Thursday, March 15, 2007

Are Men and Women Different?: Some "Armchair" Observations

by Dave Armstrong (1999).

Here are some thoughts I recently expressed in a letter to a friend of mine (a woman). I have thought about these things for years, being part "armchair psychologist" that I am, and highly interested in the topic of inherent, God-ordained gender difference (and societal corruptions of same). I try to synthesize psychological analysis, real life experiences, and a little theology thrown in for good measure.

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It is often said (usually by women :-) that men are inconsiderate, lack perception and sensitivity, and are not particularly observant (they are often downright obtuse and dense!). I totally agree. The English writer J.B. Priestley made a delightful comment which to my mind is highly insightful and relevant to the discussion at hand:
    [Women] remain more personal in their interests and less concerned with abstractions than men on the same level of intelligence and culture. While you are briskly and happily generalizing, making judgments on this and that, and forgetting for the time being yourself and all your concerns, they are brooding over the particular and personal application and are wondering what hidden motive, what secret desire, what stifled memory of joy or hurt, are there prompting your thought. But this habit of mind in women does not spoil talk; on the contrary it improves it, restoring the balance. . . . It is the habit of men to be overconfident in their impartiality, to believe that they are god-like intellects, detached from desires and hopes and fears and disturbing memories, generalizing and delivering judgment in a serene mid-air. To be reminded of what lies beyond, now and then, will do them more good than harm. This is what the modern psychologist does, but too often he shatters the illusion of impersonal judgment with a kick and a triumphant bray, like the ass he so frequently is, whereas woman does it, and has done it these many centuries, with one waggle of her little forefinger and one gleam of her eyes, like the wise and witty and tender companion she is. Here, then, is a third kind of play you may have in talk between the sexes, the duel and duet of impersonal and personal interests, making in the end for balance and sanity and, in the progress of the talk, adding to its piquancy.
But there is a flip side to all this marvelous feminine intuition, wisdom, and insight. In my opinion, the equivalent shortcoming in women (to the obtuseness of men) is observing so much that they have power over men to manipulate them. Some examples would be: game-playing; deliberately and maliciously being less than honest; using the power of feminine guile to get what one wants out of a man, being two-faced, ignoring, playing "hard to get," equivocation, flirtation, sarcasm, disappearing, putting on a front - anything designed to lead men on or mislead in some fashion. The sum of all these behaviors is dishonesty and uncharitability.

I don't claim for a moment that these harmful and unethical behaviors are always necessarily deliberate. For many women they seem to be almost second-nature, like the compulsive lying of certain politicians and Madison Avenue ad campaigns. In fact, one of my online acquaintances got very mad at me for expressing opinions along these lines. She denied that women ever played games, all the while doing it herself. Something is radically awry there . . . (or else my own perception is totally warped).

Such feminine manipulation happens all the time, and there is an emotional price to pay for resisting it. When one "defeats" a psychological game (by refusing to respond in ways which the manipulator desires), that often makes the perpetrator very angry. I think virtually all men can relate to this sense of being a pawn in power plays and games at the hands of women. I'm sure that works the other way, too - I speak from my own experience as a man. I am not denying at all that men habitually manipulate, too. I would let the recipients of that unethical behavior speak to it. In any event, I maintain that both genders have their bad tendencies and faults - they are just different. One is no worse than the other, in my opinion. The better and more glorious something is, the more potential for abuse (examples: Bible, Christianity, sex, marriage). Gender difference is merely one more wonderful gift of God which the devil has exploited for his wicked ends. This shouldn't surprise us at all.

There is, however, a sense in which men are not aware, therefore not as culpable, whereas women - in their heightened perceptiveness - know exactly what they are doing when they are playing power games and toying with men. Men - being largely unassuming - fall for this repeatedly. We learn the hard way, but we crave women's approval so much (and love magnificent female creatures so much) that we are easy bait for the unscrupulous ones among them. A woman with no consciously-applied ethics or scruples (or conscious malicious intent) can easily hurt and cause much pain to an honest, sincere, unassuming male.

What accounts for women's obviously heightened sense, sensitivity, and perceptiveness, leading (hopefully, and in the ethical application) to a greater nurturing and empathetic approach? Is it "women's intuition" or just learning more about people - the perfection of years of experience interacting with others, both male and female? I would grant that both are causative factors (and the relative degree would probably depend on one's particular life experience), but one can't minimize intuition, because the difference between men and women in this regard is so pronounced that it can't be accounted for solely by environmental factors.

