It was Dr John Gray who first said that men are from Mars and women are from Venus and that they both speak different languages. Through his books on the subject, he acted as the interpreter helping each understand the other better thus saving many marriages.
When we say men are from Mars and women are from Venus, are we not oversimplifying complex traits and classifying them into two neat and mutually exclusive categories?
There are millions of differences between human beings. And there are differences between men and women—our bodies and brains and our hormones are so different. We’re different in how we react to stress. But we can still make generalisations and be very accurate. What is important is that these generalisations be expressed in a positive way so we have a better and positive understanding of each other rather than some stereotypical negative generalisations.
About John Gray
John Gray, PhD, is the author of 16 best-selling relationship books including Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: one of the best-selling books of the last decade. Over 40 million Mars Venus books have been sold in over 45 languages the world over.
His focus is to help men and women understand and appreciate their differences. He is a Certified Family Therapist, consulting editor of The Family Journal and a member of the Distinguished Advisory Board of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. In 2001, he received the Smart Marriages Impact Award. Gray lives in Northern California, USA.
So men and women are different by design?
You are absolutely right. When you understand what these differences are, then it begins to make sense that we are a perfect fit together—we complement each other. We’re not in competition with each other. Women are capable of making babies and men are not, so it makes perfect sense that a woman’s brain be different from a man’s.
So is it childbirth that makes a woman different from a man?
Well, women are genetically different, their brains are wired up differently, their hormones are wired up differently. Whether she has babies or not, her body is designed to make babies. And the hormone oxytocin is a major hormone necessary for childbirth. So, whether she has children or not, the hormone helps her cope with stress. Once she does have children, the differences show up even more because it awakens in her an awareness of her need for the support of a man.
How different is a woman’s brain from a man’s?
Since women have been making babies for thousands of years, there’s a part of their brain that keeps them feeling responsible for the babies and the children all day long and all night long. Men, however, can turn their brains on and off. They can be responsible for work and forget the problems at home and they can come home and forget the problems at work. Hence, they cope well with stress. But women can’t turn their brains on and off like men. When they are at work, they worry about problems at home, and when they are home, they worry about problems at work. And it’s important to understand these differences so that we can support each other better.
Do these differences serve any purpose?
Women are designed to respond and react to all the small problems, which could be very useful if you have to look after six or seven children. While a man stands guard looking for the big problems. He is not disturbed by the little problems—a woman is. This is just one of the ways the differences between men and women help.
But do these differences really matter?
Younger women today are often unaware of how different they are. That’s because today, women can choose behaviours that are more masculine and men can choose behaviours that are more feminine. And they think that that’s fine. But as time passes, you realise that certain needs are not being met. As they grow older they recognise these differences exist. For fulfilment they need to satisfy their own unique needs.
Women are believed to be emotionally stronger and more resilient than men… is that true?
I would not say that women are stronger or more resilient than men. That’s a generalisation that’s not true. It’s not one or the other. It’s just that some people are more resilient than others. What we can say, though, is that a woman’s brain becomes eight times more emotionally reactive under moderate stress. A man’s brain becomes reactive only under major stress.
Can you tell us three qualities of women that make them unique and special?
One, women by nature are much more nurturing than men. It’s not that men can’t learn to nurture but women automatically tend to have a much greater capacity to nurture other people’s needs and to think of others.
Two, women have an ability to appreciate little things. Men tend to think you have to do big things to feel successful. Women can appreciate the little things of life.
Three, women have a greater sense of the inter-connectedness—of how everything fits together. For example, women understand the relatedness of family members and how important it is to include everyone, whereas, men tend to focus on just one thing and forget the importance of family, relationships and the essence of life.
Is that why women tend to be the backbone of the family?
Yes. Because women can make babies, they are much more connected to their children. Also, their bodies reward them with good feelings when they focus on the needs of the family on a personal level.
Does that mean it’s only women who are family oriented and not men?
They both are, but in different ways. Men go out and do things in the world to earn money and to provide for their family. And that’s often where a man’s interest primarily is. He does have an interest in his family. He loves his family, cares for his family but men’s brains turn on and off to cope with stress.
A woman’s brain never turns off. Family is a 24-hour job for her. So she is much more intimately connected to the children, to the needs of everyone in the family. It’s more important for her own sense of happiness and wellness to have that connection, and hence is seen as the backbone of the family.
You may also call her the heart, and the man the head, of the family. Both have important roles. And neither is more important than the other.
If their roles are different, are their expectations from relationships different too?
Yes indeed. Women and men have different expectations from relationships. And in the last 10 years those expectations have changed dramatically. That is what causes the stress today between men and women. They have unrealistic expectations. Earlier a woman depended on a man to provide for the family. Her main expectation was that he would go to work and support the family. She would work as well, but she didn’t do the kind of work he did. So he would carry the major responsibility.
Today, women too carry that responsibility along with the man, and that causes a much greater stress on them. To cope with that stress, a woman has new needs, which have never been identified before. Our cultures, which are thousands of years old, have supported women and men in different ways. Now that women are doing men’s jobs, there is a need to create a new culture which supports women and men in a new way.
And what do you think this new culture requires?
