During 25 years of practicing marriage counseling, I found that
the single biggest problem was communication - how the spouses
talked to each other, or didn't talk. The problem was bigger than
money, sex, in-laws, or child-raising.
Almost 30 years ago, psychiatrist Dr. Pierre Mornell wrote his
classic little book, Passive Men, Wild Women in which he
described husbands as avoiding and wives grasping for
conversation. In 1992, John Gray published the first in
a series of relationship books, Men Are From Mars, Women
Are from Venus that describes the different communication
styles of men and women and how to adjust to them.
Dr. Gray's latest book (2008) further illuminates the issues of why
men and women clash during conversation. In Why Mars and
Venus Collide he goes deeper and examines the "emotional
biology" of the two genders and how man and women cope
differently with stress in their lives.
For the first time in six years of writing articles about conversation,
I am going to focus on a single book and give you a précis of its
ideas. This will not be a book review but, instead, a kind of
summary of Gray's well-researched and clearly stated ideas.
No one reading this article is surprised to find that
people in foreign countries speak different languages and
have different styles of communicating. For example, Finns
speak Finnish and tend to be somewhat taciturn and private.
Italians speak Italian and tend often to be emotionally
expressive. Astute travelers do their best to make adjustments
in order to communicate in local languages and styles.
However, men and women in our society too often overlook --
or simply don't understand -- the differences between them.
Women often don't understand why most men do not enjoy
shopping, and men don't understand why many women like
to watch soap operas on TV.
Instead, each gender sees
things - and one another - from its own perspective. As
author Anais Nin wrote cryptically, "We don't see things as they
are, we see them as we are."
Some key ideas from Why Mars and Venus Collide
1. "Women want men to become like women"
As it happens, women find their stress levels go down when
they are able to talk in detail about themselves, their work,
their problems. Women are good at doing this kind of talk,
and most men are not.
In fact, men often seek to avoid
that kind of talk because they prefer solving problems
instead of describing them. So a woman may try to change
Big mistake! As entertainer Mae West used to say, "Don't marry
a man to reform him. That's what reform schools are for."
Gray goes on to say that "Instead of seeing our different stress
reactions as a problem, we need to recognize that our attempts
to change our partners are most often the real problem."
2. "The problem is never just our partner, but our own inability to
cope with stress"
If a woman expects her man to be the only - or the main - support
to reduce the inevitable high stress levels in her busy life, she will be
first disappointed, then resentful, and finally very angry. As Gray
explains in detail, "A man can only provide 10 percent of a woman's
fulfillment. The rest is up to her."
Knowing this, women will seek (and men will support) her doing
those things that make her feel good - including shopping with
her friends. And women will understand and support a man's
need to disconnect and be by himself while he re-charges his
3. "While women tend to reach out to take in more information,under stress men tend to focus on determining the most important
thing to do."
Women are drawn to "Let's talk it over" and men
want to fix the problem as fast as possible.
These tendencies seem to be hard-wired into the two sexes.
They are biologically based.
When men are able to handle
a problem quickly and well, their testosterone levels go up
and they feel better. Similarly, when women are able to talk
over the specifics of their issues and feel connected and
supported and understood, their oxytocin levels rise, and
they feel whole again.
4. "Oxytocin (the female stress-reducing hormone) decreases
when a woman feels alone, ignored, unsupported, or that she
does not matter."
When a man begins to take his woman for granted, when he does
not notice and compliment the "little things" like a change of
hair style or new garment, she feels it deeply.
To adjust, a man
needs to pay attention and express his appreciation and support.
To say "But you know I love you" is not nearly enough. He needs
to demonstrate his affection on a regular basis.
5. "After a few years of listening to the same things, a man doesn't
even listen or bother to help."
"He never listens to me!" was the complaint I often heard from
disgruntled married women.
Their obvious but unrealistic solution was
to shape up the man, to train him, even force him, to listen more and
better. But that would be as difficult as expecting the woman to
be fascinated by the nuances of a professional football game or
the performance of an automobile engine.
Sure: A man can learn to listen better, to pay attention and understand.
But not endlessly, and not to the same issues and details. Instead of relying
exclusively on her man for this support, the woman can - and should -
turn also to her women friends and to other satisfying activities. If she
does not, she will be stuck, stressed out and blameful.
In my estimation, most men and women lack an understanding of how
their stress levels can best be lowered, and how their ways of relating
and talking form a critical part of how they manage stress. To deepen
that understanding, I recommend this book, Why Mars and Venus
If readers apply its insights, they'll spare themselves a good
deal of relationship pain and many dollarsthey'd otherwise have to spend
in counseling or even divorce proceedings.