Can Women and Men Get Along?
BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 2012
Romantic relationships between women and men seem fraught with problems. Everywhere we turn we hear or read about the purported schism between women and men. Questions and advise about what women want, what men want, how to find a man, how to keep a man, how to please a woman sexually, etc. are everywhere!
To read a magazine, newspaper, or many a book, one would think women and men have no clue about one another and cannot get along. In order to stay together, they require all kinds of advice from talk show hosts to marital experts.
What’s wrong with this picture? How did we get to the place where many women and men can barely talk to one another; where sex disappears; and unhappiness within relationships seems like the norm?
Are women and men so different that they can’t get along in an intimate relationship? I don’t think so.
While there are many commonalities among women and men, we need to acknowledge the differences because trying to control, change or manage those differences appears to be at the root of many of our relationship problems. Quite apart from the different social conditioning women and men receive, women and men are different. We all know this whether we are social scientists or not. But many people are afraid to acknowledge this truth because of how those differences have been used to fuel discriminatory treatment. But being different is not a license to discriminate. Quite the opposite, it is an opportunity to learn from one another and to accommodate.
One difference I think we can all agree upon is that women tend to engage in more emotional processing than men. There are always exceptions to any generalization, but I think we can safely say that, on the whole, women tend to verbalize emotional and relational processes more.
There is no problem with this at all! Problems only arise when women expect men to engage in the same way as other women and when men dismiss emotional processing entirely. It’s not that men don’t have emotions, far from it, or that they don’t process emotionally. They simply do it less, differently, or with fewer words. For example, what may be a satisfying emotional conversation to a man may feel like “we’re just starting” to a woman!
Again, there is no problem here until we try and impose our ways on each other. Both women and men may need to step a little out of their comfort zones and allow for each others’ differences. So, for women that may mean understanding that men process with fewer words and not pressuring for more or saying as much as one would with a girlfriend, and for men it means understanding that women need more processing than they do and listening to and understanding what she has to say. Both need to learn about the others’ ways, respect those differences and make accommodations.
Sometimes, men wish women could be more like men, and, sometimes, women wish men could be more like women! But then we would be good friends, which is good in itself, but the truth is within the tension that comes from our differences lays our passion. (This is equally true in same sex relationships; our differences are not solely about gender and gender is not sex bound but that’s a whole other article!)
The desire to be more alike and the subsequent disappointment with our partner leads to arguments and has a dampening effect on our passion and desire. But, alternatively, when we make room for our differences by accepting those differences, and better yet enjoying them, we ignite the fire of our passions. We might still fight but it’s less catastrophic, and the sex remains which softens tensions.
Couples who have an active sex life do so because they know the power of respecting differences and how powerful sex can be to help us to let go, connect, and not get caught up in petty differences. Appreciating our differences, and learning from those differences, helps to keep our sex lives alive and regular sex helps us to relax more with each other. A good sex life isn’t enough for a relationship to last but it helps a lot!
Many men know the value of sex to connect and many women know the value of intimate conversation. Women and men can learn these simple lessons from one another. Talking can be sexy, and sex can be a valuable form of communication as well. Being clear, talking issues out, and being emotionally intimate can be very connecting and sexy. Sex can be a profound form of communication and a profound expression of love that can’t be communicated through words. Both are important and needed. It’s about balance.
We all need to learn how to communicate outside our comfort zones. Sometimes that means not talking and experiencing other ways to communicate. Other times it means taking a leap to say more about how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking.
We all need to be seen and accepted for our individuality. No matter how similar we may be, we are not the same. And thank goodness for that because it’d be a lot less interesting if we were! For any relationship to work both people need to have room to be themselves and to have their independent lives. Too often we want all of our happiness to be derived from each other. So, if we’re not trying to be the same we’re trying to do the same things at the same time. But this stifles a relationship. We can’t spend most or all of our free time together without growing tired of one another, becoming irritable, arguing, and becoming less interested in sex. Spending too much time together is definitely not sexy! And not spending enough time together is not sexy either! There’s that balance issue again.
A common problem in relationships is one person, often a woman, when reaching for more closeness/intimacy, holds too tightly or reaches out too often and the other person, often a man, feels overwhelmed and withdraws. She wants to feel close but may not know how to approach without clutching. Another common problem is some people, often men, withdraw too much. They don’t know how to engage in an intimate way. They want to be close but get overwhelmed and retreat rather than talking it out.
These two problems often come together in a relationship and are mutually reinforcing leaving both people feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. When someone withdraws, emotionally and/or physically, the other person may feel neglected and reach out even more, and when someone reaches out more, out of neglect or their own personal insecurity, the other person often will withdraw more. This will go no where positive until both people are able to step outside of their comfort zones and do something different for themselves and the other person.
What’s the answer? Once again, it’s in the acceptance of our differences and making accommodations for those differences. Giving each other what we need. Giving room to our partner to do their own thing – to be with their friends, for example – and spending intimate times together, not just doing routine tasks together. There is nothing wrong with wanting more intimacy, nor wanting time to oneself, again the answer is in the balancing act between the two. Too much closeness will stifle any relationship and too much distance will do the same thing.
We have the opportunity to learn from our partner. If she or he wants more space, try it yourself while they take their space. Do something on your own that you’ve been wanting to do. If your partner wants more closeness think about how you can spend some quality time together that’s different than the norm. It’s not necessarily about the amount of time you spend together, or what you do, but how you interact, for example, increase your eye contact, tell her or him how much you love them, go out for a meal, go for a walk holding hands, etc. Step outside your comfort zone with space and closeness. Because both are needed to keep a relationship healthy and happy.
Women and men can be very happy together. Most people when first getting to know one another really value and appreciate their differences because that’s what’s interesting, and reassuring. They like men to be men and women to be women, and not from a cave man perspective either! In fact often these differences are a big factor in what people love about each other. But, sadly, soon those differences begin to grate on people’s nerves because they stop appreciating them and seeing them as part of the whole picture. And things start to spiral downwards. For example, when he gets grumpy and withdrawn he probably needs to have some time to himself to feel more like himself – the man you fell in love with. He needs to know you appreciate everything he does and that you want him to do what he needs to do to take care of himself. Encourage him to take that time for himself and he’ll be better able to engage with you. And if she seems clingy or overly sensitive to you she needs some tender loving care; to hear what she means to you or to be held. She needs to have small, but consistent, emotional connections with you to feel more fully herself. Tell her and show her how much you love her and appreciate everything she does and she’ll be more herself – the woman you fell in love with. And when you are both feeling good about yourselves, you’ll feel a whole lot better about each other. And the small things, the differences, won’t seem so big any more; they may even be endearing.