis at hand. But once you re-stack your crates and get your father’s annoying comments out of your face, why would you want to rehash it all again and upset yourself just because your wife has some strange need to know everything?

Understanding how women view words can go a long way towards helping men hear the compliment that women are giving them when they chase them down for details. If a woman doesn’t want details, then you could have a serious problem on your hands. Either you’ve hurt her by withholding for so long that she’s given up on you, or there’s some other reason that she’s trying not to bond.

When your woman is distressed by your claim that your day was “fine”, it’s because she cares about you and she wants to feel connected with you by having an up to date understanding of what your current stresses are. Women always have their stresses in their faces, and they are always propping each other up and cheering each other on. When a woman falls in love with you, she instinctively tries to prove the depth of her love by propping you up in life. Once you’re in a titled relationship, such as boyfriend-girlfriend, or husband-wife, your woman is going to want to become your #1 support person. She will view this coveted position as something she must earn by proving to you how helpful she can be in boosting up your stamina levels. After all, she’s got plenty of practice from her dealings with other women. And since she’s never heard of mental crates, she is convinced you’re feeling fatigued by a whole array of stressful messes in your face and she just can’t wait to jump in there and shower you with buckets of stamina boosting empathy and validation.

But then you get mad and shoo her away. Is there a good way to view such a devastating response from the person she cares most about pleasing?

Meeting in the Middle

In trying to sort out male-female clashes, the goal needs to be to meet in the middle. The man shouldn’t try to convert his style into the female way of doing things, and the woman shouldn’t try to come entirely over to the man’s side. The fact that men and women communicate differently doesn’t just result in friction–there are advantages as well. So instead of trying to erase the differences, the goal should be to compromise and meet in the middle.

Men need to put more effort into empathizing and validating when their women vent, while women need to dial down the chasing and nagging. Often when men say they are “fine”, they really are fine in the sense that they’ve got their pending problems hidden from view at the moment and want to enjoy the mental peace. It’s in your own best interest to help your man recharge in the way that is natural for him, and that means letting him enjoy the advantage of being able to crate his problems away.

Compartmentalizing is not the same as denial or suppression. Women tend to confuse these things and overreact, treating the natural male style as a sign that the man is not dealing with his problems in a healthy way. And yet, if you give your man more space and observe him more closely, you’ll find that he is rotating his crates. Sometimes he’ll want to talk about work problems, and when he does, he’ll probably bring the subject up without any prompts from you. Backing off and giving your man a chance to move through his natural crate shuffling cycles will give you a better handle on where he’s at. It’s nice to remind him that you’re always available as a sounding board, but then wait for him to decide when he’s in the mood to get specific. Insisting that your man dig into crates that he has intentionally set out of his way is only going to annoy him. Just as you don’t want someone rifling through a stack of laundry that you just folded and organized, your man gets exasperated when you insist that he mess up his mental stacks just so you can be assured he hasn’t lost interest in you.

Since your woman doesn’t have crates, she does need frequent stamina boosts. By giving her verbal affirmation, you help her recharge the same way that she helps you by not hassling you for details. Understanding that women are primarily looking for empathy helps take the pressure off of you for fixing the stresses your woman talks about. It’s unfathomable to women to have a mess free pile: there is always some problem going on somewhere, and they have strategies for dealing with this fact of life. Appreciating the stamina your woman is demonstrating by pushing on in the face of problems that she can’t set aside can help increase your respect for her.

Respect is a critical issue for men, and since they don’t deal in words the way women do, they can easily mistake the female stamina boosting process as evidence that women are weak and whiny and unable to deal with the hardships of life. And yet women are actually a lot tougher than they appear to be at first glance. Once you understand what they are actually going for in their frequent chatter sessions, you can appreciate why they find it so therapeutic to talk to each other. If a soldier with a heavy pack on his back kept pressing forward after he’d already marched for 500 miles, you certainly wouldn’t begrudge him a bit of grumbling. Instead, you’d feel like he’d earned the right to vent after slogging on for so long under such a tiresome burden. And if it turned out that talking about how tired he was somehow infused the soldier’s body with the strength to carry on, you’d find it all the more reasonable. This is how it is for women. Verbally hashing out their problems really does help them keep pressing on. A woman who hangs up a phone after venting to her best friend for an hour feels inspired and energized, even though the negative circumstances she has been talking and crying about haven’t changed in the slightest.

Women are wired differently than men, and they have different ways of refueling. Neither gender is doing it better than the other; both styles have their advantages and their drawbacks. By taking the time to learn about the natural differences between men and women, we can get better at finding ways of communicating with each other that will help everyone get their needs met.

Looking for advice? You can submit an anonymous request through the Ask a Question page.