What Men Can Learn from Women’s Nature During Times of Stress

by Kregg Nance, MA
Author of “Get the F Out of My Life: A Men’s Breakup Survive and Thrive Guide”

There’s a very revealing story about a couple that highlights a big difference in how men and women deal with struggles. The wife had gotten a flu bug going around that left her feeling lousy. Even though she has a husband, who everyone assumed was probably taking care of her, her female friends checked on her and asked if she needed chicken soup and offered to help in any way. One of her friends even invited her to a salt cave which helped with breathing and healing. The husband ended up getting the same bug that lasted for weeks. One male friend did call to ask how he was doing after he had been sick for a while, but all the others left him to deal with it by himself. His friends didn’t check on him or ask if they could help.

This made me think of how men leave each other alone when going through tough times instead of supporting each other in a more obvious way. In researching my book, I found that this different way of dealing with struggles also occurs after a bigger issue like a breakup or divorce. The default male behavior is to try to deal with issues ourselves and our male friends assume that we want to be left alone to deal with it.

The difference is often cited as a cultural issue, but I think it goes beyond that and begins with a different brain structural challenge for men. Here are two noteworthy quotes from two major physicians and neuropsychological researchers:

"Negative emotions are seated in an ancient structure of the brain called the amygdala. Girls develop an early connection between this area and the cerebral cortex, enabling them to talk about their feelings. In boys these links develop later. So, if you ask a troubled adolescent boy to tell you what his feelings are, he often literally cannot say. When girls are under stress, they want to be with their friends more. When boys are under stress, they may just want to be left alone"

Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.
“Why Gender Matters”

“Until recently, differences in how men and women feel and express emotions were thought to be due to upbringing alone. And to be sure, how our parents raise us can reinforce or suppress parts of our basic biology. But we now know that the emotional processing in the male and female brain is different. Research has suggested that our brains have two emotional systems that work simultaneously: the mirror-neuron system, or MNS, and the temporal-parietal junction system, or TPJ. Males seem to use one system more, and females seem to use the other system more. If we could scan Neil’s brain as Danielle complained about her problem and started to cry, we’d see both of his systems for reading emotions switching on. First, his MNS would activate. The mirror neurons that make up his MNS would allow him to briefly feel the same emotional pain he was seeing on Danielle’s face. This is called emotional empathy. Next, we’d see his brain’s analyze-and-fix-it circuits being activated by the TPJ as it searched his entire brain for solutions. This is called cognitive empathy. The male brain is able to use the TPJ starting in late childhood but after puberty a male’s reproductive hormones may cement a preference for it. Researchers have found that the TPJ keeps a firm boundary between emotions of the “self” and the “other.” This prevents men’s thought processes from being infected by other people’s emotions, which strengthens their ability to cognitively and analytically find a solution. “

Louann Brizendine, M.D.
“The Male Brain”

We men are better at holding the line on emotional overload than women are, but we are worse at emotionally supporting each other during tough times. Some of the positive sides of masculinity are stoicism, competitiveness, the ability to not let emotions overwhelm us. But these positives come with a negative side and it manifests the most when men are alone after a divorce or breakup.

“Men may be more emotionally dependent on their romantic partners and have fewer alternative sources of support. When asked who they would turn to first if they were feeling depressed, 71% of men selected their wife whereas only 39% of women selected their husband (author’s calculations from the General Social Survey, 1972-2012).”

Elizabeth Aura McClintock Ph.D. in her article “Why Breakups Are Actually Tougher on Men” (Psychology Today, December 19, 2014, http://bit.ly/2GvyHde)

Since men don’t easily function in the emotional empathy world, we think talking about feelings will be a waste of time unless it has a purpose to it or is fixable. So, many of us will retreat into our cave and try to handle it ourselves. Our friends may leave us alone to deal with it, because they think that’s what we want, or they don’t know what to say.

I think this can and needs to change, especially given our changing landscape of relationships. Even though staying on our own is our default way of dealing with things, I suggest we can improve upon that and manage our amygdala and the negative effects of it better.

