We are at a point in history that women are increasingly less happy in their marriages. Consider the fact that, of the educated women in the U.S. who divorce, the wife initiates 90% of those divorces.
There are a variety of reasons that this is becoming more of the norm, but one factor from the world of psychology which is becoming more apparent is gender differences (or perhaps more appropriately, sex differences).
These gender differences have been developing throughout evolution for our survival. However, like most things, our genetics are still playing catch up to the modern world. The modern marriage, coupled with the gender equality movements are highlighting these gender differences for better or worse.
I understand that this is a sensitive subject. Even writing about this gives me cause for concern. However, as a couple’s counselor, I see these gender differences every day, and often when couples are armed with the knowledge of their biological differences they experience more healing and resolution.
I find that denying that they exist is more harmful than recognizing that they are real and impacting our relationships. It is not a thing of equality, but the awareness that we can be very different creatures.
Research confirms that these differences are far from some genetic determinism. Our psychology is still sensitive to developmental and socioecological contexts. This means that culture, family upbringing, and even exposure to hormones in our foods are factors in how someone presents as male, female, or otherwise.
This article is specifically geared more towards men, due to the fact that women are more commonly the “lesser happy spouses” in marriages today. I find that men are often less educated on healthy relationships, and their biology puts them at a disadvantage when navigating their marriages and intimate relationships.
Furthermore, this article contains several common gender differences that I see frequently influence contention in relationships. Each concept contains a “What Men can DO” section. This is because men often work much better with concrete, actionable steps. This is key for women to remember when assuming that the expression of their thoughts and feelings will teach men how to then meet these needs; when in reality, they don’t have a clue.
**Information found in this article is based on select research, which approaches the gender differences as group averages, NOT individual differences. This means of course that none of the material is under the assumption that ALL men and woman are the same.
“We need to talk about this” vs. Shutdown/Avoid/Defend
In my experience, the most common goal stated within the first session of couples counseling is “we need better communication”. Most often it’s the woman that asserts this complaint. Communication has many facets, but core gender differences are a fundamental deterrent to healthy communication.
Harvard researchers found that infant males got emotionally charged quicker than the infant females; the boys also took longer to calm down. Other studies have found this gender difference to be constant throughout the lifespan. (sorry ladies)
Research also has shown that from an early age, girls’ verbal (and nonverbal relational skills) tend to be superior to young boys. Then to top it off, adult men tend to speak less in private. One study found that men say 3X as many words in public than in private, and women say 3X as many words in private than in public.
Men’s biology gets in the way of having healthy conflict. When faced with difficult emotion, their fight/flight/freeze response tends to be more sensitive than women. This translates into men’s most common behaviors during a marital conflict of shutdown (freeze), walking away/avoidance (flight), and defensiveness (fight).
Once in this emotional state, men’s frontal lobe goes offline, and thus less likely to think clearly, empathize, self-reflect, and are more likely to have destructive impulses. Because of this difference, men are more likely to see their partner’s complaints (or concerns for that matter) as personal attacks.
Women on the other hand, with higher levels of oxytocin and a differing brain structure, can sit in interpersonal conflict much easier. Then, find it difficult to understand when her partner quickly shuts down or walks away. They become increasingly frustrated with their male partner’s inability to sit with their distress.
Another reason men tend to get charged up so fast is that their body often appraises the discussion as something they will either win or lose. The testosterone in a man doesn’t like losing. It can emotionally turn into a battle in which most women have no such desire to participate; they above all are looking for empathy, understanding, and resolve.
What Men can DO:
1. Internally reframe conflict as a necessary and inevitable occurrence in meeting her needs and increasing emotional intimacy and safety within the relationship.
2. Understand that your body and mind will likely escalate into a reactive state. Be mindful of your body’s physical response, as this is the most fundamental clue to your emotional state. Understand your own triggers in communication and how this disconnects you from your partner. Learn ways to listen and stay present to the best of your abilities.
3. If on a scale of 1-10 of emotional distress, you’re escalating past a 6-7, respectfully remove yourself. After taking a time-out, practice using various skills to let your emotions subside (remember this typically takes longer for males). However, if using the timeout, you MUST initiate a reengagement. If not, she will start to not trust you with her emotional world, a recipe for long-term insidious disconnection.
4. Consider the complaints if they’re presented. Women tend to have a much better temperature of the relationship (and perhaps of you), use this to your advantage and within time consider her points when emotions have settled. Your partner can often be a great mirror to see your places of personal and relational growth. A difficult balance when you need to consider at the same time your own truth, boundaries, and needs. That being said, the complaints are often not cut and dry. If she’s upset about you not replacing the paper towel roll we all know its not about the paper towels, its about some deeper, more global attribute or an angst that exists somewhere else in the relationship.
5. Understand that it’s not about winning or losing. This doesn’t mean you can’t express your disagreements and true intentions. Practice putting your ego aside and embrace the avoided, uncomfortable feelings such as humility, healthy shame, and remorse. Above all, take some responsibility.
