Thursday, June 24, 2010

Do Men Love Differently Than Women?

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In this article reposted at AlterNet, the author looks at how men and women in couples therapy process feelings, conceptualize relationships, and possibly even love differently. This comes from Psychotherapy Networker, a very good journal for counselors and therapists, so it's not just some crap from the mainstream media.

In part, I think these differences are about gender roles more than sex differences. However, the authors make a good point here:
Broadly speaking, the men who do come into therapy want to feel understood and appreciated as much as their wives, but therapy typically involves asking partners to go beyond generalized expressions of appreciation to acknowledge that each partner's point of view is reasonable or understandable in certain circumstances. The focus of most of today's couples therapies is "validation"—conveying an understanding that you experience your partner's mental and emotional states and that you value their experience. But the fact is that men often don't want their thoughts and deeper feelings experienced or valued by their partners, even if their therapists think they should want these things. Unless we develop a better understanding of the real, intrinsic rewards men can experience as a result of being in therapy, they'll just go through the motions or pursue their hidden agendas, like "Learning what I have to say to get laid."
They identify the real issues right there - we need to understand better what men want and/or need in the therapeutic relationship, both with the therapist and with their partner.

The authors here present an evolutionary psychology explanation for what keeps men in relationships - and I tend to disagree pretty much completely with that perspective. Men and women might conceptualize and talk about relationships differently, but both seem to want the intimacy, friendship, and stability that comes from a long-term relationship.

Near the end, they get to the real issue in most relationships - the reason couples end up in therapy:
A major challenge to lasting change in marriage lies in the fact that couples' day-to-day interactions operate largely on automatic pilot. Emotional response is triggered predominantly by unconscious cues, such as body language, tone of voice, and level of mental distractedness. Negativity in any of these inadvertently sets off the automatic defense system that's developed between the parties. Once triggered, the unaware couple can easily spiral into dysfunctional patterns of relating. They tend to get lost in the details of whatever they're blaming on each other, with no realization of what's actually happened to them—namely, an inadvertent triggering of the automatic defense system.
This issue has nothing to do with sex or even gender roles - but it has everything to do with attachment patterns in the family of origin. study after study has shown that adult attachment patterns in relationships are formed early in childhood in the relationship with the primary care-giver.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., is the director of Compassion Power and author of Love without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One.

In couples therapy, women and men often have very different ideas about what it means to feel and show "love."


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Most of the couples I work with are referred by clinicians who find the man to be "too resistant" for therapy to continue. Typically, when the guys come in, they're either defensively resentful, angry, or just emotionally shut down. Often they start right off by proclaiming that they're frustrated as hell with therapy. As we talk, it becomes clear that, initially, they practiced the communication techniques they were taught and took to heart the insights they learned about relationships and family of origin. Yet, for reasons they can't explain, they couldn't bring themselves to make the long-term effort to use their new skills or apply their consulting-room insights on a routine basis at home. Of course, this failure to follow through makes their wives even more disappointed in them: "It was one thing when I thought he couldn't do it; now I know he just won't!" noted one angry spouse.

But beyond the frustration and resentment of the men I see is their utter bewilderment. Despite their time in therapy, they still don't have a clue about what their wives and therapists want from them. Partly this has to do with having different expectations from their partners—men just don't buy relationship-improvement books or read women's magazines or watch Oprah. They find words like, connection, attunement, and validation mystifying, used less to enlighten than to point out their deficiencies.

Most of my male clients feel that their previous therapy experience was about forcing them to fit a template of what the Therapy World believes love and relationships should look like. While the therapeutic language of "intimacy" is supposedly gender-neutral, most men see it as reflecting values and ideals that appeal disproportionately to women. Nevertheless, when men don't buy into our relationship template, we often wind up labeling them as resistant, manipulative, narcissistic, or, maybe worst of all, "patriarchal." The message these "failed" clients get is that the way they express their love just isn't good enough.

The reason men can talk about feelings and relationship patterns in consultation rooms, but are unlikely to keep doing it at home is simple: emotional talk tends to produce more physiological arousal in men—they experience it more stressfully. Unlike women, they don't get the oxytocin reward that makes them feel calm, secure, and confident when talking about emotions and the complexities of relationships; testosterone, which men produce more of during stress, seems to reduce the effect of oxytocin, while estrogen enhances it. It takes more work with less reward for men to shift into and maintain the active-listening and self-revealing emotional talk they learn in therapy, so they're unlikely to do it on a routine basis.

