I've Got Issues...And Peace


Boulder, Colorado,
October 22
Family, marital, and individual psychotherapist. Mother to four who no longer need my services but still enjoy my love as I do theirs. I specialize in stepfamily dynamics and difficult transitions. I try to write from the heart with a sense of vulnerability, humor and a frank look at myself. Art shown: "Four Pots" by Lindsey Leavell


JUNE 23, 2010 9:36AM

The Four Words Men Hate Most

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 woman who wants to talk


That’s right.  I said it, someone needed to say it.  The four dreaded words that most men, if they were being totally honest, would admit are the last words they want to hear after a long day of doing whatever it is they did.  Women, I know you don’t look like this when you say “We need to talk”, but through the eyes of a man, it’s likely this is how you look to him, despite your good intentions.

Why is it that these four words can cause so much dread, so much consternation, and even unwittingly, a call to battle?

Women  like to talk to the men they love.  They  like to communicate with them, connect with them.  A lot of the time this inevitably involves the spoken word.

Most women  like to analyze, dissect, ruminate on, munch on…words. 

They like to work it out, resolve it, settle it, come up with mutually agreed upon terms and they want to do it NOW.  

When they get like this, they may find their man prefers the solitary company found only in a cave.

Gender differences.  It can be a tricky subject.  We want to tread carefully lest we be accused of being stereotypical or sexist.  Yet research clearly shows us that certain realities exist and differences between men and women are as old as the ages, especially when it comes to communication. In gay and lesbian relationships, there is often a talker and a non-talker.

When I talk to men about their disdain for these four words, they admit that hearing these words invokes feelings of shame.  “What did I do now?”  “What did I not provide?”  “Where did I screw up?”  “How long is this going to take?”

When women say, “We need to talk”, what is most likely being said is, “I want to connect with you.”  But that’s not how it’s received.  When a woman says, “We need to talk”, most men would love to scream, “WHAT NOW?”

Men get dragged into my office on a regular basis by their well-meaning wives or lovers.  These women want to talk and they want to be heard.  Is that so much to ask?

Well, yeah, sometimes it is.  And sometimes it’s not even about the talking, it’s about the TONE.  Oh the tone is so important.  

Steven Stosny, a marital expert and researcher recently collaborated on a book with another relationship expert, Pat Love, a woman.  It’s called, “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It”.  Brilliant!  The authors suggest that marriage counseling, relationship books and the popular media are more supportive of a woman’s style of communication than that of a man’s.  The book provides some kick ass research, as well as other ways of communicating with one another that men can resonate with for a change.

When I work with couples, I tell them that the work they are embarking on isn’t going to involve all those thousands of tedious words.  The relief on the faces of men is palpable.

Time to get creative.  Work on the timing (timing is as key as the tone), be gentle, open and curious.  We can all learn better ways of communicating that don’t involve a dissertation.

And women, don’t despair.  The next time you really want to connect with your man, here are four words that are sure to never fail...“Want to have sex?” 


*Photo courtesy of 


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It figures. I say, "Want to have sex?" and his response is, "We need to talk". I must be barking up the wrong man/tree.
O'Really: There are always the exceptions, and of course YOU are one of them!
I can deal with all 8 words. But only if coming from another man! But as far as the "we need to talk" part, I'm gender neutral!
"We need to talk" is woman speak that men translate as "Oh, shit, I'm in trouble again." Most men would rather have a filing without novacaine than go through one of these sessions. Especially if we have to sit down and be still at the same time. Tip: When you want to get some talk out of a man do it while walking, playing cribbage, etc. Get us while were moving or doing something else. We hate the spotlight. Your ending words will always work!
can't deny that biology has a role in destiny. but the sex thing gets overplayed as we age. i'll settle for a low-cal sandwich.
I could relate to this completely! You are right on! I loved your ending. Unfortunately that wouldn't work with my husband.
I can tell you that when my ex-wife said, "We need to talk" it would send chills up my spine. This is on the money.
Indeed. John Gray always pissed me off, but there is some truth in these matters. I particularly identify with the "how long is this going to take?"

