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Want to solve her problems, guys? Stop trying

It's that time of the year again when it's everyone's time of the month - guys included. Here in the bowels of winter, bad moods get badder, personal issues get issuier, and up to 15 per cent of us may even slide into that infamous cesspool of darkness: seasonal affective disorder.

Over the years, I've found ways to deal with winter blues - long, despairing walks followed by long, despairing hot showers - but when it comes to helping the women in my life when they're feeling downcast, I've tended to default to that stereotypical guy strategy: annihilating her problems as soon as they arise. To do this, I simply attack them with a rapid-fire barrage of solutions. Of course, this approach tends to make women - and really, anybody - annoyed. And still upset.

So this winter, I ask the question: What is the solution to this hyper-solving problem?

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Deborah Tannen, who began writing books about interpersonal communication a couple of decades ago with You Just Don't Understand, says the first step is for guys to not get too down on themselves if their instinct is to solve. It's normal, she says, for each member of a couple to have a different way of approaching problems, and it's bound to cause misunderstanding.

"Each one can feel that the other is minimizing something that to them feels important," she says. "If a woman is feeling really bad and he says, 'Well, just do X, Y or Z,' it's like he's dismissing that she's feeling bad, because he thinks it would be so easily solved. But I think he might also feel dismissed, because here he's making these efforts and they're being treated as if they were nothing."

Although she stresses styles don't always fall along gender lines, Dr. Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, says she and her husband match the stereotypical divide; she wants him to just listen and he wants to solve.

However, after they had a talk about how they talk, they came up with a compromise: "My husband said, 'I know you don't want a solution, but it's too frustrating to hear you go on and on when I know the solution. So how about if I tell you the solution and you listen, and then if you want to keep talking about it, you can?' "

"I love to give that example," Dr. Tannen says, "because why should we insist that only guys listen to something that makes no sense? Why don't we also listen to things that make no sense?"

According to Ken Doka, a professor at the College of New Rochelle in New York who has studied how people cope after the loss of a loved one, the differences in styles can be complementary instead of causing friction.

When working with couples who are having a hard time accepting each other's differing ways of dealing with tough emotions, he'll sometimes show them an episode of Home Improvement, that old Tim Allen sitcom about a carpenter married to a shrink.

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"The wife on the show always wants him to be more open about his feelings," Dr. Doka says. "But there's an episode where her father dies and she's dealing with all her emotions, and Tim is taking care of things, getting the kids ready, getting plane tickets, doing all that needs to be done. And at the end of the episode, she says to him: 'Most of the time I want you to be more like me, more open with your feelings. But this time I really realized I needed you to be you.' "

Dr. Doka adds, however, that when it's time to focus on your partner's feelings, the best way is to be responsive to the kind of consoling she needs.

"But how in the world will I know what she needs?" I asked him.

"Sometimes it's as easy as asking," he replied.

Right. In my defeat-the-problem routine, I suppose I forgot to do that.

When I asked her, one female friend of mine said that, unless she directly seeks advice, what she wants is "silence and enduring listening."

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As I listened in silence, she continued: "The ideal situation would be to talk at length with someone being totally engaged the whole time and asking me questions for more detail. Not asking 'Why did you do this?' or 'Why didn't you do this?' "

Another friend said that being held usually does the trick.

Sitting calmly and supportively when someone is upset seems like it would be easier than racking your brain for a solution, but I don't think that's the case for everyone.

Louann Brizendine suggests in The Female Brain that men have a harder time dealing with sadness in others, at least in part because they're not as good at picking up facial cues leading up to a meltdown.

"Tears in a woman may evoke brain pain in men," she writes. "The male brain registers helplessness in the face of pain, and such a moment can be extremely difficult for them to tolerate."

Dr. Brizendine doesn't say it in the book - perhaps more info will come in her follow-up, The Male Brain, due out in a couple of months - but I think intolerance toward dark emotions often starts with that man in the mirror. I know I've often turned my solution gun on myself.

But on the occasions when I've found the courage to just give in to my winter blues, venting or sobbing over something stupid or substantial, I've felt like a budding flower in springtime once it's passed. Why would I want to deprive anyone of that?

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About the Author
Life columnist

Micah Toub writes about relationships for the Life section. He is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming-of-age as the Son of Two Shrinks and a National Magazine Award winner. For more info, visit his Related content . More

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