Mind Matters: Vive la difference in relationships

ELINOR STANTON

Men are not like women; women are different from men. Perhaps the sexes are from opposite planets, or even incompatible galaxies, but that is not the problem. No two people are alike, regardless of sex. Everyone is unique. So why do committed couples give so much power to their differences? Why do so many disagreements focus on opposing views and desires?

It’s a lack of understanding about differences between people that creates friction, especially in relationships. A goal in writing this article is to improve relationships through acceptance that comes from a better understanding of one’s partner.

Biologically, men and women differ greatly. Women are endowed with hormones that promote emotional closeness, gentleness and a desire to nurture; traits necessary for effective parenting and emotionally healthy offspring. Male hormones, on the other hand, stimulate aggressiveness and physical strength, with less emotional softness than is usually found in women.

Another major difference lies in the ways men, versus women, are raised. From an early age, boys are instructed that, “Big boys don’t cry.” Little girls are groomed to please, be compliant and are allowed to cry when appropriate. Girls are given implicit permission to experience and show emotion; boys must learn to stifle feelings, to be strong and fearless.

Although exceptions are found, men in general tend to be more task and goal-oriented. They become confused and impatient with the emotional concerns in life. They need to feel competent and confident. After all, these are traits that guarantee our continued propagation. Men are the traditional hunters and explorers; they grow restless and compelled to find new territory and sources of food. So, feelings of love and tenderness, until fairly recently, have not been easily embraced by most men.

Although women’s roles have also changed in the past generation, their traditional roles have been to nurture and serve. Vestiges of our evolutionary past linger and are the ongoing source of male/female differences.

An example of how these differences play out can be seen in the family of Mike and Mary. Mike comes home from work to a wife in tears. She reports that the kids have driven her crazy all day, the washing machine broke, her best friend has cancer, and Mike never gets home on time. He responds absent-mindedly and follows his routine of changing into comfortable clothes and turning on the TV. He too, has had an unusually stressful day, but doesn’t mention it.

Awhile later Mary, still crying, approaches Mike with, “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?” Mike thinks, sitting in silence, not daring to say another word. Instead of responding, she stomps away in angry silence, an often-played scene in this relationship and many others.

What in the world has gone wrong? Mike didn’t hear Mary. Yes, he heard what she said, but not what she meant. He felt total responsibility to “fix” it, but had no clue as to how. From his point of view, that was the right thing. He was not genetically inclined and had never learned ((like many men) the importance of responding to emotions. Mary only wanted and needed Mike to commiserate about what a hard day she had, and what a good job she does, along with a big hug. Nothing needed to be fixed. Very simple, but so profound.

We women, on the other hand, must learn to ask ourselves before we dump the day’s woes on our willing spouses, what do we really want? Just as men can benefit from being more tuned in emotionally, women would find it easier to get what they need and want by thinking from a male viewpoint and spelling it out specifically. In the above example Mary might have said, “I had a terrible day, I feel as if you don’t really appreciate me and I just need a hug.” Mike would know what to do and would feel confident, instead of defensive. Mary would feel loved and understood. They could share a loving, intimate evening together. We men and women still have oh, so much to learn about each other.

Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to etseven@aol.com or 394-2861.

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