Here is a news flash – men and women are different!  In fact, quite different!  And the differences run way deeper than anatomy or any physical differences. Men and women are very different at the psychological and emotional levels. This was all part of God’s grand design for the differences between the sexes and marriage. It is these differences that both attract men and women to each other; and it is also these differences that drive each other crazy whether in the early stages of a relationship or in long - term marriage.

Let’s try to understand some of these differences and then how to make or keep our marriages calmer and healthier.

Boys and Girls

When girls play together, they do so in small, intimate groups with an emphasis on minimizing hostility and maximizing cooperation, while boys’ games are in larger groups, with an emphasis on competition. One key difference can be seen in what happens when games boys or girls are playing get disrupted by someone getting hurt.  

If a boy who has gotten hurt gets upset, he is expected to get out of the way so the game can go on. If this same thing happens when girls are playing, the game stops while everyone gathers around to help the girl who has been injured or has a problem [Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p. 131].  

What are we to conclude from this? Harvard’s Carol Gilligan says this: “boys take pride in a lone, tough - minded independence and autonomy, while girls see themselves as part of a web of connectedness.”

What does this mean for men and women when they become adults and enter marriage? Men and women expect very different things especially in communication.  

While men want to talk about topics or issues, women want emotional connection.

Also, you have heard that women are “more emotional than men”, and this is true. And here is why. Women, on average, experience the entire range of emotions with greater intensity and more volatility than men – in this sense, women are more emotional than men [Goleman, p. 132].

Because of this, women see themselves as managers of the relationship or marriage much more than men.  Therefore, they are keeping the “pulse” of the relationship – monitoring it from an emotional standpoint much more than men. This explains why women talk more about the relationship, about how they are feeling and will complain more when they feel the relationship is not as it should be. This also explains why, men, who in general feel the marriage is fine, get blindsided by their wives’ complaints and criticism.  

The relationship is not on their “emotional radar” at near the same level it is for their wives.  

So, you can see how the differences between the sexes is rooted in very early child development. This doesn’t change. It becomes more intense as we move into adulthood.  So the valley we see between a husband and wife, even after years of marriage, goes all the back to the core differences between boys and girls.

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble shows up even among newlyweds when spouses begin to voice their dislikes, complaints and become critical of the marriage. The real problem is when couples move from talking about tasks and issues to making it personal. When the finger pointing, blaming and criticism becomes pointed at the other person, trouble is noticed in paradise.  And when complaints begin to become “character assassinations”, real trouble begins to set in.

Because women are more in tune with the emotional side of the relationship, they often start the complaining.  Trouble sets in when complaining moves to personal criticisms.  

What is the difference? A complaint states specifically what is upsetting the wife and criticizes her husband’s action, not him personally. But personal attacks are of a more general nature. Words and phrases such as, “you always...”, “you never...” “you can’t do anything right...” are used during these personal attacks. These leave the other person feeling ashamed, disliked and defective. When this happens, especially to the husband, he feels victimized and begins to pull his head in like a turtle.  In other words, he retreats, withdraws and becomes defensive.

And this is a big complaint many women have about their husbands, that he is too withdrawn or defensive.  But keep in mind, when someone is being shot at, they tend to hide or seek shelter.

And then it can go from bad to worse when wives mix complaints, personal attacks with contempt.  You can hear and see contempt with an “under tone” to their voice, a “mocking” or “name calling”, or even a sneer or curled lip toward their spouse.  

Once this begins to become a recurrence, husbands especially will use the tactic of “stonewalling” to cope with the barrage of attacks.  John Gottman, marriage expert, says this is one of the most predictable indicators that a divorce may not be far off. The destructive problem with stonewalling is when it becomes habitual, it cuts off all possibility of working out disagreements.

Toxic Attitudes

When people are caught in a bad marriage, much of it has to do with attitudes and perceptions that have developed over time. These then become the lens through which spouses see each other. Responses become automatic. Even the good a spouse does is seen as bad or with great suspicion. Everything in the marriage becomes tainted with toxic thoughts. Perceptions have become reality. Once a marriage reaches this point, it becomes very difficult to salvage – but not impossible.

One of the differences between a chronic and acute problem in this area is this. When one spouse sees the other in a constant negative light, they see their spouse as inherently flawed and defective. They come to believe that they can never change and because of this, their lives will be forever miserable.  

However, in an acute situation, when their spouse does something that is hurtful to them, they can say something like, “I know he did something wrong or was controlling, but it must be because he had a bad day or is going through a tough time...”  What this signals is that while one spouse is upset, they can see past this “one moment” to better days ahead. They believe their spouse can and will change. This actually brings comfort. On the other hand, if you feel you are stuck with a spouse that will never change, then you will feel a sense of chronic stress.

Hope and Help

What can couples do to not only help relieve the stress, but actually make their marriages better for the long run?

  1. Though this seems counterintuitive, don’t try to control or change your spouse’s attitudes or behaviors.  This only creates defensiveness and eventually stonewalling. No one wants to be controlled or “fixed.” It gives the person the feeling that there is something inherently “wrong” or “bad” about them. People will only fight you or flight from you when they feel this way. Rather than focusing on the other person, focus on yourself.  You are the only person you can actually change!  Most people spend the time on fixing others that they need to spend on working on themselves. And here is the pay - off: the hard work you do on yourself usually has a positive effect on those around you; not in the short term, but in the long run.
  2. Women need to be really work on and discipline their remarks, comments and complaints to specific topics or issues. You need to guard against the statements we mentioned earlier such as, “you always...”, “never...” “you can’t...” Confine your statements and complaints to specific areas rather than generalizing. Generalizing remarks damage self - esteem and are perceived as personal attacks. For men, they need to guard against checking - out too early when their wives begin complaining. They need to sit and listen, ask questions and engage in the conversation. Most women will calm down once they feel they are being listened to.  Also, husbands shouldn’t jump to “fix” things or offering practical solutions too soon.  When both of you begin to change how you function personally in your marriage, you will begin to see the other change for the positive.
  3. Change how you talk – to yourself and each other! Talk like “I’m not going to take this anymore” or “I don’t deserve this kind of treatment” are innocent - victim or righteous-indignation slogans.  Other comments like “he doesn’t care about my needs” or “all you think about all the time is yourself” are just adding fuel to the fire. When you use talk that stays in the moment and stays on topic, you reduce the friction and allow for possible resolutions.
  4. Practice being calmer. Calmness is a quality that should never be minimized. It is essential for athletes when they are competing.  It is essential for CEO’s when making major decisions for their companies. It is essential for military leaders in order to make clear decisions when in battle. It is equally essential for husbands and wives, especially when the heat gets turned up in a disagreement or argument. It is what is least available in a heated moment, but what is most necessary. Calmness reduces the escalation of hurt feelings, arguments andstonewalling. Calmness allows couples to think more clearly in the present. High anxiety doesn’t allow people to think clearly in the moment, rather it causes the emotional brain to engage those response routines that were learned earliest in life during repeated moments of anger and hurt, and so become dominant.  

The best time to practice calmness is before things escalate – so when the heat gets turned up, you will have a better chance of recalling “calmness” and over time it will become your default setting [Goleman, p. 147]

While men and women are very different, God has given a very simple plan to help husbands and wives relate in a healthy way to one another. While it is simple, it is not easy. It takes a life - time commitment to practicing these.  This simple plan is found in Ephesians 5 where God commands husbands to love their wives unconditionally, and for wives to show unconditional respect to their husbands.

By: Jack Guyler
Source: Daniel Goleman, Emotionally Intelligence