To work effectively with couples, you have to have a theory. By theory, I mean a model of how people think, feel and, most importantly, interact. The point of any psychotherapy model is to illuminate the wheels and pulleys that keep the destructive interactions cycling around and around, and to identify the true levers of change. As an example, a theory that some counselors and social scientists use to help unravel the mysteries of human mating behavior is the idea that men and women experience the world very differently, and that this explains why they often have trouble getting along.
It’s not a new or particularly original idea — it’s featured in the Bible and, more recently, in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. But in the past 10 to 15 years, it has been getting a lot of support from neuroscience because there are noticeable differences in brain structure between men and women. Neuroscientists and others are applying the findings from brain scan research to their models of human behavior, to make them more useful in practice.
People get understandably heated when discussing this issue of male/female differences, especially when the neuroscientists get involved. A friend of mine in the social sciences at UCSB gets infuriated when I mention neuroscience in relation to couples or therapy. “It’s just BS,” she argues. “That stuff is either written by idiots who don’t understand it, or by nonidiots making money writing idiocy for a gullible public.” Her irritation is tied to a belief that neuroscience is being used in support of a dangerous misconception: that women are designed by nature to be sensitive and helpful assistants to men.
My friend is particularly galled by simplistic interpretations of the research showing variations in size of brain structures found in men and women. Jill Goldstein of Harvard University, for instance, found that, among other variations, men have larger amygdalas, on average, and smaller hippocampi than women. Respected neuroscience blogger Neuroskeptic acknowledges that this is “good science,” but cautions against drawing psychological conclusions from the comparison. “Bear in mind that there could be a million reasons why men’s and women’s brains are different,” he warns. “It might have nothing to do with inborn differences.”
Similar warnings also might pertain to recent brain-scan research showing that men have both more white matter and gray matter in the areas of the brain associated with systematizing and analyzing, while women have higher concentrations of both in those areas associated with empathy, intuition and emotion. Taiwanese researcher Kun-Hsien Chou, who demonstrated this correlation between white and gray matter earlier this year, calls the two brain systems the “social brain” and the “analytical brain.” But academic psychologist and feminist Cordelia Fine objects strenuously to what she calls the “neurosexism” of shorthand descriptions like these. As she argues in the recently published (and witty) Delusions of Gender, “It’s simply not the case that people use one particular lobe, or a circumscribed area of the brain, to read a novel, or write an essay, or solve an equation, or calculate the angle of a triangle.” These ideas support damaging stereotypes of women, she insists.
All of which says, don’t believe everything you read about the neuroscience of gender. At the same time, a better understanding of just how men and women process experience differently is incredibly valuable in working with couples, and the huge amount of new research connecting particular human capabilities such as analyzing or empathizing with male and female brain structures seems just too important to brush aside.
For instance, psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of The Male Brain, describes research showing how men process emotion using the Temporal-Parietal Junction (TPJ), a brain area that correlates to an emotional function she calls “cognitive empathy.” Women, on the other hand, employ the Mirror Neuron System (MNS) to accomplish the same feat. Mirror neurons correlate to a “gut feeling” about the emotional experience of others. Brizendine terms this “emotional empathy.” To see why this distinction between cognitive and emotional empathy might be useful in helping couples get along, let me describe the problems facing Andrew and Lacy, two clients from a half-decade or so ago.
Andrew was a senior designer for a Los Angeles video game startup company. I mention this because, on reflection, I realize that Andrew’s work was heavy on “visuospatial perception” processing where men are, on average, stronger. Females, statistically, have an advantage in language processing. And, in fact, Lacy was a journalist who specialized in writing about psychology.
The couple arrived for their first session already fighting. As I often do with couples, we began by deconstructing their conflict, trying to track and understand the tiny micro-second ping-ponging of emotions that by now was so automatic and lightening fast that they couldn’t see it playing out. About 20 minutes in, they had this exchange.
“I understand that Andrew doesn’t do well when I get upset,” Lacy was explaining, “so I try to contain it. But then once in a while I need him to be there for me … to look in my eyes, and speak softly to me, and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ or whatever. But mostly just be there.”
“It’s not ‘once in awhile,’” Andrew responded immediately, “and it goes on forever once it starts, and somehow I’m always the bad guy.” He put his head in his hands and stared at the floor. “Anyway, I said I was sorry.”
“Sorry?” Lacy shot back instantly. Turning to me, she said, “That’s exactly it. He never takes responsibility for the hurt or the mistakes, and then when he wants to shut me up, he says ‘I’m sorry.’”
