Gender Differences in the Therapy Room

Talking about gender differences is sure to result in strong opinions and feelings, and there are times when arguing about gender differences will even result in a call to a psychologist.

In the early days of living together, Nina and Andrew looked like poster children for New Millennium relationships. Theirs was a relationship of equals – both had professional degrees, earned high salaries and held jobs in upper management. They divided the housework chores equally; that is, until their new baby’s arrival disrupted their carefully structured lives.

They were in my office on a gray Monday morning after a weekend of arguing over issues that began at a dinner party with close friends. When the talk had turned to gender differences, Nina, referring to Andrew in the third person, had commented that his porn surfing was a contradiction of his so-called belief in gender equality; leaving Andrew feeling criticized and humiliated. Trying to save face, he countered with a parody of Nina’s nightly stress headaches that left him sleeping on the couch on many nights

The power politics of gender equality are played out in the lives of modern couples when issues come up about children, money, family loyalties and sex. Nina and Andrew didn’t know that neurobiological gender differences could override their best efforts at stepping back from the brink when arguments needed to be resolved.

Recent neurobiological studies of differences between men and women looked at differences in brain structure when men and women process feelings. Cahill and co-author Lisa Kilpatrick reported differences in the emotion- processing centers of the brain, reporting that although both genders have the same fundamental brain structures, men and women are wired to process incoming information in different ways. In other words, although both have the same basic hardware, men and women have different software that influences them to react differently to the same event.

Same-sex relationships whether men or women, tend to be more egalitarian than heterosexual ones. Gay and lesbian couples have about the same rate of conflict as heterosexual ones, but they are better at defusing arguments and avoiding confrontations. A study cited in the New York times2 found that same sex couples were better at seeing the other person’s point of view, lending support to the finding that different emotion-processing centers in heterosexual couples makes it more difficult to see the other person’s perspective when arguments occur.

Nina and Andrew were responding differently to the arrival of their new baby. Nina became vigilant about the baby’s feeding and sleep schedule while Andrew began planning finances to pay for nannies and private schools. The disruptions in their routine made them both anxious in different ways – Nina cried more easily, and Andrew became irritable more quickly, both of them unaware that their neurological software was leading them to process the same events through different emotional pathways.

Men are socialized (and perhaps neurologically wired) to achieve, to compete, to know how things work, and to fight to protect their family and property, while women are socialized to nurture, to display vulnerability, to attend to their own and others’ feelings while suppressing jealousy and envy, to attract powerful men, and to obtain their own power in indirect ways.

Skilled therapists pay attention to gender differences knowing that women respond better by talking about upsetting events and exploring the processes leading to an unwanted outcome while men are more inclined to identify the problem and brainstorm various ways to resolve it.

Look for a psychologist who is attuned to gender differences when you are ready to explore therapy options for yourself or for you and your partner.

1. Sex-related difference in amygdale activity during emotionally influenced memory storage. Cahill,L., Haier, R., White, N.S., Fallon J., Kilpatrick, L., Lawrence, C.,  Atkin, S.G., Alkin, M.T. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory,  Volume 75, Issue 1, January 2001, Pages 1–9

2. r+0

Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher, Facebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

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The anatomy of an upset

Eugene was having a bad day.  On the way to work, some idiot cut him off, then another stupid person slipped ahead into a prime parking spot, making him late for work, which he hated. 

If you could be a fly on the wall of Eugene’s mind, you might hear these thoughts buzzing through his head. His face showed that he was upset, but when I asked him if he was stressed about anything, he looked surprised.  There was nothing unusual about this morning, compared to an average day in his life.

We retraced the components of that morning’s events, beginning with the upset toward the driver who had cut him off.  The thought that the driver was an idiot triggered the feeling of rage and more angry thoughts.

Wealth Addiction

We all know about drug, tobacco and alcohol addictions, but addictions can latch onto almost any behaviour. Even activities that seem healthy like eating, exercising and working can transform into addictions.

While you can define addiction in different ways, one of the best definitions is “the continued repetition of behavior despite adverse consequences (Bettinardi-Angres, 2008).”

A recent article in the New York Times about an ex-Wall Street employee talking about his wealth addiction got me thinking about the subject. In the article the writer talked about how he was upset with his $3.6 million bonus because it wasn’t enough.

“Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that,” he wrote. “In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out.”

A full life as an Empty-nester

blog-empty-nesterThose feelings of sadness when your children leave home are commonly referred to as empty nest syndrome.

Women are often affected by this stage of life, which coincides with menopause and other stressors. When children no longer need consistent attention, many women find themselves having to care for their elderly parents.

Children leaving home can bring up conflicted feelings of happiness, pride and grief. After raising children who can go out into the world independently, it can be hard to re-focus on personal needs that had to be put aside in the child-rearing years.


Dating as a Gay

The struggle with sexual identity involves discovering who you are, what you want and learning how or if you could fit into a couple. Regardless of age when you’re ready for dating it is a way of coming out to yourself about what you truly need.

The average coming out for gay teens is now 16 years old, but by that age many straight teenagers have already rolled through a relationship or two with training wheels on.

When the openly gay community grew up in the 1970s, dating was something straight people did, gay men had sex instead. Today, more and more LGBTQ community members are actively seeking partners, according to veteran dating coach for gay men, Jim Sullivan. (more…)

Fathers and families

Rich entered treatment at the age of 41, shortly after his divorce.  Married for 14 years, with two children, he felt “depleted and empty” by the demands of running his own business. He had achieved success by hard work and determination, but could not shake a deep sense of guilt and shame for leaving his family. In therapy, he remembered the happiness he felt at his children’s’ birth.  He recalled how he had enjoyed nightly bath times, bedtime stories and weekends taking his children on outings and taking pride in their growth.  He especially found it unbearable during holidays, sometimes walking the streets alone weeping tears of loneliness and frustration.


Impulsive and impatient? Maybe you’re living with adult ADHD

John, a 32-year-old man, works as a courier. He loves activities that are fast like white water rafting, off-road motor biking and speed boating. His IQ tests show that he is in the Very Superior level of intelligence, but he has a history of changing jobs often, saying he becomes bored and restless.


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