Like your example these instances seem to happen the most often when I'm tired or stressed and don't want to talk. I'm an introvert, so I really don't want to process things aloud.

After several years of marriage I finally discovered one obvious solution in these moments. It was to say, "I really don't have the capacity to hash this out now, but I hear you. I know this is important so I am committed to talking about it at X time."

When I remember to say that, it dramatically lessens nasty argument incidents.

And oh god, tone is key. So are facial expressions I'm told.
Ben Sen is right. A sandwich and/or a beer.
Four other words men don't like.

"That's not eight inches."
"About the TONE"... Yes, Ma'am. Ladies, shrill get's you nowhere. Also body language such as hands on hips, or arms folded is guaranteed to send most men into a panic attack when accompanied by those four words. No better way to get this man to clam up and run for shelter. Heck Mary, just reading this blog makes me want to go build myself a treehouse for one, just in case.

Back to the tone and approach though. I agree that the savvy female companion knows gentle ways to get the doors of communication that she desires opened, without the poor sod of a man (we are after all pretty simple creatures) even suspecting what she is doing. I applaud those certain women. The last thing a man wants is to feel backed into a corner.

One last thing: while "want to have sex?" will often times elicit a positive response from the man child, puhlease ladies, do not think that the moments during sexual afterglow are an appropriate time to 'get to the bottom of' what you perceive to be deep issues.
I think women use those four words when they mean "it's time for recriminations". There are other words that can be used, Mary, to connect with men. Women should not have such a limited vocabulary.

Perhaps if you said to your husband, "something seems to be bothering you and I want to be hear about it" instead of "we need to talk" he might not have reached for the remote quite so quickly.

Women generally seem to be in touch with their own feelings; not so when it comes to the feelings in their men's lives.

Hope you appreciate this different point of view.
Fascinating. I've always heard this, but I must be married to the only woman in the world for whom the words "We need to talk" is not only repellent, but generally terrifying.

And when I say it, (and honeybear, we DO need to talk) it seems to put my masculinity in doubt. Oh, yay.
I thought it was "Let's watch American Idol."
Yup, nailsy wailsy. I didn't like it at work, either, when the boss - male or otherwise - used that intro. I think the word "need" has something to do with it. Bumps it immediately into crisis mode. Something like, "Hey, wazzup, dooooood?" works a helluva lot better, without the embedded urgencies. Or get me laffing first - as if that's ever possible, bwahaha.
Before embarking on any "discussion" I have to think to myself, am I just complaining or trying to force my way? I think about what I want to get out of a "discussion". If it's about things like dishes or housework, I just need to say " I need help with this" and it gets done. Other stuff is really just me being whiny, then I keep it to myself.
If it's more personal, then I figure out what it was that was the point of remarking before I say it. If it's more serious, then I ask my sweetie if it's okay for me to ask him something more personal or talk about something more serious. He'll let me know if it's an okay time and have chance to get in the space. It's never as bad as he thinks (I don't yell or come with accusations) and then I have to remember to be quiet when he is answering. this works well for both of us, and keeps me calmer. He has tuned into when I am grumbly and gives me the space or the affection I need.
Sadly there is a disconnect between men and women. Whereas a man is satisfied with 5,000 words a day a woman feels as if she is being misunderstood if she can't get out 10,000 words a day. Typically women communicate better than men and when in full female communicative mode will sort out many issues with more fuss and more detail - an ideal leader's attitude in fact...
You are dead on. Nothing good ever starts with "We need to talk."

Now you know why so many homes are putting in a Man Cave. Please respect it's sanctity, ladies.
So true. "We need to talk" is rarely good. _r
A nicely balanced assessment of a pretty universal phenomenon. It's definitely gender role related (at least for hetero couples) and I suspect related to that boy-mother transference thing we do with our significant others. How many times have I heard "I'm not your mother (or ex)" and I'm simultaneously thinking "She's my mother (and I resent that)."

And then the dance. Oh God the dance. Usually lasts about three days. Most men want to have a conversation (brief), say things once, make a decision and move on. Seems as if the women want to use all the words and revisit the same topic at least three times before they're heard.

Way to stir it up Mare!
We need to talk about how you are wonderful?

We need to talk about how happy I am?

