What He's Really Thinking When You Fight

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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.

Continued on page 3:  Where Chemicals Come In


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