In his bestseller ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, John Gray proposed that men and women deal with relationships and conflict in fundamentally different ways. Is there any truth in this hypothesis or was Gray simply re-hashing unhelpful and old-fashioned stereotypes?
It is true that all of us, man or woman, are different. We respond to stresses and conflict in unique ways. These coping mechanisms often have a lot to do with our upbringing but without doubt, biology also plays a key role. I studied science in university, but am only now appreciating how massive an impact our biological make-up has on our relationships and our responses to conflict. The physical structure of our unique brains, their complex circuitry and the size and architecture of the various brain centres, directly affects our relationships with others. The hormone releases controlled by our brains also have a huge effect on how we manage and respond emotionally to conflict.
In terms of the physical development and structure of the brain, there is no disputing the neuroscience – male and female brains look and act very differently. The amygdala – the part of the brain that registers fear and triggers aggression – is much bigger in men than in women. In her book ‘The Female Brain’, Dr Louann Brizendine, describes how physical differences in the male/female brain structure correlate with the different ways in which men and women deal with anger. According to Brizendine, women have a much less direct relationship with anger than men. Women bite their tongues a lot more frequently in relationships in order to avoid expressing anger. This is to do with the female brain’s larger prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulated cortex, which hijack the immediate aggressive response of the amygdala in favour of reflection. Woman like to ‘talk it out’ (usually with other women!) before expressing their anger. It may be no surprise to anyone that women talk more than men but it was fascinating for me to learn that the structure of our female brain is responsible for this need to chat! The communication centres in the female brain are much larger than their male counterparts. Communication is so important to women that in behavioural studies on young girls and teenagers, it was found that girls speak 2-3 times more words a day that boys. Girls and young women are very focused on forming strong connections with other females. From their earliest days, girls live most comfortably in the realm of peaceful and harmonious relationships. They prefer to avoid conflict because discord puts them at odds with their urge to stay connected, to gain approval and to nurture.
Based on my experience working with male/female couples in conflict situations, I have certainly observed a marked difference in how men and women approach conflict. The research has shown us that this disconnect is occurring at a biological level. If the difference between a male and female brain create mismatched realities, what happens when these brains are in conflict? An argument between that man and woman will be recalled in completely different terms. The woman will typically describe a reality where communication, connection, emotional sensitivity and responsiveness are primary values. The man will typically value directness and factual accuracy – what was actually said, not how it was said. Often when a couple can no longer communicate it is because the male’s brain will push him to an aggressive anger response and the female’s brain feels fear and shuts down. Communication becomes too dangerous.
These differing perceived realities can make finding a resolution very challenging. The individuals must really hear and acknowledge the realities of the other. This mutual understanding becomes fundamental to making progress and to transforming the relationship. Finding a safe space in which to do this is often the first step in reopening a channel of communication. A neutral planet? Earth perhaps?
This is the second blog in my series reflecting on conflict. I will be continuing this exploration in future blogs. The views here are my own and based on personal and professional experience dealing with conflict over the last 10 years.