In last month’s Relationship Essential, I discussed the fundamental problem in long-term relationships – the “score card.” As the initial love of the new relationship begins to fade, a needs-based, contractual way of relating inevitably unfolds. Couples stop making each other’s happiness their priority and the focus of the relationship shifts to the self and ego. By focusing on themselves instead of their partner, drama and conflict sets in as the individuals try to negotiate a “better deal” for themselves in the relationship.
Now let’s look at the primal nature of men and women, especially as it relates to love relationships. Keep in mind that when we study groups, there are always exceptions. For example, men are taller than women, but there are lots of women of who are taller than men. I think John Gray’s book, “Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus,” should have been titled “most” men are from Mars and “most” women are from Venus. A masculine – feminine dynamic exists in most love relationships, including gay and lesbian relationships.
If we remove societal, cultural, family origin and gender conditioning, the primal nature of men and women is revealed. I highly recommend Louann Brizendine’s, “The Female Brain” and “The Male Brain” books on this subject. Although there is some controversy about some of her assertions, her research and scientific perspective supports my 30 years of clinical experience working with couples. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s only been about 10-12,000 years that we’ve had civilization on the planet. Someone told me recently that if you think of the beginning the universe (the “big bang”) in terms of time, a 24 “hour” day, then we’ve only had human civilization for about 3 seconds. Prior to civilization, humans were hunter-gathers, roaming the earth in small tribes of 20 – 30 people. Modern man is essentially identical to primitive man.
Viewed from this primal perspective, here are some of the significant differences between men and women in love relationships:
- Survival based on success in the external world.
- Function more in the rational, logical left hemisphere part of the brain. For example, male brains have fewer mirror neurons, which are associated with empathy.
- Struggle with the internal world of relationship, which is the domain of the female.
- Extremely sensitive to criticism and the associated emotion of shame (failure).
- Connect through activities, routine and sex.
- Survival based on emotional connection in the internal world of relationships.
- Experience high levels of anxiety, fear and distress when emotionally disconnected.More emotionally expressive.
- Higher capacity for empathy and compassion.
- Connect by talking, empathy, sharing feelings.
The significance of these differences in intimate relationships is profound. The male focuses on the external world of success while the female focuses on the internal world of relationships. Because she’s focused on relationship and emotional connection, she experiences high levels of fear and anxiety when disconnected. This fear often gets expressed as anger and criticism. Anger is a secondary emotion that displaces the more vulnerable emotions of fear and anxiety. Men, when criticized, experience feelings of shame (failure) and react by getting defensive and withdrawing.
“Criticism and the accompanying feeling of shame makes men withdraw and not want to talk, which in turn makes his woman feel alone, fearful and want to talk.”
Because he’s focused on the external world, when he does talk, he’ll tend to override his shame and internal distress by attempting to “fix it” and make her feel better. He does this by offering solutions to what perceives as “her problem.” This is NOT what his woman is usually wanting. She wants understanding and empathy, NOT problem solving. Males have less capacity for primary empathy and shift quite quickly into secondary empathy (problem solving), which tends to feel cold and logical to the female. Women will say, “I just want to feel heard, understood and cared about.” She wants to feel that her man “gets her.” Its’ a self-reinforcing cycle and it explains the underlying dynamic in many troubled couple relationships.
Unfortunately, because of the emotional intensity and pain, for most couples this pattern is very difficult to get out of. The pattern tends to get worse over time because couples get sensitized to each other. It’s a cycle I call the “4 R’s” of the demise of love and the beginning of the needs-based contract phase – resistance, resentment, rejection, repression.
Given the profound primal differences between men and women, it’s no wonder so many couples experience relationship problems. I recently watched a PBS documentary, “This Emotional Life” and I was astounded to hear that only 10% of couples are as happy after 4 years of marriage as they were in the beginning of their relationship. As a couples counselor, I knew that things were tough in the in the relationship world, but I didn’t think it was that bad.
Most couples need the assistance of a competent couple’s therapist to help them identify the pattern and learn new tools and strategies to open the lines of communication. Regrettably, most couples don’t seek outside assistance at all or if they do, it’s often too late. Researcher, John Gottman, has found that 80% of couples that divorce never go to couples counselling and the 20% that do wait on average 6 years before getting help.
What does it take to be in the happy 10% group of couples? I believe that it’s the man’s (masculine) responsibility to take leadership in breaking the cycle. It’s easier for men to give up their ego, let go having to be right and self centeredness. Men go to war, drive motorcycles 200 miles an hour, jump off cliffs, etc. Why? Because it’s fun. Men are more willing to take risks and put their lives on the line, which of course ultimately means they are more willing to let go of their ego. Simply put, men need to make the first move. A woman, upon seeing her man making her happiness his #1 priority will tend to naturally give back. It’s a woman’s nature to reciprocate. I believe it’s a man’s responsibility to make his woman feel safe, secure, cherished and loved. If he’s not willing to do that, he’s likely to be in a very unhappy relationship. He’s also likely to be blaming his woman for it.
One recently divorced woman that I talked to said, “if my husband would have treated me like this, I would have given back to him 100 times!” A seminar that I lead is entitled, “Happy wife, happy life.” I’m thinking of changing the title to “If your woman’s unhappy, it’s your fault…”
Let me know what you think! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sig Taylor, MSW, RSW, RMFT
Registered Social Worker
Registered Marriage & Family Therapist