By Susan Dunn, MA, Emotional Intelligence Coach & Trainer
OK, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. We know that! We know that men are primed to think, more than feel, so when we share our problems with them, we are likely to get a solution, not sympathy. Women, on the other hand are primed to feel first, then think, and will generally offer empathy and relate to the feelings before presenting solutions (if ever).
Or DO we know this?
Or rather, are we interpreting this correctly.
The obvious conclusion we draw from the above revelations is that women are "more emotional." But does this play itself out in real life? Does your intuition tell you that women are more emotional? In my experience I would say women are more OFTEN emotional, and show a greater RANGE of emotions, and are more REFINED in their EXPRESSION of emotions, but I've come up against instant male rage too often to say that men aren't "emotional." I find them to be massively emotional, under certain circumstances.
And I've come up against male anger when there might have been other emotions expressed by a woman. When a man gets hurt, he gets angry. When he's sad, he gets angry. When he's frustrated he gets angry. When he's hungry he gets angry. Sometimes instead of tenderness, he expresses something that looks like anger. Anger . it's been called the all-purpose male emotion. And by "get angry," I mean evidencing behaviors, expressions, gestures and symptoms that we recognize as those of anger.
We know that anger is especially detrimental to men's health, leading to heart attacks, among other things. Men are particularly prone to what's called "flooding"; getting so overtaken by this all-purpose emotion they can't function, speak or relate. Or they misfire, for instance, hitting someone they love; reacting instead of responding.
You've probably experienced this when you're trying to have a discussion about some important relationship point, and all of a sudden he's flipped into a space where you can't reach him. Men tend to stonewall - it's so unpleasant to them to experience this rush of emotion, they shut down. Meanwhile their blood pressure is rising, their heart is pounding, and they're heading for a coronary. Anger kills. It's especially hard on men.
Some men have also been conditioned to react this way. I'm thinking of my friend Doug, who says every time he would cry when he was little, his father would tell him to "quit acting like a girl." This, of course, made him furious. Therefore, he says, when he gets sad, he gets mad. He was more or less "taught" to do this, rewired by his father, and he's not the only one to whom this happened. Doug has learned to "undo" this training, but it took a while, and he had to consciously work on this as an adult.
Men unemotional? I think not. And here's a bit of interesting information about the male brain. According to "The Curious Mind," by Allen Bragdon, also the author of "Use It or Lose It," and "Exercises for the Whole Brain," the amygdala is different in men than in women. Here's what he says about the amygdala:
"Lying deep in the center of the limbic emotional brain, this powerful structure, the size and shape of an almond, is constantly alert to the needs of basic survival including sex, emotional reactions such as anger and fear. Consequently it inspires aversive cues, such as sweaty palms, and has recently been associated with a range of mental conditions including depression to even autism. It is larger in male brains, often enlarged in the brains of sociopaths and it shrinks in the elderly." (www.brainwaves.com)
The same reason why it's so easy to talk to your grandmother about your problems, is why it's so difficult to talk to your guy about your problems. I think it's safe to say the amygdala is "highly reactive," and when those "aversive cues" start - pounding heart, sweating palms - it's difficult to think. Words are hard to come by. There is only a primitive reaction, with a press to act, albeit unwisely, unless you've worked to develop your Emotional Intelligence and to manage these emotions, and the tendencies to react on them without thinking it through.
So, yes, men appear to be less emotional - in the lower ranges. But when that amygdala gets triggered - and it's likely to where you're involved, or the children - you can hardly say it's an unemotional response. We see it come out around sex, anger and fear. When another man puts the move on you. When someone threatens you or one of the kids. When a competitor threatens his role as provider for you. When there's a scraping at the window late at night and he thinks someone might be breaking into HIS TERRITORY, and threatening HIS FAMILY. Or when you act in some way that makes him fear you might be going to leave him.
If you live with a guy, or love one, you've probably learned to recognize those situations during which it's unwise to "tickle the gorilla," that is things you avoid doing in order not to provoke that sort of reaction. Yes, he can become very emotional, and at what seems like a primitive level. On the other hand, you have to learn not to let the threat of this "blackmail" you from discussing things in your relationship that need to be addressed.
Here's a scenario where this often occurs, bringing about exactly the result the man fears and doesn't want to have happen -- When a man and a woman are having a relationship discussion, and the woman expresses discontent, saying she's unhappy with him or the relationship and wants something to change, wants something different to happen. When the anger kicks in COMBINED WITH this propensity for finding solutions, he's likely to say, "Then get out," or, "Then find someone else." Or, as a client of mine did when his wife said she needed to think about whether she wanted a separation or not, "Well don't think about it here. Either be here fully or get out." Or, as a friend of mine said, "You can't divorce ME, I'll divorce YOU," and he went and filed (providing the solution), the last thing he wanted.
What to do about this? Knowledge is the beginning. Understand that men ARE emotional, and HOW they are emotional, and increase your knowledge of how to cut this off at the pass in important discussions and interactions. No one thinks well, or makes good decisions under the press of strong emotions, and men are prone to get into this state when you're discussing relationship issues with them. You can work with an EQ coach on this! There are some definite conflict resolution skills you can learn and put into practice and, if you're a caring partner in a relationship dedicated to mutual health and growth, skills you can pass on.
I also suggest reading "Anger Kills" by Redford Williams, and "The Pleasure Prescription" by Paul Pearsall.
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