Problem solving in long-term relationships - how men and women approach conflict differently

We’ve all heard the well-worn phrase “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” but when it comes to problem-solving in relationships, this isn’t far from the truth. The ways in which men and women typically tackle conflict are vastly different, right down to a cerebral level.

The main differences and the major source of contention in most relationship conflicts boil down to discrepancies on the emotional level. When a man is faced with a problem, he will tackle this by objectively looking for solutions. However, for women in a relationship, finding a solution to the problem is only half the battle. Women need to feel that they are understood and met on the emotional level by their partner before they can begin to solve the problem in a way that satisfies them. Wife wants Husband to empathise with her, before suggesting solutions that she could have come up with on her own. 

But why is this so? Well, men’s brains tend to perform tasks predominantly on the left side – aka the side associated with logical thinking and reasoning. Female brains, however, are highly connected across the left and right hemispheres, and women therefore tend to operate from both sides, which is why they are normally better at communication and social thinking. Women also typically have a larger limbic system than men, which makes them more in touch and expressive with their emotions. Men think more logically, and their decisions are affected much less often by emotion than women’s, hence the mismatch between how the two sexes approach conflict.

Evolutionarily, this can be explained by tracing our species back to our origins and looking at the differences in the roles men and women played back in the day. The personality strengths required for the hunter-gatherer position (typically filled by the man) versus the traits that made a successful caregiver and childrearer (typically taken on by the woman) were very different.  Natural selection favoured those good at their roles as this aided the survival of our species, as did the diversity between the sexes.

These theories of how men and women approach conflict are generalisations, of course, and not true of all relationship dynamics. Interestingly though, research has shown that discrepancies over problem-solving are consistently reported as less of an issue in homosexual and same-sex relationships than heterosexual ones. This can, perhaps, be attributed to the increased fluidity and blurring of gender roles in non-heterosexual relationships.

In conclusion, both sexes can benefit from a little leniency in the other’s direction. Learning from each other and allowing each other to influence your actions makes for improved communication, cooperation and a healthier, more equal partnership. Because, after all, in most everyday conflicts, finding a satisfying solution to end the conflict between you and your loved one is ultimately more important than winning the argument.