In the ongoing effort to help couples – young and old – to come to a better understanding of what works in a relationship, it is always helpful to be in touch with the reality of our differences. Expectations always run high in any relationship. Whether or not those expectations are healthy is an important consideration in one's peace of mind.

But, the propensity of many to develop unhealthy expectations of their partner is often the result of real gender differences in the structure of the brain.

The phrase "it's all in your head" may actually hold more truth than we thought. For, although there obviously are cultural reasons for our differences in emotions and behavior, recent breakthrough research reveals that the root of many puzzling gender differences may lie in our brains.

Men's and women's brains have much in common, but they are definitely not the same—in size, structure or sensitivities. Actually a woman's brain, like her body, is 10-15% smaller than a man's. Yet, the areas of higher cognition, such as language, may be more densely packed with neurons. The corpus callosum, the bridge of fibers running down the center of the brain, is thicker in females, which may explain the "crosstalk" between the emotional, intuitive right hemisphere and the rational, factual left. Practically speaking, this translates often as the connections women make; a form of emotional intelligence, or intuition.

In school, even at a very early age, it has been documented that girls generally speak sooner and read faster than boys. They use neural regions on both sides of the brain, in contrast to males who draw mainly on the neural regions in the left hemisphere.

A woman's brain responds more intensely to emotion; melancholy feelings activate neurons in the brain in an area eight times larger in women than men. Is it any wonder that depression is twice as common in women as in men?

It also helps us understand why women are quicker to understand emotion; to recognize it in others, while it may take men a longer time – and they need more prompting – to notice and define a woman's mood.

On the other hand, men may be better able to focus intensely—which may explain why a man, for example, can immerse himself in a book or other activity to the exclusion of others things happening in the environment.

On the road, women pay more attention to what they see, particularly landmarks, like the synagogue, a friend's house or the playground. They rely on such landmarks to find their way, while men think in terms of direction and distance ("half a mile east, then south one mile"). This spatial perception also allows men, generally, to park a car more easily than women (sorry, ladies—that's what the research proves!).

At every age, women's memories outperform men's. Women associate names with faces (remember "connections"?) and they also are better at recalling lists. (Don't blame him if he goes to the store and can't remember what you need.)

Knowing these facts could go a long way to helping people understand the marital relationship that G‑d wants us to experience. He wanted us – both men and women – to be challenged to work hard at being loving, forgiving, patient and "judging to the side of merit."

This is especially true during times when we are stressed, and the expectations seem to rise automatically, making it even more difficult to excuse another person. During these moments, we need to dig deep inside to hold onto our perspective and maintain balance.

Here's an example of one typical issue that is a direct result of the differences between how than man's and woman's brain operates, and the woman's innate greater sensitivity to emotions:

A dynamic that I often encounter with couples is the wife's inability to state her needs factually, in a business-like manner, without negative emotion. A man often gets confused when too much emotion is expressed. He takes her anger/sadness/withdrawal, etc. as a sign of personal failure which causes him to either attack or withdraw. Often, he doesn't have a clue why she's so upset. And what often makes things worse is that following a heated interchange he may get through or get over the emotion quickly and move on.

Women, on the other hand, feel that the more emotion they invest in a request (even if it's a request for greater understanding), the quicker it will be accomplished. So they continue to escalate the emotion, thinking their objective will be met faster. In reality, all that happens is that the tension is maintained. In addition, women tend to hold on longer to their hurt feelings and are left wondering, "How could he so easily dismiss what happened? It doesn't seem fair!"

So practically, how are couples to deal with their natural differences?

For starters, couples should be on the alert for three counterproductive behaviors:

1. Mind Reading—thinking that your spouse should be able to read your mind and heart and know, intuitively, what pleases or displeases you.

2. Second Guessing—thinking, "He/she should have known better, should have called, should have been more respectful. (Words like "should, would, could" usually need to be investigated before believing!)

3. Assuming—thinking, "Sure I said I'd be ready in ten minutes; doesn't he know already that it would take longer?"

These three tendencies are all a result of the inherent differences between men and women, and the assumption that your spouse's mind works in the same way as yours.

In the following week(s?) we will focus on these behaviors, examine their roots, fallacies, and practical ways to avoid these marital pitfalls.