I think not.
“How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It” saved my life.
So identifiable! Good, crisp, piece, Mary. It's funny. I think our roles have turned upside down lately or something because when my husband walks into the room and says, "We need to talk," I go into instant nausea and heart palpitations and I know I'm going to be blamed for something -- usually having to do with money. My instant black sheep of large Catholic family response. Simply EVERYTHING, ALWAYS is my fault -- even the weather! Yes! I'm THAT powerful! xoxoxoxo R joan
I immediately thought this , from Street Legal :

"When I am in the darkness, why do you intrude ?
Do you know my world, do you know my kind, or must I explain ?
Will you let me be myself, or is your love in vain ?"

There are precious remnants we hold tight to, even as we enter into relationships. Solitude, privacy, the time to work it out ourselves, I think, need to be respected, isn't it.
It's not like we're going anywhere else.
How about "we need to have sex"? That would combine the best of both.
Actually, I like to ask my guy about himself, and he about me, and that starts the ball rolling. Non-threatening, non-accusing questions are good starters.
Despite the cliche, men have no trouble whatsoever in "talking," but when it comes to these dreaded four words we all revert to Miranda mode: "Anything you say can and will be used against you." Chances are, it really WILL be used against you later on. ("But you said...")

By the way, Grif is on to something. "We need to talk" uttered by the significant other immediately calls forth memories of the mother, big sister, or teacher and we instinctively go into defensive mode. It's really pretty basic.
I like the sex first talk later approach. I also like the three pronged check-in: what you did recently that I dug, what I did recently that I regret, what happened recently that made me feel hurt/angry. Switch.
Very fun to read, while nodding in agreement all the lone female over here, I often get more feedback from the bluejays out back.
Wonderful post and I can *so* relate. But I don't think I've ever used the phrase "we need to talk" except when I was planning to follow-up the polite equivalent of "i'm dumping your ass". For general every-day problems, I prefer to be more direct. I will look for that book because I'd like to understand different communication styles better, even if they don't apply to my current (heavenly, beautifully, communicative) situation.

But one of my favorites to really raise my blood pressure is when the man says/does something equivalent to: "i'm pissed at you about something, you should *know* what it is, and i don't want to talk about it right now, because i'm so pissed." Oh yeah, and you *don't* know what it is, and are somehow expected to sleep on that.
You know that I'm not down with these gender stereotypes that you are so fond of. I've heard "we need to talk" from men on more occasions that I care to remember and it was never good news. It was the phrase which soon led to something like "It's not you, it's me" that was the problem, not the gender of the person giving the message. Sigh...
I've found by just dropping the "now" off of it softens it some. However, there are men who roll their eyes and there are men who want to listen. I can tell you the one who listens is having to fight me off. Loved the topic.
I thought it was going to be "I have a headache." : )
I gave up the "let's talk" thing with my Type A man, I just email him the business plan for "Pick Up Dinner On Your Way Home". After careful analysis, he will either accept or call to discuss why he would prefer meatloaf. Either way, it puts the conversation in his hands and I don't have to deal with any of the things that aggrivate me when trying to stir up a conversation. It may seem silly or that we don't communicate well, but I think of it more as communicating beautifully. I know exactly how/when to talk to him and he knows just how/when to talk to me. From there all that's left is "gravy or red sauce"?

Love these posts, Mare!
Oryoki, will you marry me?
Women, I know you don’t look like this when you say “We need to talk”, but through the eyes of a man, it’s likely this is how you look to him, despite your good intentions.

It's not just men that feel this way, Mary. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up every time I'd hear my Suzy say "We NEED to talk!" The only "connection" those words ever evoked had to do with her foot and my ass.

'Course the "Want to have sex?" worked on me, as well. ;~)
Nicely done.

As for the 4 favorite words, "Steak and a blowjob?" works like a charm.
How about "I love you, honey"...because most of us are aware of that fact when we need to talk. If you start out with a phrase that puts me deep in the dog house (where I knew I was before you uttered it) then the conversation is secondary to shutting down and gritting my teeth, because at that point, it isn't a conversation. It's a lecture, a command performance; and I'll have to sit through it like a good dog and endure all the pent up (and sometimes only barely related) emotional baggage that goes with it.

