Why is it that when a woman says one thing her spouse hears something completely different? That is a theme of conversations frequently overheard in offices, restaurants, waiting rooms, salons and long checkout lines among colleagues, friends and even new acquaintances. Why does it seem so hard to communicate with the opposite sex?
This is not unique to one gender, however. It is well known to most of us that males often sympathize with one another, warning grooms-to-be, newly dating teens and fellow husbands that communication with females is a mystery of legendary proportions and fraught with hazardous misunderstandings.
“I’ve asked him a hundred times to call if he’s going to be late. What is so hard to understand about that? What do I have to say?”
“Why does she have to make such a big deal out of it? I just forgot! And, I keep on hearing about it.”
Both genders often appear confounded by the seemingly coded language and inexplicable reactions of their partners.
Why do we seem to speak different languages? Many books have been written offering a number of theories and explanations. John Gray has written several books addressing gender communication. Perhaps the most wellknown and widely quoted is Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. John Gottman, author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail has thoroughly researched the topic in the past decade.
With all the bright and experienced minds in this world, it would seem that we could get definitive answers. Of course, we do have answers. So what is the problem? Why do we have so many misunderstandings and disappointments in our communication with our mates if we have the answers? Is it that we don’t like the answers? Maybe. Is it that we don’t understand the answers? Probably.
We think we understand but we understand through gender filters. Gender filters?
We interpret our mate’s communications (words, body language and meanings) through our own experience and goals. Of course, you say, how else could we respond? Well, as humans, we have the ability to empathize, to imagine and put ourselves in another person’s shoes. What do we do if we meet someone from another culture and we want to understand and be understood? We would probably want to consider what is important to that person so we would not offend or insult them. We would ask questions and clarify to make sure we understood one another.
Why would we do less with our spouses (partners)?
Ask yourself, when men communicate with women, what is the purpose or goal of that communication? And vice versa? What do we mean when we say we want to communicate? What we really mean, way down deep, is we want to feel good about ourselves. Both genders want that. We want to love and be loved, feel appreciated, recognized, honored, respected and supported. Our mutual goal is to achieve self-esteem.
We certainly do go about it in different ways! And that is the point. According to Dr. Deborah Tannen, in You Just Don’t Understand, our goal determines what we focus on. Which gender is most likely to want to feel emotionally connected? Listened to? Which gender is most likely to want to impart information and establish leadership? Or to fix a problem? Let’s look at our values. Although both genders have the same primary values, notice the order in which we pursue them:
A man’s priorities are to:
- Achieve status (read this as independence).
- Avoid failure.
- Avoid isolation.
- Achieve involvement.
A woman’s priorities are to:
- Achieve involvement (read this as connectedness).
- Avoid isolation.
- Achieve status.
- Avoid failure.
As you can see, we prioritize our pathways to self-esteem in order of importance to us. Men and women prioritize in different order because we need to feel good about ourselves. Our approach to achieving self-esteem is determined by many differing environmental and biological factors.
For example, when a man asks for directions, it’s like admitting that he has to depend on someone else to succeed. Status means giving directions, not taking them. When a woman asks for directions, she is sharing with another human being and connecting.
Think about this: just because you consider “their” priorities as misguided, silly or inconsequential, does that make it so? No, they are just different.You want your spouse to consider what is important to you and to respect your point of view. You want him to do the little things that show he has thought about you and cares about your feelings. Now stop and ask yourself, “am I doing that for him”? Do you? Are you doing what you want him to do or expect him to do? We have to consciously think about what makes our spouse feel valued and cared about. It probably isn’t the same thing that makes you feel cared about. It’s hard to remember that he really is different.
Listed below are a few of the real differences between the genders. Remember, these differences do not apply to everyone in every way, but they apply to most of us. Did you know …
- Due to a difference in the size of the corpus collosum (the part of the brain between the right and left hemispheres), the genders have biological reasons for different approaches. Women can more easily use both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, thereby having the ability to be logical even when emotional. Men tend to use only one side at a time, for either logical thinking or for feeling. Asking men to focus on their feelings may preclude logic temporarily and bring you more than you bargained for.
- Boy and girl infants are treated differently by both parents.Both mom and dad speak in louder voices to boys, caress and coo at girls more, show greater facial disapproval to girls’ anger, and use more aggressive physical play with boys.
- Boys who cry or act fearful are often severely humiliated (“don’t cry”, or “don’t be a sissy”) while girls who are more physical (“tomboys”) are more readily accepted.
- Boys develop visual-spatial-logical and problem-solving skills sooner than girls and tend to talk about things and activities, while girls develop talking-reading-vocabulary and interpersonal skills sooner than boys and tend to talk about people, feelings and developing friendships.
- Typically, boys are not taught skills relating to intimacy and emotions while girls are carefully taught to focus primarily on these.
- There are physiological differences between men and women in response to stressors, especially conflict. The world of emotions seems to be more physically arousing to males, with an uncomfortable rush of adrenaline causing heart rate and blood pressure levels to elevate more quickly and taking longer to recover compared to their female counterparts. It may take more intense levels of conflict to create the same level of discomfort in females.
- Males tend to stay upset longer following a conflict, their thoughts focusing on any negative words that were spoken, especially any criticisms or put-downs. Since they are more biologically reactive as well, they are more likely to withdraw to protect themselves.
- Men must achieve goals independently to feel good about themselves, to feel power, competence and accomplishment. Women tend to share with others through their feelings and the quality of relationships to feel good about themselves.