Healthy Relationship Tips: How Men and Women React Differently to Stress


So many of us confuse love with needing. We get things backward; we assume being loved means having one’s needs fulfilled. In reality, a healthy relationship supports both partners healing themselves. When we understand men and women’s different stress reactions, we can learn how to use a constructive approach for healing ourselves, or how to reach out to others to assist us in healing ourselves.  Dr. John Gray’s book, Men, Women and Relationships, helps us to understand the opposite sex when under stress.

Under stress men will withdraw and shut down; he will be motivated to affect or control his environment. To maintain his control he needs to analyze objectively how his actions are responsible for what happened and realize what he can do to change things. The masculine way to reduce stress is to change or eliminate whatever object or situation is causing the stress. Initially, most men will react to stress by shutting down their feelings so they can objectively look at the situation; his whole awareness contracts and becomes focused. He then tries to pull out of it by detaching himself from his emotional reactions; he minimizes the importance of the problem, acting as though everything is fine; he becomes distant and withdrawn.

Under stress women will become overwhelmed, overreact, and become exhausted; she will attempt to change her attitude and try to improve the situation through forgiveness, love, gratitude, or tolerance. What typically happens in a relationship is that a woman will tend to repeatedly compromise and adjust herself. After she has sacrificed and surrendered her position repeatedly, she will begin to feel resentful. Suppressing her feelings may appear to make her more loving and positive, but in truth it disconnects her from her true self. To effectively cope with stress a woman needs to center herself; to do this she needs to be heard with caring, understanding, and respect.  When a woman has the time and support to share her feelings, beliefs, perspectives, and attitudes, she will be able to discover for herself how she can change to be more loving, accepting, appreciative, and trusting.

During a stressful situation, a man needs time to mull over his thoughts and feelings until he is able to understand how he could have done it differently; only then will he feel comfortable talking about what happened and why it happened. In truth, a man shuts down automatically when he feels painful emotions arising into his consciousness; when he shuts down, he is simply asking for space, but a woman interprets it as a declaration of complete rejection. One of the most valuable things a person can do for a man under stress is to not try to help him in any way. When he invites communication, you could ask,  “what happened?” Then when he becomes talkative, ask him “why” he thinks it happened.

When a woman becomes upset, she needs time to explore her feelings through sharing before she is able to be her loving, accepting, trusting self.  Men will typically go into judgment when a woman is upset; she needs, instead, for him to listen and support her without trying to fix her or correct her feelings. He must consciously resist trying to give advice or telling her how she should feel. When the female psyche is abused with judgment, and a woman is unable to share her hurt and be heard, she falls into feeling guilty and unworthy. In some cases, when the hurt goes unhealed, she will begin to hurt herself thorough negative self-talk; the major symptoms of negative self-talk are feelings of unworthiness, helplessness, and self-pity.

To get support from a man, a woman must learn to ask. As women learn how to share their hurt without self-pity and resentment, they can enable themselves to receive the compassion they need to bring themselves back into balance. Men must learn to become a woman’s sounding board; he can help her find balance just by listening to and understanding her frustrations. Unfortunately, he mistakenly thinks she is dumping all the blame on him. When a woman asks for support, she should warn him that right now she is rather overwhelmed and it is not his fault. After men listen for some time, one phrase that can be particularly helpful is to say, “I just don’t know how you do it.” Perhaps while hugging her you can say, ”How are you feeling?”  or “I can see you are upset. What’s the matter?”  Or he can keep asking, “What else?” or “Tell me more.” Then he should listen some more.

It is unrealistic to look for our intimate partners to heal us when we are out of balance. When we start to depend upon others to heal us, fix us, or change us, then we make it even more difficult for them to support us.

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