As a woman and a psychologist who has treated women and couples in the last two decades, I find that as I get older, I make a lot more comments to both male and female patients about how the sexes differ. Let’s take an every day example. A woman complains that her husband or male partner does not listen. Women often complain that a male counterpart wants to provide advice when she talks about a problem. We women can feel unheard in this situation, as we would like our partners to remark on the content of our feelings. Sound familiar?
When I am talking with patients, I often try to normalize the above example as one way that men and women are different. Although it may be that a couple is not compatible because of difficulties communicating, I am rarely worried about a partnership based on different communication styles. Rather, I try to educate men, women and couples about the differences in perceptions regarding what is ideal communication. Because a man offers advice does not mean that he does not care. A man offering pragmatic sensibilities seems to be evidence that he is listening! When I say this to my women patients, they are often relieved.
Yet, I find myself sometimes experiencing a curious anxiety when I point out sex and gender differences between women and men. The way men and women listen and talk is just one example. I can get even more anxious when I imply that men process emotions differently and they respond to feelings in a way that can seem foreign to us women.
This raises the question, are women the same as men? Are we different? And if so, can we live with the idea of difference in a post 1970’s feminist world?
Talking openly about the biological differences between men and women can be complicated. Louann Brizendine, M.D. wrote a bestselling book in 2006 about the way male and female brains and bodies differ. Whatever readers or reviewers thought about the book, it has been translated into 30 languages and obviously speaks to something we women are concerned about, which is talking about how men and women are different. Of course, socialization and the way we are raised plays an important role, but biology does seem to matter. This may not be news to young women and men, but for women in Brizendine’s generation and my own, such talk can feel like heresy. Brizendine brings this up in the epilogue of her book:
“There are those who wish there were no differences between men and women. In the 1970’s at the University of California, Berkeley, the buzzword among young women was “mandatory unisex,” which meant that it was politically incorrect even to mention sex difference.”
Something curious happened along the way for women exposed to feminist beliefs. Those of us in our 40’s and beyond were reared in a time in which we felt we had to deny differences between the sexes. This message had a purpose. We had to justify equal rights and equal pay. Although I can’t say that we have really achieved either, it certainly is better than it has been, at least in the United States. Yet, our current state of external inequality makes it harder to talk about internal and biological differences.
Brizendine goes on to say, “The fear of discrimination based on difference runs deep, and for many years assumptions about sex differences went scientifically unexamined for fear that women wouldn’t be able to claim equality with men. But pretending that women and men are the same, while doing a disservice to both men and women, ultimately hurts women. Perpetuating the myth of the male norm means ignoring women’s real, biological differences in severity, susceptibility and treatment of disease. It also ignores the different ways that they process thoughts and therefore perceive what is important.”
Where does that leave us? Especially as a therapist, I am mindful of not wanting to reduce complaints to differences between the sexes, as we all have our own individual responsibility when it comes to our partnerships. Additionally, I don’t want to bash men. But how did it become the case that talking about biological differences reifies the idea that women are less than equal?
Just because men and women have different ways of thinking about things does not make women inferior. It would be nice if men and women can both acknowledge the ways we are unique and take a stance that is more understanding. We all have different strengths.
Trying to understand how men and women communicate, without taking anything personally, can do a lot to help people in heterosexual relationships get along. And it just might be okay to talk about how men are different from us women. In a more equal, understanding and diverse world, we can appreciate differences empathically, not judgmentally. Talking about gender and sex differences might positively influence communication among men and women.