Men and women have the same need and longing to connect with each other, but they also have different ways of reacting to stress that can drive them apart. Psychotherapist Patricia Love believes that these instinctive coping strategies can trigger the fear and shame that isolate partners from each other. Depression makes the disconnection that much worse.
These coping strategies can come up in relationships as a typically male sensitivity to shame and a typically female sensitivity to fear.
It’s always touchy to talk about gender differences, but Love and her colleagues approach this with the idea that differing male and female patterns are coping strategies, not fixed genetic traits. They recognize that individual men and women can exhibit behaviors across a broad spectrum.
There are no stereotypes that limit the roles of men and women, nor is there is a difference in their desire or need for feeling and relationships. But different styles of reacting to stress often lead to behaviors that create problems.
Fight-or-Flight or Tend-and-Befriend?
The differences that researchers have found relate to the ways in which humans have evolved to respond to threats and danger. For decades, scientists described the classic stress response of fight or flight as the basis for a lonely world of constant struggle for survival. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of social psychologists led by Shelley E. Taylor realized that all these observations had been based on human and animal studies that used mostly male subjects.
When they broadened research to include women in studies of stress, they identified another coping mechanism that was collaborative rather than competitive. Taylor summarized this research in her classic book, The Tending Instinct.
This alternative coping strategy is known as “tend and befriend.” In times of distress, women take care of those close to them while seeking the support of others for protection of the group. It’s a highly social way of dealing with danger that depends on bonds of trust and connection. Researchers found that this pattern, like the fight or flight response, was rooted in neurobiology as well as behavior.
Patricia Love and other psychotherapists have found that these distinctively male and female reactions to stress can contribute to the problems of couples, especially in the presence of depression. Here is a nutshell version of what can happen.
The Fear-Shame Dynamic
For men, the important thing is to demonstrate their ability to remove a danger or solve a problem through action and reasoning. Words and feelings can get in the way and don’t get the job done. The almost instinctive response is to do something on their own, without seeking help. If their ability to handle a situation is called into question, men tend to feel shame.
Rather than take action on their own, women often need to feel connected to others to feel safe. Isolation triggers fear. Expressing their worries to their partners is a way of reassuring themselves that the connection for support is there. Talking and expressing feelings are part of the process of connecting and handling stress.
Hearing about his partner’s worries, however, can also trigger a man’s vulnerability to shame. Instead of understanding a woman’s concerns as the need for connection, he can hear them as criticism that he has failed to do his job of providing and protecting. Her distress comes across to him as an accusation that it’s his fault.
Instead of reaching out to connect, he reacts defensively and angrily pushes his partner away. She is left alone with her fear, which is now intensified by the withdrawal of her primary source of support.
Each keeps triggering the main vulnerability of the other. The man looks for the respect and praise he needs to feel he’s fulfilled his male role but gets only a response he experiences as shaming. As he pulls away in anger, the woman feels more alone and fearful than ever.
How Depression Makes It Worse
Depression adds the perfect storm of isolation and emotional withdrawal. Many men see depression itself as a source of shame, a weakness and sign of their inability to perform. In the majority of cases, they refuse to get treatment or even to acknowledge it. That leaves the woman alone and excluded from the relationship during the crisis of illness.
When a man hears from his wife that he is depressed, that may sound to him like “you are a failure.” Anger is the typical response rather than feeling supported by his partner’s attentiveness. It’s very hard to get around the initial reaction that he’s hearing her words of concern as a criticism.
In depression, the man whom the woman looks to for reassurance and support can become himself the greatest threat to safety. This realization triggers an especially deep fear and vulnerability. She has to live in a constant state of alertness and easily gets angry. The stress level is high and can’t be relieved by the comfort of connection.
Connection Comes Before Communication
According to Pat Love and recent research, the fear-shame dynamic is an instantaneous reaction that begins well outside of our awareness through a process of emotional attunement. This is the reading of nonverbal signals in body language, facial expression and tone of voice. These communicate much faster than words. This nonverbal language comprised our primary method of evaluating and communicating the safety of situations, long before language and reasoning become so prominent in human development.
Because it is tied into neuro-circuitry, the dynamic of reactions is almost impossible to deflect simply by talking. Fear and shame keep you from hearing each other no matter how much mirroring and active listening you try to do.
It’s a lack of connection rather than a lack of communication that is the problem. Reconnecting on a non-verbal level is as important as finding the right words to get back together. This perception is behind the title of the book Love wrote with Steven Stosny, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.
Their strategies for improving relationships include plenty of talking, but the words are secondary in importance to the level of interest and concern partners show each other through touch, looks and facial expressions.
Retraining to Reconnect
Love emphasizes that men and women are equally in need of love and intimacy and equally capable of experiencing it. Her approach is to train couples to be sensitive to their differing vulnerabilities and to practice ways of connecting without triggering fear or shame.
For example, she urges women to understand that for men relationship during a time of stress may not feel like a place of safety. Instead, it may seem more like a testing ground for their ability to perform and protect. If they feel they will face judgment about how well they’re doing their jobs as men, they might well try to avoid relationship when dealing with hard problems.
Men don’t realize that a woman’s fear of isolation and deprivation can be triggered by leaving her out of the important parts of his life. Men abandon their wives to manage their own dread of failure and inadequacy, leaving them alone with their needs. As Love and Stosny put it, “A man needs to value the longing of a woman’s heart, or he will leave her alone in her dreams and become the failure he dreads.”
The key is to understand the core vulnerabilities and avoid setting them off while also offering assurance in response to the underlying fear or shame.
I’d like to know if you have found these general ideas about the ways men and women react to stress to be accurate in the context of your own relationship. Do you think these tensions have added to the problems of depression?