Some readers may be squirming right now at the very suggestion that there may be gender differences in the way people love. So let me emphasize that gender differences can never account for all of the nuances and complexities of individual behavior or render irrelevant the impact of personality variables, such as introversion, sociability, and neuroticism. It's important to remember that research findings are always about group averages and thus provide room for lots of individual exceptions.

My colleague Pat Love and I begin our presentations standing side-by-side while making the empirically valid statement that men are generally taller than women. (Pat is 5 ft. 11 in. or so, while I'm just over 5 ft. 6 in.) If you randomly select 25 men and women, the average height of the men will likely exceed the average height of the women, yet probably there'll be tall women and short men in the sample as well. There most assuredly are men who love to talk about feelings and women who hate it. For some couples, no doubt, emotional conversation is like a good, mutually enjoyable backrub—both parties love it equally. However, those couples are unlikely to seek therapy.

Broadly speaking, the men who do come into therapy want to feel understood and appreciated as much as their wives, but therapy typically involves asking partners to go beyond generalized expressions of appreciation to acknowledge that each partner's point of view is reasonable or understandable in certain circumstances. The focus of most of today's couples therapies is "validation"— conveying an understanding that you experience your partner's mental and emotional states and that you value their experience. But the fact is that men often don't want their thoughts and deeper feelings experienced or valued by their partners, even if their therapists think they should want these things. Unless we develop a better understanding of the real, intrinsic rewards men can experience as a result of being in therapy, they'll just go through the motions or pursue their hidden agendas, like "Learning what I have to say to get laid."

For men to engage in the hard work of change, the rewards have to be automatic and visceral, independent of the artificial environment of the therapist's office and vague therapeutic concepts. They have to feel compelling reasons to change and, most important, to incorporate new behavior into their daily routine. I believe that the primary motivation keeping men invested in loving relationships is different from what keeps women invested, that it has a strong biological underpinning present in all social animals, and that it's been culturally reinforced throughout the development of the human species.

The glue that keeps men (and males in social animal groups) bonded is the instinct to protect. If you listen long enough to men talking about what it means to love, you'll notice that loving is inextricably linked, for many men, to some form of protection. If men can't feel successful at protecting, they can't fully love.

Protection and Connection

The main role of males in social groups throughout the animal world is to protect the group from outside threats. For the most part, males participate in packs and herds only if the group has predators or strong competition for food. Herds and packs without predators or competitors, like elephants and hippos, are matriarchal, with males either absent or playing peripheral or merely sperm-donor roles.

Male physiology is well-evolved for group protection, with greater muscle mass, more efficient blood flow to the muscles and organs, bigger fangs and claws, quicker reflexes, longer strides, more electrical activity in the central nervous system (to stimulate organs and muscle groups), and a thicker amygdala—the organ that activates the flight or fight response. That's right, the first emergency response in male social animals is flight, with the option to fight coming into play only when flight isn't possible. The principal protective role of males in social groups is to lead the pack to safety. (The primacy of flight over fight may be why the initial response of most men to conflict with their wives is to withdraw or shut down.) Significantly, males who are deficient in protecting—the ones poorer at escaping or, if necessary, fighting—have little access to the females of the species.

In species in which the females are the primary hunters, like African lions, males protect the pride from competition for food from other lions and hyenas. This sets them apart from lions in other parts of the world because they're socially integrated with the pride. Some zoologists believe that this is because the smaller females, while excellent hunters, couldn't protect their kills from hyena packs.

When most animal packs are under attack and can't flee, the males form a defensive perimeter, while the females for the most part gather the young and hide them within an inner circle of protection. This scenario plays out in a great many human households, when the woman, who generally has keener hearing, detects a middle-of-the-night sound somewhere in the house. The man typically goes down to investigate, perhaps carrying a baseball bat, while she checks on the children.

Even when male animals are dominant in packs and herds, the glue of the social structure is maintained by females, who attend to one another in ways that are analogous to "validation"— sniffing, licking, and grooming other female members of the pride. This behavior calms and gratifies all the females involved, much the same way that a good emotional talk with girlfriends seems to calm and gratify women. If one of the females is missing from the pack, the others seem to worry. When she returns, the other females greet her with sniffing, licking, and grooming. The males remain connected to the group by virtue of proximity to the females, but don't interact with them much. In contrast, it appears that frequent interaction among the females—along with fear of isolation—keeps them connected.