6. Search for the proactive things you can do to meet her needs, or if need of clarification, make a request for her to reframe her concerns into more concrete ideas. Although, you must then follow through if you say you’ll do something. Nothing is more unattractive and destabilizing to her trust in you.
7. Utilize loving reassuring statements, physical touch, and a soft tone.
Romance vs. Sex
“The success of romantic relationships is largely dependent on ongoing sexual interplay – from flirting to climax and back again. As the male meets the females’ need for romantic connection, she responds sexually, meeting his deepest need, and so they go round and round in a feedback loop that replenishes itself.” –Kathryn Foster, Ph.D.
Men typically come equipped with higher amounts of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone is known to be linked to the will to win, aggression, pursue goals, seek power and money, and sex. As it pertains to sex, the hormone allows a man to feel aroused and desire for sex more readily.
The presence of estrogen in females increases the hormone oxytocin, which stimulates empathy, nurturing behavior, and emotional/physical bonding (Romance).
Thus, men having more testosterone than estrogen are sometimes less equipped to reap the benefits of oxytocin for relationship building. Consequentially, with an increase in sexual arousal in men, oxytocin is even more limited.
From a biological standpoint, when men feel stress, testosterone peaks and sex becomes a release of that stress. After sex, men get a heavy dose of oxytocin. Sex in this way becomes one of men’s primary ways to connect in a relationship, a top priority in general. Some say that for men, physical experiences (like sex) tend to be more meaningful (Just think about sports, home projects, conquering lands, etc).
Women may feel the desire for sex, but their arousal isn’t always as available. Their motivation for sex tends to be ramped up by emotional closeness, romance, masculine/feminine polarity, and nonsexual touch. Sex for women becomes an integrated part of the whole relationship, as opposed to men where sex can more easily be compartmentalized. For some women, their evolution has made romance a much higher priority.
When sex is optimized for both genders, it’s an essential component of a healthy relationship. If not, it can be an insidious issue that can slowly erode the stability of the relationship. During the first few years of being together, mother nature makes sex an automatic priority, after that, many relationships have to then work on their sexual harmony.
What men can DO:
8. Expect your biology will want to skip foreplay, non-sexual touch, and emotional intimacy. Open conversations about sex; explore her preferred modes of foreplay and arousal. Expend conscious effort to DO those things to the best of your ability.
9. Be mindful of how you’re adding value to the partnership. Things like completing household duties will typically increase your partner’s emotional connection leading to more openness to sex.
10. Put effort into romance; start to better understand what helps build emotional connection and intimacy with your specific partner.
11. Foster an environment where she can access her feminine side, and your masculine. A good sex life can be fueled by the passionate magnetic pull of the masculine and feminine polarity.
12. Learn conflict resolution skills to clear the emotional air after conflict. Also, if either partner has harbored resentments over the years, work to heal them. Having sex, (one of the more intimate activities) without feeling safe and connected emotionally can foster feelings of angst and disgust instead of deep intimacy.
13. Finding ways to bring her into the present moment and co-regulate her emotions by using playfulness, humor, and appropriate levels of assertiveness to can help to relax her, increasing sexual desire.
Felt vs. Fixed
To add to the communication disconnect, many are aware of the common gender difference of men wanting to fix their partners rather than allow them to feel felt. Let’s take a closer look…
The female brain has a larger corpus callosum and anterior commissure. These brain structures allow for more communication between the left and right (facts and feelings) hemispheres of the brain.
Because these areas of the brain are smaller in men, it leaves them at a disadvantage when engaging in communicating about the emotional component of the conversation. They are more likely to live in the left (facts) side of the brain.
When men see women in distress, they’re even more likely to move away from the emotional and into the analytical. They start to dwell on the facts and solution finding during the conversation. They find it difficult to stay with the emotional message and just want to know the bottom line so that they can DO something about the distress.
Women are typically designed to crave the interpersonal and emotional connection with their partners. When communicating, this tends to be accomplished when women feel felt, understood, and validated in what they experience, the problem is that it’s usually the emotional experience they want to be validated, an experience that men are less acutely aware.
This becomes one of the largest frustrations for the genders, one is desperately seeking validation and emotional comfort while one is drifting off into an analytical fix-it land.
What men can DO:
14. Become mindful of your brain pulling you into solution finding and learn to engage differently with her distress. Be engaged as you possibly can muster, while utilizing reflective listening, and genuine compassionate curiosity. See it as more of a challenge and opportunity than something to tolerate. Same goes for the more “positive” emotions like excitement, joy, or love; better understanding her (and your) emotional world will allow clues to her deepest truths and enhance connection.
15. Practice putting on your relationship hat. Many people have demanding jobs that require them to “put out fires”, engage in problem-solving, and steamroll past emotions to get bottom line results. These qualities may be useful at work and other areas of life but not in your relationship. Create a mental and emotional ritual of consciously removing your workday hat and put on your relationship hat. Over time this will become more unconscious.
