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Little Spouse On The Prairie: Do You Hear What I Hear

Valerie Brown-Kuchera

One evening, Joel asked if he should make two packages of cheese sauce for our hot, buttery pretzels. I said, “No. One should do. If we run low, we can always make another one.”

When we sat down to eat, a gigantic bowl of cheese sauce was sitting on the table. “This is only one package of cheese sauce?” I asked. I was impressed with the plentitude.

“No. That’s three. You said we needed another one.”

I have come to understand that Joel only hears either the first three words or the last three words of what I say. It’s always interesting to discover which.

I’m not complaining. The glorious fact that Joel was making hot, buttery pretzels in the first place isn’t lost on me. But this observable phenomenon in my own marriage got me to thinking, “Is it true that husbands and wives listen differently?”

Perhaps I am not the best listener either. I know I catch my mind wandering when Joel starts to rehash the plot of the latest western he’s reading. I need to be self-reflective in order to examine the issue. I decided to ask Joel if he considers me a good listener.

“Joel,” I began. “Do you feel that I attend to what you’re saying?”

“I didn’t say anything,” he responded. “I was just getting some phlegm up. Sorry.”

“No. I was asking, ‘Am I a decent listener? Do I hear you?’” I tried again.

“Like I said, honey. Just a cough.”

Joel was answering a text from one of his adult kids, and since it typically takes him several minutes to type the word, “Yes,” I figured I would try the conversation later.

Meanwhile, I would do some research into what science has to say about the listening habits of husbands and wives. As it turns out, there is a scientific basis for this whole discrepancy.

A combined research project between the University of California, Irvine and the University of New Mexico found a difference between the amount of gray matter and white matter in the brains of men and women of equal intelligence. Men had six times more gray matter than women! Before the men listeners start to get too cocky, however, they should note that the same study found that women had 10 times the white matter the men did.

Apparently, gray matter may assist men with localized tasks, things like typing the word “yes” on a cell phone, while white matter helps women integrate and assimilate. These skills help women listen, type “yes” on a cell phone, grade an essay, put a bandage on their kid’s knee, and construct the third paragraph of an episode of Little Spouse simultaneously.

Here’s another difference: Husbands tend to listen in silence, while women are more likely to interject encouraging verbalizations, such as, “Oh, okay” or “That makes sense.” This lack of feedback may cause wives to wrongly assume their husbands are not listening. Joel and I fall right in line when it comes to this point. For example, the other day, I said, “So what do you think of getting Clementine this doll for Christmas?” He didn’t respond, so I assumed he hadn’t heard and went ahead and ordered the doll. Two evenings later, while we were getting ready for bed, he said, “That’s fine.” I thought he was referring to my negligee until he said, “I bet she’d really like that doll.”

When scientists connect brain scan technology to a listening man (what an oxymoron that phrase is), they see the left side of the brain light up. When women’s brains are tested in the same way, both sides light up. I need to be more understanding of Joel, because he’s literally only listening with half a brain.

Joel is apparently an outlier when it comes to how he processes what he hears. Another study showed that men hear and use more action-oriented words and directives, while women hear and use more emotional content. I’m glad Joel is an outlier here, because nothing touches my heart more than when he gets teary-eyed about a sweet story. And Joel hears each and every word when I am telling him what a wonderful, handsome husband he is, and that’s just fine by me.




Host of Little Spouse on the Prairie, a regional comedy feature that airs Sundays at 8:35 a.m. during Weekend Edition.