The Fight Club

July 2006

* This piece was chosen as one of the Notable Essays of 2006 in the Best American Essays series.

The fight starts, as so many do, with a heap of sweaty gym clothes my husband of one year has left festering on our bedroom floor. As we get into bed, I ask him to clean up the mess, just as I did two weeks before and three weeks before that. I’m sickened by the rusty tenor of my voice. Evidently, so is he. Thrusting his clothes in the closet, he flashes me an eye-rolling smirk and compares me to his mother. “Don’t make that face at me,” I yell back thinly— sounding, of course, just like a nagging mother. “How else can I get you to put away your crap?” Unfurling a ribbon of grievances I’ve been harboring for months, I cite the cereal- encrusted breakfast bowl he left in the sink five days ago, the running toilet he said he’d fix, and the fact that he’s never once changed the cat’s litter box. I climb into bed, my back to his, and stare at the blinking red digits on the clock radio, unable to sleep.

It’s a petty squabble—bad sitcom stuff. And by the next morning, my husband is over it and eager for the punch line. Alas, there is no laugh track coming from my side of the bed, no offer of make-up sex. The calcified ill will from the night before has left me feeling tired and defeated—especially when I struggle to make sense of what started the whole row in the first place. But what really makes me angry is that he isn’t angry at all. I hear him singing Frank Zappa in the shower. For a couple that talks and touches as much as we do, we’re remarkably good at morphing into strangers at the first hint of confrontation.

Marianne I. Legato, MD, FACE professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University in New York City, has heard this hundreds of times before. The founding head of Columbia’s Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine, Legato spends much of her time studying the biological quirks that separate men from women and believes that the age-old battle of the sexes is hardwired into our brain chemistry. Her latest book, Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget (Rodale), points to profound differences in men’s and women’s respective cocktails of stress and sex hormones that influence the way we perceive and handle disagreements. More accurately, they affect the way we mishandle arguments—and why so many couples exit the battlefield embittered and estranged.

People didn’t talk much about brain architecture outside of university lecture halls and research laboratories until very recently. But these days, everyone’s an armchair neuroscientist, and the relative merits of various psychoactive pharmaceuticals is common party chatter. So it’s hardly surprising that relationships are the latest area of behavior being given the nature-over-nurture treatment or that brain-imaging technology is confirming some of these theories. “Men and women seem to have different profiles of brain activation—as well as different strengths and weaknesses in particular areas of cognitive function,” says Allan L Reiss, MD, director of Stanford University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. Asked how these differences might apply to your garden-variety domestic argument, he speculates it’s more likely than not “that your assumption that someone is thinking and feeling just like you is probably wrong.”

The women crowded in front of Marianne Legato’s lectern can relate. They have paid good money—and have left their husbands and boyfriends at home—for a weekend wellness retreat sponsored by the health education company Lluminari, Inc., whose network of doctors and shrinks Oprah Winfrey has dubbed her “dream team.” Legato warms us up with some physiological fain facts: Female hormones make our joints looser than those of men at certain times of the month, so we’re more prone to knee injuries; estrogen increases the impact of tobacco smoke on the lungs and the likelihood of gene mutation, putting us at greater risk for lung cancer. But it’s Legato’s neurobiologically tinged “Anatomy of a Quarrel” segment that resonates most powerfully with the room.

The human body responds to a verbal assault just as it would to a physical one, she tells us. The adrenal glands secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which elevates heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety levels. But estrogen, Legato explains, has the unfortunate effect of prolonging cortisol secretion for almost 24 hours, which “perpetuates the stressful situation, leaving you more depressed and anxious.” (It probably doesn’t help that women make 52 percent less of the neurotransmitter serotonin than do men—a figure Legato says may be part of the reason we have significantly higher rates of depression.) The short burst of cortisol men experience lasts just long enough to stoke a good fight before levels drop back to normal. This response can actually leave a guy “energized, upbeat, and optimistic,” Legato says, or at the very least feeling like all is right with the world. “Which is why he could be whistling in his workshop moments later.” Or, in my husband’s case, singing Zappa in the shower.

