A man and a woman in the same heterosexual relationship are actually in different relationships.
Well, let me rephrase that. Happy couples have fewer gender differences. But in unhappy relationships, there are clear differences between men and women in emotional expression.
According to Dr. John Gottman’s highly respected research, gender issues significantly exacerbate relationship problems.
This seems both obvious and hard to understand. I mean, haven’t we evolved beyond gendered stereotypes? We know that it’s ok for men to cry, and that housework isn’t just for women. Right?
Apparently, not quite.
Ongoing gender issues in the post-modern age are complex and a source of debate. But anyone can observe them on a children’s playground. Girls’ identities are shaped primarily by their relationships, so in games they tend to care more about how the players relate to each other. When arguments occur, the game can end with one girl declaring: “I won’t be your friend anymore.” The stakes are high. But over time, this develops an ability to manage a complete range of feelings.
Boys, on the other hand, tend to be defined more by achievements. They care more about the game. They will argue fiercely, but never let it break up the game. Emotions will not rule. And sadly, boys still get teased for having tears. This creates men less practiced in feeling intense emotions.
Men’s ability to subordinate emotions to get the job done is a handicap in long-term relationships.
Gender Issues: His and Her Relatinoships
I hate to make generalizations because they just don’t hold true in all cases. But more often than not, gender differences all boil down to one thing: Men are less able to handle intense emotions.
Dr. Gottman found by observing married couples over many years that this fundamental difference manifests itself in various ways:
1) Men are more easily emotionally flooded.
This results in vulnerability to stress, increased heart rate and higher adrenaline levels. Flooding leads to stonewalling, or withdrawing when confronted on important topics. Men take longer to recover from emotional upset as well.
2) Women are more prone to bring up problems in the relationship.
This is often in the form of complaints and criticism, which can hurt the relationship and make it even harder for men to tackle hot topics.
3) Men and women have different grievances.
Men tend to gripe about their wives complaints and their emotional expressions. Women are more likely to complain: “he just won’t talk to me about it.”
4) Women feel they need to raise the emotional intensity to keep their partner responsive.
When women demand more intensity than her man can comfortably offer, he withdraws. This triggers her to demand even more, which becomes a vicious cycle.
5) Women are more likely to bring up the past.
This usually occurs when she is engulfed in emotion. When she brings up the past, she is more prone to using sarcasm and criticism than her man.
6) Women do more housework than men.
Even in couples that are not stereo-typically gender divided, women still do more housework. And when men do housework, it is considered a nice favor, something to be actively appreciated. (For more on how to resolve the distribution of labor issue, click here.)
7) For women there is a big connection between housework and sex.
Basic formula: The more housework a man does, the more sex he has. It’s true! This has great ramifications for you men.
What do to about it:
- Accept her feelings and allow her to express herself without getting defensive (for info on how to be less defensive click here).
- Remember her goal is usually to connect through empathy, not problem solving.
- If you feel flooded, by all means take a break. But set a time that you can resume the conversation later.
- Learn to empathize with her prerequisites for sexual intimacy.
- Learn how to bring things up gently.
- Remove criticism from your arsenal (to break the habit of criticism, click here).
- Complaining is okay sometimes, as long as the intention is to improve the relationship.
- Give your guy space when he is flooded.
For both of you:
- Accept your differences without judgement! This seems obvious but is really hard sometimes.
- Work at making up… Being able to successfully repair hurts after conflict is a big predictor of relationship success.
- Appreciate each other, and cultivate fondness for each other. This puts money in the joint emotional bank account to help in “lean times.”
- Accept that most marriages do not resolve all serious disagreements. Ever. So pick your battles.
Remember: Gender differences don’t have to mean gender inequality. As long as we remain aware and own our part in the equation, our differences can create greater depth, diversity, and opportunities for spiritual growth.
I want to hear from you! Let me know what you think in the comments below…