By Kathryn Foster
Romantic relationships, for all their benefits, can be frustrating. To make sense of the challenges, imagine how old our brains are. Picture how men and women’s brains adapted to opposite roles. Men were hunters and women were nurturers for 99.9% of human development. To apply this powerful idea to your personal romance is the beginning of wisdom. This is how our brain structures began, and this is why good, old-fashioned elbow grease is the ONLY thing that will keep you together.
At least three areas are affected. First, men and women formed a different relationship to emotion. Men toughened themselves emotionally to kill and do battle; they suspended empathy. (In the 179 remaining hunter-gatherer societies, it’s overwhelming the man’s job to hunt & make war.) Meanwhile, women gave birth, which hormonally flooded them with empathy: the ability to get into someone’s shoes. Mother Nature gave her the ability to read a child before s/he could speak. Today, hundreds of studies show that women have more empathy than men.
Second, women and men formed a different relationship to language. Men developed as silent stalkers of prey, using language in staccato, factual ways. They didn’t develop language in the same way women did. Mothers talked a lot as they explained things and taught children. It’s an all day job. They also used language to cooperate with other women as they ventured together into the wilderness to gather herbs and foods. In her book The Female Mind, Dr. Luan Brizendine found that women talk three times as much as men and devote more brain cells to talk.
The third consequence of our historic roles is having hormones that cause different behaviors and attitudes. When male hunters killed or pursued animals, their testosterone rose sharply, making their sex drives high and making them self-oriented and confidant, with a desire to compete. In contrast, as female gatherers nurtured children, their testosterone remained less developed and their estrogen and oxytocin rose, making them everything babies require: self-sacrificing, emotionally sensitive, caring and giving. (It was important her sex drive wasn’t too high because she needed a high touch but nonsexual relationship with her children to stimulate their brain growth.)
Obviously, women can be confidant, competing at work, and men can sacrifice and give to their children. We’re talking about our propensities. Females’ affiliative style is related to their neocortex capacity, while men’s competitive style relates to their subcortical units. That’s science-speak for “there’s a brain structure difference.”
So, men are different from women in terms of their relationship to emotion, especially empathy, language, and hormones. Therefore, romance is actually an agreement to meet the needs of someone with different needs. Granted, both genders like movies, finding intellectual stimulation and having fun, but in the guts of a romance, you experience the three differences.
Flip to today. Sophisticated MRIs have shown us that by age seventeen, a girl’s brain has transformed so that the processing of emotion moves up to the cerebral cortex where higher mental functioning like reflection, language and reasoning take place. She can now easily explain what she feels, and why she feels as she does. She can hook words to feelings, she can reason through emotion. Her emotional intelligence takes a leap and she’s now quite diff from a man. She “thinks her feelings” and “feels her thoughts.” Her identity becomes associated with the expression of her thought-feelings. Negative emotion remains in the primitive brain for males, so when a woman asks her guy if he’s mad or sad, she may get “I don’t know” or “I’m fine.”
Once a woman knows this about herself, she can communicate her needs to her guy. One application of elbow grease. I’ve joked with men in therapy that they need a tattoo on one wrist reminding them to say, “You’re the most important person in my life: I want to know how you feel.” And the taboo on the other wrist, “And tell me more about how you feel.” Another application of elbow grease.
Most men have learned that their negative emotion can get them in trouble. Many have worked hard to tame it. His negative feelings come from the amygdala, a more primitive place so that he fears being reactive. He feels like he’s doing her a favor by switching her to a new topic. Unless his female partner explains things, he assumes she’s the same. For women, though, it’s different. Her integrated thought-feelings are at the guts of who she is, and talking about them feels right. There’s a bridge connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In women, that bridge is four times as large, so she can move more easily from one side to the other. Thus, her thoughts and feelings integrate.
Here’s how the difference works. First, let’s say that two heterosexual women go to lunch and want to deepen their friendship. We can predict how they’ll do this: they will share negative emotion. They will make disclosures and seek to be very real with each other.
Now let’s say that one of these women and her guy go to dinner and again, she wants to deepen the closeness with him. She does it in the way she understands: she starts talking about her negative emotion. (i.e., “I felt so let down when…”, “It really hurt when…”) Only it doesn’t work: his mirror neurons jump up and down and go in search of the fastest way to get her out of distress. He has no idea he’s about to shut her down. She doesn’t want or need to be fixed; it feels like he just poured cold water over her. She decides well, that didn’t work, so she tries getting him to talk, but his mind is in neutral and she gets nothing.
Three applications of elbow grease are required. First, she needs to help him understand what she’s doing by sharing negative emotion. He needs some knowledge about women’s brains. Reading a relationship book aloud together helps. Or, if it fits your guy better, just tell him briefly. Second, he can learn to relax (i.e., release his jaw, slow his breathing down,) and say to himself, “This is her way of seeking closeness with me.” Third, sometimes, she can release her busy mind when she’s with him, and enjoy a neutral state together.
Now let’s talk about men.
While girls’ brains were changing during adolescence, so were guys’.
Specifically, between ages 9-15 a boy’s daily quotient of one cup of circulating testosterone per day soars to two gallons a day. A huge change. That testosterone then livens his hypothalamus to grow over twice that of a girl’s. What happens? He becomes more competitive, less talkative, and sexual conquest is pushed to the front of his thinking.
In fact, the medial preoptic area (part the brain’s hypothalamus) is 2.5 times greater as it relates to the sexual hunt. This is why self-help books tell women to let the guy, at the beginning of the relationship, pursue her; she will turn him off if he doesn’t feel the hunt. Another brain part is more active in males during sex, contributing to intense pleasure. So, even if a woman loves sex, she may value sex less than her guy does. It’s easier for her to forget about.
Here’s where women need more elbow grease. Today, Men are four times more likely than women to believe that sex and emotional closeness are the same thing. In contrast, women see sex and emotional closeness as two separate things, with sex being symbolic of the emotional closeness she already feels. Whether men talk about it or not, they feel hurt, cheated, and bereft of motivation to meet her emotional needs if sex wanes.
Imagine, if you’re a woman, what it would feel like if your partner wasn’t open to as much sex as you needed to stay emotionally connected. Imagine, if you’re a man, what it would feel like, given your brain structure, if your partner wasn’t open to talking as much as you needed to stay connected.
Romance is really an agreement to meet the needs of someone unlike you. We are different because the life tasks we carried for so long affected our hormones and our brain structure. It takes elbow grease to reach out, explain your needs, and seek to understand your partner’s needs.
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