No - your partner is NOT an alien!! Yes, there are some real differences. Boys tend to be more active and physically aggressive, and girls are more verbal. But, these differences are small and tied to your experiences. Many women are quiet and shy, while some men are out there like Jay Leno! Mostly it is our rules and roles about how to be a guy or a girl that amplifies these differences. As my very verbal client, Tim, told me, "I am a pretty articulate guy, but I am not going to talk about "soft" feelings like my anxiety to my wife. It goes against the Boy Code. She will think I'm a wimp!" His wife then mutters something short and withering about how concrete is strong and silent too.
As a couple therapist, my focus is how men and women are different in close relationships. What I see is that men and women do come at love and closeness from different directions. Or maybe it's better to say that they are tuned to different channels!
As Deborah Tannen tells us in a recent edition of Scientific American Mind, men are tuned to power and position whereas women are tuned to closeness and distance. And, in a regular kind of vague conversation, tuning is important. Most social conversation is, in fact, ambiguous. That is, you have to interpret exactly what the hell your partner means by a phrase like "Oh, yeah." Well, men listen for, "So does this remark put me one down?" Whereas women are listening for, "So are we closer now or further apart?"
What I see, from my 30 years working with distressed couples, is a little more than this.
When you help partners feel safe so they can explore their emotions, men tell me that they are terrified of rejection, of hearing that they are not performing up to expectations. They talk of feeling inadequate, worthless, failing and being the "Big Disappointment." I say to myself, "Of course. The Boy Code is all about the big P - (no - not that one!) - Performance!
Women, on the other hand, tell me that they are obsessed with fears of abandonment. They say, "I feel lonely in this relationship. I can't connect with him and I feel like I don't matter to him. He turns away from me and I just feel so shut out." Women have been taught to focus on the big C - Connection. So these male and female versions of basic fears make sense. And this difference shows up in a couple's dance. Men, afraid of being judged, tend to withdraw and shut down when things go wrong in a relationship. He uses Report Talk. It's safer, he thinks, to focus on facts and tasks and stay away from his emotions. Women, desperate to connect, are more likely to chase and poke (it's usually called criticism) to get a response. The more walls men build, the more women bang on the door. Women want more emotional Rapport Talk that helps them feel valued and close. This chase and hide dance can really take over and erode every trace of love and tenderness. In fact, this dance predicts divorce! Couples don't see the dance, they just see their lover apparently indifferent and turning away or angry and coming for them. The really sad part is that, in fact, men in this situation are not only NOT indifferent, they are massively overwhelmed by their fears. They are turning away to try to turn those fears off, without breaking the Boy Code and saying, " Heh, this hurts!"
So, you say, men and women are aliens. They even speak a different language! But wait! Sometimes we see couples where the dance positions are reversed. The men are pursuing, feeling lonely and scared of losing their partner and it's the women who are distancing and feeling rejected or inadequate. In a session, Sarah tells me, "I shut down cause I am not as articulate as him. I get intimidated. And anyway, if he really saw me or heard me, he probably wouldn't like me." So, maybe your gender isn't the most important thing here. Maybe it's your basic sense of self, your insecurities and fears that dictate the position you naturally take in the dance and how focused you are on Performance or Connection?
The other thing that persuades me that what sex you are isn't the main show in town is that people get over their sex role training in as little as 10 to 20 sessions! Our research says that men do just fine in our very emotionally focused form of therapy, even if their wives label them as unable to express their feelings in the first session. Men also tell us that they really like Hold Me Tight, my recent book on love. We work with macho guys like fire-fighters and veterans and they learn to talk about their needs and fears just like their wives do.
Not only this, but men and women are much much more alike than they are different and all this "other planet" talk just confuses and demoralizes us. Men and women both get panicked (yes, that is exactly what the brain research says) when they feel isolated and disconnected from their loved one. They might sometimes gravitate towards different strategies for dealing with this, after all, the stay cool dictums of the Boy Code do have some effect. But, in the end, we are all just more human than otherwise. From the cradle to the grave, we have the same needs for closeness, caring and loving touch. Even in sex, where the cliché is that men want the sensation and women want the cuddling, both of them, given the chance, talk about how they want to feel desired and held! After all, orgasm is just a muscle spasm!
We watch men and women come together in what we call a Hold Me Tight conversation where they share sensitivities and needs, reach for each other and support each other to get more confident and better at dealing with fears - whether they are about rejection or abandonment. In a safe loving relationship, sex differences begin to dissolve.
We learn to be different - now it's time to learn how alike we are - we all need someone to hold us tight.