When I first heard about the book, I thought it was a gimmick. How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It sounded like a title somebody's prankster husband dreamed up after a rocky couples' therapy session. When I mentioned it to Hugh, my own husband—who in 22 years of marriage has never once said, "Honey, we need to talk"—his face lit up like the Fourth of July. Needless to say, I was suspicious. What about the vast repertoire of communication skills women have spent decades perfecting? Were Patricia Love and Steven Stosny, the psychotherapists who coauthored the book, advising us to forget everything we've learned and rethink how we relate to our partners?
The answer is yes—and they're not kidding.
"The number one myth about relationships is that talking helps. The truth is, more often than not, it makes things worse," says Love, a tall, lean redhead with a down-home Texas twang and a generous smile. She is cofounder of the Austin Family Institute, and leads workshops around the country when she isn't making television appearances or cowriting books, including the best-selling Hot Monogamy.
"Talking about feelings, which is soothing to women, makes men physically uncomfortable," says Stosny, the Maryland-based author of You Don't Have to Take It Anymore and an expert on male aggression. "There's literally more blood flow to their muscles. They get fidgety, and women think they're not listening."
We're relaxing in the sunroom of my house in Washington, D.C., on a golden autumn morning. I learn that it was Stosny's research into the core emotional differences between the sexes that radically altered his thinking, as well as the way he works with clients. When he shared his findings with his friend and colleague Pat Love, they rang true to her, even though they flew in the face of the verbal problem-solving approach she'd been using for 30 years.
According to Stosny's analysis of several hundred human and animal studies, male and female responses to stress are distinct from birth. "When a baby girl hears a loud noise or gets anxious, she wants to make eye contact with someone, but a baby boy will react to the same sound by looking around, in a fight-or-flight response," he says. What's more, while newborn girls are much more easily frightened, boys have five times as many "startle" reactions, which are emotionally neutral but pump up adrenaline. Boys need to intermittently withdraw into themselves to keep from becoming overstimulated. These differences hold true for most social animals and correlate with our biological roles: The female's fear response is an early warning system that serves to detect threats and alert the males of the pack to danger.
As girls grow, they go beyond needing eye contact and refine a coping strategy identified by UCLA psychologists as "tend and befriend." If there's a conflict, girls and women want to talk about it. Boys and men, however, need to pull away. A man's greatest suffering, Stosny says, comes from the shame he feels when he doesn't measure up—which is why discussing relationship problems (i.e., what he's doing wrong) offers about as much comfort as sleeping on a bed of nails.