Love and Life: What's Stress Got to Do with it? A Chat with an Expert.
Do you ever wonder if we’re more stressed out than our mothers – or our mothers’ mothers? Or are the stresses of relationships, careers and family something we share in common? And, another thing ... how does this stress impact relationships? How can we all be better?
We went in search of answers from our favorite expert, Pat Jones, who has been practicing adult psychotherapy and couples therapy for more than 30 years. She has extensive experience in stress management, addiction and co-dependency. In other words, she’s more than qualified to answer these nagging questions.
The result was a very enlightening conversion!
So over 30 years you have seen a lot! How have relationships between men and women changed over the past 30 years?
Technology has interrupted the flow of couples’ communication. It actually reinforces couples away from communicating with each other. On average couples only communicate with each other for six minutes per day 1:1, which is why often women are constantly complaining that their husbands are ALWAYS on the phone. Rather than talking to each other, both would rather be binge watching a show or looking at their phones or computers. If you have pure trust in a relationship, being on the phone here and there is fine, but if there is a disconnection with the couple or any type of worry or jealousy (“Why are you on Facebook all the time? Who are you communicating with?”) it creates tension.
And this is common across many age groups. I hear it a lot from people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. People flirt on social media more than ever before. And people aren’t living in their true realties. They’re buying into a curated experience that isn’t even real. Whereas before social came around you had to be with someone to flirt, now you can do it from the comfort of your sofa. You can be more bold by liking or commenting on posts or sending private messages via social. People end up having emotional affairs with people they are communicating with.
Based on your experience, do you think our complaints have changed much from the complaints of our mothers’ generations?
I have women that are 55 and over that are single and getting out into the dating world, and what’s different is men that are older and dating are looking for the type of woman that could take care of them, be a nurse to them if you will. Gen X women and younger are talking more about their children: raising children to be a certain way, private schools, more of the investment in the children. I haven’t really seen that so widespread as I do now. It’s very stressful. The focus on education now is huge. You have to question if these women are representing themselves through their children. It’s not healthy at all. Children need to express themselves in the way they need to express themselves.
Our mothers generation blazed the trail, making it possible for us to do what we want to do: We can have a job, or we can be a stay at home mom, have children or not have children. But it seems like we didn’t shed—or share—much of our mothers’ generations’ responsibilities in the meantime. Do you think younger generations feel the same way? Do Gen Y and Z-ers seem to have more of a balance of responsibility in their relationships?
No, there’s not that much difference. There is still the same stress, the same wants and needs of wanting husbands to contribute more. Women are so stretched and feel pressure to do their work, feeling guilt about working, those kind of decisions are tough for professional women.
What about couples who don’t have children? When children become part of the mix does something innate in women shift?
Women are naturally the nurturers. There are some men that do it all. They are the stay-at-home dad now, and their wives let them take on all the responsibility, but that’s rare. More and more women are the breadwinners now. Women are very good leaders, but they still do carry the responsibilities of the household. Sharing responsibilities is something couples need to work at. Women by nature are 24/7 thinking about their families. In fact, there was a study looking at professional women and their blood pressure. When a man comes home from work, his blood pressure goes down. When women come home, her blood pressure goes up—and incrementally for each child that she has.
Women have the ability to multitask and make dinner but also think about birthday presents they need to get, emails that need to go out, clothes that need to be bought, etc. You don’t usually find a man thinking or planning what the next meal is for the children, what to pack in their lunch, what doctors appointments need to be made. Men just allow the woman to do these things.
Is that physiological or is it learned?
Some of it is psychological. Women have more connected tissue between the left and right side of the brain (it’s called the corpus collosum) so women can use the left side of the brain, which is analytical thinking, and the right side of the brain, which is creative. So if you can do that, you can talk on the phone, mess with a child, be cooking simultaneously—men aren’t generally able to do that. And men will stay on the left side of the brain. And what’s funny, women will get a man in the car and while he’s driving, she will want to have an emotional conversation. It doesn’t work because the man is going from point A to point B to point C. When you introduce an emotional conversation, now you are asking him to go to the right side of the brain to have an emotional conversation, and it’s painful. If a man is in front of the computer and a woman says, “Honey, will you empty the trash?” Most men kind of growl because they are focused on what they are doing (looking at the computer or the TV) and now have to go to the right side of the brain to change their focus and do something for their wife.
What women should do is say, “Honey, when you have a minute or when you are done, will you empty the trash?” Men are very vertical. If they are doing something like watching a ball game and now they have to empty the trash, they will say, “I’ll get to it,” or “In a minute.”
Do more women come to you for help getting through to the men in their lives, or are just as many men coming to you, saying, “She’s driving me crazy and always nit-picking and mother-henning me”?
