If It Ain’t Broke, Do We Fix It Or Not?
I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, “If it ain’t broke, fix it until it is.”
As I contemplated what must have been a political sticker (since it was on a Washington, DC car), I thought about the societal messages that have been passed down through the generations to women and men about “fixing” relationships. Women have learned it’s their job to fix relationship problems. (If you question this, check out the 17th century books on how to be a good wife.) Unfortunately, this contradicts the societal message passed down to men: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
According to these old dictums, women must keep a watchful eye on the relationship, looking to avoid potential problems; catch them while small so they don’t become big. Men are more accepting of a relationship, not noticing problems until they are big. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these stances. It only becomes a problem when couples aren’t aware they live by different messages.
Lorraine feels Tony doesn’t show her enough affection. He comes home from work, eats dinner, gets on his computer, watches the late news and goes to bed. “He is not nasty nor mean. If I talk with him, he’ll stop what he is doing and listen. But, he doesn’t show any enthusiasm and never initiates our doing things together – except sex. We don’t have a bad marriage, but I worry. Once the kids are gone, what will hold us together?”
Tony, when asked, described his evening ritual exactly as Lorraine had said. He is not concerned, though. “She does her own thing in the evening. So what’s the problem? If she wants me for anything, I am always willing to help out.”
The problem is that Lorraine is looking ahead. “If we don’t make any changes, if we aren’t getting closer, we’ll drift apart.”
Tony doesn’t look ahead. “Are you unhappy now?” he asks. She can’t honestly say she’s unhappy, but she feels something is wrong.
What is wrong is they are looking at the same situation from different vantage points. Lorraine says, “I’m not disturbed right now, but if we don’t do something, this could develop into a serious problem.”
Given men’s message of not messing with something until it requires fixing, they tend not to see problems until they are serious. That is what leads Tony to reply, “There’s nothing wrong with our relationship. Sure there are things that bother me, but they aren’t such big deals. If we talk about them, they may become big; so, I ignore them.”
Men have less middle ground than women. They ignore the problem until it reaches some point; then they take serious action – they start an affair or they leave – often without much notice. They ignore the problem until it is broken.
There’s no easy solution to these gender differences. A man telling a woman, ”Back off; don’t worry so much,” is as useless as a woman consistently saying to a man, ”We have to talk.” His pursuing his societal message bumps smack into her pursuing hers.
Both of them are following deeply held convictions of how to be a good man and a good woman. Both are adhering to their ingrained gender code: “Men, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” “Women, make this relationship better.”
Someone should create a new bumper sticker, one that reads . . . . . . Hmmm. This is difficult. How do you bridge such contradictory messages? Here’s a challenge for couples: Come up with your own bumper sticker that shows respect for both of your messages.
If you have questions or comments or want more information, contact me at:
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis
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