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Even with the best of intentions, talking about your relationship doesn’t bring you closer together, and it will eventually drive you apart, say therapists and authors Patricia Love and Steven Stosny. There's a biological difference at work underneath most couples’ fights, and this is why improving a marriage can’t happen through words, they say. Love and Stosny were invited on TODAY to discuss their new book, "How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It," which teaches couples how to get closer in ways that don’t require “trying to turn a man into a woman.” Here is an excerpt:How We Break The ConnectionFear and ShameThings weren’t always so bad for Marlene and Mark. At one time they cherished the closeness they felt — all their friends used to marvel at how close and connected they were. They can still vividly recall the good times, but instead of comforting them, these memories of the closeness they once had now fill them with sadness and a deep sense of loss. They often wonder how they got to this lonely state. Their story is all the more sad because it is so common.Marlene and Mark arrived at their chronic state of disconnection without either of them doing anything wrong. Marlene has never grasped that Mark, like most men, has a heightened sensitivity to feeling shame and inadequacy. (How could she? His impulse when he feels shame is to hide, so he can’t tell her about it. Instead, he disguises it with annoyance, impatience, or anger.) She does not understand that each time she tries to make improvements in their relationship, the overriding message Mark hears is that he is not meeting her expectations — he’s failing her — which sends him into the pain of his own inadequacy. While trying to ward off feeling like a failure, Mark is no longer sensitive to Marlene’s fear of being isolated and shut out. In the beginning of their relationship, he sensed her need for connection and wouldn't have dreamed of shutting her out. But now he has no idea that each time he rejects her overtures or raises his voice in anger — purely to protect himself — he’s pushing her further away and deeper into the pain of isolation.It’s so easy for couples to slip into this pattern, because the different vulnerabilities that so greatly influence the way men and women interact with each other are virtually invisible. In the beginning of the relationship, the falling–in–love chemicals our brains secrete make it easy to focus on each other’s more subtle emotions. But once the effects of those chemicals wear off — within three to nine months — we need to make a more conscious effort to protect each other’s vulnerabilities. To do this, we first need to understand the different vulnerabilities of men and women and how we manage them in our relationships.
How We’re Different: Fear and PainThe differences that underlie male and female vulnerabilities are biological and present at birth. Baby girls, from day one, are more sensitive to isolation and lack of contact. No doubt this sensitivity evolved as an important survival skill designed to keep the female in contact not only with her offspring but also with others in the group who would offer her protection. In the days of roaming predators, the only hope of survival was to help one another ward off an enemy. A woman or child left alone was sure prey. So over the millennia, females developed a kind of internal GPS that keeps them aware of closeness and distance in all their relationships. When a woman feels close, she can relax; when she feels distant, she gets anxious. This is why a baby girl can hold your gaze for a long period of time. She is comforted by the closeness the eye–to–eye contact provides. It also explains why, left alone for the same period of time, a girl baby will fuss and complain before a boy baby. This heightened sensitivity to isolation makes females react strongly to another person’s anger, withdrawal, silence, or other sign of unavailability. It is more frightening to her to be out of contact than it is for a male. This is not to say that males prefer isolation or distance; it's just that females feel more discomfort when they are not in contact.
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Men have a hard time understanding a woman’s fear and the pain associated with it. One reason is that a woman’s fear provokes shame in a man: “You shouldn't be afraid with me as your protector!” This is why he gets angry when she gets anxious or upset. But there’s another reason men just don’t get women’s fear. They don’t know what it feels like. Research shows the single biggest sex difference in emotions is in the frequency and intensity of fear — how often you get afraid and how afraid you get. Girls and women both experience and express far more fear, as measured in social contexts and in laboratory experiments that induce fear. Newborn girls are more easily frightened than boys. Girls and women are more likely to feel fear in response to loud noises and sudden changes in the environment. They have more anxiety and worry a lot more than boys and men. Women have a markedly higher fear of crime, even though they are far less often the victims of it. They are more likely to think about the harmful consequences of their behavior, which helps them avoid most risky behavior. They suffer more phobias and greatly exceed men in fear of medical and dental care. The fact that they go to doctors and dentists more often may be a tribute to their courage (ability to overcome fear) or a result of their general sensitivity to anxiety and worry, which could make them fear the consequences of not going even more.Another reason that females have more fear of harm may be that they feel more pain. The scientific data suggest that women suffer quite a bit more physical pain than males, not counting childbirth. As early as two weeks old, girls cry louder and more vigorously than boys in response to mild pain stimulus. The higher anxiety levels of females only ratchet up their sensitivity to pain. Around 90 percent of chronic pain disorders afflict women. Men have a hard time empathizing with the pain and fear of their wives, both because they're conditioned from toddlerhood to suck it up, and because it doesn’t hurt them as much!
