When Planets Collide
Presents an interview with psychologist John Gray regarding his show 'Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,' held on Broadway. Criticisms on Gray's show; His goal in doing the show; His views on marriages and differences of men and women; How gender differences are helpful to the relationship of men and women; Views on the different emotional needs of men and women.
By PT Staff published May 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Now that his book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus has become one ofthe topselling self-help manuals of all time, psychologist John Gray, Ph.D., is launching a full-fledged psychotainment empire. He's unveiled a chain of "Mars Venus" counseling centers, written his fourth sequel to Mars, and in January even sold out a weeklong series of one-man shows on Broadway. But critics argue that his interplanetary gospel isn't so much good psychology as it is a repackaging of traditional gender stereotypes. Is the problem that Gray thinks in black and white? Editor at large Hara Estroff Marano casts a skeptical eye at the message behind the man.
PT: Congratulations, you've put psychology on Broadway.
JG: Thank you.
PT: The first act of your show was an hour and a half monologue without notes or a prompter. How did you do it?
JG: Before I wrote Men Are From Mars, I gave seminars for 10 years. I learned which stories, which examples, entertain people and validate them. That's primarily what I did in the show. I tried something a little different one night in the second act by bringing celebrity couples on stage. But the audience didn't get enough of me; the panelists were doing their own thing.
PT: What was your goal in doing the show?
JG: To help people improve their relationships. That's my niche. I want women to understand men. I want men to have a more positive approach to therapy, to open up to the idea that there is more to learn about relationships. Even healthy relationships sometimes need a counselor. It shouldn't be a shameful thing. Your car breaks down, you don't feel ashamed to go get it fixed.
PT: Your book wasn't a success right away.
JG: Men Are From Mars has been out five years. It came out earlier under a different title, Men, Women and Relationships. It was a thick book of my research into the differences between men and women; it did very well for a self-published book. But New York publishers wanted nothing to do with it. They thought it was sexist. Only after I sold 50,000 copies on my own did the big publishers want to buy it. I told them that I had found that a lot of people read the book, liked it, but didn't finish it. Somebody told me that isn't so unusual, but I wanted to write a book that everybody would read. So rewrote it, made it really digestible. I mean, this is popular psychology.
PT: How did you come up with the metaphor that men are from Mars?
JG: In 1983 E.T. was the big movie. I just happened to say in a talk, "Imagine if your husband were E.T. You wouldn't be correcting his behavior. You'd be studying him. He thinks differently. He feels differently. Treat him like he's from another planet." Everybody loved it. After my next seminar, people came back and said, "You didn't talk about E.T." So the next time I said that men are from another planet. Everyone giggled. Then somebody asked, "What planet are men from?" I thought, what planet would I want to be from? Mars. We [men] are warriors, protectors. What planet are women from? Venus. It's a message that people feel good about. They identify with it.
PT: Now you're licensing therapists to open Mars & Venus Counseling Centers. It's like a therapy franchise.
JG: Yeah. I tried it 10 years ago. It didn't work because I didn't have a brand name. Now [Mars & Venus] is a brand name that people recognize and trust. Not all people, but enough.
PT: You're the Coca-Cola of psychology. Not everybody drinks Coke, though.
JG: But if you like Coke, you know what you're going to get. The same is true with the Mars & Venus counselors.
PT: So therapists come to you and say they want to be a part of this. What do they do?
JG: Generally they say, "I love your work."
PT: Of course. I mean, is there a particular program of study?
JG: There's a home study program and exams based upon my books and videos. Then they come to training with me, which consists of several presentations and many hours of question and answer. They give me a case, and I show them how I would approach it.
The centers are for people who want an understanding of gender associated with their counseling. Whatever the therapy is about, it will take into consideration that a woman's from Venus, she has certain Venutian needs. When I was younger and a woman came to me for counseling, I'd give her all kinds of advice that would work for me. But it wouldn't work for her.
PT: Because she was a woman--or because your advice was based on your needs rather than hers?
JG: No, specifically because she's a woman. With women you've got to get them to talk about what they feel, what is going on inside of them. Once they feel heard, then they'll listen to solutions. As a therapist, you have to break down resistance.
PT: I would think that that would apply to both genders.
JG: Ultimately, you always get to the same place. Helping men understand a woman's point of view. Helping women understand a man's point of view. But you have different routes and guideposts.