There are several ingredients. One of the ingredients of this new culture is romance. Never in history has romance become so important in a woman’s life. Because when women are under stress, the hormone oxytocin helps them cope with it. And oxytocin gets stimulated through romance and the anticipation of romance. When the romance need is met, women are much happier, much healthier.
Can you give an example of how a woman’s health suffers due to the cultural changes?
Sure. Do you know that a woman living in a village in India is at a low risk of getting breast cancer? But, as soon as she moves to the city, her chances of getting breast cancer dramatically go up. Breast cancer is a sickness that happens when your immune system is weak. And your immune system becomes weak when your stress levels are high. When women move to the city, they get a job which is far more stressful than the kind of job they would do in a rural area.
Whenever women are in the situation of urgency, emergency and uncertainty, the threshing around stimulates the hormone testosterone, which helps men cope with stress, but not women.
It’s oxytocin that helps women cope with stress. But living in the city and taking on traditionally male jobs produces testosterone even in a woman. It doesn’t lower her stress like it does for a man and consequently her health suffers.
What will help women cope with this stress?
When women are in a co-operative, collaborative, non-competitive, mutually supportive, communicative type of environment, it lowers stress for women.
To compensate for stress, women need a new kind of support in relationships. They need to learn to communicate better to create romance.
Women should learn to ask for help around the home in ways that are positive rather than simply complaining and expecting men to respond in a positive way.
Does that mean only women are under greater stress today?
No, men too are under greater stress than ever before. But the man’s stress has a different reason. Today it is much harder for a man to feel that he can support his family. And when a man can’t support his family, his sense of success goes down. And that causes major stress for him. To compensate for this, a man needs more messages from his woman that he is a success.
What can help men and women build a better relationship?
Relationships have become a major source of stress because women simply expect men to help out more around the home. Women feel they are alone and have no support—that causes major stress too. They expect men to suddenly be more interested in what they have to say and expect them to be more romantic. These are new things for men, and add further stress on the relationship. Men have to learn the importance of these things.
Similarly, women have to learn to ask for these things in a friendly way and not just expect men to do them. Learning to ask a man for romance, asking him to listen, and do little things around the house to help can be a major stress reducer for women.
Men don’t understand the important role they have just as women don’t understand their important role which is to learn to make themselves happy. Think of it like this. By asking him to do things you make yourself 90 per cent happy. When he comes in and does the task—the rest of the 10 per cent—you give him full credit and that makes him very happy too.
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So you are saying that women need to be more expressive, more communicative…
No, I’m saying women have to communicate what their needs are in a different way. Today, women often communicate their needs but it sounds like they are complaining, criticizing, nagging and demanding. This just pushes the men away.
Moreover, today as more and more women have jobs where they are more independent financially, they become more masculine and that makes women very unhappy if they don’t balance it with the feminine side of life. This is why there is increasing amounts of divorce.
Women are not satisfied in their marriages. When they are not satisfied they always think it’s the man that’s making them unhappy but the true cause of their unhappiness is the new world, which doesn’t support the hormones of happiness in their bodies. They are not learning to make themselves happy.
Has modern-day stress changed a woman’s demands from intimacy too?
In the last 50 years, women have shifted from the traditional arranged marriages to marrying someone they love. And when you are in love with someone, there is a physical chemistry. This chemistry is delicate. It needs to be preserved like a flower plant in the garden. You have to learn to take care of the plant so that the flowers continue to bloom. And women have very, very different needs when it comes to feeling sexually attracted to their partner. When men do romantic things and women have the opportunity to express their feelings, it stimulates oxytocin. Women cannot respond sexually or climax in the bedroom unless they have enough oxytocin. And women today want more romance and more sex than ever before because sex is one of the number one oxytocin stimulators, which helps them cope with stress.
Is it the same for men too?
For men, it’s different. They don’t need oxytocin in order to be in the mood for sex, men need testosterone. For a man who’s under stress the whole day, sex helps reduce stress. But sex is not the way to reduce stress for women. It’s something women want to enjoy, but only after they’ve lowered their stress levels. For men, sex itself is a way to lower stress and hence men are more interested in it and want to do it more often. But a woman can’t feel the need for sex or experience fulfilment unless she already has a certain amount of oxytocin. So, going on dates, planning things that are romantic stimulates oxytocin in a woman, which helps her cope with stress. Then she is in the mood for sex.
What’s your relationship advice to readers of Complete Wellbeing?
When it comes to relationships, the road to happiness is to remember that a woman loves ‘a man with a plan’ and a man loves ‘a woman with a smile’. So my advice to women is: focus less on making men happy and focus more on making yourself happy. This way, not only will you be happier, he will be happier too.
To men, I say this: recognise that women are always busy in their brains much more than you. So plan something for her—a date for example. It’ll free her from having to plan everything. And that’s a great source of fulfilment for her. When you plan special activities, she doesn’t have to do it.
On weekends, many men ask their wives at the last minute, ‘what would you like to do?’ They think they’re being very loving and supportive by saying I’ll do whatever you want to do. That puts a burden on her to once again figure out what to do that will make everybody happy.
When you can take on that burden sometimes, it will relieve her and make her feel special and loved. Such a small thing could make a huge difference in her life.
This interview was first published in the March 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.