Getting The Love We Want: It All Comes Down To Gender
By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
For several decades, I've been researching marriage and divorce and have come to the conclusion that men and women have different wants and needs when it comes to love. While these differences may be slight and play themselves out in diverse ways, they can still impact the quality and outcome of a relationship. Studies show that socialization and brain chemistry have an impact on how relationship needs are expressed for both men and women.
Typically, women are socialized to process emotions and they are reinforced for talking to female family members and close friends when they are upset, whereas men are rewarded for being strong and silent. In terms of brain chemistry, the area of the brain associated with language has been described by scientists as being larger in women, so they tend to communicate using stories and creating pictures. On the other hand, men prefer to report information and make more authoritative statements because of the way their brain is wired.
In this article, I will draw from two influential bodies of work that have been instrumental to my thinking about gender differences, intimacy and relationships. The first, a longituditional study funded by the National Institutes of Health, conducted by Dr. Terri Orbuch, is the longest running study of its kind. For more than a quarter of a century, she interviewed and observed the same 746 individuals, who began as 373 newly married couples and all wed in 1986. Over the years, she reported that 46% have divorced, which is consistent with the national average.
What are Dr. Orbuch's findings? In sum, she found that men and women have definite differences in relation to what they want and need in order to stay happy and committed to a partner. In Finding Love Again, Orbuch shares the secrets of successful dating, what makes relationships work and what keeps couples happy and together—all supported by scientific research. Without a doubt, this groundbreaking study is one that we need to pay attention to.
Here are Dr. Orbuch's findings:
• Men want less relationship talk. While women like to check in and talk about issues in a relationship, most men automatically believe that this type of chat signals a crisis and is a red flag that the marriage is on the downhill slide.
• Men want to be fussed over. Men crave frequent compliments, affection, attention, and validation. Dr. Orbuch calls this "affective affirmation" and posits that men have a deficit because it’s lacking in their daily lives. Likewise, men in her study who reported a lack of these affirmations were two times more likely to divorce.
• Men need to be close to their in-laws. Dr. Orbuch reported that men, who are close to their mother-in-law and other key family members of the wife's family, are 20% less likely to divorce.
• Women need closure after conflict. Women tend to be natural processors and typically like to rehash an argument afterwards—even the next day. Whereas when men argue, they tend to let it go. No surprise, when women report that conflicts go unresolved, the couple is more divorce prone over time.
• Women thrive on prayer. The more religious the wife is, the less likely a couple is to divorce (the same is not true for men).
• Women who are more educated are more likely to stay married. The odds of divorce decrease 23% for every year of higher education she receives.
The second body of work, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, written by Patricia Love and Steven Stosny points out gender differences between couples and highlights the first bullet on the above list. Their main premise is that husbands may tune into their wives emotions early on in the marriage because they sense her need for attention, but this decreases over time. They write, "She does not understand that each time she tries to make improvements in their relationship, the overriding message Mark hears is that he is not meeting her expectations—he's failing her—which sends him into the pain of his own inadequacy. While trying to ward off feeling like a failure, Mark is no longer sensitive to Marlene's fear of being isolated and shut out."
Love and Stosny elaborate on some of the same gender related issues as Dr. Orbuch and explain the source of these differences. They posit that women are afraid of harm, isolation and deprivation if they don't express compassion and nurturing toward their partner. For men, they may feel like a failure as a lover, protector and as a parent if they are too loving, compassionate or nurturing. In fact, they state that shame may be so painful to men that they will go to great lengths to avoid it—perhaps even shutting their wives out or leaving the marriage.
6 Ways to Connect with Your Partner and Work Through Gender Differences:
• Gain awareness about how brain differences and socialization can impact you and your partner's preferences for emotional attunement.
• Think back to when you were more emotionally attuned to your partner, earlier in your relationship, and try to recreate that level of emotional intimacy.
• Don't let your fear and shame of failure keep you from being vulnerable with your partner.
• Accept your differences and try to understand rather than criticize your partner.
• Stop the blame game. Practice tolerance and forgiveness for real and non-intentional acts or hurtful words.
• If you or your partner feels flooded, walk away, but not in anger or blame. Disengage as a way to restore your composure not to punish your partner.
The real gender culprit in intimate relationships, according to Love and Stosny, appears to be how we cope with fear and shame. Gender differences can prevent couples from being vulnerable and achieving emotional attunement. These authors explain that if we manage the differences with criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal, and blame, a relationship will fail. The good news is that we can become more loving and compassionate if we accept and understand our disparate ways of coping with fear and shame. "It is not our innate differences in fear and shame that drive us apart: it is how we manage these differences."
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