Today we're going to start off with a bit of an anatomy lesson. The part of our brain that is related to feelings of love and attachment is called the deep limbic system, or what I like to call the emotional brain. It is about the size of a walnut and it located in the center of the brain. Here are some of the functions of the Deep Limbic System:
• Sets the emotional tone of the mind (ever have one of those days when everything and everyone bothered you?)
• Controls appetite and sleep patterns
• Promotes bonding and attachment with children and partners
• Modulates libido
• Is highly affected during orgasm
• Directly processes the sense of smell (which is why couples who like each other's scents have a much lower divorce rate)
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Now that we know what it is, and what it does, let's talk about how it differs in men and women. Jean Houston, a teacher and philosopher, talks about how living conditions over the past hundreds of thousands of years have affected the development of the male and female brain in really different ways.
In essence, women spent the majority of their time living in communities with other women and children. Men spent most of their time either on their own or with small groups of other men, hunting and gathering. As a result, the female brain began to develop better ways to emotionally connect with others and the Emotional Brain is now 25% larger in women than in men. This means that women can sense very subtle changes in someone's mood or emotions, and notice slight differences in facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
This difference in brain structure accounts for a lot of differences in how men and women function, communicate, and relate. It's why women spend so much time thinking about relationships and men spend so much time thinking about work and sports (today's version of hunting and gathering). Yes, we've become more balanced in where we place our energy, but the differences still remain and can sometimes get in the way. Now that you have a better understanding of these differences, let's talk about how to work with them.
1. A Little Conversation Goes a Long Way
While women embrace emotions, men often fear them. Some men can talk for an hour before showing signs of what I call Emotional Fatigue. Other men can only tolerate a 10-minute conversation. Choose the timing of the conversation wisely and pay attention to when he starts to seem uncomfortable or seems to be shutting down. Women often ramp up at this point because they start to feel dismissed, but these changes signal that it's time to take a break and return to the conversation later. If you don't take a break, a man's nervous system will literally start to shut down and he will go into fight or flight mode. All of a sudden he'll be angry or he'll walk away and you’ll be confused. If this happens repeatedly, he'll start to avoid conversations. Over time this could lead to emotional distance in your relationship. Remember, he's not being a jerk. He just doesn't have the same emotional stamina as you.
I'm not suggesting that you shut down or stop talking, just learn to work with these differences. David Richo, the author of one of my favorite books How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving, says that it's only reasonable to expect your partner to satisfy 25% of your needs in life, so be realistic. In addition to the fight or flight response, women have a third response to stress: connection. We want to talk when we feel stressed. Make sure you have what I call "go to girls" — women you can call for emotional support. One caveat, don't call the friend who will judge your guy or reinforce the stereotype that there is something wrong with a man if he can't deal with emotions the way we can. Cultivate friends who help you accept, and even celebrate, the differences between men and women.
2. Women's Intuition
This difference in our brains is also the reason why you can tell when something is off with our guy long before it registers for him. Don't push him for an answer when he is quiet or withdrawn. Most likely that will push the information down further inside of him. Simply say something like, "You don't seem like yourself today. Is everything okay?" He'll probably say everything is "fine." It's okay to leave it at that for now. If you give him his space, he'll most likely come back and let you know what is bothering him, even if it takes a little bit of time. Doing the emotional work for your guy might make you feel better initially but over time you'll both start to feel a little resentful. When he does open up, try not to give advice. Even if the answer is clear to you, give him time to figure it out. When he knows he has the space to be himself and that you accept him the way he is, he'll really let you in over time.
3. Don't Take His Need For Space Personally
Let's talk a bit about how our brains react to experiences that make us feel good. Everyone needs serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin, which women crave, makes us feel calm, fulfilled, and happy because it calms our Emotional Brain. Dopamine, which men crave, will energize and motivate us.
Physical affection increases serotonin levels. A little affection results in a little serotonin. A lot of affection results in a lot of serotonin. Add an orgasm and we’re feeling elated, blissed out. The difference is, high serotonin levels will make a man's testosterone drop. He’ll start to feel physically and emotionally, tired. This is why men fall asleep and loose interest in cuddling after reaching orgasm.
Now he needs to increase his dopamine levels because dopamine increases testosterone. How can he do that? Sports — watching them or playing them. Hanging out with the guys (probably talking about sports), accomplishing something at work, finishing a project around the house, taking physical risks, or watching television. Studies have shown that the bigger the television screen, the more dopamine his brain will produce (guess size does matter).
The problem often occurs when women want to connect and men need alone time or guy time. Instead of thinking about it as time away from you, think of it as time that will make him want you more. As his dopamine levels rise he's going to start thinking about and missing you. Here is the challenge: learning to encourage his guy time by seeing his time away from you as good for the relationship.
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Next time he goes golfing or wants to spend a few hours watching football, try something different. Encourage him to go! Don't call him while he's away or try to have a conversation about your relationship during the game. Actually go do something fun yourself and be in a good mood when he gets back. Make it easy for him to share his good feelings with you. It's not about changing so that we're all the same. When couples do that, they get bored and resentful. They wonder what happened to their youth to their dreams. Ultimately what our guys want is for us to be happy. When you can celebrate your differences, you connection will deepen in profound ways.
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