In the '90s, John Gray brought us Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, the blockbuster that reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and was translated into more than 40 languages. The psychologist's latest insight on gender differences has just arrived in bookstores today. Why Mars & Venus Collide: Improving Relationships by Understanding How Men and Women Cope Differently With Stress is a look at the sometimes explosive misunderstandings that can ultimately lead to passivity and lack of intimacy in a relationship—and the physiological explanations for why they happen.
How do the male and female hormonal responses to stress differ?
When a "flight or fight" situation happens, testosterone levels in both men and women go up to take action. When testosterone levels rise in men, the stress hormone, cortisol, has a tendency to go down. New research in the last four or five years has shown that oxytocin is the primary hormone in a woman's body that is responsible for helping her cope with stress effectively. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone, it's the friendship hormone.
In the work environment, all day long, time is spent solving a problem, feeling urgency or emergency, which stimulates the production of testosterone. This feels good for men. But there's not a lot of time to produce oxytocin. A woman's supplies become depleted throughout the day. She feels exhausted when she comes home from work. On top of that, she's thinking of all the tasks and problems waiting for her there.
How do these differences play out in behavior?
An anecdotal example: I'm doing a book tour and started early in the morning yesterday and went until 8:30 at night, nonstop. And to me, because it's all solving problems, and it's all up to me, I feel confident. My wife said, "Are you OK? You seem so happy. I'd be totally exhausted." I said, "Yeah, I just accomplished a great thing!" When you really can do something you're good at, and it's needed and it's urgent, then it stimulates testosterone. That lowered my stress, which felt great.
You also write about the differences in men's and women's brains. How does this affect the way couples interpret their partner's stress?
Increased corpus callosum in women—the connective tissue between the left and right side of the brain—was the first big discovery about how men and women's brains work differently. It was extremely controversial at first. The corpus callosum allows both sides of the brain to be in conversation. Her brain is, to much greater extent than his, multitasking due to all of this communication that goes on in different parts of the brain. There's a tendency for men to sort of stay focused, using one part of the brain. In a woman's brain, when the thinking part of the brain is in use, the feeling part is involved. In the middle of a crisis, men will go sit down and watch TV. And women are going, "How can you do that?" When a woman is using the right side of the brain doing recreational activity, the left side of the brain is still pumping her messages that there are important problems that have to be addressed.
If you do a brain scan of a woman when she's stressed, there's eight times more blood flow to the emotional part of the brain than in a man. This means she's going to have a stronger emotional reaction than a man—I don't call it an overreaction because that would imply something's wrong with it. She's having a normal reaction, but relative to a man's reaction, then she's having an overreaction. If you hold the woman as the standard, then he's having an underreaction. Neither is having an inappropriate reaction.
In our day-to-day experience of stress, women will tend to have more things they're upset about during the day—like the 50 small tasks that need to get done around the house—and men seem more cool, calm, and detached about these smaller things. When it comes to big problems, like concern about coming up with the money to pay the mortgage for years, women are much more cool, calm, and detached. Men tend to focus on the biggest problem. Women will complement that. We're a perfect fit. But without understanding that, we clash.
How do these brain and hormone differences play a part in happiness and satisfaction?
The source of depression for women is a lack of nurturing support, and that's what we call friendships. The source of depression for men is a lack of testosterone-stimulating work. So if he doesn't feel confident in what he does or he doesn't feel his work is meaningful, than that causes the major depression in his life. It's been well documented that when a man is depressed, his testosterone levels are very low. When women are very unhappy, their oxytocin levels are very low.
In your book, you write that our society is not supporting women enough?
There's not a lot of support for women to take the time they need to do the things they love to do. Historically, women did not take such time and they were fine, but that's because they were living in an environment that was primarily oxytocin-stimulating. It was cooperative, collaborative, noncompetitive, non-goal-oriented, and nonisolated.
I was just down in Ecuador with indigenous tribes and one of their basic cultural rules is women aren't allowed in the jungle, which is a testosterone-producing environment. Today, we've got women in the jungle. Women spend much of their day in the jungle producing testosterone—anytime you're working for money, you're primarily stimulating testosterone. That exacts a price.
So what can a man do to help a woman reduce stress?
Usually when a man listens to a woman, he doesn't listen. He tries to solve her problem. Instead, your objective is not to solve anything. You gaze at her saying, "Tell me more—what else?" She has this 10-minute venting session, which is helping to stimulate her oxytocin. When women do things that stimulate oxytocin, it causes their cortisol levels to gradually decline.
What does the man get out of it?
Whenever a man does something to help raise a woman's oxytocin, it will raise his testosterone. When he does this listening and gazing exercise with the women, there will be a huge boost to his testosterone. He has a role! Men's stress levels go down when they feel needed. To a great extent, when women are making money, the men don't feel as needed. There's nothing more wonderful than when you're the provider and the woman's appreciating what you provide. That raises his testosterone levels.
Any other advice?
The most important is to cultivate romance—it's the most powerful way to increase oxytocin in a woman and testosterone in a man. As women have become more testosterone-oriented, romance has become more and more important in our society. Romance stimulates oxytocin, which regulates orgasmic function. But men don't understand women need gentle, gradual attention.
Meantime, she can ask for help with little things, and the man feels appreciated. That's very important. Even just asking him to pick things up from the store for dinner, say. I'll grumble at first, but once I'm moving in the direction of achieving that goal, my testosterone levels go back up. Finally, women have to create periods of time where they do the thing they love to do, and do it in a non-deadline-oriented way. Do the nurturing, bonding things, and don't feel guilty about it.