Men Have Boxes, Women Have One Big Ball of String – Getting Communication Right!

Men Have Boxes, Women Have One Big Ball of String – Getting Communication Right!
May 13, 2015 Matthew L. Jacobson

Marriage Communication . . . it’s a funny thing. Okay, sometimes it’s not so funny. You love each other.  You both speak english reasonably well. It’s not like your trying to order lunch from a food stall in the old market place in Marrakech, Morocco.

So why does it keep happening?

You start a conversation about something that really matters to you and suddenly, your husband says something that proves he’s on planet Zork or your wife is speaking in an alien tongue and accusing you of not listening or caring.

If you’re married you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

The conversation starts out okay but then spirals down until you’re both completely frustrated. Not long into it, he started saying some really annoying things. And her! She was totally misunderstanding – twisting even – what you were trying to say, right? Can’t a guy catch a break? You were only trying to help.

Sometimes it can get worse than that. It’s not only a minor misunderstanding. Suddenly a canyon-sized void opens up between you and everything you enjoy about your relationship is gone until you climbed back to civility a few hours/days/weeks later.

I’ll never understand that woman!

 He just doesn’t listen! He doesn’t even care!

There’s a reason you both keep going back to the well of misunderstanding and frustration.

Now, it could be that you’re just prideful and selfish and want every conversation to be a “win” in your column. After all, in Proverbs 13:10 King Solomon did say, “From pride comes contention”. If that’s the case, you’re marriage is headed for the rocks. Not much of a “win” there.

But for most of you, I’m guessing that’s not the problem.

So what is it? What’s the reason for the continuing misunderstandings when you’re trying to share what’s on your mind?

It’s pretty straightforward.

Men Have Boxes

Women Have One Big Ball of String

Let me explain.

Early in our marriage and even today (if I’m off my game) when Lisa tells me there’s something troubling her and I see “that look” in her eyes, before she’s uttered a word, I go into autopilot. In my mind, I’m looking for my overalls and tools. There’s work to be done. Something that needs fixing is coming and the sooner we can get it fixed, the better. That’s what we men do with problems our wives present to us. We fix them! (I’ll bet the wives reading this feel better already!)

Most men compartmentalize (have separate mental boxes that everything fits into): the work box, the play box, the relax box, the job box, the sex with my wife box, the problem box. Men typically have more boxes than the UPS man. When we’re done looking in the box, we close the lid and look for another box that needs opening.

When our wife earnestly says, “There’s something we need to talk about.” We know what to do! Time to open the problem box, grab the tools and go to work.

Except for one thing . . . she didn’t bring the problem box to the discussion . . . she doesn’t even have one.

But, she did bring something that’s very important to her. She brought her single, large, ball of string.

And, what is that big ball of string? It’s the totality of her thoughts/feelings/experiences of her day (and often preceding days). For her, it’s all connected, everything – the events of her day, how she’s feeling physically, that difficult conversation she had with a teacher at school, the cold her second child has, the intimate time you both hope to have tonight, the overdue house payment, the neighbor’s call about their stray cat, the great article on autism she read while eating lunch, the misunderstanding she had with her sister over the phone, and the news report of the avalanche in Nepal where thousands were killed.

For her, it’s ALL connected. 

No, it really is. And don’t try to unravel it just because you believe some of those things shouldn’t be in there. In fact, its best if you don’t even touch that ball, right now.

Her emotional, spiritual, and physiological wiring handles a major current that assimilates and coalesces into her state of mind. Again, it’s all connected. Which can be really difficult for the male sex to grasp and embrace.

There are exceptions to the rule but for most, men have boxes and women have a single, big, ball of string.

Men compartmentalize. Women assimilate. He wants to “fix” her problem. She doesn’t want to be fixed.

She doesn’t want to be “fixed” She wants to be heard.

So, the next time she comes to you with a “problem” and you want to respond in your super efficient, helpful way . . .

Husband: Here’s how I think you can fix this: STEP 1, STEP 2, STEP 3. ISN’T THAT GREAT!

Remember, she’s not looking for a fix, she’s hoping for a sympathetic ear.

