Who chokes up at sappy movies? Who gets so swept away by excitement that they leap to their feet and hug complete strangers? Who falls apart when a relationship ends? The surprising answer: men. Granted, the movie is likely to be Field of Dreams, the exuberance explodes in stadiums and the breakup may be their idea. However, new research reveals that a man’s emotional life is as complex and rich as a woman’s, but often remains a mystery to him as well as to any woman who loves him.
Although emotions have long been considered a female trademark, men report feelings as often as women and describe their experiences of emotion similarly. In an analysis of the emotional intelligence of 500,000 adults, men rated just as high in emotional awareness. In studies of married couples, husbands proved as attuned to their mates’ stress levels as wives and just as capable of offering support.
Although both men and women sigh, cry, rejoice, rage, shout and pout, the sexes process and express emotions differently. “Emotions live in the background of a man’s life and the foreground of a woman’s,” says psychologist Josh Coleman, PhD, author of The Lazy Husband. “Testosterone dampens feelings in men, who compartmentalize and intellectualize more. Women seem naturally more in touch with their emotions, while men have to work at it. But when they do, it’s a win-win situation. They discover a whole new dimension of themselves. Their relationships are happier, and they’re happier too.”
Inside the Male Brain
Thirteen years ago, businessman Chris Schroder, 48, of Atlanta, had it all: robust good health, the job he’d always wanted, a wife and two children he cherished. In one soul-searing month, he was hospitalized with appendicitis, he was laid off and his marriage fell apart. “All three legs of the tripod of my life were kicked out from under me,” he recalls. “I had been cruising along, not expressing much of anything, not aware that you need to and not knowing how to.”
Why are many men so emotionally clueless? Blame the male brain. “Men are hard-wired differently,” says David Powell, PhD, president of the International Center for Health Concerns, who explains that the connection between the left brain, home of logic, and the right, the seat of emotions, is much greater in women. “Women have the equivalent of an interstate highway, so they move readily between the right and left brains. For men the connection is like a meandering country lane, so we don’t have such ready access to feelings.”
This may explain why, in 125 studies in various cultures, boys and men were consistently less accurate at interpreting unspoken messages in gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. Men also react less intensely to emotions — and forget them faster. In an experiment at Stanford University, photographs of upsetting or traumatic images triggered greater activity in more regions of female brains. Three weeks later the women remembered more detail about the pictures than the men. In similar ways, the researchers speculated, a woman may continue stewing over a tiff or slight her husband has long forgotten.
Divorce, which typically is more emotionally devastating for men, forces them into unexplored emotional territory. “I had to face raw emotion for the first time,” says Schroder, who recently remarried after more than a decade on his own. “For years I wrestled with deep, intense feelings I never knew I had. Once you’re in touch with your emotions, you can’t bottle them back up. Now I appreciate life more. I’m in touch with my creative side. If I’d known everything I’ve learned, I might have been a better husband.”