Elsewhere I have written articles on gender differences in couple relationships, I described the different ways men and women connect to create a sense of security. How Couples Can Create a Sense of Security Men seem to feel more connected through activity than women and women more connected in conversation than men. Taking these ideas a step further, let’s look at how men and women differ in
how they perceive, receive and experience emotion.
Gender research has discovered that men and women experience emotion differently from birth. Infant girls can hold eye contact longer than baby boys and show more distress (fear) when left alone. Boys feel less pain and fear than girls, yet have hair-trigger propensity to hyper-arousal to any stimulation. An infant boy’s intermittent eye contact is believed to be his way to stay in contact without feeling overwhelmed. Studies show that parents gaze into the eyes of their little girls 50% more than little boys. A long gaze into girls’ eyes can predictably elicit
a smile more than with boys who glance away. Parents instead tend to wave toys or tickle boys to get a smile. It has been hypothesize that feelings of shame are elicited in boys when parents do not understand the boy’s need for smaller doses of eye contact. This can occur when parents stop interacting altogether when the boy’s gaze turns away. By not staying in contact in other ways, like tickling or waving a toy, these parents may be reinforcing the shame response in boys.
Studies show that on average adult women experience fear more strongly than men. Adult men feel shame more strongly than women. The exchange of feelings is the lifeblood of relationships. So, if women are more sensitive to fear and men to shame, then the fear-shame point of contact may be an important place to understand male female connection. Most of the fear in women and shame in men is unconscious and outside awareness.
For example a husband fails to call his wife to let her know he is going to stay later at his buddy’s house, and there is a resulting quarrel when he gets home. When she asks “where have you been?” he may be feeling so scolded or ashamed. He does not recognize that behind his wife’s anger is fear of him being in an accident or fear of being left alone. He may respond defensively with: “I was only an hour late, you knew where I was. Don’t be so controlling!” In his angry response, she may not recognize that he felt scolded and ashamed by her question. All she felt was her own worry being dismissed by him. The end result is an emotional disconnection. Repetition of this pattern will be an erosion of the loving bond between them.
Staying connected requires men to be sensitive to, and recognize fear in women. In response to a woman’s fear they need to be compassionate. Many men first of all do not recognize a woman’s fear and when they do, they are often dismissive of it. When they do see it, they may siderate it as irrational or weak. Sometimes a woman’s fear is disguised. Many women respond to his lack of sensitivity to their fear with an angry verbal criticism. The response they may want from their man is comfort and protection when fearful. The woman’s reaction is unknowingly thwarting comfort because he will likely withdraw or stone-wall when criticized.
For women to stay connected emotionally, it is essential for them to be able recognize shame in men. Many women do not see how hurt and upset men can get when they are feeling scolded or ashamed because the male response is usually silence. Many women who feel unsupported and worried complain or nag about an issue in an effort to gain his attention to her needs. This does not encourage cooperation. It brings disengagement. Men often feel inadequate in the face of a criticism. In protection of themselves they stone-wall or withdraw. Men have higher heart rates than women when experiencing conflict on average. Like looking away from a long gaze when over-stimulated in infancy, it is common for men to withdraw from difficult conversations when upset in adulthood. When a man shuts down or withdraws, many women experience this reaction as rejection. If a woman recognizes a man’s shame, she will find compassion to be much more effective than criticism or ridicule to get cooperation, protection or connection.
So why is this “pursue-withdraw” pattern so widespread in couples? Perhaps it is because being more compassionate requires each to acknowledge a feeling in the other that is less present in themselves. Adding to this difficulty to acknowledge another’s feeling is that when upset, one is often self protective. It is difficult for any of us to be compassionate to another when overwhelmed by our own feelings. Yet, the most successful couples know how to be compassionate when they feel the least like it.
Men: How Compassionate are you?
Women’s greatest fear is of isolation. In their book, How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking About It, authors Patricia Love and Steven Stosny suggest the following things that men do when they do not recognize a woman’s vulnerability to fear:
- Leave her alone at home a lot – to do housework, child care etc. so she feels she is the only one responsible.
- Leave her alone in her dreams – to have a nice home, a loving family, to be treated as an equal, to be romantic, to be respected in her work
- Leave her outside of your work life – Workaholics often feel entitled to relax in their own home without regard to the impact of their absence from home on their relationship.
- Leave her alone in bed – men take the fun out of sex by confusing sex with intimacy, only caring about his own orgasm, being unsubtly affectionate in order to get sex, making crude remarks, rushing things, neglecting her needs and feelings.
- Leave her alone because of your depression – male depression is significantly under diagnosed and untreated because of lack of identification and male shame.
- Leave her alone in her competence – when women are very successful in work or home life endeavours rather than feeling proud and happy for them, some men feel ashamed about their own shortcomings. Then they withhold praise and feel resentment.
- Leave her alone with others – girlfriends, colleagues, children, work or hobbies cannot fill the void in a woman’s heart when her partner is unavailable and leaves her with her fears of isolation.
Men Can Improve the Relationship by Doing the Following:
- At Home – acknowledge the joint responsibility, appreciate all she does, do your share, do chores in a timely fashion, be willing to pay for maintenance, notice improvements she makes, pick up after yourself and others.
- Her Dreams – keep them in mind when making decisions, ask about them, notice how her dreams are not exactly the same as yours, understand that you have the ability to make her extremely happy or unhappy, take pleasure in fulfilling and honouring her dreams.
- Outside Work Life – suggest and plan activities that include her, weekly enjoyable time together, daily routines where you are together – morning coffee, reading the paper, affectionate touching.
- In Bed – pay attention to her when sex is not the motivation, tell her she is sexy, beautiful, attractive, not as a form of foreplay but when not expected – email, text, notes around the house, notice when she is not satisfied and become an expert in arousing her.
- Your Depression – acknowledge any symptoms you might have. Angry outbursts may be a sign of depression. Get help for this highly-treatable condition. This will go a long way to improving your relationship.
- Her Competence – Expand your view of your role as protector and provider beyond money. You can be provider of compassion through doing things for her. This can give her more confidence, become more competent, and more responsibilities follow.
Attention women: Before you print this off and hand it to your partner/husband to read and heed, remember or
you are more likely to influence him if you begin with working on yourself. Besides, you may shame him and it will backfire. And to all men reading this: my purpose here is to help you feel compassionate for her, not guilty about yourself.