The big O in happy marriages

The big O in happy marriages

by: Mylene Mendoza-Dayrit

The following is a common scene in a lot of households with both spouses working.  Wife arrives stressed from the traffic, fetching the kids, and a boss who never appreciates her work. She drops by the kitchen to give instructions to the help regarding dinner. The husband arrives after a very stressful board meeting. Exasperated, he sinks into the couch in front of the television, a can of cold beer in hand.  He turns the TV on, zapping from news to sports channels and back. Wife sits in front of husband and starts talking about her day, giving a litany of things she had and has to do. Husband never looks at wife, seemingly lost in what he is watching. Wife gets hurt, feels more rejected and alone. Happens all the time and before they know it, a thick wall is already built between them. A wife who feels unloved and unappreciated, and a husband tired of what seems to be endless nagging. Love lost? Irreconcilable differences? No common interests? Grounds for divorce? Stop those thoughts, a study from UCLA on the differences between male and female responses to stress may just save your marriage, as revealed by Dr. John Gray, author of all the Mars & Venus book series, the latest of which are Why Mars & Venus Collide and Mars & Venus — Diet & Exercise Solutions, to the delegates of the Department of Tourism’s “Embracing Health & Wellness in the Heart of Asia,” held recently at Sofitel Philippine Plaza.

Manage Stress, Manage Health

According to Dr. Gray, our bodies are really designed to be healthy. But he adds that many hospitalized illnesses are caused by or originated from stress. Hence, one way of preventing diseases is to learn how to lower stress in life. He believes that if we improve our communication skills, we will improve our relationships at home, at work, and in the community. He points out though that the miscommunication in relationships stems from a lack of understanding on how men and women vary in coping with stress. Stress and exhaustion go hand in hand. Under stress, our body focuses on the stressor. Digestion and the immune systems slow down.  The cortisol levels in our bodies go up. We run on quick energy, and when cortisol is up, we stop burning fat or long energy. That is why our body craves sweets or simple carbohydrates when we are stressed. We need a boost of energy. Increased cortisol puts us in a sugar-burning rather than a fat-burning mode, says Dr. Gray. He believes that most weight gain is from stress. This is due to the need for fast- burning sugar.

Men: Solve It or Forget It  

We have heard of the “fight or flight” approach to stress.  Stress triggers a hormonal cascade that prepares the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible.

“Men either solve the problem when they can, or they forget about it when they can not,” says Dr. Gray. 

Men need testosterone to cope with stress. They need to relax and forget the problems of the day. They need to rest their muscles. To take time out and rebuild. In ancient times, after a whole day of hunting or fishing, the man goes to the cave and spends time there alone. He only goes out and socializes with his family or community after some rest.  Today, a man’s cave might mean watching TV, reading a book, or whatever activity gives him some time and space alone.

Under stress, men produce a lot of testosterone. They focus on the problem and use logic over emotions. Men are primarily left-brained. They respond to work stressors such as deadlines, targets, and competition by meeting, planning, evaluating, and setting goals. They recover by going to the cave, by resting alone. Oh no! And wife thinks that he completely ignores her. It’s not like he doesn’t care. It’s just the wrong time to speak to him during his much-needed recovery time alone in his “cave.”

Women: Let’s Talk About It

Stress studies used male subjects in general until recently when UCLA looked specifically into how women deal with stress. They found out that while men relieve stress by not talking about feelings and going into the “cave,” women relieve stress by talking with others about their feelings. Females, on average, have a larger deep limbic system than males. The limbic system’s role is to process emotions, allowing women to better express their feelings than men.  The hormone oxytocin is released in a stressed woman; this buffers the “fight or flight” stress response and encourages nurturing activities like homemaking and socializing. For a woman, if she can’t solve a problem, she would like to talk about it and how she feels about it … sometimes talk about it no end. This “tend and befriend” approach releases more oxytocin that counters stress and produces a calming effect on her.

Oxytocin is produced in both men and women.  However, the female hormone estrogen enhances oxytocin’s role and the tend-or-befriend response while the male hormone testosterone enhances the fight-or-flight response. While men focus on a problem and use their logic, women tend to use both left and right brain. That means they also consider their feelings.  While men tend to look for the more linear point, women tend to see things as interconnected and therefore talk about the connections of points.

The Extra Challenge of the Working Mom

More than just juggling time, the working woman must understand what happens inside her hormonally to shift from being a player in the corporate world to being a homemaker. In the workplace, the working woman is subjected to the same stress as the working man — deadlines, targets, challenges, and competitions. She is expected to go through the same planning, organizing, goal setting, and other corporate strategies to realize goals. She tries to use both her left (logical) brain and right (emotional) brain to finish the tasks at the same time as a male counterpart who, being focused and specialized, goes direct to the point. The stress she feels then is double because while the corporate activities produce more testosterone for the man to help him cope with stress, the only way she can cope with it is to “tend-and-befriend.” 

The bonding hormone

We are not talking here about that which results in intimate sexual relationships, but that which we derive from a caring one. Indeed, the greatest finding of the UCLA study is the role of oxytocin to calm the stressed woman. Animals and people with high levels of oxytocin are calmer, more relaxed, more social, and less anxious. When women get to cope with stress by tending and befriending, they become healthier and succumb less to the ill effects of stress. That alone may be one reason why women on the average live seven years longer than men. However, now that women are as competitive in the workplace as men, they should be aware of how to de-stress, otherwise the compounded stress they get will also eat their health away.

Oxytocin goes by certain nicknames such as “the bonding hormone,” “the cuddle hormone” or even “the love hormone.” Appreciation, generous touch, gratitude, and emotional connections with others raise oxytocin levels. Oxytocin production seems to also be the best benefit one gets from meditation, massage, and acupuncture.

Look and Listen

Dr. Gray says that knowing what he knows, he applies a very quick fix to enrich his marriage. He makes it a point to look at his wife and listen for at least 10 to 15 minutes. This makes his wife feel good. Most divorces are actually initiated by women, he claims.  And this is most likely because women do not understand the need of men to decompress in their “caves” to cope with stress. They misunderstand this male response as lack of interest in them.  Repeated incidents of such create a wedge between them that widens as the years go by. Women are really designed to get upset about small things. Maybe this is because they see the connection to other things, or maybe they just want a topic to discuss with the husband. While she may start upset, talking calms a woman down. But definitely not when nobody listens to her.

Dr. Gray also stresses the need for at least a weekly date.  The problem though is that the romantic wife normally expects that the man should initiate everything. That is not correct, Dr. Gray points out, as the wife can initiate by giving options.  “Honey, I was thinking we could either go to the beach house this weekend or watch a concert.  It’s really up to you.”  Choosing one which the man knows will make the woman happy will make the man happy, too, assures Dr. Gray. And by the way, Dr. Gray stresses there should be food involved!  Women don’t only need to talk and be listened to.  Women need to discuss over food. 

“A woman who is under stress and hungry has a negative selective memory. She can only remember all your past mistakes,” warns Dr. Gray.


*The above post was publish under the author’s column “Well-Being” last November 4, 2008 in the Lifestyle section of the Philippine Star


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