The slow and much-needed death of the bumbling dad stereotype has unfortunately given way to an alternative, opposing trope: The Fixer. For many men it’s not enough to tackle their own problems, they have to fix their partner’s problems. While this intention isn’t awful, the trouble is that another person’s emotions are not something to fix unless they specifically request that. When men opt to solve emotions over soothing them, they often cause more problems.
“Fixing problems doesn’t work with emotional problems. Most of the time when a man responds to his wife’s emotions with a fix-it approach, it limits your ability to relate on a deeper level,” Liz Colizza, a psychotherapist and the head of research at the marriage counseling app Lasting, told Fatherly. “It can increase disconnection because you’ve not allowed that person’s experience to be fully seen and heard.”
Internal data from Lasting indicates that 80 percent of their users vent to their spouses often, but only included seven percent of women who thought that they could do this without their partners jumping in to try and solve their problems. It’s not entirely men’s fault for being obtuse, and there are biological reasons that they’re more primed to be fixers. From birth, baby girls tend to cry more, receive more attention from caregivers, and are more socially attuned and responsive to voices facial expressions, compared to boys. By the age of three boys catch up and surpass girls in visual-spatial integration, or the part of the brain responsible for navigation and assembling pieces together, Colizza explains.
“While these are generalities and not all children fall into these categories, they do make a strong case toward men being hard-wired toward fixing problems.”
This compulsion to fix things might also be an expression of masculinity, something many men have an instinctual need to perform, assert, and defend. It’s becoming increasingly understood that many aspects of traditional masculinity hurt boys, men, and pretty much everyone around them. Instead of casting masculinity as toxic in itself, psychologists have sought to highlight healthier forms of it such as self-reliance, competency, and expertise. By fixing everyone’s problems, men can stabilize a part of their identity that’s inherently precarious.
“Masculinity is often built around competency. Men want to cross items off their to-do lists, complete the project and eliminate the threat so that there is a sense of safety and well-being around us,” said marriage and family therapist David Klow. As much as this approach can be helpful in practical situations, in emotional ones is can make things worse. Men may want to make negative emotions go away because they love them and don’t want to see them hurting, but their partners may find this dismissive. And even if they don’t, negative emotions are never as easy to clean up as men want them to be. “Providing reassurance and support ends up being a more effective expression of modern masculinity than trying to solve problems,” said Klow.
One way men can get better at just listening to their partner’s problems is by expressing their own emotions more, both experts agree. Paying attention to what their spouses do in response and what helps may help guys see that they’re almost never trying to fix things, and the potential upside of that. And if men are still unsure of how to respond to their spouse’s problems, the best thing to do is to ask them. More often than not, their answer will be much easier than failing to fix it.
“Most people ask to just be heard and held,” Colizza adds. “This goes back to the central question in all relationships, ‘Will you be there for me?'”