There are startling differences between men and women.
There was a study conducted at the Behavioral Health Science Department at the University of California, Berkeley, which shed lots of light on gender differences between men and women in their startle reaction.
The experiment must have been profoundly unpleasant for the research subjects. A gun was fired behind each volunteer to measure their startle response. Both men and women had the same startle reflex, but physiological measurements detected some fundamental differences.
Once startled by the gunshot, the heart rate for men went up much higher and took longer to return to normal. Most interesting was that the emotional reactions to being startled were completely different for men and women.
When women were asked what they felt after being startled, they reported experiencing fear.
In fact, research has shown repeatedly that in stressful situations, women typically become fearful, and are much more likely to react fearfully to that same situation in the future. Women also experience far more fear over their lifetimes than men. However, one key difference between men and women is that women are far more able to access social supports.
One of the most important things women report that they need from men is to feel physically and emotionally safe with them. This desire is grounded in fundamental biological and physiological differences that are no doubt further enhanced by socialization and cultural expectations.
Men reported feeling angry, and in some cases, anger so intense that they contemplated revenge on the researcher. High stress causes men to feel less fearful, while women tend to feel more fearful. The implications of this study for couples therapy are evident.
Women evolved this heightened fear response as a natural result of their more vulnerable position. Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic experience, which aggravates their natural inclination to become more fearful in the future.
We don’t know how much of these startling differences are from socialization, and how much are from psychobiology. We do know that women’s experience contributes to both. For example, 25% of young girls have been sexually abused by the age of 18, and a whopping 50% of our women in uniform have been either sexually assaulted or are victims of rape. The bottom line is this; men are capable of instilling fear. And some men can be dangerous. So, as a consequence, women are more easily and readily fearful.
Dr. Susan Johnson is the developer of the evidence-based couples therapy method Emotionally-Focused Therapy.
She has observed that neuroscience is now revealing just how profoundly intimate partners can influence and soothe reach other around their fearful reactions. In a now-famous study conducted at the University of Virginia, women were hooked up to FMRI machines and were told that that electrical shock was soon to be administered.
They did a series of experiments. In one case, each woman held the hand of a stranger, in another, her husband’s hand, and in another case, she was on her own with nobody’s hand to hold.
The neuroscience was impressive. When the woman had no hand to hold or held a strange hand, there was absolutely no change in her level of fear. But when she held her husband’s hand, there was an interesting, nuanced response.
If the woman identified herself as unhappily married, there was a modest but measurable drop in her fear reaction. But if she reported that she was happily married, holding her husband’s hand completely eliminated her fear.
Johnson built on this FMRI research and was able to demonstrate that Emotionally-Focused Therapy produced measurable changes in the brain that eliminated fear and pain by restoring the couple’s intimate bond.
Women are deeply attuned to issues of stress. Research at the University of Dundee reported that women find calm men more attractive than men who are high-stress. This again probably goes back to a recognition that a low-stress partner will have a greater ability to soothe and connect.
Touch, it seems, can be a powerful thing. If your wife is fearful, don’t dismiss her fear as silly or trivial. Men do not live with fear in the same way that women do. Comfort your wife with touch. Hold her hand. Even if things are not great between you, your effort to soothe her will be noticed, and it will have an effect. You may not think much about the merits of showing fear as far as you are concerned, but your wife’s life experiences are uniquely her own.
Life is Slippery….Hold my Hand. Jackson Browne
Research: Loren McCarter and Robert W. Levenson ” Sex differences in physiological reactivity to the acoustic startle” (lecture, presented at the Society for Psychophysiological Research Thirty-Eighth Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency Denver, Colorado, September23-27, 1998).
J.A. Coan, H.S. Schaefer, and R. J. Davidson, Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat,”Psychological Science 17, no. 12 (December 2006) 1032-9.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.