A few years ago, a video clip was released on YouTube that caught the attention of couples and therapists everywhere. Given the popularity of It’s Not About the Nail, I’m assuming most of my readers will know to what I am referring, but if you are confused, you can watch the video here.
The clip is a depiction of what might be considered a typical interaction between a heterosexual couple, and judging from the clip’s popularity, it feels relatable to many people. Repeatedly, the clip elicits laughter from mixed gender audiences.
I show the video in some presentations, but for different reasons than you might think. On the surface, I can see why it taps into gender stereotypes. Men and women are socialized very differently around emotions. Women are generally allowed to feel and explore a complex range of emotions, while men from near infancy get both implicit and explicit messages to not display or even feel emotions which might demonstrate weakness, such as fear and hurt. The long-term reinforced and reductive gender message is that women are “emotional,” and men are “logical.”
The clip is admittedly funny, but there is an oversimplification in the message that can feel dismissive and demeaning to many people in relationships. I’m going to review what I believe the clips gets right, but try to deepen the conversation around it.
There is truth in the depiction that men are often confused about what is being asked of them when their female partners want to talk about something that is upsetting. Again, they haven’t been socialized to approach or deepen vulnerable emotions. Often, they spend a lifetime perfecting various strategies for exiting and numbing emotion so they can remain socially acceptable.
However, the assumption that they aren’t emotional is incorrect. When I show the video, the question I ask audiences is, “What emotions do you think the male partner in that video is experiencing?”
“Like he wants to fix it,” several people will inevitably yell out.
Right…Exactly…Except that’s not an emotion. That’s an action tendency following an emotion. Many men (and sometimes women) aren’t even aware that they are feeling emotions fueling the desire to want to “fix it.”
In fact, my husband actually started this conversation with me a few months ago:
Him: Let’s talk about our feelings.
Me: (Rolling my eyes, purposely not verbally responding because somehow it seems like I’m being set up)
Him: Okay? I’ll go first (smiling mischievously). My feeling is that one cycling sticker on our car looks good, but any more would be overdoing it.
Me: (Staring at him, eyebrows raised, remaining silent)
Him: Oh, also my feeling is that I’m hungry. Is it hunger pains or hunger pangs? I’m having both!
Me: I’m speechless. How do I even begin to match that level of emotional awareness?
In typical male fashion, his revelation of “emotions,” was devoid of any actual emotional language.
I often have the “nail,” couple in therapy. If I have the equivalent of the female client, I will often stop her and turn to the male partner and ask, “Tell me what feeling is coming up for you right now,” and yes, I often get back, “Well, I want to fix it.” If I had to throw out a guess, I would say I get that response at least 75% of the time.
Except again, that’s not an emotion, but they are definitely communicating that they want to make some kind of emotional discomfort go away…thus wanting to “fix it.”
So, I’ll say, “What feeling is coming up that makes you want to fix it?”
I might get, “I don’t know.” I have lots of ways of trying to tap into what is really going on, because it’s not uncommon for people to really not have awareness about their internal feelings. I might ask when they have had similar feelings to see if they can label them. I can get agreement that something feels uncomfortable to them if the partner is expressing distress. Eventually, clients in this situation identify something more specific, like, “It feels like failure,” which can be a devastating, dark, powerless, helpless or hopeless feeling. I can start conjecturing from there until I hit on something that resonates.
This is the part of the conversation I want to expand. The reason why is that men can be so good at masking emotions that their female partners don’t realize they are having an impact creating emotional discomfort. Instead, these male partners look like they don’t care.
In the video, the female chastises her partner for “trying to fix it,” and he begrudgingly placates her by responding, “That sounds….hard,” and she magically accepts his response, illustrating that women are simpletons and their emotions are nonsensical.
Except, that’s where it misses the point, and where it can feel dismissive to people, particularly females. I’m acknowledging that the video was made as a parody—but there are people who accept it at face value and use it as evidence that women are ridiculous. They also use it as an excuse to disconnect in relationships.
When people are needing emotional support, it’s about attunement, not about placating a partner, which, by the way, is true for both genders. Many problems are emotionally salient because they are complex, which is precisely why there is no quick fix, and why suggesting a solution can minimize the problem and fall flat.
Attunement is the process of moving in and trying to experience and understand the inner experience of someone else. This is relevant in light of research that people report a decrease in felt pain when they are in the presence of caring others, compared to when managing pain alone. It’s not about the words as much as knowing that someone is caring enough to want to understand what is happening for you and what may be distressing. People are much more likely to generate their own solutions or accept ideas from others when they feel really understood and supported.
There are some basic ways to increase attunement:
- Stand or sit closer to a partner.
- Maintain eye contact (but don’t be a creeper about it—natural eye contact).
- Focus on what is happening in the present. Distractions destroy attunement.
- Notice your own emotional reactions to your partner and find ways to language that, e.g. “I can find myself wanting to fix it, because it’s uncomfortable for me to see you upset and I’m afraid I won’t say the right thing here, even though I want to be supportive.” There’s no one answer—it’s more about finding an organic compassionate response—organic attunement. Use your own internal experience to connect.
Sometimes I point out that when our partners are emotionally upset about something, they can be hard to connect with, which is also what the partner wants “fixed.” Sometimes, men can lose the friendship of female partners who start spinning off into some kind of anxiety or related distress, and sensing that they could lose them, they might unknowingly verbally punish those partners out of the distressing emotion to get them back. Again, the partner’s distress is ricocheting back to the other partner. For example, if I’m stressed about something, my husband loses the happy, funny “girlfriend,” part of me that he enjoys connecting with, and sometimes he worries that we will stay disconnected if he can’t make the distress go away. That’s when he might want to “fix it.”
One of the main benefits of having a close relationship with someone is the reassurance and comfort that one is not alone. If a partner is upset, a simple way to approach it is to think, “How can I send the message to my partner that I am here and have his/her back?” That’s the pathway to attunement, and literally decreases indicators of individual distress.
Lastly, have the humility to accept that your simplistic solution may not be appropriate for a complex problem.
My husband and I recently went with another couple on a trip, and while we were touring a European cathedral, my friend noticed that one of the Catholic saints had a hole in her forehead (St. Rita–mark of stigmata). She was asking me if I could read enough of the French to discern what created the hole, when her husband gleefully interjected, “It was the nail in the forehead,” clearly pleased with himself for finding a way to reference what he and my husband had already agreed was a hilariously authentic video. “She just needed to pull it out,” he continued, yukking it up with my husband, who had earlier pointed to a different statue of a woman whose forehead contained a protruding stake and gloated, “See–it is about the nail.” “Yeah, and look what happened,” I argued, “She bled out and died. See, it’s not so simple, is it? You can’t just pull something out of a puncture wound like that unless you are in range of adequate medical treatment facilities.”
I was joking. It can be therapeutic to laugh at our relational gendered quirks, but don’t use gender stereotypes as an excuse to stay stuck. Real connection is attainable and effective in preventing and soothing ruptures, but attunement takes practice, regardless of gender.
Photo: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_fotoson’>fotoson / 123RF Stock Photo</a>