Wife: I’m not telling you what’s troubling me so you can fix it. I don’t want you to fix it. I’m telling you because I need you to listen to my heart . . . which calms my spirit . . . which I need because my perspective is a bit blurry . . . which is why I need you to just listen . . . because talking helps me sort out my thoughts. 

Boxes VS One Big Ball of String

The next time you bring concerns to your husband and after he has heard 3.5 sentences and starts in on his solution to your problem, just say, “Hey Babe, you’re a great fixer but, do you know what I need right now? I need someone to hear what’s on my heart and I wanted that person to be you. I don’t really want this fixed. I was just hoping you would listen to how I’m feeling right now.”

 Lisa has said this to me many times over the years . . . not because I’m unwilling to learn. Not because I don’t want to change. Not because I willfully don’t care how she’s feels about the topic. Not because, etc., etc.,

It’s just that, well, I have boxes and she has a big ball of string and both approaches are perfectly legitimate. Contrary to the politically correct culture we inhabit, men are not defective women. 

But learning and growing together is possible with some understanding, patience (trust me, Lisa has had many opportunities to develop her patience – we both have, actually) and a willingness to reflect on and embrace the very real, God-designed, differences between men and women.

Good, positive communication with your spouse is possible for those willing to grow.

Does some of this resonate with your experience in marriage? Do you have any funny (now!) experiences from your relationship you’d like to share? Join the conversation and share what you’ve learned.


As a teaching elder/pastor of Tumalo Bible Fellowship for the past 12 years, I have often had occasion to teach this concept to married couples, as have countless other pastors over the years.

The funniest treatment of the subject I’ve ever encountered is the 2013 youtube video by pastor Mark Gungor, which several of his parishioners mentioned to me as part of a very popular marriage seminar he gives. Check it out. I think you’ll really enjoy it!

CLICK HERE:  A Tale of Two Brains

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  1. Anonymous 9 months ago

    I’m a newlywed and a new mom and I feel I have given my husband everything I can possibly give I’ve been open I’ve asked if he can talk to me and until today that hasn’t happened I know that he’ll talk when he is ready but I’m a person who loves communication when I even try to talk to him he won’t listen to me I say something he watches the television or plays a game he has many times told me that when he comes home from work he doesn’t want to talk and in so doing I find that I have so many things bottled up inside because I have no one to talk to when he asks if I’m fine and I say no he sends me texts saying that he’s sorry he’s hurting me and he feels like he is failing as a husband now it has got me thinking that it’s much better for me to not say anything I keep giving so much of myself that I don’t know who I am anymore when he talks I make it a point that I listen to him fully I give him all my attention I keep thinking that if I become more of the wife he wants then maybe one day he’ll listen to me and ask me what I want and I’ll be able to have a best friend in him. He wasn’t like this when we were dating we talked for hours on end he listened to me he was my best friend and now I don’t know please help me I’ve tried everything I can to open the lines of communication I need help

    • Author

      Please get involved with a biblical Christian Church led by godly wise elders. We weren’t meant to walk alone.

  2. Thought-provoking blog post . I Appreciate the specifics !

  3. Shawna Starck 3 years ago

    So beneficial to hear in so many ways. Thanks for posting…

  4. Kimberley 3 years ago

    This sounds very familiar. … As if you’ve sat in on a Mark Gungor marriage seminar where he says the exact same thing.

  5. Cathy Hubbard 3 years ago

    This makes perfect sense. I’ve been married nearly 27 years and now I get it! Just the other day my husband was trying to figure out what was wrong with our dishwasher. He works night shift and had only been out of bed for about half an hour that afternoon, which makes it difficult for him to focus on any one thing, much less two – the dishwasher and my problem. I had something troubling me that I had waited all day to share with him. I didn’t wait until he had closed the “fix the dishwasher” box, I started while he was buried deep within it. I got frustrated as he didn’t seem to be listening to me and he got frustrated because he wasn’t in the right box at the time. this is a great article that I’m going to share with everyone! Thank you!

  6. Isabel 3 years ago

    another way I heard this explained at a marriage seminar was that man are like waffles (with all the little square compartments) and women are like spaghetti, it all intertwines Great article

    • Isaac 3 years ago

      Wow. This is great. Adding this illustration to the above, I feel it has sunk into my spirit and will help me much in marriage

  7. Nathan 3 years ago

    This is plagiarism from Mark Gungor, why are you not crediting him for this article?

