Men often complain that women are too emotional; women often complain that men are not emotional enough. These are stereotypes. A blog article by therapist Lisa Franchi Using Your Emotional Brain to Improve Your Relationship confirms these scenarios. She states that modern brain research is opening up factual evidence to support our theories of differences between the sexes.
To explain these stereotypes we must go back to primitive times, when women spent most of their time at home with fellow women and their children. Men, on the other hand, were out hunting, gathering or fighting. Thus, due to constant communication and social interaction, the emotional part of the female brain developed more effectively — and is now 25 per cent larger, than that of the male.
Scientists have known for a while that men and women have differences in brain structure.
In 2001, researchers at Harvard University found that different parts of the brain were sized differently in men and women. They found that the area responsible for decision-making and problem-solving (the frontal lobe) and the area responsible for regulating emotions (the limbic cortex) were both larger in women. On the other hand, both parts of the brain which regulate sexual and social behaviour (amygdala) and space perception (parietal cortex) were larger in men.
Because of this, women are far better at detecting subtle changes in mood, from facial expressions and tone of voice. Having a more profound emotional brain is also the reason why women tend to spend so much time thinking about their relationships. Men on the other hand, spend more time thinking about sports and work – today’s version of hunting and gathering. Whilst this difference in emotional brains is often viewed as a problem, it actually has a useful function in setting the balance in a relationship. The male’s emotional tune-out works well in giving protection against distress, so he can stay calm in a crisis while the women’s brain focuses on nurture or rescue.
The two brains can work together positively. Thus in a crisis such as a house catching fire, the male might focus on putting the fire out while the female might call for help and rescue the children.
When it comes to recovery from addiction, relationships are often in need of repair. The differences in the emotional brains of men and women can cause problems and misunderstandings. For instance, women may think that their partners are no longer interested in them when they don’t talk much during conversations, or when they want to go out with friends instead of staying at home. Men on the other hand, may feel misunderstood because the female partner doesn’t recognise their needs for ‘space’, ‘action’ or ‘challenges’.
Couples working on their relationship might benefit from understanding their brain differences. For example, emotional conversations often stress a man out. Some men can tolerate only a 10-minute emotional conversation. More than this can trigger ’emotional fatigue’ and the ‘fight or flight’ response. When a man starts to show discomfort or seems to be shutting down, some women might turn up the heat at this point, perhaps feeling ignored or rejected but this can result in bigger communication problems; the woman might do better in such a case to keep the conversation short. Luckily, many women are good at sensing emotional discomfort in men even before men realise it themselves, (and some men are equally good at this.)
Rebuilding a damaged relationship can be one of the biggest challenges in recovery, and understanding a partner’s strengths and weaknesses plays a crucial part. The differences between a man and a woman’s emotional brain may seem like the source of a problem but they originated for a purpose. They are there not just to create balance, but also to help a couple work together.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | July 27, 2021