Legato clicks to the next PowerPoint slide—a cartoon of a guy on a clothesline who has literally been hung out to dry. A woman whose brain is still reeling in the morning from a cortisol surge during an evening fight “might come to breakfast feeling anxious and hostile and that there’s a lot more to be discussed, while he’s off to the next subject or reading the morning papers,” Legato says. “From his point of vie what’s all the fuss about?” She raises an eyebrow, eliciting nods from her audience.

Legato tells me later that more than one woman has confided that, “If I’d heard your lecture earlier, I never would’ve gotten a divorce.” She carefully stresses that her claims are based on generalizations applicable to the majority, but not every man or woman’s brain works this way. Still, she continues, it’s true that, on average, guys have a tough time catching women’s verbal nuances and reading subtle facial expressions—probably due to testosterone’s effect on the developing male brain. Further, men’s hearing typically starts to diminish 10 or so years earlier than ours—around age 35. For a woman ensnared in a petty misunderstanding with her husband, this might translate to: “Why is he not listening to me?”

Widening the communication gap further: Women are more likely to recall squabbles in vivid detail. While researching her latest book, Why We Love (Henry Holt and Co.), Rutgers University anthropology professor Helen E. Fisher PhD, found that romance activates the memory centers of women’s brains. Playing the Darwinian card, she theorizes that while our male ancestors could size up a mate’s health and fertility by glancing at her waist-to-hip ratio, women had to “create a memory bank of what he did and didn’t do” in order to know a man’s long-term potential.

For all of this talk about our basic natures, nurture—the environment in which we’re socialized—is a major player as well. Indeed, some experts refuse to embrace the notion of a fixed, gender-determined brain. “I don’t think we can go from data on cortisol and gray matter to saying that those biological differences govern social differences,” says Nora S. Newcombe, PhD, psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I think that’s a bridge too far.” First off Newcombe notes, the fact that women typically have more going on in their memory centers could be attributed to the fact that they’re regarded as the ones who are supposed to remember everyone’s birthdays.” Subscribing to a “use it or lose it” philosophy, she says there’s evidence that the brain adapts to changing circumstances by making new neurons and connections—a phenomenon scientists call neuroplasticity. In other words, men and women may communicate differently in part because we’re trained to do so from an early age.

The corollary of Newcombe’s take is that brains can be untrained almost as easily. Rather than viewing sex-specific brains as constants one must work around (the “he’ll never change” line of thinking), Newcombe says that men and women can gradually replace the same old quarrels with “new scripts and new behavior.” “If we say, ‘It’s just a guy thing,’ we will never experiment with [new] techniques.”

Legato doesn’t quibble with this. In fact, she suggests in her book that tweaking our behavior now might even help generations far in the future sail through their own relationship squalls. “If experiences literally change the structure and chemistry of the brain, we are going to become more alike one another,” she writes. “We are already learning from one another…. I believe that the incredibly adaptable brain will reflect this much mote even playing ground, so that over time men’s and women’s brains will become more alike.”

Unfortunately, I can’t wait that long. Inspiring as Legato and Newcombe are, I have trouble digging up a new script the night my husband and I bicker like three-year-olds over which Netflix movie to watch—only to retreat angrily to bed, leaving both DVDs unopened on the table. What good is all of this neurological self-awareness, I ask Stanford’s Reiss, when at .the end of the day we’re still standing (and fighting) on two different sides of the gender divide? Understanding these distinctions may not make quarrels less frequent, he concedes. But the more I know about why my husband seems unfeeling the next morning, the less prone I’ll be to make sweeping generalizations (“He must not care about me anymore”) from these disputes. Rather than trying to change my behavior during a fight, he suggests considering “why this person is having such a dramatic reaction or lack of reaction,” Reiss says, “and saying to yourself, You know, this person is likely to think and feel and respond differently than I am.” The advice is basic Put Yourself in Their Shoes 101, but it’s oddly comforting. After all, sometimes an eye roll— maddening though it may be—is just an eye roll.