A wife comes home after a long day and greets her husband. Her husband asks, “how was your day, honey?” and she begins to share the challenges she faced. “I just feel really overwhelmed” she states. “I love what I do but today was too much” she goes on to explain the details of her day and how the events impacted her emotionally. The husband is listening intently and begins to feel pressure. He’s looking at his wife and she is clearly unhappy so his brain goes into problem-solving mode. He is determined to take this burden off of her so he decides to share all of the great ideas that can serve as solutions to his wife’s feelings. As he’s presenting his “why don’t you try” and “what if you did this” thoughts, he starts to notice his wife’s facial expression go from sad to annoyed. The wife then interrupts him with “I don’t need you to solve anything!”.
Does this sound familiar?
This is such a common dynamic and it occurs for a couple reasons. Firstly, it’s helpful to be cognizant of the fact that men and women are simply wired differently. Many studies have shown that male and female brains are not physiologically and structurally the same. For example, men have a larger amygdala, a region in the brain responsible for survival instincts, memory, emotions, and libido. In a study, a group of men and women were shown an aversive film and both groups showed activated amygdalas. In the group of women, only the left portion was activated, and in the men, only the right. What is interesting is that the right portion of the amygdala is linked with taking action to stressful stimuli, while the left is connected to more thought in response to stressful situations. This reinforces why women generally turn to venting as a way to externalize thoughts about emotionally driven situations while men take a more solution-focused approach.
Brain circuitry aside, overtime, society has also shaped the way men and women think, process, and operate. Emotions in particular have been one of the central differentiating factors between masculine and feminine characteristics. In most cultures, little boys are taught to internalize, take on their own burdens, and not express emotion very early on. And this is instilled in them just by hearing “boys don’t cry” numerous times throughout their childhood. Then these boys grow up and become men in relationships that internalize work stress, feelings of rejection, incompetence, fear, and the list goes on. And when these emotions manifest themselves behaviorally either by shutting down emotionally/sexually or turning to substance abuse, their romantic partners are left feeling shut out and disconnected. The challenge is not knowing where to begin to share but if there is even permission, purpose, and a right to share. As a result, many men live in relationships with the mentality of “my burdens are my burdens and your burdens are my burdens”.
If we are striving for more egalitarian relationships where both partners contribute financially, share household responsibilities, and share childcare responsibilities, then we must also eradicate antiquated societal norms and expectations. How our brains are structured may not be something we have complete control over, but we do have control over our thoughts, how often we communicate, and our decision to let our partner in emotionally. Here is a rule of thumb for both genders: whenever you are about to share something with your partner, preface the conversation with either “I need your help solving this problem” or “I just really need to vent”. Ultimately, incorporating a space for an equal exchange of thoughts and feelings regularly is beneficial for the relationship as a whole. Keep in mind to never problem-solve unless you are asked to, and to always support and validate the speaker.
Written by Y.K., MA, LMFT, CST-Candidate
*Disclaimer: this is not meant to act as or replace therapy in any way. To schedule a therapy session please call Houston Relationship Therapy at 1-800-913-9613.