What are You Saying? The Communication of Emotions between Men and Women

Imagine a six-year-old, first grade girl on a playground at recess. She falls and skins her knee. Then she starts crying. What do all the little girls do? They run to her, help her up, inspect her wound, hold her hand, and walk her to the nurse’s office. It’s also likely that a full two hours later, they’re giving her an extra cookie at lunch and asking her if she’s ok.

Now imagine the same playground, but this time, it’s a six-year-old, first grade boy. He falls and skins his knee. Then he starts crying. What do all the little boys do? They laugh and point and call him names. It’s also likely that a full two hours later, they’re still shunning him…keeping their distance to avoid being associated with the ‘crybaby.’

Why does this difference happen? Are little boys inherently mean? ‘No’ is the simple answer.

Here’s how it works: People (as much as we fancy ourselves a sophisticated bunch) learn in essentially the same way as our pet dogs. When we want to teach our dog to sit in response to the command ‘sit,’ we pair the command and the behavior of sitting with a treat, a hardy petting, or some other desirable motivating feedback for the dog.

Similarly, we humans tend to repeat behavior that is rewarded, and we tend to avoid behavior that is punished. From the time the typical American boy is born, he is barraged with messages about toughness, not crying, and avoiding anything that is cast as ‘feminine.’ He learns this at home, in the extended family circle, among peers, at church, etc. By the time a boy enters grade school, he’s already keenly aware of the rules of engagement for his gender, and he unknowingly becomes a propagator of these rules of engagement.

Over the course of the years of the boy’s life, he is consistently confronted with messages regarding what is considered acceptable and unacceptable emotional expression for a male. Most common among these messages is that any negatively-valenced male expression of emotion should be anger. Frustrated? Anger. Scared? Anger. Tired? Anger. Sad? Anger. Defeated? Anger. The free expression of sadness or fear in male adolescence is potential social suicide.

Meanwhile, the course of the girl’s life is painted with reward for the free expression of emotion. The tears are permitted to flow openly. She is encouraged by her home, extended family, peers, church, etc. to articulate her emotional experience on a nearly infinite range of topics. In fact, females are often relationally punished for not doing so – facing labels such as b*tch, cold, or ice queen if her free expression of emotion isn’t deemed robust enough.

Bottom line, boys tend to be punished for emotional expression and rewarded for presenting as stoically flatlined. Girls tend to be punished for not being emotionally expressive enough and rewarded for the free and unbridled expression of emotion.

While this discussion could go many directions (e.g., that it can be damaging to rob boys of healthy emotional expression, that it can be professionally impairing to fail to teach girls time-and-place with regard to emotional expression), my point in writing it is to illuminate the ways in which these reward-and-punishment paradigms can erode effective relationship communication.

By the time the little girl and little boy have grown into a woman and man and decide to leap head-first into a relationship, the woman has a vast and deep emotional vocabulary – the equivalent of a dictionary. She quickly senses when she feels different, and she has been taught to communicate these feelings, their changes, her hypotheses about them, etc. Meanwhile, the man has the equivalent of a trifold brochure of emotion-related vocabulary. He’s been taught to ignore emotional changes, not investigate their origins, and deny their existence. So when the woman talks to him readily, frankly, and extensively about her emotional experience, he might be hearing something akin to white noise.

Here’s a flip-side example: My husband of 23 years is mechanically inclined. Over the years, he has worked on all of our cars – usually out of abject necessity. I’ve learned a lot from him about engines, car maintenance, etc. But he always has to speak at my level – build a knowledge foundation and expand from there. As soon as he says words like “camshaft synchronizer,” my brain short circuits, and I’m no longer following what he’s saying. And if I don’t understand the words in his sentence, my brain just kind of checks out. I feel myself getting agitated as he talks, because I know the loving and respectful thing to do is to pay attention to what he’s saying – but he’s not speaking my language. [It’d be like me staring intently and with sustained enthusiasm while someone is speaking to me in Korean. (I don’t speak Korean.)] Lately I’ve gotten better at stopping my husband when I don’t understand and asking him to translate. Then he says words like “the thing that tells the computer how to time the spark.” Suddenly, I’m following; I’m reengaged…and he doesn’t feel like I’m disinterested in what he’s saying.

