The Relational Styles of Men and Women

Some thoughts on the cognitive relational styles of men and women.

Posted Sep 11, 2013

The other day my wife, Andee, was telling me about an exchange she had saying, “So after she told me about this, I said she should have said yes and then she said…”. Then she stopped and asked me not to repeat this story to a specific person.

She had been relaying this story a little while and I said, “Obviously, you know that by now my eyes are glazed over, and I can’t remember what you are talking about so I don’t think I will be repeating it”. It came out in a manner that sounded a bit more callous than I meant it.

“I know,” she said with a sigh. “But just let me finish. I need to get it out.” And she finished telling the story.

My wife and I both feel we have equal power in our marriage, and I think most outside observers would agree. Despite this fundamental equality and our progressive ideals about gender, there are aspects of our styles that are, shall we say, stereotypic. Because gender dynamics have been featured in the NY Times quite a bit recently (see here regarding the Harvard Business School, and here regarding the numbers of women in philosophy and here regarding gender in the classroom), I thought it would be a good time to focus on the relational styles of men and women.

One element that I would like to focus on here is an aspect of the cognitive structures that organize the relational styles of men and women, because, at least for my wife and I, that is where we differ the most. Let’s consider the dynamics of the above exchange because I believe it reveals much about the dramatic differences in the structure of our relational thought processes. It highlights how my wife is much more social and relational in the way she thinks than I am. By that I mean she naturally experiences and internalizes the thoughts and feelings of others and then reacts to them. Another way of saying this is that her consciousness is attuned to and filled with such processes. The relational nature of her cognitive style is revealed further in the way she wants to share the story with me and it is apparent in what would be good for her in terms of my response. What would be ideal for her is to have me listen to her, show her I am interested, and tell her that I believe it makes perfect sense that she said what she said and felt what she felt. Because she thinks relationally, the process of sharing and then being validated makes her feel whole, connected, and valued.

Although I know this intellectually and we have been married over 20 years, I still have the thought (which I usually suppress better than I did above), “Why on God’s earth is she telling me this?” The reason I have this thought is because my cognitive style (note, not my motivations or values…I care as deeply about the welfare of others as my wife does) is much more self-oriented and instrumental in nature than hers. My natural inclination is to focus on the problems and tasks that I face. I think and care about other people’s feelings a great deal, but I do so from my own frame of reference. If I judge other’s feelings or actions to be annoying, dramatic, or illegitimate, I do my best to work around them, but I do not engage them mentally and the last thing I want to do is talk about them. For me, the less time thinking about such things the better. In contrast, because my wife’s cognitive system is more relationally organized, she “weighs” and internalizes the feelings and actions of others more than I do. Interestingly, this difference often translates into her becoming more upset about relational exchanges than I. Why? Because when someone else acts in an annoying manner, she has to consider their feelings and perspective and then must work to justify why she was legitimized in being annoyed or why she should disengage. So relational conflict creates a much more disequilibriating experience and she comes home to vent, with the purpose of getting validation. She does this even to the point where she knows she is more or less talking to herself, but, as she says above, it helps her even just to go through the motions.

In contrast, my frame is simply to dismiss the event and move on. Of course, if the person’s actions impact me, I certainly might come home and vent and say why this action interfered with me reaching my goals, but it is the latter point that is the focus. And even that is fairly rare because I don’t really get much out of sharing those kinds of experiences. It basically is an irritant that I would rather not revisit. This difference in style creates some dynamics for us. As in the snippet I shared, I find myself pulled into conversations about topics that I am not interested in. Conversely, Andee definitely wishes I would “share more” about what happens to me than I do because she would feel more connected to me if I would tell her about the relational processes and exchanges that I had during the day. For her, the relational process is the figure and instrumental goal achievement is the ground.

I know many are curious about the origins (i.e., evolutionary or social learning) or malleability of gender roles, but I will leave those issues for some later discussion (see here for some thoughts). My point here is that one of the most salient differences I see in how men and women tend to think about self-other exchanges is that men tend to be more cognitively self and instrumentally focused and women being more relationally oriented in their cognitive relational styles, which is not the same thing as their motivational tendencies. (And, obviously, all the normal caveats about groups and individual differences are taken as a given).  One final point I want to make is that although I believe I might be getting somewhat clearer on aspects of the structural differences are between the way men and women tend to process social information because of the unified framework, readers should know that there are many good resources for getting a handle on the ways women and men tend to be different that overlap greatly with what I narrate here. For example, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice is a classic that articulates that moral reasoning in women tends to be more relational than men. Alice Eagly is a social psychologist who characterizes the gender roles in terms of agentic (male) and communal (female), and I recommend checking out her many scholarly articles. Deborah Tannen’s book on this topic is strong and was one of my early favorites in understanding gender differences in cognitive and communicative styles.