Maybe Guys Just Love Differently?

I was having one of those “he can’t connect emotionally” conversations. A friend was telling me about her relationship angst over his inability to understand her needs and to talk about his. As a psychologist, I get that a lot. I listened and a question occurred to me: is she confusing love with the expression of love? In so doing, was she subjecting her perfectly warm and loving significant other to a test he was bound to fail?

Maybe … guys just love differently. To jigger the famous line from Sex and the City; it’s not that he’s not into you, it’s just that the expression gets hung up in the netting of a woman’s expectations of expression as proof of existence.

Current research confuses the issue — particularly the study by Rutgers University Biological Anthropologist, Helen Fisher, whose study of 5,000 American adults found that men are becoming more interested in commitment and attachment, and women are more interested in relationships that allow them a degree of independence.

One might assume that a shift toward commitment and attachment might create a slipstream that would pull along more open and demonstrative emotional communication. It’s an assumption that runs into some formidable limitations imposed by biology. There is more at work here than too many Matt Damon movies.

University of Pennsylvania Neuroscientist Dr. Ruben Gur says that the same way men and women have different bodies, they have different brains — with eons of evolution creating distinct wiring. It goes well beyond the formative impact of testosterone and estrogen. It’s a matter of how we’re built, he says, not what we learn. And he has the brain imaging to prove it.

Other studies elaborate on the biological link to male-female communication styles. Men are wired to act during times of high emotion, since emotion can lead to violence; there is a shut-off mechanism. He stops talking — just when women, wired entirely differently, want to talk.

As reported on the website Uncommon Knowledge, there may actually even be survival instinct at work. It takes longer for a man’s blood pressure and immune system to return to normal after high emotion than it does for a woman.

Research, the site reported, also found that boys were faster to turn off a recording of a baby crying than girls. Simple insensitivity and impatience? Actually, the boys reacted to the crying with a higher release of stress hormones. Boys are more fragile than girls medically and emotionally. Boys are more susceptible to birth defects and developmental disabilities; they are more vulnerable in the womb, with more fetuses lost in miscarriage. As children, they are more easily stressed, which means they cry more when they are upset and have a harder time calming down. And they are more emotionally vulnerable to the ill effects of extreme lack of affection.

Then, too, there is the documented fact that elderly men are much more likely to die after losing a partner than are elderly women.

Such findings point to some serious irony. All these insensitive men are actually more reactive to emotion than women, so they are genetically programmed to avoid it.

This biological Venus-Mars dynamic — and confusion — extends beyond the precincts of romantic love.

In my research for my last book about fathers and daughters, I found that this confusion extends beyond romantic love. A number of women said they had worked hard to create an emotional connection with their dads but failed. Yet, when they described the relationship and the level of interaction, it is clear their fathers cared about them very much.

All of that begs the question “Can’t we all just get along?” If we have an appreciation that we are products of our wiring, it should be possible to logically override the programming, and simply give each other what we need.

Psychotherapists know well it’s not that easy. One of the many challenges in couple’s therapy is that both halves of the couple want “validation” that each partner experiences the other’s emotional state, and sees value in the experience. The problem is, that means taking an excursion into the head of the other person. Women are often fine with that — welcome it. Guys often don’t want their deepest feelings valued — much less experienced — by anybody. If knowledge is power, what could be more powerful than knowing somebody’s innermost feelings?

For women hungry for the emotional growth of their partners as measured by communication of feelings, it could be an uphill journey, pushing against the great big boulder of biology. When the other signs are good — reliability, kindness, attentiveness and the rest — it might mean coming to terms with the fact the love is there, it’s just expressed in ways that will be clouded by the mysteries of the male gender.

Image via Shutterstock

  • Alle Connell

    While this brings up a lot of good points and references some interesting research, I don’t think that differences in emotional expression (ie: “How we love”) can 100% be explained by evolutionary biology. Yes, men and women are different. We have different bodies, and one can imagine that our brains are different, too. But the way that we’re raised and the way that society shapes us are also really important, especially since it’s society, not evolution, that defines “love” and how it’s expressed at any point in time.

    Women are raised to talk about our feelings and hash through our problems right away. Dudes, not so much. Talking about their feelings is framed as bad or unmanly, while keeping a stiff upper lip is desirable. So okay, let’s say that male babies do cry more. When do their parents start saying “Shh, come on tough guy. Big boys don’t cry,” and when does the kid start believing it?

    Strict definitions of what is and isn’t “masculine” or “feminine” seem to cause a lot of problems. You say that men are more fragile, healthwise as well as emotion-wise, and maybe that’s true. But if it is, it seems like society doubles down on that fragility and makes them MORE fragile, not less. “Taking an excursion into the head of the other person” is also called empathising, something society tells girls is super-important for social relationships but that isn’t seen as so vital in boys. I don’t know if empathy is innate or not, but I do know that everything gets easier with practice. If girls have been taught to see things from other people’s perspective since toddlerhood and boys haven’t, it stands to reason that women would be more comfortable doing it as adults.

    Basically, yeah, some of this stuff probably has roots in how we’re made. But by saying “Oh, it’s all biology and that’s that,” it discounts the effects of society. Nobody is a man or a woman in a vacuum. There are a million cultural influences acting on us every day. Saying that anything, especially something as complex as emotional expression, is just because of wiring is way, way simplistic.

  • Andy McIntosh

    Hi Peggy,

    Thank you for this article. I think it’s illustrative of how it is harder for men to communicate with women because we’re not raised to think about being good communicators. One of the common complaints my guy friends and I have had at times with our girlfriends/wives is when we try to communicate the way we think they want, they sometimes get frustrated because we’re “not doing it the right way.” (An actual quote.) That, of course, is entirely possible, but it doesn’t seem to matter that we’re trying. That makes us wonder why we should even make the effort. We get criticized either way. I guess the only thing to do is to just keep trying anyway. We have to get better at it at some point! Don’t we?… :-)

    Thanks again for your article.


  • Leila Howland

    Thank you for this informative piece!

  • Astrid Lund

    Not that I’m a neuroscientist or anything, but I disagree with Dr Reuben Gur when he says it’s a matter of how we’re built, and not what we learn. Some people are perhaps better at expressing their emotions, and it’s possible women are naturally, on the whole, better at this than men, but honey… There is no way we pop out of the womb already possessing a special psychological or physical skill. Some people find it easier to be punctual, or organised, and maybe that’s because of their genetic make-up, but nobody has ever naturally acquired a talent with zero effort. We have to learn everything we do, either by our own choices or by society (for example, the way a little boy and a little girl are taught to treat their toys? “Don’t break your toys” vs. “don’t hit your dolly on the head, it hurts her”…).
    Think of the brain as play-doh, and all your experiences and habits mold it into whatever you’ll become. The study showed that men and women’s steroetypical roles are reversing somewhat, and surely this is indicative of a changing society teaching us new values, giving us new experiences and forming new habits? (Personally my experiences taught me to bypass the way I was wired as a wee girl, so I don’t know whether I changed my ‘wiring’ or whether i’m just ignoring it. Again, not a surgeon, I’m just interested in sociology)
    (And sorry about the length of the comment. Even if I didn’t totally agree with the study, I did find it very interesting, so thank you! :) )

    • Astrid Lund

      *neuroscientist, not surgeon. Oops.

  • Catie Anderson

    Biological essentialism= belief that particular groups are naturally different. For example, that social differences are considered biologically based and natural.

    Now, let’s look at how gender is socially constructed!

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