How We’re Different: Hyperarousal and ShameAlthough boy babies feel less fear and pain than girls, they have a heightened sensitivity to any type of abrupt stimulation, which gives them a propensity for hyperarousal, that is, hair–trigger reactions. Male infants startle five times more often than female infants and are provoked by a much lower stimulus — a loud stomach gurgle will do it. (You can observe this difference if you visit a neonatal nursery in a hospital.) A male’s hair–trigger propensity for hyperarousal has a distinct survival advantage. Due to his greater strength and muscle mass, the male is better equipped than the female to fight off predators. Since the primary predators of early humans stalked and attacked stealthily, males needed to respond with fight–or–flight behavior in a fraction of a second.Because of their high sensitivity to arousal, newborn boys have to guard against the discomfort of overstimulation. This is why boy babies have to take eye contact and other intimate contact in small doses. If you have a boy and a girl, you may have noticed this difference. Your baby girl was able to hold eye contact almost as soon as you brought her home from the hospital. You could gaze into her big eyes (she widens them to draw in your gaze) for hours on end. But your little boy was less likely to hold that kind of eye contact before six to nine months of age, if at all. When you looked deeply into his eyes, he probably looked down, then back at your eyes, then up, then back at your eyes, then down the other side, then back at your eyes, then up the other side, then back at your eyes. He was interested in you— or he wouldn’t have kept looking back — and he certainly wasn’t afraid of you. His intermittent attention was his way of staying in contact with you without becoming overwhelmed. It’s important to note that this is a function of his sensitivity to arousal, not his ability to focus, as many parents mistakenly infer. Boy babies can focus on you if you do not look directly into their eyes, and they have no trouble focusing on inanimate objects.When it comes to relationships, women often mistake this guarded response, which many males retain throughout life, for lack of interest or even loss of love. Most of the time, he hasn’t lost interest; he’s merely trying to avoid the overwhelming discomfort of a cortisol dump that comes with hyperarousal. Cortisol is a hormone secreted during certain negative emotions. Its job is to get your attention by making you uncomfortable so that your discomfort drives you to do something to make the situation better. The pain a woman feels when her man shouts at her is caused by the sudden release of cortisol. A man feels this same discomfort when he is confronted with her unhappiness or criticism. He may look like he is avoiding her, but he is essentially trying to avoid a cortisol hangover for the next several hours.So how does the male propensity for hyperarousal translate into hypersensitivity to shame? First of all, boys and girls both experience shame, which is a stop–and–hide response. The root meaning of the word shame is “to cover or conceal.” When you’re embarrassed you want to crawl into a hole, and a child feeling shame wants to cover his face because he can’t bear to look at you. If you are playing with a boy or girl infant and you suddenly break eye contact and turn away, he or she will experience the physical displays of shame: reddened face, contorted facial expressions, writhing muscles, and other signs of more general distress, especially if he/she was interested in or enjoying the eye contact. In this way, shame is an auxiliary of interest and enjoyment — babies have to be interested in something or feel enjoyment to experience shame when it stops abruptly. (We learn to label this abrupt drop in interest or enjoyment as “rejection,” which is what you feel when your interesting phone conversation with a friend is abruptly interrupted by his call–waiting.) Because little girls are more comfortable with longer periods of eye contact, caregivers tend to stay engaged and break contact with them less often, meaning little girls experience the shame response associated with abrupt disconnection far less often. On the other hand, if parents or caregivers don’t understand a little boy’s need for smaller doses of eye contact, they will break the intimate contact abruptly when the little boy looks away, constantly reinforcing the shame response, which is amplified by the extra kick of cortisol that the response produces. Males who experience this over and over develop a hypersensitivity to shame. Studies show that parents gaze into the eyes of their little girls (and talk sweetly to them while doing it) 50 percent more than they look into the eyes of their little boys. With their sons they laugh and make nonverbal utterances, wave toys in front of them, tickle them, or pick them up to shake and roughhouse with them. Both kinds of play are