In the early years of our relationship, I was guilty of speaking to him in overly emotional terms that weren’t relatable or translatable to him. His brain short circuited when I communicated things through an emotional lens and/or asked him to be emotionally supportive. (In his mind, the only things that were supportive were I-beams, trusses, rebar, etc. How would something invisible lend support?) I spoke from my perspective – with no consideration of his perspective. But neither of us knew that at the time. You can’t communicate what you don’t know. So I interpreted his nonresponse as uncaring, and while he vehemently denied the accusation that he was uncaring, he didn’t have the words to communicate that I needed to translate for him.

Fast forward 20 years and we have settled somewhere in the middle or our respective societally-influenced worlds. I use less words to describe my emotional experiences (so that his brain doesn’t check out). I try to do a better job of making my explanations relatable to him (so that he doesn’t feel frustrated). I take accountability for my own feelings and for self-soothing (so that I’m not displacing blame onto him). He, rather than defaulting to expressions of anger, has learned to articulate if he’s feeling moody – even if he doesn’t know what the particular mood or emotion is (so that I don’t personalize his mood). He regularly articulates his feelings toward me (so that I developed security in where I stood with him). He listens when I do share my emotions (so that I know my experiences are important to him).

Once we understand the common discrepancies in relational communication, it’s so much easier to fix them.

While writing this blog, I had yet another couple come in and describe their difficulties in communicating. This couple has been married for over 30 years. The wife said, “I know when he gets angry, there’s something going on in his head,” to which the husband responded, “She says that, but there’s nothing going on in my head.” I abruptly stopped them and fetched the draft of this blog from my desk. As I read it to them, they both nodded knowingly…over and over. By the time I finished, they both had smiles (or at least smirks) on their faces. They knew this was indeed the canyon between them, and like any couple, they were tired of professionals and self-help books prematurely concluding that it was one person’s fault or the other.

Is it my fault that I don’t speak Korean? Or the Korean’s fault that they don’t speak English? Neither. It just is. And if we want to learn to communicate effectively, we will work to master one another’s language.

Joye Henrie, PhD

September 2017


(Note: This post contains some generalizations and absolute language. This is not intended to stereotype or be dismissive of outliers. Rather, it is done for expediency in addressing a common issue that arises in the course of psychotherapy.)

The Invisible Creep of PTSD: How Trauma Changes the Way You Experience the World

A long-term patient of mine (who we’ll call Michael) is a combat medic with multiple combat deployments under his belt. When he started treatment with me, he already carried a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis – a diagnosis that was spot-on. After we had been working together for several months, Michael was clearly agitated when he came in for his scheduled follow-up. He explained that he had gone into a well-known big box store to return an item. In comedically colorful language, he explained that another driver almost t-boned him on his way to the store, people were walking uncomfortably close to his car in the store’s parking lot, and he crossed paths with some questionable-looking characters as he walked into the store.

By the time he reached the greeter’s podium, he was perspiring and tight-chested. The greeter apparently blew him off, but when Michael attempted to walk past the greeter, the greeter stopped Michael by grabbing him by the shoulder. At this precise moment, approximately 82 of Michael’s brain cells imploded. He went into a blind rage – screaming in the greeter’s face and threatening to annihilate him.

“I’m losing it, doc,” Michael said to me – not even attempting to hide his fear.

Michael’s story is a common story among my military patients with PTSD. And yet, they all think they’re “crazy” or “losing it.” In psychology, it’s common for providers to say, “It’s a normal response to an abnormal situation,” and unbeknownst to folks with PTSD, it’s their daily reality.

It’s like this: The average person walks around with a subconscious threat-management radar operating at all times. If they’re having a picnic in the forest and a bear approaches them, they immediately spring into action and run (or whatever it is you do if you’re unfortunate enough to come face-to-face with a bear). They don’t sit and think, “Hmm. I wonder if that fury mammal will chew on my head?” This is the basis of fight/flight/freeze. Our radar detects threat, and we respond. It’s the same if we’re walking along a city sidewalk and a car comes careening toward us or if we’re standing in a bank when a masked man with a gun yells for everyone to get on the floor.

The threat-management radar of the average person is set at a specificity level to immediately detect clear and overt threat – like the radar-equivalent of a missile.

