How Gender Differences in Handling Stress Affects Intimacy

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Stress can make relationships thorny and cause friction

photograph copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

Do you and your loved ones have a hard time making a joint decision when you are under pressure? 

Do you find it irritating that you can see a clear path when your friend, colleague or loved one sits on the fence? Perhaps you have been the one holding back while those around you are urging you to make a choice. That’s because stress has a huge influence on your decision making ability which impacts the quality of the relationship in which you are involved.


When your ability to make a decision under stressful conditions has an impact on your family, friendship or work team, the entire experience becomes even more strained and difficult than ever. The range goes from impatience to a sense of competence and exhilaration depending on your reaction to stress when making important decisions. You can alienate, scare, impress or intimidate those around you, altering the dynamics of the relationships in ways that may have long term consequences.

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the fullness of the blooms dies off under stress

photograph copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

Callum and Sabrina were faced with a slew of important joint decisions since they moved in together six months ago. They had to decide on what in their home needed fixing, whose family was going to come over first,

The most stressful decision of all was what order to invite family over without upsetting anyone.

Callum was being pressed by his mother to let her come over and help with fixtures and fittings. She wanted to bring things over and help. He wanted the nagging to stop. He also wanted the hurt feelings his mother put on to make him feel guilty about excluding her to come to an end. The stress he felt over making his mother happy versus getting his new life started with Sabrina was overwhelming. He couldn’t sleep, and he was irritable. He was unable to enjoy sex and his concentration at work suffered.

 Callum made a decision to find a project for his mother and let her do it. It was a small one, involving ideas for landscaping that he didn’t think would upset Sabrina. As soon as he made the decision Callum felt energized and ‘giddy’ with pleasure. The idea of his mother ceasing her nagging and hang dog expression was so rewarding that stress actually propelled him into making a decision quickly and cleanly. The notion that Sabrina may feel insulted or accuse him of not being able to separate from his mother faded into the background.

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photograph copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

Sabrina was very concerned that bringing Callum’s mother into the landscape project would set a precedent for the future, driving a wedge between the couple. Her stress came from a different place and involved ensuring that the couple made a go of things without outside interference. Sabrina considered it a big risk to the future of their autonomy. She imagined that Callum’s mother would interfere and rule the roost. Sabrina was more worried about the future of their relationship, while Callum zoomed in on the relief it gave him to get his mother’s nagging off his back.

Research shows that men and women take different risks under stress

A study in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2012 found that stress can propel a person into making a risky decision like Callum did, because they are focused on the positive outcome and the benefits rather than the down side or negative consequences. Men are more likely to use the vision of the reward as a motivator to take the plunge and make the decision.

Women on the other hand become more cautious when stressed. They focus more on what may happen to attachments and important relationships rather than on the immediate gains. Men are more inclined to get stuck in or avoid the decision altogether, whereas women use stress to deepen the bonds between themselves and others before making difficult decisions. Women need more solid safe ground before taking risks, while men go for the instant reward leaving any cracks in the relationship to be fixed later.

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photograph copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

Using stress to balance out risk and reward in relationships

Sabrina and Callum clashed on the decision about involving his mother in their new home. He went for broke while she was risk averse. The tension between them was enough to light a fuse and blow up the entire relationship.

 Since Callum is for short term gain no matter what the risk, he would have done well to share his need for instant relief with Sabrina. For her part, if Sabrina had helped Callum foresee the problems his decision would create for them down the road, it may have helped them both to modulate their stress and together come up with a strategy that bought some relief for Callum but that made sure no long term harm would befall their relationship. For example, making it clear to his mother than she could suggest ideas for shrubs in the landscaping and no more, they would be setting boundaries, managing stress jointly, taking some risk but not one that would be dangerous in the future.



Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

 Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educative purposes only. Dr. Raymond is not responsible for any reactions you may have when reading the content or using the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.