Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Science of Stress in Relationships and Marriage: Women Do It Differently, and Men Need to Know How

Scientists have discovered the chemical cascades that occur when a woman is under stress, and who would have guessed that it’s very different from men and make them respond differently? LOL! And you can bet that it has an impact on your relationship and marriage.

There is an author by name of Gale Berkowitz whose work I keep running across in researching women and their behavior. She impresses me tremendously because she is thorough in her research and doesn’t interject a lot of opinion in her writing; she presents a lot of facts and when something is hypothetical she’s labels it as such, something I insist upon in this work because the stakes are too high in a troubled or failing relationship or marriage to consign anything to guesswork, theory, opinion, or anything else except solid logic based on the hard facts of vast and relevant experience.

(You can find a listing of a lot of her articles here on Google if you want to follow up).

In >an article in Melissa Kaplan’s “Chronic Neuroimmune Diseases” newsletter, Gale Berkowitz discusses research that confirms that women’s chemistry causes them to respond to stress in a very different way than we men do. She and other researchers refer to it as a “tend and befriend” response, as opposed to the more masculine “fight or flight” response.

You can refer to the original article for the full details on the chemistry, but the short version is that they have isolated a hormone called “oxytocin” that buffers the fight or flight response and causes her to tend to children and gather with other women instead.

It’s interesting to note that estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin and testosterone diminishes it. Both genders have both estrogens and testosterone (estrogen is in fact a whole family of hormones, all of which are “metabolites,” or by-products, of the metabolization of testosterone – yes, fact is sometimes stranger than fiction!), but the balance is different. Men have more testosterone than estrogens, while women have more estrogens than testosterone.

This lays waste to a common misconception about stress-handling, and it is one that you need to be VERY aware of in your interaction with women. When a crisis arises, stress is created, and in men, the fight-or-flight response engages, and we move very quickly to eradicate the threat and neutralize the crisis. We’re biologically driven to do so.

Not so with women. They don’t just choose to sit and talk about problems instead of correcting them. They are as biologically driven to pull the kids up under their wing and have what appears to us to be a “drama fest” as we are driven to tell everybody to hide and lock the doors while we deal with the threat.

Not all threats can be immediately dispatched. You can kill a barbarian or wild bear crashing through your door, but other problems can take time, such as health or financial problems. Our method of dealing with the barbarian doesn’t work with a wife who has just found out she has breast cancer any more than calling a dozen girlfriends and talking for hours would deter a barbarian or a bear.

Consequently, fight-or-flight works best for immediate threats, while tend-and-befriend works better for long-term problems, especially with regard to stress relief. We can stress ourselves to death while feeling helpless as weeks and months of cancer treatment lag on, just as women can be stressed to death by being thrown into a situation requiring immediate action. We need closure, they need familiarity, social interaction, emotional build-up, and emotional release, THEN action if there is still any call for it.

This is another wonderful example of how understanding our differences and using them to compliment each other instead of competing with each other works to make a stronger and more intimate relationship. If you’re faced with a long-term problem, try to take it more at your wife’s pace than your own; don’t indulge in dramatizing and such, but ease up a bit on the push, handling things as they can be effectively handled instead of trying to bully everything into submission. If you’re faced with an immediate threat, don’t waste time trying to goad your wife to action.

Give her a brief period for input if she wants to give you some and then move on and eliminate the threat. Tell her that there will be time to talk after the threat is no longer bearing down on you, but for right now, since the window of opportunity to deal with the threat is so narrow, you just have to go with the best you can do at the moment and you can talk about emotions or further corrective actions later.

Cooperation, not competition, is the single most distinguishing characteristic of a successful long-term relationship of any kind, and it’s especially true in a marriage or other live-in arrangement. You’re right there in each other’s faces, and you need things to share and draw you together, not constant points of contention to tear you apart.

There are many differences that we can treat as complimentary, and others, such as opposing values, which cannot be resolved. Hence, some great relationships have problems that make them look bad, and other, utterly terrible relationships have a few redeeming features that make them look more attractive than starting over – the comfortably unhappy crowd that I talk about from time to time who will eventually split or torment each other into a wasted lifetime of misery. The difference is not always obvious, but if you’re ever going to be happy with another person, you must know it and recognize it when it confronts you. There is no other way.

To know this and everything else you need to know to fix, maintain, and enhance a good relationship with problems or end a bad relationship with dignity and as friends, go to > and download your copy of "THE Man's Guide to Great Relationships and Marriage." Life is short, so don’t spend it guessing…

In the meantime, live well, be well, and have a wonderful day!
David Cunningham

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