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In the early nineties, a poorly written pop-psych book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus made waves. It had many bullshit ideas but one of the central messages resonated with many:

Sometimes, women just want to talk about their problems and are frustrated when the men in their lives try to solve the problems.

That’s not quite right. Here’s my take on this.

Usually a problem is accompanied with emotions related to the problem. Something is bad, and it makes me feel bad.

Responding to someone’s experience with suggested solutions, especially brainstorming ideas that underestimate the scope of the problem, can come across as invalidating the emotional component of the experience. The thing isn’t that bad, and I shouldn’t feel that bad.

The notion that having your emotional experience invalidated is something most people don’t put into words. People aren’t always aware of their own emotional state and they aren’t always familiar with the abstraction of validation. That only amplifies the frustration of the emotional situation. But I do feel bad, why can’t you see that or take that seriously? Now I feel worse.

An example: You miss your train because you space out and don’t see it arriving. You’re cold because it’s winter and you don’t want to be on the station any longer, you’re scared and frustrated over your brain working so weirdly, and you’re scared that you’ll be late and that there will be negative consequences from that. If I say “That’s your own fault, just pay more attention next time” it wouldn’t adress any of these issues, nor your expression of the emotional component of your experience, and that omission amplifies it.

Validation can be tricky to learn but I’ve found a shortcut. Usually, it’s about saying (and recognizing) “obvious” things, because they aren’t always so obvious. Seeing that someone is having a hard time or that they mean a lot to you or that you appreciate them might seem like “duh, why would I need to address that, that’s so obvious” but it’s not. It’s so easy to dismiss our own emotional state, or our empathy with other’s emotional state, because society isn’t good at taking emotions seriously. But when we can learn to recognize it, and address and express our emotions and our empathy genuinly, it makes a big difference to those around us.

Circling back to the original problem, we need to be a bit Postel about this. The next time someone you love (male or female) has a problem, recognize that there’s also an emotional component to their reaction and take that component seriously when you’re thinking about how to address the problem. And the next time you (male or female) have a problem, recognize whether or not there’s an emotional component as well, and if so, make yourself aware of it and see if you can express it when you seek help, or address it yourself.

Often, the most needed part of the answer is something like “Oh, I realize that you are having a hard time right now. I understand that it must be tough”. Addressing the practical aspect of the problem can follow, if it’s something that can be fixed.

So that’s what the Mars/Venus guy got wrong. It’s not that we women don’t want to “solve the problem”. It’s that he’s looking at the wrong part of the problem.