Here is a list of reasons that men do worse after divorce, making it all the more important that men will need to check more often on their friends during tough times:

  • Divorce is associated with worse physical and mental health more strongly for men than for women (Robards 2012).
  • These negative health effects are not trivial—men are more likely than women to develop suicidality after a separation (Kolves 2010).
  • Women may actually experience some health benefits from breaking up. For example, when stable heterosexual couples are asked to sleep apart (not sharing the same bed or sleeping space), women’s quality of sleep is improved whereas men’s quality of sleep is reduced (Dittami et al 2007).
  • Much of the negative effect of divorce on men’s health may be explained by changes in lifestyle such as tobacco and alcohol use (Hemminki and Li 2003).
  • Wives encourage husbands’ healthy behavior (Reczek and Umberson 2012); without this positive influence, divorced men may rapidly fall into old, unhealthy habits.
  • Married women may maintain a more diverse network of emotional support than married men, and this non-spousal support is important during a separation. That isn’t to say that men don’t have friends or family, but they may be less accustomed to seeking or receiving non-spousal emotional support. In fact, some researchers have even argued that men are neurochemically-predisposed to find breakups more difficult than women and to resist seeking help from friends (Young and Alexander 2012)

Elizabeth Aura McClintock Ph.D. in her article “Why Breakups Are Actually Tougher on Men” (Psychology Today, December 19, 2014, http://bit.ly/2GvyHde)

So, with all of that reality stacking up against us, what can we learn and use that works for women, but do it the male way? What is the solution if our default way of behavior doesn’t work anymore? I suggest making it a task with a clearly understandable way of going about it. Since it may not come natural, we can plot it out.

My suggestion is to make a 211 call to your friend. I like to use acronyms and easy to remember ideas to help us figure out what to do when stressed. Dialing 211 in many cities was set up by the FCC so that those in need could get information about everything from physical and mental health services to suicide prevention. I’m suggesting that you make a 211 call to your friend, since he may not make one himself. The 211 is a way to remember what to do.

According to a study by Robin Dunbar, director of Oxford University's social and evolutionary neuroscience research group, men get the greatest benefits out of physically getting together with their friends twice per week. It doesn’t matter what the activity is. It can be getting a beer at a pub, watching sports, playing a sport together, a coffee klatch or a poker night. Since science shows us that we need the support of our friends by physically getting together twice per week even in good times, then it is very important during times of stress because we may retreat and not be able to get over it in an integrative way.

"Although men have earned the reputation for being more stoic than women, they actually have stronger emotional reactions than women do. They just don't show it very often. The male brain can fall in love just as hard and fast as the female brain, and maybe more so. Studies of men's faces show that the male brain's initial emotional reaction can be stronger than the female brain's. But within 2.5 seconds, he changes his face to hide the emotion, or even reverse it."

Louann Brizendine, M.D.
“The Male Brain”

Since you know that your friend may be hiding what the stress is doing to him, you can do him a big favor by reaching out and nudging him into getting together. Here’s how it would work:

211: You call your friend and ask at least 2 questions about how they are doing, then make 1 invitation to an event with you, then offer 1 favor that you are willing to do for them as a way to come to their place.

Their natural instinct may be to say they are fine. I’m suggesting that you go past that and nudge them into talking or getting together or accepting your reach out. Make it a friendly task. Here’s a quick way to lay it out:

“How are you doing my friend?”
“Do you feel at all like getting a beer and talking about what’s going on?”
(If says he’s fine or he doesn’t want to talk about it, go to the next step)

“By the way, there’s a great concert I was wanting to go to next week. Want to go with me?”
(If he still says he’s fine or he doesn’t want to go to the event, go to the next step)

“I tell you what, I’ll come by tonight and help you with that barbecue that you said needs some work. What do you say?”

If he resists all of your 211 reach out, then give him some time and try again a week later. The reason to do all of this is what I highlighted earlier. Men won’t understand the cost of staying on our own, but there is no question that most of us would benefit from talking and getting together during times of stress rather than retreating.

Another thing worth mentioning is that if this is not your normal way, your friend may feel it’s obvious what you are doing in trying to get him to “talk” or get together. Speak to the elephant in the room and own up to it. Maybe say “Yes, well actually I am reaching out, because I know it’s a tough thing you are going through, so I may bug you again next week”.

One bonus thing might happen…when you do a supportive reach out to a friend, just the considerate action of reaching out alone will do good for your friend’s mental health and for yours. It will register in his mind that you care even if he declines your offer at the time. And you will be expanding your ability to do a nice thing for a friend.

Making the 211 call may be awkward, but there is no question it is worth it for your friend. And you will benefit as well, because as you do the reach out, it will likely come back to you in a time of need. And what better way to show a buddy that you care, than to help him when he is down rather than only getting together when he is up.

Men checking on men is a win-win and we can always use a win when we are down. Make a 211 to your friend and both of you win.