If I didn't know better, I might think the Universe was playing a cruel prank on us by wiring men and women so differently. Each gender is not only physically distinct from the other, but the way in which we resolve problems differs as well.
When straight couples have a fight or experience a rift in their relationship, a strange phenomenon happens. Each partner has a different way of wanting to resolve the problem: women want to talk things out and perhaps make love later (when they feel more connected); men want to connect by making love and (maybe) talking later.
One husband told me recently that he thinks that the problems he and his wife were having would all be solved by going away for a long, sex-filled weekend. His wife saw this idea as nothing more than a superficial quick-fix.
When women are stressed out, talking literally soothes them because the calming (and bonding) hormone called oxytocin is released in the female brain. When men are stressed, testosterone is released and getting physical is an obvious outlet.
So, how do men and women reconcile when they come to this place?
Sadly, in far too many cases, they don't.
Rather than find a way to reconnect, couples often go about their lives and don't do either - they don't speak or have sex.
Instead, husband and wife come together around the daily chores of taking care of the kids, taking care of the home, making and eating meals, paying bills and sleeping side by side. The disagreement takes a back burner or the discord continues silently.
The relationship doesn't necessarily end because of the lack of reconnection - at least not immediately. Over time, however, there can be somewhat of a cumulative effect. Spouses may wake up one day filled with incredible resentment over something that happened 15 years ago that never got resolved. Or, the last kid goes off to college and husband and wife have nothing to say and barely even know each other.
As a therapist who has witnessed hundreds of couples on the brink of divorce and going through divorce, I can honestly say that I believe if/when married couples can find a way to bridge gaps that appear, we would see healthier marriages. We might even see fewer divorces.
Have Sex or Talk?
The advice I give couples around the issue of how to reconnect is that I believe men need to learn how to talk (and listen) first, make love later. Here's why:
When a couple discusses the problem first, a man may feel annoyed or challenged to hear what his wife is saying, but it calls on him to improve his listening skills as well as delayed gratification.
When a woman has sex with her husband when she's upset with or mistrusting of him, she often feels more extreme emotions such as disgust and may view her spouse as a perpetrator. This actually adds a layer of disconnect that can be even more harmful than the original argument was to the relationship.
Obviously, if a woman has no intention of having sex with her husband any time soon, but leads him on, this can be destructive. Or, if a man gets so riled up by talking that it's counterproductive, this won't work either.
Both partners have needs and legitimate ways of reconnecting and both should be honored, however, the order in which they are honored can be critical in determining whether a couple truly reconnects or not.
Couples who cannot talk on their own due to heightened emotions or "too much water under the bridge," often do better when they have a neutral third party present such as a therapist or clergy member.
Although it can be scary to review past hurts, finding the place where the train went off the track in the relationship can make all the difference in the world in reconnecting husband and wife.