So after you say, "I love you, honey" mebbe you can wait a while, and see what comes of it.
Mary, this is obviously a significant and chronic issue. I'm not one of those men who dread the invitation to talk and, in fact, have often had trouble getting at least one woman (yeah, there's been more than one) to sit still and talk with me! But I hear the story all the time and witness it on occasion, and like a lot of things about "typical" men, I just don't get this. I did, however, get a lot out of reading this, especially the part about tone. Also I had to chuckle at your self-description, your volume control issue, the gesturing, because that same woman referred to above also did those things, and for the same reason. It wasn't a turn-off to me, though: I found it charming and extremely understandable. So here's my question for you: Is there something wrong with me? I ask only half-jokingly -- consider my marital history. Yeah, I was largely raised by women, maybe that has something to do with it, and it's not confined to looking forward to talking (though at present I mostly have to talk to myself or the cat). Come on guys, gimme the damn ball! Excellent piece, though, as always.
Rated, too.
Followed up with the next worse four words, "How do you feel?" It took some time before Ms. Stim and I learned that she needs to ask me "think" questions and I have to ask her "feel" questions.
I've always been slightly resentful of the fact that pop culture portrays a woman's method of communication as superior. I'm sorry, but it isn't necessarily a sign of depth to want to talk about your feelings all the time: it could just as well signal self-absorption. Men demonstrate affection and caring by doing things, not talking about things.

Thanks for this post.
PS -- It just hit me! Reading through the comments someone mentioned John Gray and I cringed, then realized Hey, I'm not from Mars. I'm from Saturn. Hitched a ride with Sun Ra. Makes me a foreigner. I have cultural issues. We don't do this on my planet. Now will people quit asking me if I'm gay?
Men would rather walk over hot coals, be branded with an iron, or watch Jerry Lewis movies, than talk about any issue. Except, of course, me. I thought the four words were: "I have a headache." :-) Nicely done, Mary.
Now will people quit asking me if I'm gay?

Your homophobia is showing, dude. The implication that gay men are effeminate and/or are "female-like" is one of the most incorrect stereotypes going.
Not the kind of man you want for marriage: Devendra Banhart - Feel just like a child Just sayin.
Kate Hepburn said it best re: her 30 year affair with Spencer Tracy "If you really love someone, live nearby!" or something like it.
Men , not being nearly as stupid as Charlie Brown, know when they hear your dreaded words that they are the opening shot in a one two sucker punch about their eternal flaws and like the frog entering hibernation mud in the dry season, our eyes glaze over.
If you really wanted to talk you would just do so, and not try to set us up for the kill with the opening statement to the jury.
But (R) for trying to bridge the widening abyssal gap.
So, so true. I definitely say "we need to talk" when I want to connect and it is more often than not nothing for my boyfriend to worry about. He hears "we need to talk" and immediately loses his mind even though the last time I said this was in regard to plans for his birthday.
"We need to talk" = "I need to tell you what's wrong with you"

That's all it means. If you just want to "talk", just talk. No set up needed. The whole set up of "we need to talk" DOES mean an extended session of listening to what a woman needs to change about a man to keep her from taking out her anger and frustrations on the man on the other end.

NEVER say it. Unless you WANT to fight. I refuse to even argue over this with my wife. I simply won't discuss things under these terms.
Ah...I have too much to say. I wrote a long comment that I had to erase...but I think this book has VERY valid points. And it's not just about the women "accommodating" their men (or however you want to say it). It's much more than that. Good stuff.
I don't consider myself a non-talker, but my boyfriend is the one that says "we need to talk" more often than I do. I always tell every one he's the girl in the relationship.

Great article. We need to try to understand each other.
I thought "No you can't" would have been 3 of the words.
"When women say, “We need to talk”, what is most likely being said is, “I want to connect with you.” But that’s not how it’s received. When a woman says, “We need to talk”, most men would love to scream, “WHAT NOW?”