PT: I'm confused. If the marriages that succeed and the ones that fail all consist of a man and a woman, it would seem that gender isn't that important in marital satisfaction.
JG: It's the misunderstanding of gender that causes frustration. Some men understand what a woman needs, some women understand what a man needs, and they have great relationships.
PT: Wouldn't it be more correct to say that the problems stem from the difficulties any two people have when trying to be intimate, and that the interpersonal differences that really matter have nothing to do with gender?
JG: Some do, some don't. What I focus on are the differences that do relate to gender. And for many people these are a source of enormous frustration. For example, if a man's not as talkative as a woman, she might assume that he has a fear of intimacy, that she'll never get close to him, and that the relationship is doomed. So she panics and behaves like something is wrong with him, which is definitely not going to make him more talkative. What she has to understand is that he has a different way of coping with a hard day. He doesn't want to talk about it; he comes home and wants to go into his cave.
PT: Last night something revealing happened when you brought those three celebrity couples on stage. In two of the couples, your Mars-Venus distinctions didn't apply. The model Frederique said everything you're describing about Martians applies to her. Cindy Adams said that maybe we're all 60 percent of one, 40 percent the other. The audience applauded.
JG: Success in a relationship is reaming to honor both sides. I say it all the time. The Venutian side of me wants to drink from a glass; the Martian side of me wants to drink out of the bottle. It's always there inside of us.
PT: How can it be both ways? How can it be that we're all both male and female and we should honor both sides, but that it's really a misunderstanding of gender differences that is causing divorce? Tell me what evidence suggests that gender differences are messing up our relationships.
JG: You can come to my office and listen to the calls. Three hundred of them a day, most of them saying, "This is fantastic. This is saving my marriage."
PT: You said earlier that you've done research?
JG: I don't do double-blind studies, the academic way. My research is, for 10 years I sat with a group of 30 people, and I got women talking about their issues, men talking about their issues. I found generalizations that were true about a lot of women and about a lot of men. I then had to create a way to teach a seminar without offending people. That's where the humor came from. At first, whenever I said that men and women were different it upset people, because in the past saying men and women were different was a way to keep women boxed in the house. I'm not saying one sex is better than the other, but that their needs might be different.
If a woman needs time alone, a guy shouldn't say to her, "You shouldn't take time alone." The Mars-Venus approach is, if your wife wants alone time, buddy, you better be understanding and helpful and give her the space she wants. At some point you'd better get her talking. Otherwise, there's going to be no intimacy. Women experience intimacy through sharing.
PT: And men don't experience intimacy through sharing?
JG: I experience intimacy by coming home and watching TV and [knowing] my wife is happy I'm home. When a man feels that he has impacted a woman in a positive way, he will feel close to her. When I have a conversation with my wife after making love, that's more the female type of intimacy.
PT: In bookstores, your work sits on the shelf right next to University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., one of the premier researchers on relationships. Gottman's work suggests that you've got healthy and unhealthy relationships confused. You're saying the gender differences are normal and healthy And Gottman finds that the male/female differences are accentuated only in unhappy marriages, that gender differences may be awfully common, but they're really a cardinal sign of trouble.
JG: Since I haven't seen Gottman's research, I can't be critical of it. But I think it's silly to say that healthy relationships have to have that balance. I know so many happy marriages where the guy is so different from his wife. What I say is much more inclusive, that in healthy relationships couples, through their love, are moving towards balance. That means a man who has Martian qualities is growing closer to having the same qualities that his wife has. And she is developing the same qualities that he has.
PT: Maybe what you're casting as eternal male/female differences arise not from the fact that one's a man and one's a woman but that each one's in a certain role.
JG: Sometimes that's true. If a woman has to take the role of provider, she becomes more Martian; those qualities go with the provider role. But she still doesn't have the testosterone levels that men have, and I think a lot of the differences between men and women is in the hormones. Men tend to rise to sexual arousal and peak much faster than a woman. Women need a lot more stimulation on different levels. It's so scientific, so basic: men and women are different.
PT: Are they different sexually? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean all their differences flow from this difference. Gay couples have relationship problems similar to those of straight couples.
JG: In the introduction to Men Are from Mars, I say that these differences do not relate to everybody. This book is like a department store. If something fits, you buy it. If it doesn't fit, just leave it behind. In another book, Mars and Venus, Together Forever, I've addressed the Venutian male and the Martian woman.
