Thursday, March 17, 2011

Caveman Cometh

By Joan Emerson, PhD
Originally published in Brooklyn Family

Gender differences help explain why, in this age of couple’s equality and open communication, we are still plagued by primitive needs from each other. Gender theories look way back to when humans belonged to tribes and lived in caves. We can picture women sitting around the fire cooking, making clothing, caring for children and sharing joys, woes and vulnerabilities with each other as the men roamed the hills, often alone, guarding against danger, and bringing home the spoils from a successful hunt.

A family’s survival depended on the male’s ability to keep it safe and content and this is how the men were judged by the rest of the tribe and how they judged themselves. A woman’s comfort came from the community, yes, but mainly from feeling valued and protected by her man and from the tribe recognizing his loyalty and attachment to her. Gender theory says those ancient dynamics are still part of our DNA and affect our behaviors and needs, resulting in clashes between our primitive and more evolved needs.

These days, women are fiercely independent and competent. Yet, they still have needs from their men which don’t seem rational. What seems to be hard-wired into women’s brains from caveman days is a need to have a man clearly indicating ownership, pride in them, and taking a protective stance.

One of the ways this need can get filled today is for the man to simply take his woman’s hand when they’re out for a walk together. Although I first noticed this desire on my own and felt silly about it, I really took note when conducting couples sessions and “taking my hand when we’re out walking” was often on the woman’s list of easy things the guy could do to make her feel loved and cared for. When we’re inside, having our man sit with his arm around us actually releases hormones that relax and calm us. Men are often not aware of the power of these acts, so I encourage women to speak up.

When it comes to men, the gender-based theory says that for a man to feel happy with himself, he needs to feel competent and successful in regard to protecting, pleasing and satisfying his mate. If he feels he can’t get it right, the resulting feeling is deep shame. Not intellectually maybe, but emotionally, if a man senses his woman’s dissatisfaction with his efforts, he internalizes it as his failure and incompetence. The shame he experiences is so strong that he’d rather withdraw, attack, escape — anything but confront, or talk about this devastating feeling. The tendency in men to feel that they alone must know how to solve all problems in the family no longer makes sense in the age of equality and communication that modern marriage strives for, yet gender theory says their well-being depends on feeling success in this regard. This goes for satisfying his mate sexually, all the way to knowing how to dress the kids, and amusing the family with stories about local sports or the less-than-gripping details about his day.

If this theory is true, that the primitive part of us still wields this power (and that’s what I have observed), we can try to use this awareness to meet each other’s deepest needs. When it comes to a man’s happiness, his woman must build his confidence and make him feel able and competent. So, for example, his wife can allow time for him to relax when he comes home from work, even though women also work, do most of the childcare, and never relax. Women can step aside when the men are caring for the children and not interfere with advice. Women can freely show affection, so that the men know they are physically pleasing. This is a true gift: behaviors that help men feel good about themselves.

To please these deep female needs, the men can take their women out in the world and attend to them in a protective, yet affectionate, way, showing the world how they value them. At home, he can invite his woman to sit next to him and reach out and hold her for a while.

Talk to each other and see how these gender differences play out in your relationship.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

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