Are Women and Men Different in Handling Stress?

Authority vs Leadership

The husband got the news that he was being laid off from work today. He went home and went to his room. His wife went after him, trying to get him to talk, but when he would not talk she picked up the phone and called a close friend to share the problem with her.

Does that sound familiar? Is that how your husband handles stress? Your answer might be "Everybody knows women always want to talk; they are completely different from men."

Well, unlike what is being advocated — that we males and females are entirely different in almost all aspects of life —, the fact is that we are very similar in most cases, psychologically speaking, but with only a few differences. However, acknowledging this does not automatically lead us to conclude that these differences are unchangeable, inevitable, or even have a biological base. Also, we need to know that these differences refer to the average person and not necessarily all men and women.

Personality Differences

There is one dimension where men and women consistently differ: Women tend to be more nurturing and men more assertive. According to the studies where states of happiness, sadness, and fear were observed, the experience of these emotions was the same. The difference was in the expression; women tend to be more expressive. The factor that was considered to contribute to this observation was "cultural display rules" of emotions and not different levels of emotions.

In many cultures, even little boys and girls are taught that a boy shouldn't cry and that he should control his emotions. This is affirmed by the male role model in the home, as the boy child follows the same rules as his male role model. Therefore, boys tend to adopt these emotional control techniques from a young age. However, the study mentioned that women are basically more emotionally aware and sensitive than men. Women can express themselves more freely, and recall and think about emotional experiences.

Behavioral Background

Personally, when I was first introduced to the notion of the two sexes being from different planets (the Mars and Venus thing), I was amazed and agreed to a great extent. Luckily, I was only a few years into my marriage back then! I remember a woman who was about my mom's age. She said, "I have learned this the hard way, through twenty years of marriage!" It is beneficial to admit some differences and to know that there are exceptions to the rule, as we are all humans and pretty much the same when it comes to feelings.

It is known that the nervous and endocrine systems respond to stress in the same way in both genders. The difference manifests in behavioral reactions. Men act according to "fight or flight" when they are under stress and they want to be left alone, as it may lead to the cause of conflict with other family members. Women tend to be more nurturing when under stress, especially with their children and family. They seek support from other women. The expression used to describe this reaction is "tend and befriend."

One physiological explanation is the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with maternal behavior. The level of oxytocin is higher in females than in males. It is said that this hormone helps one to recover quickly from the arousal state associated with stress, although recent research may prove otherwise.

Does This Relate to Marital Life?

Of course it does; it did with my life!

Spouses must understand even just a little about the other's reaction to different situations and life events, in order to be able to comprehend the other's actions and to handle them with the spirit of understanding instead of being on the defense.

Women, remember that time when your husband said something that made you upset and later you found out that he didn't mean it that way? Men, remember the time when you did something that you thought was really funny and your wife did not appreciate it one bit? Both sides need to figure out what their spouse really appreciates instead of spending effort in acts that are not recognized by the other or even noticed!

Need more explanation? A little homework might shed some light. For the men: Try to find out what was more appreciated last week: Was it the chocolate bar that you got your wife or your returning home from work early to watch your son's soccer game? For the women: What did your husband appreciate more: Your putting the children to bed early for a romantic evening, or the time he made a slip of the tongue that he thought would make you mad but you let it pass by?

Stand in your spouse's shoes and try to comprehend the motivation behind an act or statement. Try to see through their eyes, feel their feelings, and think how they think. In other words, explain the act through their perspective, not yours. It does not matter how you feel when someone gives you a rose (well it does); regardless, it might not mean a lot to you, but it might make a whole lot of difference to your spouse.

So next time you are hurt by a word or an act from your spouse, think why they said or did that. When you are the one who is doing the hurting, ask yourself, did you hurt your spouse unintentionally? After a few years into your marriage, you will be able to figure out and comprehend your spouse's actions if you spend time and effort in doing so. So stop being defensive. Be the one who shows understanding to your spouse, and you will eventually get the same treatment, in sha' Allah.