In a previous article, I spoke about the universal need that all human beings have to connect with a love partner. We all have a wired-in need to receive and give love to the one we marry, to feel special in their eyes, to be wanted and desired by them.
When we first meet and begin our lives together, we have this sense of being the center of our love partner’s world. Some of us are fortunate to retain this felt sense of being the one. But, unfortunately, some of us begin to doubt whether we are still special to our mates, whether they value and want us above all others. Why does this happen? What gets in the way of a continued sense that we are emotionally connected with our spouses?
Numerous phenomena may contribute to this rupture, some of which are universal to all couples, others of which are unique to specific couples. Because most marriages comprise men and women, in this article, I would like to speak about the impact that gender differences often have on marriages.
We know that the differences between men and women contribute to the attraction of them to each other. However, gender differences can also be a source of distress between couples.
One of the differences between men and women that can create problems between married partners is the way in which men and women typically express emotion. Not infrequently, women struggle with their husbands’ stoicism. Women tend to have a need to express emotion and often find that their partners are quick to look for solutions, rather than give them the empathy they are looking for. Women also often want to have considerable conversation in their relationship with their spouses. When their partners do not respond to them on an emotional level or are not as forthcoming in their verbal expression, many women feel emotional distance and a lack of connection with their partners. As a result, men often feel that they have let their wives down, that they cannot get it right. When men experience their partners’ intense expressions of emotions, they are often flooded and tend to withdraw in order to regain emotional balance. This withdrawal can also create feelings of disconnection between the partners.
Why does this dynamic repeat itself across so many marriages? Why don’t men just give their wives what they want and need? Why do women give their husbands such a hard time?
To some extent, I believe that this occurs due to the biological differences between men and women.
A great deal of research conducted over the past 15 years involving brain imaging shows that there are distinct differences in the brains of men and women (Geary, 2009). Striking differences in brain structure, organization, and neural activity have been found in male and female brains from 26 weeks of gestation (Achiron, et al., 2001). And these differences are maintained throughout life (Gur & Gur, 2013). One finding is related to verbal expression. Study after study shows that the structure, organization, and neural activity of the areas of the brain related to speech and verbal expression result in women’s better developed verbal expression.
This finding helps to explain why women generally seek a great deal of verbal communication in their relationships, while men tend to be more verbally reserved. My own sons are mystified by the hours my daughters can spend on the phone, talking to their friends, whom they probably spoke to only the day before. Conversely, my daughters are forever flummoxed by their brothers’ utilitarian telephone conversations, which are often over almost as soon as they begin.
What about emotional expression? Is this also related to differences in brain structure? Conventional wisdom says that women are more emotional than men. Surprisingly, however, research shows that infant boys are more emotionally reactive and expressive than infant girls. Until the age of six months, boys show more joy, anger, fussiness, and crying than infant girls (Levant, 1995). If this is the case, why is it that men typically do not show their deeply felt emotions? It appears that this change occurs because of societal forces. From a very young age, boys are taught, implicitly and explicitly, that “big boys don’t cry”; they need to stuff their emotions inside and “get over” the emotional hurts and pains that they experience. So what do men do with their emotions? Where do they put them? Men learn to suppress their emotions and withdraw and shut down; other times they express their emotions by demonstrations of frustration or anger.
How are these biological and learned differences between men and women played out in marriage? Since both men and women are looking for connection in marriage, but have different ways of showing connection, they tend to measure connection differently. Women typically measure connection with their partners by the degree of emotional connection and verbal interactions they have with one another. Men, on the other hand, tend to seek connection by physical closeness and by actions. This difference need not be problematic as long as each recognizes his/her partner’s needs and tries to meet those needs. For example, by understanding that women typically want emotional connection and talking, men must learn to modify their inclination to be in “fix-it mode,” and instead show their wives empathy and understanding when they come to them with a problem. Again and again I have heard women say, “I don’t want my husband to give me a solution. All I want is to feel that he understands what I’m going through.” And women need to be patient with their husbands when they are talking with them. Understanding that by nature, most men communicate differently than women, women need to give their husbands time and space to express themselves. And if women understand that when men close down or withdraw during a fight it is not because they don’t care about them, but rather because they don’t know how to express their emotions, women will be more apt to be understanding rather than angry or let down.
Of course, recognizing each other’s reaches and meeting each other’s different needs is easier said than done. Because of biology and culture, men and women will continue to be different and, therefore, will “miss” each other’s reaches quite a bit. To the extent that we work at recognizing our differences and respecting them, we will succeed in giving each other what we truly need and create a marriage in which we feel understood, respected, and valued by our partners.
Laura Turk, MS, LMFT, LPC, NCC, is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She practices marital and pre-marital therapy in Teaneck, New Jersey. Contact her at [email protected] or by calling her at 201 823-7933. You can also visit her website at www.marriagecounselingbergencounty.com.
By Laura Turk, MS