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Mens Issues

Men & the Problem with Being Problem Solvers

Men & the Problem with Being Problem Solvers

Simon Niblock, MA, LMFT

He: Damn it, just let me help you! You keep going on and on about this and you don’t seem to want to do anything about it!

She: I’m not asking for your help! It’s not a problem that I want to fix… there’s nothing here to fix. Will you please, just for once stop offering me advice??!!! That’s not what I’m asking for!

He: I don’t get it! What on earth do you want? What am I supposed to do with that?

She: I just want you to listen! You seriously don’t get me. You don’t listen to me!!

He: AAAAHHHHHH!

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At this precise moment, he feels his head’s about to explode. Why does this conversation continue to happen over and over again? What am I doing so wrong? He cares about this woman and he really wants to help, yet it’s so aggravating that he can’t seem to convince her to resolve this dilemma. Seriously, it’s so damn simple. Why would someone want to torture themselves like that? His rumination resumes and he withdraws.

This scenario describes a familiar story that men say that they have experienced. He wants to ease his partners burden. However, his attempts to help her only create distance between them. He’s confused and even saddened by his lack of ability to help. He wants to help. He really needs to help. Yet, despite his insistence, his partner may not necessarily be interested in adopting a solution.

Which leads to the question: why do men have such an inherent need to solve problems? 

One potential consideration is that many men describe that this need comes from the idea of adhering to masculine norms, and that to be a man they need to ‘do’ something. This externally directed focus, or activity of ‘doing’ is consistent with more action-orientated approaches favored by boys and men (Rabinowitz & Cochran, 2002). Men frequently say that they feel utterly useless and unhinged if they can’t fix a problem. When men are attending to some type of responsibility, fixing, performing, or solving a dilemma, they know they belong.

We really don’t need to look too hard to identify where this strategy comes from. Right from a young age, boys adopt masculine-specific characteristics from a wide range of familial, social and cultural sources. One especially pervasive masculine narrative includes that in order ‘to be a man’, he should contribute ‘as a man’ by solving problems. An example of this includes providing comfort and safety to those that they care about. Such narratives have a tremendous impact on men, and they readily muddy the water by making it difficult to determine when and where a solution should be applied – if at all. 

Is there a problem being a problem solver?

What’s the problem with men wanting to be action-orientated or problem solvers? Typically, nothing. There’s really no problem being a problem solver, that is unless it interferes with a man’s ability to connect with the discomfort of their own internal experience or if his actions directly affect others. Men who reflect on this dynamic often discover that their motivation to advocate advice is to avoid facing their own discomfort when presented with an issue. The idea that their partner is hurt or confused, risks the potential of them having to face the monsters that lie deep beneath. 

As the old saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of all inventions’ and blokes have become very adept at developing strategies to deal with the things that await within.

What is a man to do when he perceives a problem, but cannot do anything about it? He’s left facing a conflict between what he has been taught and the reality of the situation. There is nothing that he can do, other than face the awkward discomfort. Over time he starts to call his own sense of relevance into question and eventually he experiences a crisis of masculine identity. Then all hell breaks loose.

What’s a positive way to address this dilemma?

So, what can men do when faced with the dilemma that there’s no problem to solve? Surprisingly there is actually something positive that can be done, even when there seems like there’s no opportunity to do anything. Kind of ironic really. The best place to begin is with surrendering to the idea that unless someone asks for a solution, then there is no problem to solve. This idea is going to be a bit foreign to begin with. 

It might even feel right down uncomfortable. The idea of surrendering to discomfort means acknowledging the experience and just letting it sit with you for a little while. This may require a conscious effort to place your ‘ego’ aside for a moment. Allowing yourself to say that you are on a different journey to the person you want to help, and that’s ok.

This discomfort allows you to create space for you to breath and gain some insight into your own needs. During this period of discomfort, it’s possible to connect with all sorts of personal insights. It can often provide very specific answers about why we find ourselves so deeply unsettled when presented with other people’s problems.