Anthropologists agree that humans were communal from our earliest time on earth, moving into pair-bonding relatively late in our history. There's no reason to suspect that early human social structures were greatly different from those of other primates, where the larger, stronger males protected the tribe and the more social females "validated" each other. Both specialized activities—protection and validation—increased survival rates by enhancing group cohesion and cooperation.

Through much of history, the idea that men and women should consistently engage in intimate conversation and validate each other's emotional worlds would have been laughable. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it, previous generations widely assumed that men and women had different natures and couldn't truly understand each other. The idea of intergender emotional talk independent of the need to protect didn't emerge until the dissolution of the extended family, which began in the middle of the 20th century. Previous to that, the nuclear family—an intimate couple and children living as an isolated unit—was a rarity. Other family members were in the same house, next door, or across the street. Women got their emotional validation from other women, although they certainly wanted admiration from their men and vice versa. Today, research shows that the healthiest, happiest women have a strong network of girlfriends. In earlier times, men tended to associate mostly with other men—a cultural construct that's still prevalent in many parts of the world, frequently reinforced by religious beliefs.

Male Protection and Self-Value

The survival importance of the instinct to protect makes it a potent factor in men's self-value. Men with families automatically suffer low self-value when they fail to protect loved ones, no matter how successful they might be in other areas of life. Just imagine the emotional fate of a world-class CEO who distractedly lets go of his child's hand, and sees the child run over in traffic. In contrast, a man's self-value will likely remain intact, even if he fails at work, as long as he feels he can protect his loved ones. As a boy, I remember the manager of our Little League baseball team, a man in his mid-forties, who was beloved by his two sons and idolized by the rest of the kids, even though our parents considered him a flunkie for working as a grocery store bagger. Getting fired from a job is more tolerable for men who are more invested in the protection of their families than in their egos. They tend to search immediately for another job as a means of putting food on the table, while those who view failure at work primarily as an ego assault may face weeks of self-reproach and depression before they get up the energy to job-hunt. Under stress at work, women tend to want closer family connections, while men under stress are likely to withdraw if not isolate from their families to keep from feeling overwhelmed by their failure to protect. Men who abandon their families don't respond to them as individuals with needs as much as symbols of their failure to protect.

Failure to protect drains meaning and purpose from the lives of family men. As a result, they often turn to some form of adrenaline arousal for motivation or stimulation—chronic resentment, anger, drugs, affairs, or compulsive behavior. When those prove insufficient, they succumb to a dispirited numbness or depression. I've never seen a depressed, resentful, angry, abusive, addicted, unfaithful, or compulsive man who didn't see himself as a failure at protecting his family.

Violence and Failure to Protect

Male social mammals who succumb to fear and fail to protect the pack are either killed or driven away by its dominant males. Those who survive banishment often become rogue predators on the pack, raping females and killing juveniles who stray too far from the group. Among humans, violent criminals usually lack what sociologists term a stake in the community: marriage, paternal investment in children, a job, and positive neighborhood connections. Serial killers and terrorists almost never have intimate relationships or a close connection to their children. Historically, invading armies wanted soldiers before they married or had children; when they did have spouse and children, they were kept isolated from them. By contrast, defensive armies conscripted married men because they'd be willing to die to protect their families from invading hordes.

The increase in family violence since the 1960s parallels the diminishment of fatherhood in America. Fatherless homes have grown 400 percent by some estimates, greatly increasing the risk to women and children. A woman and her children are much more likely to be abused by a boyfriend who isn't the father of the children and to suffer serious violence and death at the hands of a rejected father, compared to a woman and children who live with the children's father. Men marginalized as protectors of their families are likelier to struggle for power and control over their wives or girlfriends. They compensate for loss of the capacity to protect with dominance and/or violence.

Read the whole article.

1 comment:

Shawn Phillips said...

Amen!

This line here captures "it" so clearly...

"...emotional talk tends to produce more physiological arousal in men—they experience it more stressfully. Unlike women, they don't get the oxytocin reward that makes them feel calm, secure, and confident when talking about emotions..."

Finally, someone just says it like it is, clearly!

Great!

Shawn