Women get rid of stress by talking, and men get rid of stress by doing. Most of the people that come to therapy are women. The primary way that men get into therapy is women drag them there. I do occasionally get calls from men about stress—about work or marriage. Some worry about losing their wives, but it’s not that common. Women are much more vigilant about what’s going on.
In general, women are just more stressed. Social media adds pressure to be and look a certain way: go on trips, talk about how wonderful life is, living up to other people’s expectations. Then you have technology, like an Apple Watch, that is constantly interrupting the nervous system. When you get that buzz you get adrenaline into your system and that eventually wears you out. Women are really, really tired. Unless a man really understands that, he can’t really properly support a woman—especially if he’s all caught up into his own stuff—and the result is many women feel isolated and alone. An example: When a man leaves on a trip, he doesn’t think, “Should I go to the store and make sure my wife and kids have food?” He doesn’t think, “Should I do laundry to make sure everyone has clean clothes for the week?” He just leaves—leaving it all to the woman. But when a woman leaves on a trip, typically she is buying groceries, making lists, laying out clothes, dealing with carpool and play dates so that everyone is taken care of.
Then how do we make the field more level?
It has to be a partnership, where the husband is willing to understand and appreciate the complexity of the wife. Because sometimes they just don’t take the time to figure that out. It’s kind of like the nail in the head video. Those actors did such a good job because physiologically you could see the woman relax when she felt she was heard. And it was hard on him, but he got it as much as a man can get it.
John Gray, who wrote Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, says to give the woman the last word and listen carefully ... look at her and when he thinks she’s done, say, “Is there anything else?” Men rarely do that. Men get really anxious when a women talks. They get overloaded. And some women are always in the process of discovering how they feel. When a women starts out with something it’s not necessarily going to be the end of how she feels. You have to listen. You have to be present. You have to be willing to understand her and support her ... and then all is well.
The funny thing about men ... the conversation I have so often with them as of late revolves around sex (not getting enough). And I have to tell them, that whenever you touch a woman, you don’t have to touch her just to have sex. And women need to understand that for men sexual intimacy makes it all worthwhile. Men often feel that if they’re working hard and have a home AND having sex, then life is good. I’ve never come across a women who said that. I’ve never had a women say, “If we could just have sex, I would be ok.”
Is there some good that we can make of stress?
Originally, the stress response was an organic response to ready us to freeze, fight or flee. Hans Selye (so-called “father of stress”), figured out why the body becomes sick or reacts a certain way from stress. From that, the idea came that stress is bad. Then, over time, a PhD at Stanford, named Kelly McGonical, wrote a book called The Upside of Stress, and other researchers did further research at Harvard and University of Texas. What they found is that when the stress response happens, other things happen. Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, is secreted into the heart, which protects the heart when we are under stress. When under the stress response, it has also been found that there is an increase in DHEA (the growth hormone) that helps strengthen our muscles, strengthening our overall systems to perform at a higher level. So stress is now being looked at something that can be harnessed to do something magnificent. It can increase your level or response, your level of performance. You don’t want to be constantly pushing at it like that. You want to back off, take a deep breath, do something else to diffuse it, but it’s not necessarily always negative. It ties into the whole concept of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. If you have a growth mindset, then that which does not kill you makes you stronger. So no matter what you are going through in life, there is something on the other side that means you are growing as a human; you’re growing through experience; you are growing spiritually, many times because you are being pushed to the edge. The growth mindset says you don’t welcome bad things, but you also aren’t scared of them. Whereas, with a fixed mindset, you do the same thing the same way and make the same mistakes; you are frozen, and you don’t grow. So that combined with the positive stress response has changed my view of things. The Tool’s Guys also say the only way to grow is to push through the fear. And the fear is a tiny thing! If we make it into a huge thing, we are frozen in the square. But if you push through to the other side, it’s growth. Sometimes you are shoved to the other side by life experience, and sometimes you choose to go to the other side because you’re still learning about yourself.
What are you unapologetic about?
When I see something that needs to be corrected, I say something. I am not afraid. You have to speak, be bold. As life experiences have happened, they have molded me into who I am and the power to use my voice. Speak don’t be afraid!
I don’t know about y’all, but we felt super empowered when we left this chat with Pat. At the end of the day, women young and oldER, share a lot of the same stresses and relationship challenges. Sometimes we need to overcome our biology, and sometimes we need to use it to our advantage. And sometimes we just need to go to therapy for a little help! Good news is as women, we’re capable of keeping a million plates spinning in the air, and we have the choice not to spin them at all. And as we keep using this heightened level of stress to our advantage, we’re becoming even stronger leaders for the little ones we’re raising to take over for us when we’re done.
A huge thank you to Pat Jones for her infinite wisdom. If you would like to learn more about her, check out her website and connect with her at www.aliveinthemoment.com