Recently I was enjoying an evening out with friends, two of whom were females in their mid-thirties. In the course of lighthearted banter and much laughter, the subject of men (as is oft the case) came up. During one comment concerning disappointment with men, I responded with the statement “I have a lot of empathy for men today.” The two 30-somethings (both sophisticated, successful and beautiful) sat bolt upright, looked at me with surprise and consternation, and made some inaudible sound. Curious though they may have been, and too polite to prod, the conversation moved on.
The more I work with men (in therapy and in coaching) the more profound is my empathy. More profound, perhaps, may be removing the long-held ideological truism that, deep down, both genders want the same thing from a relationship. It may be time to embrace the possibility that men and women don’t necessarily want exactly the same things after all.
Keep in mind that the suggestion of gender differences in the way people love is a reference to people in general. Gender differences can never account for personality, sociability, past experiences or the complexities of individual behavior. Whenever you hear of “research findings”, these are group averages – with lots of room for individual exceptions. For example, there are certainly men who love to talk about their feelings and women who hate it.
Little Girls and Little Boys:
Women have had an enormous head start in acquiring “people skills” and are usually more savvy about emotions because of their early socialization differences. Females are usually more emotionally intelligent than males for one simple reason: They began the practice very early. Notice young children on a playground and you’ll see this head start in action. Young boys are usually playing run and chase games. Their priority is the game itself – not their relationship with each other and their feelings. But, for the little girls, feelings are of paramount importance. “You’re not my friend anymore” will stop the game in its tracks. It will only start up again if the girls make up.
A 4 year old girl may be able to engage the boy in playing with her doll and pretending it is their baby (relationship), but the boy will soon have the baby hurt or dying and rushing off in an ambulance to the hospital (problem solving/taking action).
Though these play styles are charming, they present evidence that “girls games” offer a far better preparation for marriage and family life because they focus on relationships. Look in most pre-school dress-up sections and, though you’ll see little girl’s bridal gowns, you won’t see little boy’s tuxedos.
Because this difference in play styles occurs in all cultures, it is probably more biological than sociological, but, nevertheless, it jumpstarts girls with an extensive education into emotions by the end of childhood. Girls’ play emphasizes social interactions and feelings. Boys learn to play cooperatively. They transfer this skill to quickly resolving conflicts (in the boardroom and on the construction site), but it becomes a liability in marriage and close relationships because of a lack of understanding behind the woman’s perspective.
John Gottman, PhD, co-founder of the Gottman Institute posits: This difference in training is heightened by the fact that as they get older, boys rarely play with girls, so they miss the chance to learn from them. About 35 % of preschool best friendships are between boys and girls. By age 7 that percentage plummets to virtually 0 %. From then to puberty the sexes will have little or nothing to do with each other. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Studies show that by the age of 1 ½ boys will accept influence only from other boys when they play, whereas girls accept influence equally. Girls become fed up by about the age 5 to 7 and stop wanting to play with boys. From then until puberty, there is no formal structure for boys and girls interactions.
Once the couple is in a committed relationship (if the wary male makes it this far), moves in together, or is engaged, the man is immersed in an alien world. In the play In Defense of the Cave Man the man says that when he was first married and saw his wife cleaning the bathroom, he asked her “Are we moving?” Before marriage, that was the only time he or his roommates cleaned the bathroom.
Fast Forward – The Adult
Men are confused in terms of what is expected of them, coupled with a growing mistrust of women. Today’s woman is not her mother’s woman. She is on level with men in all areas; smart, educated (the number of corporate female CEOs continues to rise), financially sound, athletic, competitive and all-around savvy. “Motherhood without a mate” is also an option. She hardly needs protecting. Yet, this is the intrinsic nature of the male.
Steven Stosny, Ph.D, Lions Without a Cause (Psychotherapy Networker, May/June 2010), writes “men’s animal instincts don’t fit the modern world.” The primary motivation keeping men invested in loving relationships is different in what keeps women invested. The glue that keeps men (and males in social animal groups) bonded is the instinct to protect. “If you listen long enough to men talking about what it means to love, you’ll notice that loving is inextricably linked, for many men, to some form of protection. If men can’t feel successful at protecting, they can’t fully love.”
When a man is aware of his full range of feelings he is reluctant to express them for fear of exposing his vulnerable self. And vulnerability gets in the way of the male’s primal instinct to protect the herd.
A Complicated Equation
In today’s culture, “male protection” is usually defined in financial terms. Protector equates with Provider. The self-worth of a man is linked to this equation.
Assigning money as the measure of a man is not only harmful to men, but to society. 1. It places little value on the emotional support that many men do provide, and 2. It creates a sense of entitlement in those who are financially successful.
Emotional Talk Responses
When women experience stress at work, they tend to want closer family connections. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to withdraw from their families to keep from feeling overwhelmed by their failure to protect. And if she wants to “talk about it”, his inherent vulnerability in engaging in a “feelings” talk causes him to shut down further or isolate.
Women share emotional talk easily, cover a range of subjects and feel more relaxed after the exchange. The opposite is true with men. Men do not get the oxytocin reward that makes them feel calm, confident and secure when talking about emotions and the complexities of relationships. Men produce more testosterone during stress, which seems to reduce the effect of oxytocin. Estrogen enhances it. Men must work harder with less reward to maintain active listening and emotional self-revealing talk. This becomes a stressful experience which most men have not yet learned to enjoy.
What We All Do Agree On
Gender differences and personal goals notwithstanding, what we all seek, and long for, in close relationships is respect and appreciation. Both genders win when we learn more about each other. Guys, you can learn to talk about your feelings….and gals, you can learn to throw overhand.