Andrew looked up at me and shook his head. “This is it. This is how it goes. Honestly, I don’t even know what she’s talking about half the time.”
“You’re calling me crazy,” Lacy accused. Then, turning to me, “I can’t go on like this. … He’s got it all figured out, and really, it’s all about me overreacting and being stupid.”
“Did I say that?” Andrew asked sharply.
“You might as well have,” Lacy replied. “It sure feels like that’s what you mean.”
What’s the disconnect here? On a behavioral level, they’re just caught in a loop of mutual and escalating attack. But applying Brizendine’s distinctions about empathy shines a slightly different light on the interaction.
First, Andrew is trying — really trying — to understand Lacy’s anguish by using his analytical TPJ. But Andrew’s cognitive empathy may be overwhelmed by the pace and verbal power of Lacy’s emotional processing. At the same time, Lacy’s MNS is scanning futilely (especially Andrew’s face) for emotions that just aren’t there. Andrew has them on hold as he tries furiously to get the situation organized in his head. Lacy begins to panic because “there’s no one home over there.” She’s feeling abandoned, once again. Andrew becomes increasingly frustrated and angry because neither his analysis nor his solutions are producing any relief for Lacy.
In other words, the loop that Andrew and Lacy are caught in includes not just a spiral of mutual attacking, but a sincere mutual attempt to understand and take care of each other. Unfortunately, it’s as if they are looking at each other through the opposite ends of a telescope.
In the end, we were able to work through Andrew and Lacy’s problem without the help of neuroscience. There has been for some time a sort of Men are from Mars kind of awareness of males as analytical “fix it” types, who just don’t get it about women. That book, by John Gray, came out to much hooting from the academic and clinical communities for its simplistic depictions. But Gray’s books and programs have been a home run with the public. Not only did they make him rich (Gray is the “bestselling relationship author of all times,” according to his Web site), but Gray’s books, I do believe, have helped thousands of people become a little more understanding and tolerant of their partners’ sex-based differences.
The set of distinctions coming out of neuroscience, though, are far less simplistic, and add real nuance and detail to the picture of couples that therapists can use to decipher their problems. Brizendine’s idea of cognitive vs. emotional empathy, for instance, springs to life in the faces of Andrew and Lacy as they miss each other’s meaning again and again during their fight. While Andrew can tolerate a few seconds of feeling Lacy’s emotions in his own body during an argument, he switches quickly to a more cognitive mode to shut out the internal distraction, and instantly loses his gut level connection to Lacy’s feelings. Lacy, meanwhile, experiences Andrews analytical probing as mechanical and unloving. Lacy’s oft-repeated protest “you just don’t get it” is as infuriating to Andrew as his frustrated “you’re crazy” is to her.
Like the cognitive/emotional gap between sexes, the verbal/mechanical split can play out dramatically in therapy when one partner (often a male) has far less ability to describe or even name emotions. It’s surprisingly common, at least in my practice, that a man will have trouble saying more than “I feel bad” or “I feel good.” When you press for more specificity, he goes painfully blank. This can lead the other partner (often a woman) to feel frustrated, unseen and unappreciated in her full emotional complexity.
Once, in a session with Andrew, as I was encouraging him to just articulate what feeling was “right there, on top” (in this case, feeling criticized), Lacy snatched up a Pez dispenser that had been left in my office by a child and shouted, “Like this, Andrew.” She popped out five tabs in quick succession. “Just say the first thing, then the second, then the third. Like that.” Her outburst shut everybody up for a beat or two, then all three of us laughed out loud.
Like neuroscience and Martians, the Pez dispenser can provide a helpful model — a metaphor — for aspects of the human emotional process. Feelings do seem to pile up and lock each other in place. And talking about one feeling seems to open the gates for other feelings beneath it. I say this not to trivialize neuroscience, but to suggest that its usefulness for psychology may be in its explanation of how we cross-reference disparate experiences.
My own guess is that: A) people fall along a continuum of verbal/emotional and rational/analytical behavior, with women and men clustered predictably down the line. B) Since brains generate behavior, there must be some (gendered) correlation between the two. C) At the same time, the brain is the most intricate mechanism in the universe, as far as we know, and we could probably generate infinity of theories from the signals it gives off. D) As for the nature/nurture argument that lies at the root of the neuroscience-and-gender argument, it will never be settled, because its way too complicated, and it matters so deeply to people concerned about power and social roles. And E) New theories of human emotional functioning will pop up regularly, to be quickly forgotten — at least most of them.
This leaves only the problem of the book title. Men Are Like Pez, Women Are … . I suspect there is money to be made here, and I’m open to all suggestions.
— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.