by Amy Alkon
Q: Last week, my girlfriend was all annoyed about something (something relatively unimportant). I’m normally not a bad listener, but I was getting stressed out just hearing about this. I blurted out, “Calm down!” and she really flipped, yelling, “DON’T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN!” It took me forever (and lots of “I’m sorrrryyyys”) to get her to mellow out. I mentioned this incident to a friend, and he said, “Man, don’t you know? You never say that to a woman!” Please explain.—Mr. Doghouse
A: There are times you may want to tell a woman to calm down, like when you lack live electrical wire to chew on or are curious as to how the nurses would react if you walked into the ER with your head under your arm.
Many people believe the myth that the typical man is about as emotionally sensitive as the typical hammer. However, neuroscientist Tor Wager looked at the findings from 65 brain imaging studies and found that—overall—men’s brains weren’t any less responsive to emotional stimuli than women’s. However, Wager’s study and others did find sex differences, like that women seem more likely to experience negative emotions—fear, anxiety and depression. Women also seem to be more emotionally expressive—verbally and in writing—and better at processing emotions, so they’re less likely to end up feeling dragged out back and beaten up by them.
But for men, when women get emotional, and especially when they veer off into rantville, emotion processing can play out something like this: Woman: “Knock-knock.” Man: “Who’s there?” Woman (upset): “Feelings!” (Silence. More silence.) Woman: “Hello? Hello?! I know you’re in there! I can hear the TV!”
To a man, an irate woman’s sharing of her emotional drama can be a bit like her sharing her Drano-tini. Relationships researcher John Gottman explains that men can become physiologically overwhelmed from stressful conversation alone, getting “flooded” with stress hormones and feeling physically ill and desperate to withdraw.
This happens through a “misattribution of arousal,” which means that your brain subconsciously (and instantaneously) puts mere talk that has a stressful vibe into the wrong bin—the “fight or flight” bin that alerts you, “Run from that tiger!” In response, adrenaline surges, your heart races, sweat beads up and parts of your brain and body that aren’t vital for bolting the hell out of there shut down. Yes, that’s a “Sorry, we’re closed!” sign on your digestive tract, and—oopsy!—there’s another on your brain’s higher reasoning center (which makes sense, considering that you’re supposed to be dashing away from the tiger, not parsing whether you have ill-will toward its mother-in-law).
The thing is, running away—as your body has primed you to do—would metabolize the stress hormones. But when you just sit there, the stress hormones just sit there, pooling, poisoning you, leading to sickening feelings. The natural impulse is to take shelter from the adrenaline storm—to escape and go off and recover—but this is hard to explain in any articulate and emotionally sensitive way in the moment, as your ability to reason is on sabbatical. So, in lieu of ducking under the nearest couch like the cat, you do it verbally, telling her, “Calm down!”
Of course, the problem here wasn’t that she needed to calm down, but that you did. So when you laid that on her, she probably heard, “I’m not just going to ignore your feelings; I’m going to dismiss them.” (This always goes over so well with women.)
Explaining the sex differences in emotion processing might help you both keep in mind that a man isn’t just a woman with a different set of funparts. For example, for her, venting her feelings may simply be a way of managing them. Chances are, she just needs you to be listening (or at least appear to be while playing Minecraft in your head).
The next time that she’s “all het up” about something, take some deep breaths and remind yourself that you aren’t under attack; you’re just somebody’s boyfriend. Should you start feeling emotionally swamped, take Gottman’s advice: “Let your [partner] know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. The break should last at least 20 minutes, since it will be that long before your body calms down.”
Going for a run wouldn’t be a bad idea. However, in the spirit of better male/female communication, you need to tell your girlfriend your plan. No, you can’t just flash her a look of panic and bolt out the door—though being chased down the street by an enraged woman clutching your Renaissance Faire crossbow should do wonders in diminishing that nasty adrenaline buildup.