Relationship Help for Couples: Understanding Gender Differences

Warren is anxious about his job and, according to his wife Danielle, for the last two weeks he’s been “isolating.” While he eats dinner with the family, he soon ends up in front of the television or computer, zoning out for hours at a time. Warren acknowledges this pattern and explains, “I just need to escape until I find out if my job is secure or not. This is how I cope…”

A Wife’s Perspective

Danielle is concerned about her husband. She feels he should be discussing his feelings, in this case his insecurities and worries about his job and the family’s financial future. So when she asks Warren questions or unsuccessfully waits for him to take the initiative and approach her with his troubles (which he rarely does), Danielle feels shut out of her husband’s life. It’s as if every fiber in her being is screaming, “Reach out to me. I’m here for you! Don’t block me out of what’s going on for you.”

A Husband’s Perspective

According to Warren, he isn’t withholding any information from his wife about what’s going on with his job. “At this point, she knows everything I know. And when I know more, she’ll be the first person I tell…It’s just a waiting game at this point.”  So Warren has communicated everything that needs to be shared with Danielle—at least from an informational standpoint. He went on to say that to talk about how he feels is futile and only heightens his anxiety. In Warren’s words, “If I talk about being worried it’s like picking at a scab. It just makes it worse and it will probably get infected…”

From Danielle’s standpoint, Warren is withholding by his resistance to talk about his feelings; from Warren’s standpoint, he has communicated the essentials of what his wife needs to know, now it’s time to not think about (or discuss) the stressful event any further until it is absolutely necessary.

Relationship Advice for Couples: Understanding—Not Resisting—Differences

Danielle and Warren’s relationship struggle is familiar to many of us—at some point in their relationship couples discover that they have divergent coping styles for stress, styles that may clash and cause additional tension.  While there are always exceptions to every rule, research does show the following pattern for men and women when faced with stressful circumstances:

  • Men find comfort in distraction (not thinking about a distressing event if possible; zoning out through some mindless activity);
  • Women seek solace by reaching out and connecting with others (researcher Shelley Taylor has described this as tending and befriending).

In other words, men may lean more on isolating-distracting coping strategies, women prefer sharing-processing strategies.  In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D. described research that highlights these gender differences: when research subjects were told that they were going to receive a painful electric shock, women chose to be with others when waiting for the shock, while men preferred to go it alone as they waited for this unpleasant event.   

If these gender differences are familiar to you and your partner, understanding what is going on for your partner becomes the goal. And this understanding starts with acknowledging that what may be helpful for you may not be what is helpful to your spouse/partner. In other words, your wife/partner shouldn’t try to just “let it go” or “move on” without discussing what is troubling her; and your husband/partner shouldn’t “talk about it” if he is needing to rely on distraction as the balm to his distress.  

And through empathy and appreciation of your partner’s coping style, you may find that you’re each  more willing to adjust your own style to accommodate the others.  This is what happened with  Danielle: Once she realized that talking about feeling helpless made her husband feel worse, she adjusted her approach and stopped pressuring Warren to discuss his anxieties. And hopefully, the next time Danielle is feeling overwhelmed, he will do the same for her.

Until next time!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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