“Don’t try to fix it.
I just need you to listen.”
Every man has heard these words.
And they are the law of the land.
No matter what.
– Jason Headley, 2013
If you are a fan of social media, you’ve probably seen Jason Headley’s hilariously funny Web Short, “It’s Not About the Nail.” This video captures what it’s like to be a man, Jason, cornered by his partner Monica into sitting and listening to her feelings, while every fiber of his being itches to convince her to get the nail that is piercing her forehead removed. We empathize with Jason’s struggle to placate Monica by keeping his mouth shut and “just hear her,” while inside he is squirming with the solution and the absurdity of “talking about how it feels.”
If you’re a man watching this video, you might feel vindicated. You might be thinking: Now do you get how hard you’re making this for us here? Do you know how helpless and confused I’ve been, watching you in pain, only for you to get angry at me when I do my best to help you? Why are you always dismissing me and telling me I’m getting it so wrong when, look, I’m the one being reasonable here!
If you’re a woman watching this video, you might feel a familiar pang of despair, fear that your need for emotional connection with your partner will never be understood or reciprocated. Maybe your man just isn’t capable of meeting your needs. It’s unbearable to imagine a lifetime of loneliness. You might be thinking: I’ll just have to work harder to get him to listen.
Can Jason and Monica, and any other couple stuck in this pattern of disconnection, find their way to mutual understanding and closeness? Absolutely. The way out is to go to a deeper level of understanding and empathy for each other. The way out is difficult, may require outside help, and is richly rewarding.
When Monica is in pain, she is at her most vulnerable. In those times she needs reassurance from Jason that he really cares for her on the inside; that he wants to be close to hold and protect her. When he offers solutions to her problems, she’s afraid he doesn’t feel any empathy or tenderness for her on the inside. It signals to her he wants her longing to feel close to him go away. She might be thinking: He’s sick and tired of dealing with me. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before he’s out of here.
Monica is too afraid to share her deeper fears and needs with Jason, because she expects he’d respond with the same lack of tenderness or understanding, and that would be devastating. Instead Monica copes by trying to force Jason into giving her a semblance of what she needs, even if what he provides is only at the surface level. Her hope is that if she can get him to listen to her suffering, it will spark a feeling of caring for her.
Jason isn’t feeling much tenderness or empathy for Monica on the inside. On the surface, he’s frustrated with her because once again she’s forcing him into this no-win position. Underneath, he feels numb. It’s better not to feel. That would mean feeling angry with her for rendering him powerless to help her, and making him feel like an idiot for trying. Deep down, he feels badly, hearing he isn’t getting it right for her.
It doesn’t remotely occur to Jason to tell Monica about these deeper feelings. To do so, and receive more of the same judgment and criticism for not giving her the tenderness and empathy she wants, would just make things worse. So Jason copes by keeping his mouth shut. He tries to fight the urge to offer a solution to get them both out of distress so they feel closer again. He knows she doesn’t like it, but its the only possible way out he sees.
When you see “It’s Not About the Nail” or a similar situation in real life, recognize the pattern of disconnection and know that there is a way out. Start to look beneath the surface to gradually reveal what’s really going on. If you can’t find your way out on your own, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy or a Hold Me Tight: Conversations for Connection® workshop can guide you there.