I'll never forget the moment. It was almost thirty years ago. I was preparing dinner with my six-year-old, who was cutting the vegetables, when he looked up at me and said, "Mom, do you know who the strongest boy in my class is?"

"No," I responded. "Who is the strongest boy in your class?"

"Chezi," he stated self-assuredly.

"Why is Chezi the strongest?" I asked.

"Because he never cries," he answered solemnly as he cut the cucumbers.

My heart skipped a beat as I grasped that this child had already internalized a harsh reality, i.e. "To feel is to fail." To be a "man" means to be tough, in full control of one's emotions and immunized against fear, pain and sadness. It's the weaklings who talk about their feelings; successful people function to their maximum!

I had always encouraged my boys to talk about their feelings and said that it is often a sign of strength to cry. But my son saw clearly that boys who cry get crushed and ridiculed, and that the cold, indifferent, stoic types receive respect and praise. He's still a sensitive child, but specifically because he is so sensitive, he goes to great lengths to hide it, especially in the presence of the macho types.

From the time babies are born, girls tend to react differently to fear than boys. When female infants are startled by a loud noise, they seek eye contact with others. Looking into the eyes of a loving person lowers their cortisol levels, a stress hormone which spikes automatically whenever we experience anxiety. In contrast, when male infants are startled, their eyes tend to dart around and they withdraw into themselves! Avoiding connection when scared calms them down. So what makes girls feel better actually makes boys feel worse.

Numerous studies have shown that when women talk about their problems and fears, their cortisol level drops. When men talk about their insecurities, their cortisol rises! Being aware of this difference can make or break a marriage.

Thinkers and Feelings

In a book I wrote many years ago, Appreciating People, I described people as falling into one of two very general categories: Thinkers and Feelers. Thinking types (60% male, 40% female) focus on data and factual information. They do not share personal information with ease, if at all, and are bored and irritated by the expression of emotions. Feeling types (60% female, 40% male), like to share feelings and are very concerned about how they and others feel. Obviously, Thinkers feel and Feelers think, but their brains process feelings and thoughts differently. Thinking types (both men and women) tend to be less articulate about their feelings and less aware of the nuances of feelings. Anger is the one "permissible" feeling, as it makes them feel powerful. Even love can feel like a weakening emotion, as it implies needing others.

A brilliant woman once confided in me, "I see myself as a Thinking type. I am not very empathetic. I see that people are in pain, but I don't feel the pain or understand what they are making such a big deal about. I'm good at solving problems and telling people how to think, but if people want empathy, I send them to my husband, who is a Feeling type."

Save Your Marriage: Keep Communications Safe

If you are a Feeler married to a Thinker, communication needs to be a positive experience. If you complain each time you talk, your spouse will get the idea that "talking" is something to avoid. Feelings are contagious. When a person feels an intense emotion, everyone else is affected, like a tuning fork hitting a glass and causing all the others glasses to resonate. To avoid resonating with anxious emotions, he may get angry, defensive or simply retreat. The following may be helpful:

  • Make it safe. If you have a complaint, present it in a non-confrontational manner. Preface your remark with, "I have a problem. Do you think you can you help me?"
  • Avoid accusations. Most men hate to feel weak, helpless, scared or sad, as these emotions are seen as weak and "female." Any criticism is seen as a failure message such as, "You're not sensitive to me," or, "You don't help enough," or, "You're not investing enough in this relationship." Such accusations cause a cortisol spike, which is so uncomfortable that he will want to run away; suddenly he might remember that he has to meet a friend or, G‑d forbid, he may seek an addictive behavior to drown out the pain.
  • Give him physical space. If you have a complaint, do not present it while sitting across the table looking into each other's eyes. Save the eye-time for positive statements! Mention the problem briefly, in as few words as possible, perhaps while taking a walk or driving.
  • Focus on the solution. Let's say you want him to invest more time learning with the children or to not give them so many sweets. Start a statement with, "Help me understand why it would be hard for you to…."
  • Before expressing a strong emotion, tell him how you want him to respond. Say, "I need to vent for a minute. All I want is for you to tell me that it's going to be okay and that you'll see me through this." Then you can say how overwhelmed you feel or how difficult it is to be around a certain relative. Keep it brief to avoid a cortisol spike. Then conclude, "Thank you for listening. That was really helpful."
  • Take responsibility for your happiness. Do not tell him how depressed and lonely you are if your intention is to make him feel guilty. Men are terrified of failure and terrified of being dominated. Forcing change when he has no desire to change will only make him more resistant, rebellious and resentful.
  • Talk "victory talk." Turn whatever precious talking time you have into a safe, positive experience. Make him proud of you, instead of appearing to be a grouch and a nag. Talk about your victories – how you avoided junk food, didn't buy everything you wanted, or had the courage to put the phone down on an irritating relative. Instead of telling him about how the kids drive you crazy or the terrible things they did, make a list of their victories and tell your husband their victories. Tell him, "We have great kids!" Then, perhaps, he will want to be home more often and provide more help.