There was a time when the struggle for equality between the sexes meant minimizing or even denying differences between men and women. We gave our boys baby dolls and our girls fire trucks, and believed that male and female traits were primarily learned, and we could change behavior and thought by changing the environment.
Current brain research, however, tells a different story. Yes, men and women are alike in many ways, but we also have many significant differences. How we navigate conflict is one area where we diverge.
For men, the reaction to conflict is likely to be fight or flight, and for many years this was the response expected for all human beings. But, it turns out, only men’s responses were being studied, and when scientists looked at the responses of women to stress and conflict, they found another pattern.
Women often respond with what is known as tend and befriend behaviors. They work hard to maintain social connections and keep the peace. This might involve staying silent about a problem or concern or serving as mediator. The payoff, if she is successful, is a flood of feel-good neurochemicals that create a sense of well-being as well as stronger bonds of friendship and family. Connecting with others and smoothing over conflict makes most women feel great.
On the other hand, when a woman is unable to keep the peace and stay connected, she may experience the equivalent of withdrawal from the feel-good neurochemicals, as well as an influx of cortisol, the stress hormone. Louann Brizendine, MD in her book The Female Brain describes the phenomenon this way, “When a relationship is threatened or lost, the bottom drops out of the level of some of the female brain neurochemicals – such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin (the bonding hormone) – and the stress hormone cortisol takes over. A woman starts feeling anxious, bereft, and fearful of being rejected and left alone. Soon she begins to jones for that good intimacy drug, oxytocin.”
So, what does this mean for women’s relationships and well-being?
1. Awareness is power. If we understand what is happening in the brain when conflict takes place we can make better decisions. Even though smoothing things over may be our inclination, it may not always be the best choice. We can learn to set boundaries and stand up for ourselves when appropriate.
2. Stop blaming yourself for avoiding conflict. If you are female, this trait is your evolutionary heritage. Our ancestors passed on these tendencies because they worked to keep us and our children safer and happier and that is still often true today.
3. Spend time with other women. Time spent with supportive women with whom we can share our lives, our worries and fears, as well as joys and successes, releases oxytocin and helps alleviate depression and anxiety. It’s chemistry!
4. Accept that the men in your life will respond differently to conflict. Men who choose non-violence often need to retreat from conflict before they can talk about the problem or work towards a solution. This is the chemistry of their brain in action. Pushing a man to connect and communicate when his brain is screaming at him to fight or run will usually backfire.
5. Learn more by reading Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain. Learn about men and women in conflict and how differences play out by reading work by Sue Johnson, MD. Her book Hold Me Tight describes the dysfunctional dynamics that can take place between men and women in conflict as well as solutions to these difficulties.