What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

How to win an argument with a man? Don't get angry.

Want to change the call? Approach the umpire with smiles.

One of the most common complaints people have about their male partners is: "Every time I get upset at him he just shuts down and withdraws. He stops hearing anything I have to say."

It turns out there is validity to that claim, but the bad news is it may not be under their control. A new study by USC researchers indicates that stressed men looking at angry faces had diminished activity in the brain regions responsible for understanding others' feelings. In other words, when men experience acute stress, such as an argument, they have less ability to read the other person's facial expression and respond in an empathic way.

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Interestingly, the study also demonstrated that women actually have the opposite response: under stress women have an increased ability to interpret another person's experience; in other words, to have empathy and understanding.

So if a man and a woman are to get into a fight and stress goes up, this basically affects their brains in opposite ways. Men tend to withdraw socially and lose the ability to feel for the other person, while women move forward into the relationship, with increased empathy and the desire for social support. If two men argue, the outlook doesn't look good - until the stress level goes down, they are likely going to have a difficult time resolving things relationally.

It may sound like a stereotype, but now we know the stereotype is not just about generalizations or social conditioning; it is actually, in part, about differences in the brain. Simply knowing this can be helpful in deciding on a plan for expressing anger towards a man. The best plan (in other words to get the best outcome) would be to take a deep breath, take it down a notch or two, and express it in a way that doesn't escalate his stress levels. Of course, regardless of gender we would all like to be approached in this manner... but science indicates that if this approach isn't taken, women can work their way through it relationally a lot easier than men can.

 

 

Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

 

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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