Photo by Garin Chadwick on Unsplash
Something’s bothering her. So you ask what’s wrong. Nothing, she says. She’s fine. Her voice dances in ballerina shoes.
Maybe she gives you that empty, Mona Lisa smile.
Ugh. Women, right? They expect you to read their minds. Except… they don’t. Your wife or girlfriend tried to tell you what was wrong hours ago. But you weren’t listening.
You were on your phone. Or planning your next cycling route.
You missed your chance. She dealt with her problem on her own—by journaling, meditating, or steeping in sad alt music for an hour. Or maybe she’s an ambitious career type who was already feeling the Sunday scaries on Saturday afternoon. So after everyone fell asleep, she worked on that project she was dreading.
Either way, she’s fine now. A little spent, maybe. She’s getting over whatever bothered her, and doesn’t have the energy to give you her usual, cheerful smile. She’s figured out that you’re not going to help her today. She’s on her own.
Later, she’ll feel guilty for shutting you out. She’ll give you a massage and listen to your problems. She’ll do everything she can to make you feel better. To get things back to normal. When you finally work up the courage to ask her if she’s okay, she’ll nod. She’ll give you the sanitized version of the problem she dealt with, trivialize her own experiences, and tell you not to worry.
When your wife or girlfriend says, “I’m fine,” it’s possible that she’s telling you the truth. You want her to smile or laugh because it makes you feel good, and she’s occupied with life at the moment.
Give her a break.
She’s not trying to be difficult, or ruin your mood. If something is wrong, she’s trying to figure out a way to explain what’s bothering her, without setting you off. Without starting an argument. Without blaming you for something. Without turning it into a competition.
She’s trying to decide if her emotions are valid.
The world has often told your wife or girlfriend that she has no right to voice feelings like anger, frustration, disappointment, or sadness. The world tells her to smile. Don’t be so negative.
You’re so pretty. How bad could your life be?
To be fair, the world does this to men just as much. Men have to toughen up. Stand straight. They can’t show vulnerability.
Sometimes it’s the man who says, “I’m fine.”
It’s just that men don’t get judged for hiding their feelings. The world rewards them for ignoring their more complicated emotions. They wind up hammering them into something more sinister, and then taking them out later —on family, or strangers.
When he shows up in the news, everyone calls that guy the lone wolf. The strong, silent type… but he’s the opposite of all that.
Some people turn all their pain and anger inward at themselves, others transform it into art, and still others unleash it on the world. They’ll all tell you “I’m fine,” until it’s too late.
The love of your life might say, “I’m fine,” because that’s all you want to hear. She’s used to it. She sees this attitude everywhere. Her bosses all practice positivity. Translation: shut up, and do as you’re told.
Maybe she has a boss who addresses her in third person at meetings. “I’m not exactly sure what she wants.”
Or my favorite, “What is she trying to say?”
Your partner deals with a lot.
She has bosses who ask her other bosses to explain what she’s thinking, and how she’s feeling. She has bosses who want her opinion about putting a Starbucks right outside her office. But they’ve already started construction.
When your wife or girlfriend finally speaks up, everyone gets this terrified look in their eyes, like she just tossed a live grenade onto the conference table. It paralyzes them.
Your wife or girlfriend kicks ass all day for 70 percent of what she’s worth. She knows that any guy who doesn’t play the alpha male testosterone game also makes a fraction of what he deserves. Man or woman, the love of your life comes home from all that and cooks you dinner.
So of course she’s going to say, “I’m fine.” Maybe she’s trying to shake it all off. She doesn’t want to get into it now.
She’s trying to enjoy her life, in spite of its struggles.
Her life is a dance, choreographed for the pleasure and entertainment of others, including you sometimes. The most mundane act of love—for a man or a woman—involves nothing more than protecting your partner from all the day’s sewage until it can be processed.
How to get them to talk:
Want her (or him) to actually tell you what’s wrong? Listen. Not just when it’s convenient. Not when you simply want them to stop dragging you down with their ballerina voice and Mona Lisa smile.
You can’t ask what’s wrong, then demand a neatly-packaged answer that you can validate, reject, or overrule.
You can’t ask what’s wrong, then evaluate the quality of the emotion. You can’t say, “That’s a silly thing to get upset about.”
You can’t ask what’s wrong, and mean what’s wrong with her.
Dismissing her feelings will guarantee that she doesn’t tell you what’s wrong next time. She’ll just leave.
Or she’ll suffer in silence until one day, one of you cheats.
Relationships don’t work like algebra.
You don’t balance the equation by adding and subtracting discrete amounts, or dividing both sides by zero. It’s a little more complicated. You have to sit there and listen to X or Y emote for a little while, if they need to.
You have to leave one side unbalanced for a day.
Sometimes, you even have to help them figure out what’s wrong. By having an open-ended conversation, one that might interrupt Westworld. It’s fine. You can watch your shows later.
Sometimes, she’ll say “I’m fine” simply because she has to go through the motions. We can’t expect our him or her to fix everything. Those of us with damage, with baggage, we have to treat ourselves.
Marriage doesn’t make anyone a therapist. Your spouse probably can’t solve your unresolved daddy issues.
Or your eating disorder.
Love doesn’t conquer all. Love doesn’t do the same work as a pill. It’s not a substitute for anti-depressants.
When you expect love to turn your life right side up, you’re actually abusing the entire idea. We’re still responsible for our own emotions, even in long term partnerships.
Many of us know a certain type of ennui—a restless boredom that sets in for almost no reason, a mood where nothing feels right. Our sensitive, perfectionist nature tries to take over the cockpit and fly us into all kinds of storms. Anyone with these problems, or their cousins, has to grow some extra emotional maturity. We have to detect those spells.
Every now and then, saying “I’m fine” is the smart move. Because all you can do is wait it out.
Everyone deserves respect for their emotions.
If you ask her what’s wrong, then you’d better prepare to listen. She might tell you, even knowing you can’t fix it.
She might help you to the top of the wall she put up, giving you a clear view of all the demons running around back there. Demons you wouldn’t like. Demons who wouldn’t like you.
You aren’t the hero to her life story. You are Mad Max on Fury Road—attractive, helpful, mostly along for the ride.
You’re not going to slay her demons. Her demons would tear you apart for a snack. So maybe when she says, “I’m fine,” she’s doing you a favor. Don’t get pissy. Wait, and offer support.
Stop trying to fix everything. But also, don’t give up and walk away because you can’t. When she tells you what’s going on, maybe she just needs you to finally see—and appreciate—all the work she does in the background, in order to present that smile you love so much.
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