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When it comes to psychological coping, it is popularly assumed that men cope more poorly than women. However, not only is this not true, but comparing the coping styles of men and women is quite revealing.

Men tend to cope in a way that can be quite confusing for their female partners. That men tend to process emotion differently to women and use different emotion communication makes understanding them less straightforward than usually imagined.

An abundance of evidence now supports what has always been plainly evident (but often disputed by social learning theorists): That there is a clear link between our human biology and how we behave. To state the yawningly obvious: Men are not women and women are not men. This doesn’t mean that all men act one way and all women act another way. Rather it means that men are more likely to act one way, and women are more likely to act another. Nor should this necessarily limit the choices that men and women consciously make when it comes to career, relationships, and other life priorities. Nonetheless, biological sex does play a powerful role in influencing our choices and priorities.

There is no doubt that biologically based differences influence the kinds of roles that men and women generally gravitate towards, with women favouring roles that are concerned with relationships, helping, nurturing, family, and social bonds, and men favouring roles that are concerned with action with a more task, protector/provider orientation.

Of course, not all men and women take on these roles, though most do. Exceptions to the rule should not surprise us, since within biological generalities there is much room for diversity.

Biologically based differences in male/female behaviour have been found (at the group level) to be statistically significant, and have profound implications for the experience of men, women, society and all our relationships.

In harmony with and supporting these roles (which have ensured human survival and prosperity) males and females have their own contrasting and characteristic ways of coping. Additionally, they have their own strengths and weaknesses in processing and dealing with emotion.

Women tend to be better than men at expressing, remembering and verbalizing emotion. They also appear to have more elaborated emotional knowledge structures, enabling them to remember more of the detail of the emotional content of emotion producing situations. In responding to difficult and emotionally challenging issues and situations, women tend to favour rumination going over and over associated thoughts and feelings. They also favour being verbally and emotionally expressive. This makes a whole lot of sense when you consider the female reproductive and child rearing agenda, the huge role women play in transmitting culture to their children, and their role in cultivating nurturing and supportive relationships and the emotional life of families and communities.

Men tend to favour suppression putting distressing thoughts and emotions on hold, to be dealt with when a perceived threat or danger has passed. Men favour being less verbally and emotionally expressive than women.

This way of coping and dealing with emotion also makes sense when you consider the male role, which in many settings and circumstances requires less refined use of communication. The male role also favours males being able to distance themselves from the emotion content of many situations in order to:

- remain focused

- steel themselves against danger

- be able to bring order and safety to a situation in which women and children need their protection

- be capable of working in situations that show little concern for their own health, safety or welfare – for the benefit of society

An example of the survival value for society of the male role is that of dealing with disasters, the most common of which in Australia is bushfires. Predominately male firefighters, even when their lives are at risk, are well known to press on unhesitatingly and relentlessly. They do what men have always done best: suppress their fears, and distance themselves from the emotional content of their own experience, in order to be undistracted in their effort to impose control over the destructive forces and chaos threatening their communities and families.

Few examples better reveal how men not being in touch with their emotions, and being able to remain task focused and clear-headed in a crisis, are an indispensable asset. And, contrary to popular misconception, data on post-disaster mental health problems suggest that the majority of men cope at least as well, or generally better than women do, despite equal or greater exposure to dangerous, distressing and life threatening circumstances.

Some men do of course run into trouble. Strictly regulating emotions and thoughts that might impede one’s capacity to respond to a crisis – putting them on hold to be dealt with once threat and danger have passed, may be quite adaptive, but left unresolved can result in some potential psychological challenges later on.

It is interesting to examine mental health data, which reveal that the general prevalence of mental health difficulties of men compared to women is much the same. However, when one examines individual mental health difficulties, there are clear gender specific differences, which again, not only reveal that men and women live in different ‘cultures of social expectation’, but that they are also influenced by physical and physiological differences.

This article is an excerpt from: Supporting Men in Distress: A Resource for Women. Click here to take a look