PT: Let me explain my objection by way of an anecdote. One of the Martian qualities you talk about is efficiency. You say men are efficient. Today my husband went into the kitchen to make himself lunch. As I passed the kitchen, I silently freaked out. He had made himself a sandwich, and the entire kitchen...
JG: . . .was a mess and he left it.
PT: But it wasn't simply that he left it a mess. It was that the little task he was doing didn't require a mess that huge. He was exceedingly inefficient. I've learned how to make lunch without destroying the entire kitchen because I've had a lot of practice cooking. He hasn't. And that's the point. I'm efficient in many "female" domains and also in some so-called "male" domains. My husband is efficient in many designated "male" domains, not at all in most "female" domains. The differences relate not to gender per se but to practice.
JG: I didn't say that women weren't efficient. I'm saying a man gets his sense of self-worth through being efficient.
PT: Women value efficiency, too. They have to. They're not only raising children and keeping house and cooking, but they're also doing so-called men's work.
JG: Yes. That's why there's so much divorce today.
PT: There's divorce because at the same time we've also changed what we want out of relationships. We don't have as many people in our lives as we used to so we have to get more out of the few that we have. When women used to do the laundry together down at the river, they were also meeting their needs for intimacy. We don't have time for same-sex friendships today. We have to get all of our needs from the person in the bed with us.
JG: So you think that's the source of the problem.
PT: A source. I think there are lots of sources. We've got stress up the wazoo.
JG: Wouldn't gender differences be one of the sources?
PT: So you're not saying that it's the source?
JG: No. We're finally in agreement here. There are so many sources. But why is it that understanding gender differences is so successful in helping couples to cope with their problems? We've been on this planet for a long time--why couldn't we have figured this out before?
The answer is that before 1950, everybody knew men were from Mars and women were from Venus. They didn't use those words, but men were men and women were women. There was "men's work" and there was "women's work." And when women did things that a man didn't understand, it didn't bother him. We were really in separate worlds. What's happening today is a huge transformation. It's the possibility of something greater than has ever happened before for relationships. Romeo and Juliet fell in love, and the only reason their love is eternal is because they died. If they had gotten married, their love would not have lasted. Never before in recorded history did people marry and have lasting romance and passion.
PT: No one expected that.
JG: Right. That's why I'm saying the gender differences are helpful. When women cross over into the man's world, the two worlds come together. And there can be friction or there can be harmony If we have a greater understanding of the way these people in different worlds think and interact, it will help.
PT: Let's take one of your prominent examples--the cave. Research tells us that men often need to go off to the cave, although certainly there are times when women need to do so as well. But what's important is the next step. Men and women have to know how to use the cave. A guy can't just go into the cave and do anything at all. First of all, he has to spend a minimum amount of time in the cave just to cool off.
JG: And some guys stay there.
PT: Well, by definition anyone who stays in the cave isn't going to have a good relationship. He's never going to be able to communicate and have intimacy. He has to know that there are things he has to do, or not do, in order for the cave time to function well.
JG: That's what I try to help men understand. Without this understanding, a man won't say to his wife, "I just need some time to cool off, I don't want to talk right now, I'll talk later." Instead he'll just say, "I don't want to talk." The woman's reaction, if she doesn't understand men, is, "Why doesn't he want to talk to me?"
PT: You just illustrated our point of difference. You said, "If she doesn't understand men." Why didn't you say, "If she doesn't understand people"?
JG: The different emotional needs of men and women are complementary. One of the needs men have is to feel appreciated, that there's a value to what they do. Women need to feel respected, honored for who they are. This is all part of my Mars-Venus counseling approach in raising children.
PT: Little Martians and little Venutians. It's never too soon to get them into the Mars-Venus juggernaut. I'm not so sure where I come down on the specifics of your message,John, but what I really like is that you're giving people some relief. You're saying, you're not alone. That's important, because marital problems isolate people.
JG: It's not just us.
PT: Still, reading the book as a journalist or psychologist, I found myself getting irritated. I kept thinking, how does he know this? Then I had an epiphany. I realized that Men Are From Mars is really a fable--a fable of romance. It's Barbara Taylor Bradford without the heavy breathing.
JG: Thank you. I kind of spin and weave a tale.
PT: If you had to reduce your message to the tiniest sound bite, what would it be?
JG: Take time to understand and validate gender differences. Give up trying to change your partner. Men, zip up; start listening more. Women, acknowledge and appreciate the things he does. Because when a man feels appreciated, he'll listen better.