Have you heard that I have heel marks in front of my office door? They’re from the shoes of a husband being dragged into couples counseling by his wife.
The wife complained about things that the husband neither understands nor has abilities to change, in many cases. The husband and wife just don’t understand each other – and rightfully so! How many of us have had training in how to understand the other sex? Although men and women are something like 95% the same in terms of their biology, the other 5%, plus major differences in how they get socialized, can make all the difference, especially within a relationship.
Let’s look at some of these differences.
Disclaimer: The information below describes tendencies and patterns within and across the sexes, which may not be present in all individuals. Your mileage may vary.
All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go. Men and women manage stress in significantly different ways. While both men and women have a built-in “fight or flight” mechanism, it is far more prominent in men. Women, on the other hand, manage stress through a “tend and befriend” process, calling upon friends and other supporters to help. Imagine two people living together where one wants to talk about things to manage stress and the other disappears (literally or figuratively) or gets irritable when under stress.
Fear This! Women tend to fear feeling isolated from others or suffering from deprivation. These stem from a drive to survive. Men, on the other hand, fear feeling shamed, especially related to failing at being a provider, protector, lover, or parent. These fears get socialized or conditioned into men. Imagine two people living together where when the woman says, “We need to talk,” it may mean “Help me relieve my stress by connecting with me.” For the man, it sounds like she’s saying “I need to complain,” and he’s out of there!
What’s Love Got to Do With It? Men’s bodies are filled with a hormone called testosterone. This causes men to have a tendency toward action and doing, rather than relating. Therefore, men often tend to show “love” through actions and trying to solve problems for others. Women, on the other hand, are filled with a hormone called ocytocin, sometimes called the hormone of “love and cuddle.” It causes women to approach relationships and love in very different ways than men do. Imagine two people living together where one expresses love by mowing the lawn and the other expresses love by talking and hugging. What expectations would they have of each other? What could go wrong there?
Down There. We’ve just talked about testosterone (action) vs. oxytocin (love and cuddle). These explain themselves. By the way, men have testosterone levels 10 to 20 times that of women. Men’s sex drive resembles a microwave oven: quick on, quick off, quick result. Women resemble electric ovens: needing time to warm up, to cool down, and to get a result. Stress turns women off. For men, sex dampens stress, helping them manage it. Men just need a place for sex, where women often need a reason. For men, sex represents an end in itself. For women, it is often a means to an end (romantic, deepening a relationship, etc.).
Now Don’t Get All Emotional. It is a myth that men cannot feel emotions. Men and women have very similar equipment in their brains (more or less) for feeling emotions. So, why don’t they express emotions like women do? First, men’s brains do not have as many connections between the emotion processing and the language processing parts. So, men cannot express their emotions competently. Second, and more importantly, men have a “code” against expressing emotions. Imagine two people living together where one cannot and is not supposed to express emotions and the other considers expressing emotions as a natural, normal part of any good relationship. Can you feel the fear of failure (men) and the fear of isolation (women) beginning to form?
I Don’t Want to Talk About It. To bust another myth, men do in fact talk, but in a very different way from women. Man talk about what they’re good at, things they know a lot about (or think they do), or problems they can solve. Men do not talk about their emotions, feelings, or vulnerabilities. Both nature (brain structure) and nurture (the male code) govern his ability and desire to talk. Women, on the other hand, have both nature and nurture that orients them toward talking, since that is their way of managing stress. Imagine two people living together where one excels in solving problems and talking about specialized topics and does not do well at exposing vulnerabilities. The other excels at talking about emotions and vulnerabilities. What expectations would they have of each other? What could go wrong there?
So, Now What? By now, you should have a much better idea of the ways men and women differ and that these differences can significantly affect your attitude toward your partner. Some of these things cannot change, especially the ones involving brain structure or hormones. I recommend you take an attitude of tolerance toward these or think long and hard about whether these things represent a “make or break” situation for you. The other things, such as those involving “codes” or social conditioning, can change with some effort and willingness. You can address any or all of these differences in couples counseling or individual therapy with someone knowledgeable about the differences.
Copyright 2013 Daniel J. Metevier