What He's Really Thinking When You Fight
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What He's Really Thinking When You Fight

When you and your husband argue, does he seem maddeningly unable to understand why you're so upset? New brain studies show that men and women really are wired very differently.

Where the Problem Starts

An hour before she and her husband, Tim, are expected at his parents' house, Liz walks in the door to find him watching football in the den with their toddler, Ella -- a dirty mess from her day at the playground -- at his feet. The house is a disaster, they're expected at the party in an hour and the cookies they had offered to bring to the get-together are sitting unbaked in the fridge. After racing to get the cookies in the oven while settling a work issue with a colleague on the phone, Liz dashes to the bedroom to change. "Will you get Ella ready to go? I've left her dress and shoes out," she calls out to Tim, who's still sitting in front of the tube. Tim nods his assent, and when Liz emerges, she finds him pacing impatiently by the door.

Leaning over to adjust Ella's dress, she asks Tim if he's cleaned her up. "Yes," he says, exasperated. "We're late. Let's go." But when they arrive at Tim's parents', and Liz reaches to take Ella out of her car seat, she sees that her daughter's hands and face are still covered with grime. "She's filthy," Liz hisses. Tim shrugs, saying he'll clean her up when they get inside. "That's not the point, Tim," shouts a now-fuming Liz. "Why didn't you see how dirty she was when you were changing her? She needed a bath."

Once inside, Liz can't get over her anger -- she can't even bring herself to talk to her husband. Miffed by her coldness, Tim purposefully ignores it and within moments a conversation with his uncle eclipses Liz's distress in his mind. Tim's sister, on the other hand, takes one look at Liz's flushed face and pulls her into the kitchen for a hug and a chat. "I can't believe him," Liz seethes. "She looked like something out of Oliver Twist! Not only that, but lead levels in the soil in our neighborhood are astronomical!" she says. "We had such a scare after the renovation when her first tests came back high for lead. Does he want her to have brain damage?"

Liz stays on a slow simmer for the rest of the evening. The next morning, she arrives at the breakfast table determined to find some kind of resolution. She tries to talk about the argument and what it means for their relationship, but Tim accuses her of exaggerating and overreacting. Liz thinks he doesn't care about her, and Tim doesn't know why she's making such a fuss. "Why," he wonders for the hundredth time, "does every little thing have to turn into a full-blown drama? Why can't she just move on?"

Anatomy of an Argument

Seen one way, Liz's fight with Tim is nothing more than a garden-variety marital spat. But viewed in another light, it illustrates how differently men and women react to an emotionally charged event, whether something as seemingly minor as being late to a party or something as major as a job loss. Why? Scientists are discovering that, starting in the womb, and for as long as we live, men and women receive information into brains that are significantly different in anatomy and chemical composition. Indeed, the very systems we use to produce ideas and emotion, to create memories, to conceptualize and internalize our experiences, and to solve problems are profoundly gender specific.

To show you what I mean, let's go back and look, not at who's right and who's wrong, but at the "anatomy" of Liz and Tim's argument. Within seconds of her arrival home, Liz is in full battle readiness. As she processes each new stressor -- the untidy house, the unmade cookies, the issue at work -- her brain signals for hormones to help her cope with the stress by raising her blood pressure and pushing her heart to beat at a rate almost twice what's normal. Why? It boosts her ability to think clearly and make executive decisions; it also helps make a more accurate and detailed memory of the quarrel. This was probably a more useful adaptation for our distant ancestors, when mothers parenting vulnerable and dependent children and caring for other family members needed detailed recall of situations that had previously posed danger. What's more, in women the amygdala, the part of the brain that receives and responds to stressors, has extensive connections to the parts of the brain that control blood pressure and heart rate. Men, on the other hand, have a less-extensive network: Tim is engrossed in his game, cool as a cucumber.

Had he been left to his own devices, Tim probably would have responded to the time crunch by deciding to forget the cookies, figuring there would be enough food at the party without their contribution. Liz's hormones saw to it that she deemed otherwise. Under stress, a woman's body releases high levels of a hormone called oxytocin, a gender-specific and powerful chemical that predisposes women to make and preserve connections with other people, especially those who can help them, as Tim's parents could help Liz with Ella. That night, the hormone powered Liz to go the extra mile by making a batch of cookies to facilitate bonding.