I think you're right about this being a man's most dreaded conversation opener, but I disagree that most women who say it are just trying to connect. I think the real problem is that more often, they want to do precisely what men fear -- tell him what he's done wrong, how he's disappointed them and/or what he should be doing differently. After all, if this weren't so often true, why would men almost universally dread these words?? There's a reason for that reaction -- it's rooted in past experience.

Imagine instead that men's usual experience of hearing the words, "We need to talk" was that it was typically followed by women saying something along the lines of, "I just wanted to tell you how much I love you, how wonderful and you are to me, and what a sex god you are. Thank you for that. I appreciate you so much."

If you think that's over the top, just consider this: How often does anything remotely positive follow those 4 words out of a woman's mouth?
Luckily, I'm shacked up with a guy that LOVES to talk. "We need to talk" is his cue.
Sex is overrated. Wait. I meant talking.
R. :)
How sexist to assume the words "want to have sex" will never fail to get the attention of a husband.
And judging from the responses of many of the women here, your sentiment is wrong as well as insensitive.
Maybe more marriage counselors need to be hip to the fact that men, as well as differing from their wives in their tolerance for talk, also often have different sexual proclivities.
Get with it marriage counselors, for a lot of us, lifelong monogamy is a struggle against our very nature.
"Want to have sex?"
"Yeah.....I'll be back when I'm done."
My son says to add one word. He says the 5 most hated words are:

I thought the words would be, "I have a headache." lol Never used them but some do. Really interesting insight and info.
Ho, yeah!!!
Here are some more:
"My period is late."
"It is your baby."
"Why didn't you call?"
"Do I look fat?"
"Look into my eyes."
"Is there another woman?"
"Are you being honest?"
"Are you breaking up?"
"I found someone else."
"It really isn't you."
"Really, it is me."
"Cat got your tongue?"

Great post, Mare. In my world, your 4 words are the ones that send my hubby into glazed-over shock and fearful anticipation. "Deer in the headlights!"
Good advice. I've been with the hubster for 15 years and I'm pretty sure those four words have never come out of my mouth. I just try to gently, calmly and clearly say what needs to be said, without a big foreboding announcement first. We're still happily married so I must be doing something right. It's not always easy. But it's worth it.
Oh, the FOUR T's! (or is that tease):


That foursome will get his attention every time.

Or, just leave out Tone and make it a threesome!

Good to go!
I say it sometimes just to hear him say back:
We? You got a rat in yer pocket or something?

great post... loved the last paragraph.
From personal experience, and historical knowledge, those four, are at the root of many battles/wars, Mary... Condescending terminology begins early in parenting, easy to understand why these four are so hurtful/harmful...So the question of lover/fighter and you, has been answered here... As for sex, hmm... RRR
I do declare, I believe I have never actually used those 4 words with my husband in 10 years of marriage! Maybe it's time for an upgrade.
OK, this completely and totally sucks. I just spent 45 minutes responding to each one of you with brilliance and compassion, ridiculously rare wit, humor and grace, and when I hit "post this comment", it all disappeared due to my not having signed in first. This has never happened to me (and never will again). Damn! I hate that. So, all comments were appreciated, no matter what, apologies to those I offended, and great suggestions were made. These comments could improve thousands of relationships. I may be back but have clients shortly so....again, thanks to all who read and commented. The wisdom in all the comments is invaluable.
We do live in the same house, don't we?
Come to think of it, I couldn't have made the comments without signing in. WTH? Must have been a brief lapse in my internet connection...grrr....

Deborah: You know that we do!!!!
Mary, I've had that same problem with the system eating comments due to a DSL or other hiccup. I now paranoidly copy my comments if they are long (as when I respond to comments on my posts) before hitting the Post button. But even if you don't do that, sometimes resending the page will work to put them up and/or you can hit the Back button and find your comments there waiting again to be Posted.
okay, okay, i give. when all else fails u gotta fuck 'em to shut 'em up.
Good one, Mare. I use those last four words as often as possible but when we need to talk, I don't say that, I say, "TURN OFF THE TV!"
I need to admit that I'm one of the women who uses the "We need to talk" line to explain to my husband all of the things he's doing/saying/NOT doing/NOT saying that are making me unhappy. I fit the stereotype and therefore perpetuate it. My apologies to the women who just want to connect.

