Women Tend and Befriend, Men Fight or Flee

The depressed financial state we lived in for the past few years has added considerable stress to many of our clients. According to the research, it happens to be the worst type of stress which left unattended can become debilitating. People typically have the ability to handle most crises when they are brief and the events that are occurring are not considered to be traumatizing. Chronic stress, as in the loss of a job and the ensuing financial difficulties that follow, can wear away at anyone’s resolve. This type of insidious, ongoing stress eventually takes a toll on overall wellness by suppressing the immune system and creating an underlying state of exhaustion or hopelessness.

Women and Men Cope with Stress Differently

In order to best assist our clients, clinicians need to keep in mind that men and women have some very different basic needs and coping styles concerning stress. According to a study out of UCLA, women respond to danger or threat in some very unique ways. Although many will experience the typical fight or flight response to something threatening which is similar to their male counterparts, most women will also instinctively feel the need to “tend & befriend” after the stressful event has occurred which has long term implications for relationships and treatment interventions.

My husband and I were married about 3 months when he witnessed my tending & befriending. I had never heard that phrase or really even realized what I was doing at the time. After a typical newlywed conflict, Tim headed out to run some errands. I called my cousin to chat and then found myself telling her about the argument we had just resolved to get her perspective. I was deep into the story when my husband suddenly walked back into the kitchen (pre-cell phone days) and overheard me telling her our story. After I hung up, he asked me why I would tell her or anyone else our private business; which led to another marital discussion. At the time, I could not explain the urge I felt to talk through that experience with someone else (preferably a woman) but I knew that in the past, I usually felt better after I did. Now I can just cite the research which we have discussed, reminding him I am tending & befriending.

Women are physiologically wired to feel the urge to reach out to each other, communicating and connecting in ways that can ultimately make them feel more secure and less afraid. Of course, this does not mean that women have a free ticket to share marital secrets or private information best left within the relationship boundaries. But I have found that explaining this instinctual urge to both parties as a fundamental difference between men and women, alleviates potential conflict and tension between the sexes, along with a discussion about mutual boundaries and relationship expectations.

Today’s Busy World Inhibits Tending Behavior

Today’s technologically fast paced society inhibits the tending instinct process. For many women, there is no time left at the end of the day to accommodate meaningful emotional connections. As a consequence, women, relationships, families and society suffer.  CorporateAmericaalso feels the side effects when denying women ample time and opportunity to connect, especially as stress levels rise.  According to Robert Putnam in “Bowling Alone,” “…nearly 1/3 of all US workers have jobs that discourage social connections, and that fraction is rising.”

Recent neurological findings show that women, who allow themselves to group together, discuss through things and connect with each other release oxytocin, an essential brain chemical which ultimately creates feelings of safety and security. (Oxytocin is also released through exercise, meditation or prayer, sex, and while mothers nurse infants. Lingering hugs with someone you care for & feel connected to can also stimulate the production of this important chemical.)

The problem in today’s fast paced society is that most of our schedules do not promote and oftentimes even prevent tending and befriending from taking place. When you begin to examine the amount of time any of us spend face to face with the important people in our lives, you begin to realize that we are significantly reducing ample opportunity for the production of oxytocin.

As primary caretakers, women tend to be on the giving end in their intimate relationships, leaving little time or energy for self nurturing. (79% of all care giving in our society is given by women according to Shelly Taylor, PhD, author of the “Tending Instinct.”) While sitting in the back of the room at a conference on improving relationships, I looked around at the couples seated in the auditorium. I noticed that most of the men who accompanied wives or girlfriends sat listening while the females seated next to them rubbed their backs or rested reassuring arms around them. It is no surprise that the male’s rate of longevity increases when married. In a healthy relationship, they can be on the receiving end of the female’s nurturing ways. While marital bliss improves his chance for a longer life, it does not positively affect the females, possibly because she is too exhausted from all that caretaking to invest in the tending & befriending she requires to refuel and rejuvenate. Women who have risen to the top of the corporate ladder demonstrate worsened health statistics than their male counterparts. When the workday ends, many women face a continuation of tasks trying to meet the needs of family and home, leaving them exhausted and depleted.

An Opportunity to Re-evaluate Our Priorities  

The current state of our economy offers each of us an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities – as individuals and as couples. Some people will just try to habituate to the additional stress they have been experiencing, adding more tasks on top of their already overwhelmed state of existence. Others will ignore their own emerging warning signs, eventually surprised by the cumulative effects chronic stress has had on the body or psyche.

Fortunately, there will be those who decide to use this time wisely, changing life choices and habits. For women, that should mean allotting some valuable time to connecting and establishing relationships which allow for tending and befriending. And when that happens, everyone benefits.

Author: Barbara Rhode, LMFT

Barbara Rhode, LMFT, has been a Licensed Psychotherapist since 1990. She has a private practice in St. Petersburg and co-authored, Blast Off; Launching Your Child to College & Beyond. Barbara is also a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist and a Critical Incident Stress Debriefer. She can be reached at barbararhode@hotmail.com or (727) 418-7882. Visit her website

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