    • Matthew Jacobson 3 years ago

      Careful on your charges, friend. As King Solomon says, there’s nothing new under the sun. But, as a blogger, I can say that I’ve had the same experience – someone writing on a similar topic that I’ve covered, even in a similar way.

  8. Michelle 3 years ago

    Overall a good article and good summation of how women and men communicate differently. However, very discouraged that at the end the resolve to an issue is that the wife needs to remind the husband “I just need you to listen” perhaps you could go the extra step to have the husband be responsible and remember himself that his wife doesn’t want him to fix everything. Yet again, the wife needs to take the lead and make the constant change. As long as the wife is the grown up and reminds the husband EVERYTIME she needs him to listen everything will be okay. Yeah no issues there with the advice and need to CONSTANTLY remind your husband what you need. Some people call that nagging but hey if it works for you have at it.

    • Matthew Jacobson 3 years ago

      Thank you for your comment but I think most readers will see that the husband is told, directly, in the article that “she doesn’t want to be fixed, she wants to be heard” – she wants him to listen. Yes, men have just as much responsibility (more, actually) to grow, learn, and lead in loving communication with their wives.

  9. Garrett 3 years ago

    Summary: Men like to address problems. Women like to complain about them.

    • Matthew Jacobson 3 years ago

      Seems like a less than balanced perspective . . . certainly not the “summary” most readers arrive at upon reading the article.

    • Lynne Baker 2 years ago

      Wow, really??

  10. Laura 3 years ago

    My husband and I will celebrate 42 years of marriage this summer. About 5-10 years in, we began to understand this concept, and found a good solution to it that honored both of our perspectives.

    I explained to him that he needed to add a tool to his problem-solving box – a listening ear. If he could use his listening ear tool when I needed a trusted sounding board, that would be the most effective way to “fix” things.

    It has worked well for us all these years. In fact, when I told him about this article, he said, “Make sure to tell them about my listening ear tool!”

  11. Ann C 3 years ago

    LUV LUV LUV this post! I’m told that getting me to get to the point is like herding wet cats! Am now printing this so we can “talk” about it!

  12. Kelly bohn 3 years ago

    My husband recently told me that a lot of the times when he is speaking to me, I give him a confused, almost annoyed look, like I have no idea what he is saying or why he is saying it. I started laughing and told him I had no idea I was even doing that! I adore his honesty, most of the time!

  13. Diane N 3 years ago

    I love the way you wrote this! . I can’t think of any specific stories, but I can say that learning this concept many years ago has made such a difference in our marriage. In fact, if I forget to open with “I just need you to listen” he’ll ask…am I supposed to help or hug right now? It saves us both a lot of frustration and makes us both feel good at the end of the conversation…he feels he has helped (even if he doesn’t understand how a hug fixes it) and I feel heard. It also means that when I DO ask for help, I do my best to follow his advice instead of questioning his answer so he knows I value his input when he gives it.

    Thank you for this post…I will be passing it on to my son and daughter-in-love so they can learn while they are still young!

  14. Oh my! You’ve summed this up very nicely, my love! And, yes, we are still working on it, but I believe we’re getting better at it. 🙂
    (And just so you know? I don’t mind so much if you do a little fixin’…. AFTER I feel like I’ve been heard. Grateful for your wisdom and caring heart!)

    • You two are such a wonderful example of a godly marriage. Thank you so much, both of you, for your ministry. We are blessed because you are faithful!

      May He continue to fill your cups to overflowing, my friends!

  15. As always, Matthew, I appreciate your illustrations, humor, and wisdom.

    After 22 years of marriage, I wholeheartedly agree with how you see the difference between men and women in terms of our communication styles.

    I think you bring up an excellent point in that we shouldn’t try to “fix” the other person. Instead, we should learn to embrace these differences and try to meet the other where they are. It isn’t always easy, but it always breeds intimacy and compassion when we are able to do that.

    Thanks for another inspiring post. Blessings to you and yours.

  16. John 3 years ago

    Great post! This is so true. I love the analogy. Sometimes we have to review things from a different angle.

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