By Gary Thomas
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
Many marital problems arise not because of an issue between a specific couple—say, Jack and Jill or Larry and Shari—but because of a breakdown in understanding between a male and a female.
The last several decades of neuroscience have demonstrated that well before a baby comes into this world, while it remains safely tucked inside the mother’s womb, the brain of a male baby gets bombarded with testosterone, while a female baby receives greater quantities of female hormones. Between the third and sixth month of that unborn baby’s life, hormones begin to shape the tiny brain, influencing how that individual will interact with the world. Yes, males receive some female hormones, and females receive some testosterone, but the quantities of these hormones (males have up to twenty times more testosterone than females; females tend to have much more oxytocin than males) will stamp that child’s brain by the sixth month of pregnancy—three months before any mother or father has a chance to “socialize” it.
Admittedly, there exist what neuroscientists call “bridge brain” males and “bridge brain” females. Our tendency toward masculine or feminine brains occurs on a continuum, resulting in various degrees of stamping. But even here, a “bridge brain” male will have more testosterone than a “bridge brain” female.
The male brain therefore functions much differently than the female brain. Dr. Louann Brizendine, who studied at UC Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard and is now on the faculty of UCSF Medical Center, states, “The vast new body of brain science together with the work I’ve done with my male patients has convinced me that through every phase of life, the unique brain structures and hormones of boys and men create a male reality that is fundamentally different from the female one and all too frequently oversimplified and misunderstood.”
Medical tests such as PET scans, MRI scans, and SPECT scans have exploded the quaint and false notion that gender difference is determined mostly by nurture rather than by nature. While our brains are more “plastic” (that is, moldable) than we used to think and therefore susceptible to socialization, according to Dr. Brizendine, “male and female brains are different from the moment of conception.” Since brains develop by degrees, stereotyping can lead us astray, but certain things tend to be true. For example, male brains usually have less serotonin than female brains. Since serotonin calms people down, men are more likely to act explosively and compulsively. Surprised? Probably not.
When a woman doesn’t understand the way a male brain works, she risks fostering an extremely destructive male response, something researchers call stonewalling. Stonewalling describes how men shut down emotionally and verbally, ignoring another person and essentially withdrawing from the conversation. Understandably, few things irritate women more than being tuned out—and yet it is a stereotypically male action.
A biological reason helps to explain what’s going on. Michael Gurian writes, “The male cardiovascular system remains more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress . . . Since marital confrontation that activates vigilance takes a greater physical toll on the male, it’s no surprise that men are more likely than women to attempt to avoid it.”
Gurian warns that most men don’t immediately like to talk through distressing emotional events (frustrations at work or in relationships, disappointments in life) because talking about such issues usually brings them great cognitive discomfort. In other words, it hurts men to talk through hurtful experiences. Because of the way the female brain works (with the release of oxytocin), talking through emotional issues has a calming effect for most (not necessarily all) women, while the opposite is true for most men, for whom such discussions can create anxiety and distress. Since it’s more difficult for males to process the data, they feel distress instead of comfort. You may feel soothed by talking through problems; for men, it can feel like torture. That’s why men sometimes tune out; it’s a desperate (though admittedly unhealthy) act of self-defense.
When you understand that a verbal barrage takes more out of your husband than it does out of you, and that it takes him longer to recover from such an episode, you may begin to realize that criticizing, complaining, and displaying contempt will not allow you to effectively communicate with him. Proverbs 15:1 reminds us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”
You may well be addressing a legitimate issue, but if you address a legitimate issue in an illegitimate way, you’ll turn your husband away. He’ll shut you out. You’ll get more frustrated because you realize he’s not listening, which makes you criticize him even more and throw in even more contempt—and his stone wall rises higher and higher and higher.
How can you tell if your husband is falling into this pattern? Dr. John Gottman notes, “A stonewaller doesn’t give you . . . casual feedback. He tends to look away or down without uttering a sound. He sits like an impassive stone wall. The stonewaller acts as though he couldn’t care less about what you’re saying, if he even hears it.”
In Dr. Gottman’s experience, stonewalling usually happens in more mature marriages; it is much less common among newlyweds. It takes time for the negativity to build up to sufficient levels for the husband to choose to tune out his wife altogether. Gottman gives more insight into this issue: “Usually people stonewall as a protection against feeling flooded. Flooding means that your spouse’s negativity—whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness—is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked. You feel so defenseless against this sniper attack that you learn to do anything to avoid a replay. The more often you feel flooded by your spouse’s criticism or contempt, the more hypervigilant you are for cues that your spouse is about to “blow” again. All you can think about is protecting yourself from the turbulence your spouse’s onslaught causes. And the way to do that is to disengage emotionally from the relationship.”
The deadly trap here is that in the face of a legitimate complaint, your husband is poised to protect himself, rather than to try to understand your hurt. As long as he’s in protection mode, he can’t be in “How can I comfort/please/adore her” mode. You may think the greatest need is to make sure he understands what’s bugging you when in fact the greatest need may be to disarm his defenses so he can hear what you’re saying. Then, and only then, is it helpful for him to hear the actual offense.
Instead of reacting with fury, take a breather and ask yourself, “Why is my husband tuning me out?” The answer may have something to do with the way you’re treating him. If you respond to the stonewalling with the same behavior that created it, you’ll only reinforce it. Be gentle and patient, and give him time.
Adapted from Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband by Gary Thomas. Learn more about this title.
Women: you’re not alone in your marriage. You never have been, and you never will be. While it may not always feel like it, God desires for you to have a relationally healthy, emotionally engaged, and spiritually mature husband with whom you can share your days.
In Loving Him Well, Gary Thomas builds on concepts from his bestselling book Sacred Marriage to reveal the inner workings of a man’s heart and mind. He delves into Scriptures that help women gain biblical insight to influence their husbands. Exploring the research of neuroscientists, trained counselors, and abuse victim advocates, Gary also interviews dozens of wives to find what has worked and what hasn’t as they’ve sought to build the best marriage possible. In this newly updated version of Sacred Influence, Gary Thomas outlines practical applications you can begin using today.
Thomas desires to “encourage women who are in good marriages that could get even better; and offer hope and a new path forward to women who feel invisible or marginalized in their marriage.” You’ll discover the influence you can gain and the peace of mind you can build when you go first to God for your worth, validation, protection, and provision and then learn how to use that platform to help your husband draw closer to you and closer to God.
This book is a completely rewritten update of Sacred Influence, with chapters added and some older chapters deleted.
Gary Thomas is a writer-in-residence who also serves on the teaching team at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and the author of 18 books, including the bestselling Sacred Marriage, that have sold more than a million copies worldwide and have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his wife, Lisa, have been married for 30 years.