Whenever someone you know has a problem — your partner had a tough day at work or a friend can’t seem to nail down a job — your immediate instinct is to help somehow. You’re only human, after all, and when you see someone you care about suffering, you want to help them feel better.
But all too often, when you respond, the person with the problem doesn’t say, “Wow, that really helped.” Instead, they get more mad at you than they already were. They tell you that you’re not helping at all, or they regret bringing it up to begin with, leaving you to wonder what the hell just happened.
If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not crazy, and neither are the people whose problems you can’t solve. It’s a surprisingly common issue, and, though it’s not specific to men, it’s one that many men do struggle with. Ultimately, what’s happening is that you’re approaching the same situation from very different vantage points, and misunderstanding what each party wants from the situation.
If you’ve ever heard of love languages (the idea that people value specific forms of affection more than others), you might say in a situation like this that you’re speaking different ‘solve languages.’
You think a problem should be solved one way, but the other person is asking for a totally different solution, and until you can get on the same page about what’ll fix their problem, you’re likely to do more harm than good.
A bit confused? AskMen spoke to a handful of relationship experts and therapists in order to get a better understanding of how solve languages work. Here’s what they had to say:
What Are Solve Languages?
What are some common solve languages? This is by no means an exhaustive accounting, but let’s explore four that you might be familiar with:
Four Different Solve Languages
What it is: Cheering someone up by making jokes, showing them cute animal videos, doing something nice for them, etc. in order to shift how they feel towards a more positive state.
What it is: Trying to fix the solution from a technical perspective by offering knowledge, advice, or concrete help without addressing their emotional state.
What it is: Listening carefully to a person’s complaint, asking questions about their feelings, and trying to console them without getting into the cause thereof.
What it is: Asking the person with the problem how they want to approach the solution while offering to support them/back them up/help them with that approach.
Why Men Often Prefer ‘Logistical Solution’ Over the Others
One big issue when it comes to solve language miscommunication is that most men have been socialized to approach problems from a Logistical Solution mindset, whereas women might be more likely to see problems through a Recognizing Emotions viewpoint.
But when these two solve languages clash, not only does the core problem not get solved, the feelings around the problem don’t get resolved either.
“Men have been socialized to fix things,” says Hawaii-based sex and relationship therapist Dr. Janet Brito. “Unfortunately, the message that has been instilled is ‘To be a man is to solve things.’ This is what makes men manly.”
The flip-side of this? She notes that “men are often criticized for being soft or emotionally expressive.”
“I believe this is part of toxic masculinity. It traps men into very specific roles, often burdening to act in ways that are constricting,” adds Brito.”It is stifling. It blocks them from being emotionally expressive, often putting unnecessary pressure to act in specific ways.”
For Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness, the biggest shortcoming of a Logistical Solutions-first approach is that it can “disrupt emotional connection and intimacy.”
“Often, when we experience problems in our lives we have a fair sense of how we could potentially solve the issue at hand,” says Caraballo. “But having someone truly be present and witness our concerns is what we most often need. When we are vulnerable with someone and are met with logic and problem-solving, it can make us feel alone in our discomfort, which often exacerbates negative feelings that we were experiencing in the first place.”
Of course, this isn’t only a guy thing, according to Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast.
“Socially prescribed gender roles may play a role with men having been told that they ought to take control of all situations as a caretaker or problem solver,” she admits. “For some people, being in control of the situation is linked with feelings of masculinity.” “But I do believe that these expectations are changing and evolving with more flexibility.”
The Ins and Outs of Using ‘Solve Languages’ in Your Relationship
Knowing that our approaches to problem solving aren’t written in stone means that it’s worth exploring them further so you can potentially make use of them yourself.
When to Use ‘Solve Languages’ With Your Partner
When it works: With small problems, as well as with children
Did your niece skin her knee? Making goofy facial expressions might help her through the pain. Is your boyfriend bored out of his gourd at work? Send him a clip compilation of puppies trying to climb stairs.
When it works: When the person complaining is specifically asking for ideas/when the emotional component of their complaint is low
If your aunt just posted on Facebook about her car breaking down and asks for suggestions of what might have gone wrong, you’re a go for getting technical. If your fiancée is dealing with an annoying bug on her laptop, some advice on anti-virus software is probably a great approach.
When it works: When someone comes to you feeling deeply emotional/when the problem is complex
If your teenage brother got rejected by his crush and is on the verge of tears, asking him to explain his feelings to you — why this person meant so much to him, whether he feels embarrassed or ashamed, etc. — can allow him to process his feelings in a healthy way.
When it works: When the person isn’t asking for suggestions
If your older sister has long-standing health issues and is feeling overwhelmed, she may not need you to sit with her emotions. Instead, she may need you to support her as she decides how to make a big decision about them, like scheduling a surgery or trying a new form of treatment.
How to Use ‘Solve Languages’ to Reduce Fights
Ultimately, you can think of solve languages like another tool in your toolbox.
Adding Recognizing Emotion, Amusing Distraction and Supporting Decision to your belt is like gaining a wrench, a screwdriver, and a roll of duct tape. They can help you greatly in all kinds of interpersonal relationships, but they’re perhaps most useful in romantic relationships, where you’re more likely to be privy to a partner opening up about their most powerful emotions and most pressing problems.
Knowing how to respond to these situations with the appropriate solve languages can mean genuinely resolving the issue (or at least helping your partner feel better) without having the conversation accidentally turn combative.