When it comes to relationship troubles, communication (or lack thereof) is a common theme. This is especially true for heterosexual couples who struggle with disconnects in the ways they interact and relate to one another. Put simply, cis men and women are different – both physically and emotionally. We have this idea that one perfect person is out there for everyone, so we search for that someone to couple up and create a life with. It’s ironic that when we look for that meaningful relationship we choose people who experience and handle emotions in completely different ways than ourselves. Let’s be real, maintaining a relationship, in general, is hard work, let alone with someone who thinks and expresses how they feel in a way you might not understand. Conflict is bound to occur.
The differences between cis men and women are an outcome of evolution; our brains were designed to work in polarity. Unfortunately, stigmas exist that have created an extreme dichotomy between us. We typically assign fluid emotions as a normal part of a woman’s personality, but it seems like we don’t expect the same from cis men; if they’re too emotional, we see it as a sign of weakness. Some heterosexual women even say they’re turned off by it, probably because a strong man who can take care of them is attractive. They might even look for those signs of strength in a relationship. As a result, men don’t want to be called weak in a world where they’re supposed to be fearless protectors. We take issue, however, with the idea that women are overly emotional and men don’t feel emotions at all. We wanted to find out the deal with the stigmas and share how you can overcome these emotional challenges in relationships.
Debunking the Mars vs. Venus Theory
Spoiler alert: People actually aren’t from different planets. The stigmas we hold true are results of social influence, but the emotional differences between us can be explained by science. The truth is that cis women and men can and do feel lots of the same emotions. Confusion and therefore problems in relationships come from the lack of understanding around how those emotions are processed and expressed in different ways. There are dozens of emotions on the feelings spectrum, so it’s important to define which types of emotions we’re referring to when we compare people. When we use the word “emotional” and categorize women as “more,” and men as “less,” we’re usually referring to negative, debilitating emotions and women’s tendencies to physically express them easily and immediately – i.e. feeling sad and crying. Science can shed light on this, but first, let’s tackle it with a real-life example.
Miscommunications: Blame it on the Brain
Have you ever been in a heterosexual relationship in which communication just isn’t working? Maybe you have a fight with your boyfriend who doesn’t understand the situation or why you’re upset in that moment but a day or two later, he seems to get it and wants to fix everything. Sound familiar?
Research shows women recognize and process their emotions quicker than men do because of physical differences in our brains. These brain contrasts are way more complicated than you’d think, so for the sake of making your head spin, we’ll simplify and say it comes down to the size differences between key regions and connectivity between structures that join brain hemispheres.
Signals needed for processing literally spend more time in the part of the brain associated with the reasoning in men. “If a man does not physically and verbally express the same emotional urgency as his female partner, she might assume he doesn’t care about an upsetting event,” explains Jennifer Musselman, a life therapist with her masters in clinical psychology. “But in fact, he is more readily assessing the situation at hand before determining his feelings about it and considering his response.”
Another contributing factor: in general, women have larger limbic systems than men. The limbic system is a region of the brain responsible for emotions and mental functions like learning and forming memories. Men, with their smaller limbic systems, parse out the information that they don’t feel is essential to analyzing an event – forget it, it’s extra info. Women usually bring empathy (feeling distressed by someone else’s pain) into the comprehensive way they look at situations.
We talk out our feelings because it’s a gut reaction to utilize this empathy while men take a more cut and dry, problem-solving approach. They tend to see a woman’s way as repetitive and illogical. Biological explanations for this disparity may be that women are more sensitive to all the emotions of others because of their need (more than men) to attach to their children and make them feel secure or to react to physical threats (again, more than men). Although both are true, evidence to support the child attachment link to women’s awareness of emotions is strongest and something that is ingrained in women universally. It doesn’t require experience with children for this innate emotional reactivity to kick in.
Researchers at the University of Montreal wanted to dive deeper into the proven theory that says men and women respond to emotional stimuli differently and see how hormones come into play in these circumstances. They gave participants blood tests and recorded their levels of estrogen and testosterone, then exposed them to images that evoked positive, negative, or neutral emotions while hooked up to fMRI brain scans. The men and women were asked to evaluate their own emotional responses while they looked at the images, too. What the researchers found was that higher levels of testosterone were related to lower sensitivity to the images and higher estrogen levels meant increased sensitivity, regardless of a person’s gender. When looking at these images, the same two regions in the right hemisphere of the brain were activated in both the men and women.