of high quality — children and parents enjoy them immensely. But they are qualitatively different. Little boys need the intimate contact — albeit in small doses — just as much as they need the active play. Little girls need active play as much as they need intimate contact.Intimacy is riskier for little boys when they have consistently felt shame in conjunction with it — if I like it too much, the boys learn, they’ll take it away, because I don’t do it right. From the very beginning, many little boys don't feel like they can measure up in intimate relationships. Little girls can hold eye contact, while little boys are easily overwhelmed and have to look away. The eye–contact gap is especially sad because eye contact is our principal source of intimacy throughout our lives. Boys and men are deprived of the very intimacy that would help them overcome their vulnerability to shame. If you have a baby boy, you must understand that he likes eye contact, but you have to be more patient with him and not start tickling him when he looks away from you. The best thing you can do for your infant son to help him manage shame in the future is allow him to feel the comfort of eye contact gradually, at his pace. Keep looking at him, and you should notice that he will stay focused on your eyes for longer and longer periods. Just being sensitive to the invisible differences in male and female vulnerabilities can shift your perception and deepen your connection — without talking about it.
How We Avoid Fear and ShameMost of the time a woman's fear and a man’s shame are unconscious— outside awareness. You can live a lifetime without ever hearing a man say, “I feel ashamed when you get scared of my driving” or a woman say, “I want that Gucci bag to keep my fear of deprivation at bay.” Instead you will see the tip–off indicators of fear and shame: resentment and anger (blaming your shame or fear on someone else); materialism (providing illusions of status for a man and security for a woman); people pleasing (doing things detrimental to the self to gain the admiration or approval of others); obsessions (thoughts you can't get out of your mind); and compulsive behavior like impulsive shopping, overeating, and binge drinking. All the above have temporary pain–relieving effects that work for both shame and fear.It is not our innate differences in fear and shame that drive us apart; it is how we manage the differences. If you manage them with criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal, or blame, your relationship will fail; it’s as simple as that. If you manage them with the inspiration to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect — as you'll learn to do in this book — your relationship will flourish. But it will take conscious attention for a while to overcome the force of habits that began forming very early in your life.From early childhood, girls avoid fear by building alliances and forging emotional bonds — there is comfort and strength in numbers. Without thinking about it, Marlene reacted to her unconscious fear of isolation by seeking more closeness from Mark and her friends. This predominant female coping mechanism is called tend and befriend.(*) Women respond to stressful situations by protecting themselves and their young through nurturing behaviors — the tend part of the model— and forming alliances with others, particularly women — the befriend part. Women bond around helping one another through troubled times. The more they talk about their troubles, the closer they feel.Because emotional bonds serve as a woman's primary source of comfort, it appalls women when men try to cope with stress in ways that seem to threaten emotional bonds, for example: distraction (work, TV, computer, hobbies); status seeking (work, sports, acquiring expensive toys); emotional shutdown (if you feel nothing, you won’t feel inadequate); anger (if you numb the pain you won’t feel it); and aggression (if you exert power and control, you won’t feel the powerlessness of failure and inadequacy).What women have an even harder time understanding is this: For the average male, relationships are not a reliable source of comfort. A man’s greatest pain comes from shame, due to the inadequacy he feels in relationships; therefore, going to the relationship for comfort is like seeking solace from the enemy. Talking about the relationship, which is guaranteed to remind him of his inadequacy, is the last method he would use for comfort, in the same category as choosing a bed of nails for a good night’s sleep. This is why he often goes to a fight–or–flight response to ease his distress and not to a heart–to–heart talk with the woman in his life. Fight or flight is the male equivalent of tend and befriend.
Excerpted from "How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It" by Patricia Love, Ed.D and Steven Stosny, Ph.D. Copyright © 2007 by Dr. Patricia Love. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.