Of course, it is about getting my needs met, so that IS about connecting, right? I guess I need to learn not to lecture so much.

On the other hand, I've found that "want to have sex" certainly does elicit a response... as long as it's not right after work or within an hour before bed (either way, "too tired").

Thanks for another blog that made me realize that I need to reevaluate how I converse with my husband. Slowly, I'm learning :)
Some I knew from the title just what those four works would be.
When a woman says "we need to talk" what she is saying is "I am going to do all the talking and you had better sit there and agree with everything I say".
@Safe_Bet's Amy: Thanks for the info. I only said that because people -- mostly women (and never once any of my gay friends) ask me that from time to time. Exerience sometimes leads me to believe things are the way they are in my own life. Oh, and none of my gay (male) friends are effeminate: a couple are absolute slobs. I don't rely on stereotypes but apparently some folks trust their paranoia. At any rate, if my little gaffe offended anyone I will ride the trend of the moment and apologize for have been misconstructed or whatever the hell Barton calls it. Oh, and I don't make a habit of asking people if they're gay, so yeah, it does bug me a little. Kinda like "What do you *do*" bothers me. Okay, done with that.
But what if the MAN wants to talk, and the woman thinks that sex is the only true path to happiness? then what do I do?
"Can we have a talk about something?" doesn't work any better with my hubby. If I ever said "we need to talk" he would retort, "no WE don't". Any conversation attempt that makes him feel that I want to talk to him makes him a defensive 10 year old. Yet, I cannot start talking about any subject without preface as inevitably he will say, "Where is THAT coming from". Or yah, yah, same old stuff year after year. I guess some problems must be ignored or accepted as "just is", but in my marriage there are certain problems that can never be discussed, even when the elephant in the room.

Unfortunately, I have tried to break through the silence gently and lovingly as well and none of its works. Some men are just in the cave and will never come out. It is really hard to feel the love when the man is ALWAYS shutting down communication...even in the bedroom.

So men, even if it is annoying, how about once out of every ten requests you just listen to us? Seems it would be the polite (and fair) thing to do...
funny, when my partner says those words to me, i think the same thing that men do. in my mind i'm thinking "if i just nod my head and agree, will this end faster?"
How 'bout we don't talk and you just agree with me, in principle? Saves a lot of time :)

I just read the hilarious and oh so true book.. He's Just Not That Into drills in that men do Not want to talk .....when they say after a date"we'll talk" won't ever hear from then again....omg it is all so corn fusing :) and I did mean corn fusing.....great post!!!
Very true. Women, on average, are more social and communicative. I especially like the part about tone. This is essential, not only in marriage, but in all communication. In medical school, I was taught that 90% of communication is non-verbal. How you speak to a patient is as important as what you say. Most malpractice suits are the result, not of bad outcomes, but of bad (or no) communication. The lessons in this post, if learned, would greatly reduce litigiousness. Great post!
I know that sometimes the only time my husband and I -- he's a workaholic buried in his computer or in marking -- get to talk is when we're both in bed. This is, unfortunately, the time when he REALLY doesn't want to talk. And yet I still try. Therein lies madness.
Mary, I think you hit a home run with this one. The first four words do get their backs up and the other four...well. rated
Wonderful, as always, Mary. People must just be drawn to you like butterflies to nectar.

I have a few additional thoughts, from the hairy side of the gender divide, but need to consolidate them.
We seem to be going backward rather than forward here, back to the 19th century, when women were advised to never talk back to their husbands if they wanted a happy marriage.

If there's a serious problem, there's no way around talking about it. Talking is civilized. It's good. Reason, thinking, talking, negotiating: all good, all civilized. Women, don't let anybody put you on the defensive about wanting to discuss family problems with your partner.

I am sorry if men don't like it when women want to talk about a problem. White people didn't like it when black people had a problem with Jim Crow in the sixties, either. But nobody would tell a black person that they should be quiet about racism because white people get too much cortisol when a black person gets in their face. At least I hope not.

The last line is really insulting to women. It basically tells them to shut up and do their job: having sex with men.
I can do "We need to talk"; its "You (or We) need to..." that kills me.