What's more, Liz has more gray matter in the frontal cortex of her brain, the area just behind the eyes, than Tim does. This is the executive center of the brain, the CEO that controls our complex behaviors. Liz also has more connections between the two sides of her brain, which may explain how she is able to process several different streams of information at the same time -- dealing with her work issue while making a recipe, for instance, or endlessly analyzing her argument with Tim while making breakfast. Tim, for the most part, activates only one side of his brain when processing information. This means that he deals with one thing at a time: He identifies a problem, comes up with a solution, and moves on. That was one of the reasons he hadn't paid much attention to Ella's needs: His answer to the "problem" -- that they were going to be late for the party -- was to get the child dressed as quickly as possible.

Where Chemicals Come In

Liz, of course, was focused on a different problem: Ella's dirty hands. Her larger executive center saw this as a threat. It sent a message to the part of the brain that helps us create memories from our experiences and to the part that stores our memories of emotionally charged experiences -- like the results of Ella's earlier lead test, which came back high after a recent home renovation.

Tim was concerned for Ella then too, but the lead-testing experience was quantitatively more unpleasant for Liz than it was for him, because of her biology. Women have higher levels of the hormone estrogen than men do, and estrogen does two things when women are under stress. First, it prolongs the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, so a woman feels more stressed in the moment than a man in the same situation. Estrogen also activates a larger field of neurons in the brains of women than it does in men; these activated cells provide women with the network needed to form a much more detailed memory of the sequence of events. So Liz's hormone levels guarantee that she has a more detailed and vivid memory of her fear than Tim does. This evolutionary adaptation allows her to take good care of Ella by remembering dangerous situations so she can avoid them in the future.

We can see differences between them in the way they fight, too. Liz's left brain, where ability to process language resides, has more gray matter than Tim's does, and she uses both sides of her brain for speech, while Tim uses only one. These factors may help explain Liz's rich, fluid accusations and Tim's corresponding retreat into silence.

That superior ability to communicate also explains how Tim's sister is able to pick up on Liz's distress right away. Women have to be better at reading the subtle and nuanced language of human expression than men, so they can better determine the needs of their highly dependent, wordless infants. The bonding that takes place between the two women is an example of a female behavior pattern in the face of stress; it serves as a better form of self-protection than the typical male "fight or flight" response.

How to Fix It

But what does all of this mean? If men and women are fundamentally, biologically different, what do those differences mean for the ultimate fate of our relationships? Are Liz and Tim destined to retreat to their sex-specific behaviors and biologically informed brains, to glare angrily at each other over their grubby child? Hopefully not. While it's clear that many of our behaviors have their roots in our sex-specific biology, it's also clear that by understanding our differences and making a genuine attempt to learn from our partners' best coping techniques, we should be able to narrow the gap between us.

This is a lot easier than it sounds. New science shows that for all creatures with a nervous system, the experiences we have of the world around us change the very structure of our brains. If experience changes brain chemistry and structure, and if the brain is the source of all human behavior, then men and women can learn a great deal from each other, changing their own brains in profound ways. Instead of bumping up against the differences between us, we can learn from them. Indeed, many of the same differences that cause us conflict in relationships also cause us joy -- isn't the contrast between his rough cheek and your smooth one at least part of what makes kissing so delicious?

But this new research raises the possibility of whether we can't push this process one step further. If practicing the piano or gymnastics changes our brains so that we get better at those skills, might we not be able to change our brains as well by "practicing" the competencies of the other sex? A helpful skill women might cultivate is the ability to speak clearly and economically when communicating with others. Men, on the other hand, might cultivate the art of listening and observing the facial expressions and body language of the people with whom they negotiate or exchange ideas. If we were to practice empathy, we would no longer have to wonder at the vast chasm that separates us and could instead take advantage of the brain's natural plasticity to become more alike.

To some extent, this metamorphosis is already happening, as the opportunities for women become more like the ones available to men, and our experiences become more similar while our roles become more blurred. As we continue to learn from one another, and in that way become more like each other, I believe we make it possible to live up to our potential in the world and to communicate more effectively with our partners in love and work, instead of firing at each other across the trenches.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, February 2006.

Reprinted from the book Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget by Marianne J. Legato, MD, FACP, founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University and author of Eve's Rib and The Female Heart. Permission granted by Rodale Inc.