This is the first of five excerpts from my new book, The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think: Love, Commitment, and the Male Mind.
Boys and girls play differently, and their playground behaviors teach them different lessons about relationships—lessons that leave men and women with differing relationship skills in adulthood. Which skill set is better? Both.
It depends. Here’s an excerpt:
"Would you guess that a little boy’s willingness to jump his bicycle off a makeshift ramp would make him better at relationships in the future? What about his willingness to face the offensive line of his Pee Wee football team’s unbeaten rival or the expectation that he not cry if he gets hurt during the game? Would you ever imagine that his coach requiring him to shake hands with the opposing team, regardless of the outcome of the game, could make him a great husband or boyfriend?
Experiences like those contribute to a boy’s ability to become a good and skillful mate someday far in the future. How? To get a glimpse, let’s take a look at how girls and boys handle empathy.
Girls up to their early teens have better developed empathy for other children who are suffering than boys do, and they’re better able to understand the sources of pain, whether their own pain or that of others (Garaigordobil 2009). For example, a girl would be more likely to intuitively understand that a friend is sad because she was excluded from a group.
Boys are obviously capable of understanding sources of pain, but their focus is elsewhere. Whether we chalk the difference up to nature, nurture, or nature amplified by nurture (my preference), boys are generally more focused on being tough, walking it off, reducing vulnerability, and getting themselves or their teammates back in the literal or figurative game. Boys don’t dwell much on sources of pain. They aren’t unconcerned with emotion, but they are more concerned with outcome.
This difference in empathy and pain analysis is well documented, and in my experience it’s routinely presented as a deficit on the part of boys. That judgment seems unnecessary and shortsighted. Empathy is valuable, but stoicism is equally valuable depending on the context. The beautiful part is that we don’t have to settle for one or the other. We can have both. In fact, we need both.
Suppose a group of people were lost in the wilderness and had to find their way home. Empathy would be an important skill because it would help the group cohere. But equally important would be the ability to see beyond sources of pain and focus on getting home.
Couples and families routinely face ongoing stressful situations. We may not get lost in the woods often, but we are confronted with financial difficulties, health problems, and any number of other challenges. The sublime beauty of blending male and female traits is the ability to bring the best of both worlds to any problem. To continue the lost-in-the-woods scenario, empathy ensures that sources of pain are identified and attended to. Stoicism, on the other hand, ensures that we recover quickly, reduce our vulnerability, and keep moving toward safety. Both are necessary, and that may be the perfect example of one of the reasons Neanderthals perished while our ancestors flourished.
The empathy-stoicism dichotomy is just one example of complementary traits. In this chapter, I’ll explore several valuable male traits that complement female strengths, based in part on what women told me they like most about having men in their lives. But first, let me revisit my disclaimer about generalizations. There really are no male or female traits; there are simply traits that one gender, on average, possesses in greater quantity or uses differently. Personally, I find it both odd and wonderful that women tend to make up for whatever qualities men lack, and vice versa.
Men and women can complement each other in a relationship like yin and yang, heaven and earth, or beer and pretzels. Any male-female team that overlooks half of its emotional and cognitive assets is like an engine with half its spark plugs missing. Sure, it can limp along, but why not fire on all cylinders? Here, then, are some of the most valuable, and often overlooked, qualities that men can bring to relationships:
• Emotional protection
• Forgiving and forgetting
• The joy of simplicity
• Useful stoicism
• Goal orientation
Men have historically been protectors. Women certainly aren’t helpless, especially in our modern age, but the protective skills men have developed over thousands of generations are still available to any woman who wishes to capitalize on them.
Take Pete and Amy, a couple struggling to manage a group of rental properties they purchased together. As the realities of being landlords set in (midnight plumbing repairs, tax assessments, insurance costs, and so on), Pete and Amy increasingly fretted and disagreed over the properties. The issues with their rental properties invaded their family dinners, their weekends, and even their sex life.
Through couples therapy, they realized that Amy didn’t really want to be involved in day-to-day property management. When they purchased the properties, they had assumed that partnership meant they had to equally share the anxiety and decision making, but Amy reluctantly admitted that she wanted Pete to take the lead. She had kept that to herself for fear of burdening him with the decision making that she found to be so unpleasant.
Amy was surprised to learn that Pete was happy to oblige. In fact, relieving her of the stress made him feel good, and he was thrilled to eliminate the source of so many arguments between them. They negotiated a new arrangement in which Pete managed the properties on his own except for major decisions, and both of them were happier.
Their relief may have stemmed from the fact that men experience risk and danger differently than women and are more tolerant of it, whereas women are generally more risk averse (Roszkowski 2010). In no way am I suggesting that men are superior at making decisions or that men should be in charge of money or business. But history and research are abundantly clear that men are more willing to embrace risk, danger, and the attending emotional discomfort. Hopefully I’ve sufficiently emphasized throughout the book that gender differences don’t imply superiority on either side. For every man who is foolishly willing to risk his safety or fortune, there’s a woman with common sense who would take a safer path.
Not every woman will want a relationship like Pete and Amy’s, nor will every man. But if you wish to capitalize on a man’s willingness to protect you and embrace discomfort on your behalf, there are plenty of us who will step up to the plate."
As you might gather from the excerpt, I’m a fan of both women and men. I love what we bring to each other. Of course, there are plenty of downsides to the way men learn to interact as boys. The book discusses those too, and what women can do about them.
Before I post the next excerpt, I should probably talk about the bad G word: Generalizations. Some people bristle at them, and so do I sometimes. Here’s how I handle generalizations in The Women’s Guide to How Men Think:
"Generalizations are uncomfortable, and for good reason. As I was writing this book, hundreds of men and women participated in a survey in which I asked for their thoughts about the genders. A few people felt compelled to begin their responses with 'I don’t like to generalize, but…'
There’s wisdom in that hesitance. In relationships, particulars are more important than generalities. Imagine a woman saying to her husband, “Honey, I don’t understand why you’re struggling with erectile dysfunction. Most men don’t have that problem.”
Can you think of a more efficient way to aggravate the situation? I can’t. That’s the problem with generalizations. They don’t apply neatly to individuals, and they can make things worse. That’s why every generalization in a book like this matters less than individual traits. Most men like cars, but that's irrelevant if your man doesn’t.
Still, some generalizations are valid and useful. For example, men and women possess different levels of androgens (often called male hormones). Those hormone levels affect things like mechanical aptitude, mood, cardiovascular efficiency, speed, endurance, muscle mass, aggressiveness, and the tendency to scratch oneself in public. While this doesn’t mean that, for example, some women aren’t stronger than some men, it does belie the hippie-trippy 1960s notion that the brains of men and women are identical.
That brings me to the second reason that generalizations can be uncomfortable: acknowledging differences invokes the fear that one gender is superior to the other. I imagine that’s one reason so many people endorse the old idea that men and women are essentially identical. If men are stronger, maybe that means men are better. If women are more empathetic, maybe that means they’re superior to men.
Not in this book. I believe it’s most accurate and useful to think of men and women as different but equal, with strengths and weaknesses that are wonderfully, perfectly complementary.
Here’s my stance, which also happens to be the stance put forth by evolutionary psychology: male and female bodies are nearly identical, except for the differences that arose out of distinct reproductive tasks. The same is true of our minds. They are essentially the same except where we differ because of our respective reproductive tasks, our distinct physical abilities, and the need for the genders to relate to each other. Not better, not worse, just different."
Don’t miss the next thrilling installment: Why an oil change might as well be love poetry.
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The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think is available at Amazon, in stores and online at Barnes & Noble, and at other fine booksellers.