So where along the line do things change? The difference in emotional reactions occurs because testosterone makes the connection between the two regions stronger in men. This connection causes men to have a more analytical approach as opposed to women, who appear more emotional because they focus more on the feelings generated by the stimuli. Men seem to be passive to the emotion because they’re trying to analyze the impact of the situation rather than how it makes them feel.
Hormones determine emotional reactivity in both sexes and for women, in particular, their ups and downs can impact romance and stability in relationships. Although men do have hormonal cycles, they begin and end all in 24 hours – testosterone is highest in the morning and caps off towards the end of the day. Their hormones don’t rise and fall with the same intensity over the course of a month like women do. High levels of estrogen and testosterone amp up your sex drive and boost energy in general.
Women feel even more attracted to their partner and want to jump their bones when these hormones peak (during menstruation) and also feel more optimistic, patient, and forgiving. When estrogen drops (or in some cases, plummets) right before your period at the end of your cycle, you might lose that patience and feel more irritated by things your partner does. It’s all a balancing act, so while you can’t control your body’s processes, you can do things like making sure to get enough sleep, try calming activities like yoga, and avoid going hungry to lessen irritability.
Most importantly, explain how this hormonal cycle works to your partner so he doesn’t dismiss your emotional reactivity as “just that time of the month.” He might be a bit more patient if he understands what’s going on with your body and consequently, your state of mind.
Finding Common Ground
All of this brain science and hormone fluctuations sounds like a perfect recipe for miscommunication, which can lead to fights between couples if they don’t understand how the other thinks and feels. That being said, a lot of these conclusions about emotional differences between the sexes are relative – while biology sets the groundwork, our experiences have the capacity to change us and our brains.
There are some men who feel emotions intensely and express those emotions openly, and some women who appear apathetic and avoid talking about their feelings altogether. Environmental influences and poignant, life-changing events mold people into exceptions to the rule who challenge the gender expectations of how men and women handle their emotions. We want to point out that this is not a strict gender stereotype and that these expectations don’t apply to everyone.
While the subject matter here focuses on challenges faced by heterosexual couples, those are just one of the many different types of relationships out there. Whatever gender you identify as (if any) and however you choose to define your relationships, the same basic rules should apply. It’s safe to say we can all agree that taking the time to understand your partner could have a major, positive impact on your relationship. Get to know that person on an emotional level. Notice what sets them off, what they don’t react to at all and what seems important to them. Never dismiss what matters to someone and save yourself some anger by making an effort to understand where their emotions (or absence of emotion) comes from. Before you take something personally, consider your significant other’s history and what they’ve been through to potentially connect the dots as to why they are the way they are. Men can be mindful of how women’s hormones ebb and flow throughout the month and learn how hormones affect mood.
Think of your partner as someone who complements you; if two people are exactly the same, a relationship would just be boring. It’s okay that you’re different (emotionally, and in other ways). The most important thing is the mutual decision to make an effort to understand one another and focus on clear communication for a healthy relationship.
Brian Krans on October 1. (2015, October 01). Mars and Venus: How Men and Women Process Emotions Differently. Retrieved July 23, 2017, from http://www.healthline.com/health-news/men-and-women-process-emotions-differently-100115
Schmitt, D. P. (2015, April 10). Are Women More Emotional Than Men? Retrieved July 23, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201504/are-women-more-emotional-men
Hampson, E., van Anders, S. M., & Mullin, L. I. (2006). A female advantage in the recognition of emotional facial expressions: Test of an evolutionary hypothesis. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 401-416.
How do your hormones impact your romantic relationship? (2017, April 22). Retrieved August 08, 2017, from https://www.myhormonology.com/how-do-your-hormones-impact-your-romantic-relationship/
Magaldi, K. (2015, September 24). Study: Women’s Brains Are More Sensitive To Negative Emotions; React Differently Than Men’s. Retrieved August 08, 2017, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/study-womens-brains-are-more-sensitive-negative-emotions-react-differently-mens-354226