A person with PTSD, however, has the sensitivity of their threat-management radar turned up as high as it will go. They’re no longer just detecting missiles. They’re detecting mosquitos.

Why? PTSD is, as its name states, a trauma-based disorder. It is the result of exposure to a trauma event that threatens life or limb, and the research suggests that exposures to multiple traumatic events exponentially potentiates the development of full-blown PTSD. Subsequent to these traumatic events, the person’s thoughts and beliefs about the world, themselves, and others changes. They may come to believe that the world isn’t a safe place or that people can’t be trusted or that if only they had done X, the trauma wouldn’t have occurred.

These changes lead and/or run parallel to hypervigilance (i.e., hyper-awareness of and hyper-sensitivity to one’s surroundings and its changes, and exaggerated reactions designed to manage one’s surroundings and its changes). In other words, the person with PTSD is likely to study people in their environment, notice exits (aka: escape routes), want full visibility of their surroundings, notice and investigate noises of unknown origins, etc. This is their radar operating in the hyper-sensitive mode. They’re detecting mosquitos and interpreting benign stimuli (e.g., noise, movement) as potentially threatening.

And their history tells them that they need to be ready to respond, because nonresponse can be the difference between life and death.

Now, this super-human radar setting may be periodically useful to a law enforcement officer…or a person sitting in a movie theater who hears the sound of a shotgun being cocked. But it can lead to malfunction in daily living – at a big box store, at work, sitting at home. This person’s responses to common situations are often disproportionate to the actual threat probability. People around them might view them as over-reacting or may start tip-toeing around the person’s “temper.”

The tragedy of this is that the individual with PTSD – as well as their friends, family, and colleagues – often have no idea what’s really going on, which results in the individual with PTSD feeling “other”…disenfranchised from society…standing on the outside looking in.

And let me assure you: living a life with a threat-management radar set on high sensitivity is exhausting (and unpleasant). This, unfortunately – but understandably, leads many individuals with PTSD to seek relief from the constant barrage of noise and movement and threat – whether through substance use, ‘leaning into’ threat by engaging in risky, adrenaline-fueled behaviors, or any other behavior that soothes them and allows their mind to escape and rest.

I explained all of this to Michael, and he was dumbfounded that someone could put words to a reality he’s been trapped in for years. I told him that it’s important that he starts taking mental inventories of the various stimuli coming at him at any given time – the radio blaring, the drivers cutting him off, the firetrucks blasting by with their sirens on, his son trying to talk to him, etc. Michael needs to not only take a conscious inventory of incoming stimuli, but he needs to actively manage stimuli (e.g., turn off the radio, tell his son he’ll talk to him when they get home). And on the days that he doesn’t succeed at his stimuli inventory or managing incoming stimuli, he needs to make conscious decisions about what he can and can’t adaptively do at the moment. (For example, by the time Michael walked in the big box store and encountered the greeter, he was already perspiring and tight-chested. It was unlikely that he was going to handle any other hiccups well.)

To be clear, I’m not suggesting outright avoidance, as avoidance can be the death-spiral of PTSD. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that strategic adaptations are not only wise, but can ensure maintained functionality. I’d rather Michael start going to a different, calmer big box store than end up in jail for assault or murder. I’d rather that another of my patients sets limits with his wife on when he can or can’t adaptively have a conversation, as opposed to ending up a divorced alcoholic and absent father.

Today, Michael is working on taking continuous mental inventories of his surroundings, setting limits when feeling overwhelmed, communicating these needs and strategies to his loved ones, and not seeing every situation or person as a threat. Michael is still a work in progress, but ‘progress’ is the operative word. Michael doesn’t spend as much time today perseverating on beliefs that he’s “crazy” or beliefs that he should forever be alone to protect others from his “crazy.” The world may still feel like a threatening place to Michael, but now he understands and can articulate why – which makes him feel a little more in control of his world. At his last appointment, Michael told me that he started opening his blinds every day, that he hung up motivational posters in his home gym, that he got a flower for his house, that he started having light saber wars with his son, and that he started dating a woman – despite nagging (but increasingly quieter) beliefs that she’ll eventually reject his “crazy.” Michael is now living – one little step at a time, but by god, he’s living.

Joye Henrie, PhD

September 2017