Men are from Mars, women are from Venus – or so popular culture would have us believe. Both are inhospitable planets and they’re separated by vast distance, so if this is really true then we’re all going to have our work cut out seeing eye to eye.
Indeed, problems within relationships can often be brought down to problems with communication, and within heterosexual relationships the fact that men and women often differ in the ways they communicate emotion can often make matters more complicated. The good news is that despite what popular culture would have us believe, the differences between communication styles for men and women are only superficial. They are largely adopted form the way society expects each gender to behave. At heart we are all – thankfully – from Earth.
The way men and women differ in their displays of affection can be seen as an example of the ways they differ more generally in affective style. Women – or, rather, girls – are socialised to be comfortable and embrace feelings of love, nurturing and tenderness; this can mean that women are more comfortable expressing and sharing these emotions verbally. This can come in many forms, from regular texts to sharing of emotional burdens. Conversely, boys are brought up to not place such value on affection, and instead focus on physical strength, independence and possibly even competition. This means that while they might be great at boasting or showing off their skills or strength, men may be less comfortable making such obvious claims of affection, and may even misinterpret regular contact as nagging, or misread a desire to share problems as a request for advice. Conversely, women in a relationship may misread such advice as evidence that her partner is ‘not really listening’, or understand his silences – which to him seem intimate – as being cold.
Unfortunately, for both partners this can lead to resentment and the sense that one is unappreciated – or even unloved. This becomes especially problematic when such feelings break out into arguments rather than discussion, which always generate far more heat than light and often entrench misunderstandings. This can create a vicious cycle whereby each partner’s preconceptions are continually validated through misunderstanding and recrimination.
As ever, open discussion is the key to resolving these issues – either as a pair, or, if appropriate, within the safe, structured environment of a counsellors office. Remember that discussions are not only a place for us to get our point across, but also – more importantly – an opportunity to understand the point of view and feelings of our partner. Only through listening is it possible to overcome surface misunderstandings.
And these misunderstandings are so often just that – surface issues, much like the surface differences in how the different genders approach affection and love. The wonderful take home message is that at heart – in their hearts – both men and women are coming from the same place, and in a relationship they are seeking to make the journey together. While at darker times it can seem that communication problems are insurmountable, we all fell in love with the person we fell in love with because, when we look into their eyes, we see we are far more alike than different.
Delaney is a senior registered psychologist working with people of all backgrounds and with a special interest in LGBTI+ people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and Indigenous people.