The Hard Conversations: Dealing with the Fix-It Mentality

By Anne Gagliano

I was picking up my husband Mike’s discarded robe when I stumbled across his slippers, which lay underneath—his favorite expensive, soft, comfortable, lamb’s wool slippers from Australia.  We have laminate floors, which can get quite cold on bare feet; Mike wears his beloved slippers nearly year-round.  In the half-light, I noticed something odd about them—one toe seemed to shine.  I turned on the overhead light.  My eyes widened in surprise and I laughed out loud.  Slapped piecemeal across the toe of one slipper were layers of duct tape!  He’d had a small tear that caused the sole to flap, hence the duct tape.  If this doesn’t truly embody the fix-it mentality, I don’t know what does.

Firefighters fix things.  If a building is on fire, they put it out.  If someone’s hurt or stuck, they pull them out.  If a tool breaks, they fix that too.  If the rig gets damaged, they repair it.  They fix things, they fix people.  It’s their job.  They’re hired because they’re good at it.  If they see a problem, they must solve the problem, anyway, anyhow, and often without proper resources or much training.  They simply get it done.  They bring this mentality home with them, because it’s part of who they are. 

What happens when they try to “fix” their spouse?  I’ll tell you: an explosion of rage and offense.  Instead of putting the fire out, they’ve just poured gasoline on it.

Women like to vent.  We have powerful emotions that boil and churn within us day in, day out.  We feel deeply, we love deeply; we are extremely empathetic and sympathetic.  We care—about everything.  That’s why men love us, because of our strong loyalties and deep affections.  But these powerful emotions sometimes can turn negative, and we need to let them out.  How do we generally do this?  We like to talk them out—vent.   We feel strongly, and we like to talk about it.

Men don’t quite understand this.  I’ll be chatting away about something, and I’ll glance at Mike and catch a blank stare.  He’ll quickly rearrange his face into a look that implies interest.  But I caught him. I now know he’s not getting it; however, I do appreciate the effort.  Mike has learned, as all men who’ve been successfully married for long periods of time have, to just let me vent, to talk it out, whatever “it” is.  He has learned to suppress his “fix-it” mentality and to just give me an ear, a kind word, and maybe even a hug.  How did he learn this?  From having the hard conversation on this topic–and it is a hard one, especially for fix-it firefighters.

In the past when I’d vent, Mike would, point by point, try to “fix” whatever was ailing me.  For example, looking for reassurance about my appearance, I’d say something like, “I feel fat. Do I look fat to you?”  Mr. Fix-It would reply, “If you feel fat, get on the treadmill.”  Small explosion.  I’d say, “So-and-So hurt my feelings when they said such-and-such.”  Mr. Fix-It would reply, “You’re too sensitive; you need to not overreact.”  Small explosion.

Through our conversations that resulted from these exchanges, Mike has learned that I am not a project—I don’t want him to fix me.  I am merely looking for comfort and understanding.  When does the offense occur? When he crosses the line from fixing the problem to fixing me, as no one likes to be made to feel inadequate, especially by the person who is supposed to think you’re wonderful.  Mike has learned that my feeling deeply causes me to wound easily, so he must tread lightly.  And some things cannot be fixed; it just helps to talk them out, then let them go.

There are occasions, however, when I do want his advice.  These are entirely different, and he has learned to differentiate.  I’ll say, quite clearly, “What should I do?”  That’s the green light for his explicit opinion.   Mike is very wise, and I do value his guidance when it’s geared toward fixing problems, not me.

On the flip side of this hard conversation is Mr. Fix-It’s point of view.  Mr. Fix-It can, on occasion, be right and fair in his attempts to “fix me.”  I’ve learned that sometimes I am overreacting; I can be too sensitive and I’ve had to face this.  And I do need to get on a treadmill if I want to feel better about my appearance.  Mr. Fix-It doesn’t intend to offend me; he’s genuinely trying to help, however insensitively his suggestions may come out.  He’ll point out that I often try to fix him, and he doesn’t get offended, and he’s right, I do.  As a result of our combined experiences and perspectives, I’ve become stronger and he’s become more tactful.  By communicating his help in loving ways and listening without fixing, Mike has allowed me to grow without crushing my tender heart.  And my patience with him has helped him to become an incredibly empathetic partner at home and leader at work.

Just as lamb’s wool slippers are the softest, so is a woman’s heart.  A caring, gentle woman is a tremendous source of warmth and comfort to a man who must face a dangerous, cold, cruel world.  Men, don’t slap duct tape on your wife.  It is an ugly, inappropriate fix.  It can cause scars.  It can result in hardness.  A woman requires tenderness, understanding, and support.  Instead, gently sew from within, from the heart, with words that are reassuring of your unfailing love for her.  This will help keep her beautiful from within and without.   And women, give your firefighter a little slack when he unwittingly brings out the duct tape. He is, after all, just trying to help.

 Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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