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. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/10/health/10well.html? 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.