16. A popular concept in counseling is “riding the wave” of emotion. This is based on the concept that emotions rise to a peak, and then slowly dissipate. If managed correctly, emotions typically last no longer than 2-3 minutes. Use this in the context of her emotion. Ride the wave with her, so when she’s back on shore you’re right beside her, instead of fuming with anger throwing beach chairs, completely disconnected with her.
17. Work on your emotional intelligence. Practice surveying your own emotional world so that when the time comes you can better connect with what your partner is experiencing (empathy). If you truly can’t understand, that’s OK, you don’t have to… just take the moment to enter her world the best you can.
18. Remember that emotion can distort our thinking. If you or she are experiencing intense emotion, don’t take what you or your partner is saying too seriously. Getting caught up in the spoken word is often less important than the emotional dance.
19. Allow your solutions and facts to enter when the time is right or has been requested. The key is that when your partner feels understood first, they will then be more likely to listen to your point of view. Your solutions and facts, at the right time, can add value and balance to her world.
Shared Activity vs. Relationship Building
Men have a common need for side-by-side shared activity in their relationships. Just take for example their male friendships, usually spent playing/watching a sport/game.
Compared to most women, who you’ll find sitting face-to-face, with sustained eye contact, sitting close together and speaking about intimate personal issues, emotions, and people. Their biology tends to be more interested in creating intimate bonds and enhancing their relationships.
This gender difference can cause havoc in a marriage, as each party places value on different ways of bonding within the relationship.
What men can DO:
20. Explore shared activities that you know you’ll both enjoy AND make sure to engage in some light discussion about the activity afterward. Such middle ground activities could be a workout class, dancing, skiing, or even a puzzle.
21. Find activities that can be done with other couples, so that on occasion, each gender can have a similar counterpart to get their needs met during the activity.
22. Cultivate your own male friendships aside from the marriage that provides a much-needed outlet so that you don’t place all responsibility on your partner for the time of relationship bonding you desire. Today, it’s becoming even more common that men have very few if any individual male friendships. Research has shown that having deeper friendships outside their romantic partners provides happier, longer lasting relationships with their spouses.
Us vs. Me
One of the areas of the brain responsible for making dopamine (the feel-good hormone) is the ventral tegmental area. This area has been found to be more active in men.
“Dopamine is a selfish hormone, about your own fun, finding what interests you, pumping up for your next goal. Thus, compared to women, men are more about their own activities and goals and less about their relationships….Because testosterone encourages enterprising and stimulates the pursuing of goals, it causes a man to feel gratified living in his own plans more than in the relationship. Men can give only a limited part of themselves to a relationship for fear it will drain them of the energy and focus they need to succeed outside of it.” -Kathyrn Foster Ph.D.
Not only that, but throw in the fact that men score lower on empathy tests; this lowers their ability to feel their partner’s needs, dreams, and values at the same depth.
Women, on the other hand, tend to naturally expend more effort into their relationships. They are more apt to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship. They then can become frustrated, when the effort and motivation aren’t reciprocated, while he can be more interested in his own personal endeavors.
This isn’t to say that men can’t love, cherish, and appreciate their relationships. It just doesn’t always match his partner’s overall interest in the health of the partnership.
What men can DO:
23. Regularly survey the allocation of your energies in work, play, and romance. Make sure to maintain a healthy balance of effort and interest into all three. Work, in this sense, could also be translated to purpose. Make sure to not compromise your journey, mission, or purpose. This is what often fills you up, and if you surrender that part of your life too much, the relationship will suffer and you’ll most likely have less to then give to your intimate relationship.
24. John and Judy Gottman are leading researchers on couples therapy. They suggest that some of the happier couples find shared meaning throughout their lives. This involves how the couple prioritizes its resources and builds a life together creating shared meaning. The couple joins to make their own culture, breeding its own rituals, beliefs, mission, and legacy. If a man can sometimes be “me” oriented, the conscious creation of shared meaning with his partner is an avenue to incorporate each individual’s interests synergizing their relationship as they move through life together. It’s a practice of the ultimate compromise, a mutually gratifying win-win for both genders.
25. Reframe requests as, “If I do this, how can it also benefit me.” Then find the nugget of self-improvement that’s hidden in the request. So often people fail to see how the behavioral changes requested in a relationship can easily be reframed for personal value. It can change the attitude of “I have to do this” to “I want to do this”.
Progress not Perfection
Again, I want to emphasize these gender differences are far from black and white. For instance, I have seen countless times that the concepts shown in this article can easily be flipped; having the other gender act more like the other. My intention is that within some relationships, the exposure to these differences aid in alleviating some common relationship anguish.
We are rapidly evolving as a society; it is only natural that our relationships must evolve alongside it. Understanding our natural differences is necessary if we intend to thrive in our relationships for the long haul.
If this article resonated with you as a man, review the gender differences that relate most to your current areas of relationship growth. Consider the suggestions and create your own. Then readily ACT and PRACTICE the integration of them. Remember its progress, not perfection, especially in the realm of relationships.