These things come easier to women, because they are the nurturers by nature. Does anyone seriously dispute that? I would say that both sexes are duty-bound to be sensitive and perceptive, but men have to work harder at it. That's just the way it is. If that makes someone angry (i.e., the natural affinities), I think that they have a gripe with God Himself, to some extent.

Men often pooh-pooh intuition, as if it isn't to be trusted, or is exaggerated. This is a grave mistake. Intuition is one of the most marvelous gifts that God gives us. Just because we don't have much "scientific" understanding of it doesn't make it any less real or demonstrable. Women shouldn't let stupid comments by men make them ashamed of this gift, which they appear to possess to a disproportionate degree. I keep on using logical analysis, even though that, too, is under attack from many quarters today. Men's logic and "linear" or "left-brained" thinking is attacked by feminists just as much as women's intuition and "holistic" and "right-brained" tendencies of thought and outlook are attacked by chauvinists. It is an equally serious mistake from both ends. The genders are complementary, not incompatible or contradictory. And thank God we are so different!

Men are far less "relational" than women. They are abstract, pragmatic, preoccupied, task-oriented, stressed much of the time from (usually work) responsibilities. We are conditioned not to express our feelings (I do think that is largely an environmental, societal thing - though we can never have the "nurturing instinct" to the extent that a mother has). With that predominantly learned "toughness" also comes an insensitivity to the feelings of others. It is a very harmful conditioning. Speaking for myself, it took me years to totally unlearn it, and I'm usually considered (by women) a fairly sensitive, perceptive guy.

A frequently-observed behavior in serious relationships is the phenomenon of the man "clamming up" because of being hurt repeatedly. Men work up the gumption once in a blue moon to share deep feelings (which we don't know how to do very well in the first place - for whatever reason), and the wife or girlfriend (even a real good female friend) often sadly belittles or dismisses that, and that causes a man to resolve not to share at such a level again (many times, permanently). The risks are far too great and the benefits too small (if that is the response they get).

Women would do well to exercise the greatest tenderness and to (bluntly stated) shut their mouths when a man is sharing deeply. Apparently, often they simply don't realize how very frightening and threatening it is for many (most?) men to emotionally share, "get real," "heavy" and "deep." If a man is sharing on that level, the woman in his life can rest assured that there is a very good reason for it, that he needs and wants to do so in order to "survive" in some emotional sense, or to (believe it or not, women!) help his woman to understand him, or to understand her better, or help her in some fashion. That being the case, it is not the time for them to interrupt, criticize, or minimize the intensity or awkward expression on the man's part.

The consequences of not being sufficiently sensitive in that respect are far-reaching, and quite destructive of relationships. So - despite their generally superior strengths and beneficial attributes - women are by no means experts at psychologically healthy, "normal" emotional sharing and intimacy, either. I would say that they are at least half at fault in marriages and relationships which are not going that well. They mock, lack respect for, nag their men, resort to childish sarcasm, more often than not, and men hate nothing more than that. Why? Because we instinctively sense that we are - bumbling and incompetent though we too often are - indeed the leaders, the "heads," and when that isn't acknowledged, it is very unnatural and difficult for us to accept. We can't force respect - it has to be freely and willfully given. And of course ideally we should earn it, which opens up a whole 'nother can of worms . . .

It ought to be noted at this point that I have traditionally taken the side of women in such grand sociological and anthropological disputes as these. I have always appreciated the tenderness and "softness" of women, and their "relational" approach, as opposed to the outward "barbarian-like" qualities of men. But as I get older, and acquire more experience (innumerable conniving, game-playing, nagging, or complaining women), I realize that the way men are is not solely their fault; that women bear much of the blame, in the sense of being precipitating causes, and inadequate helpmates - just as we bear much of the blame for women's poorer behaviors and attitudes. And the father-daughter formative relationship is so extremely important, as I think most women would agree.
I would say women's lack of respect (and often utter scorn and disdain) for men is the immoral equivalent of our lowering women to mere sex objects, and not respecting their minds (as the feminist slogan goes - in this instance a true one). We often don't respect women's minds (because of seeing only their bodies - and that deriving mostly from largely involuntary biological drives), and mock "women's intuition," but women often don't respect us as people. Which is worse?

The one sin produces anorexia and chronic - almost universal - self-hatred and vain, silly preoccupation with physical appearance, cat-fighting and envy, etc.; the other leads to warped, cramped, pressure-cooker emotional imbeciles who respond in monosyllables, who hate themselves just as much, but express it in very different ways (usually drinking, affairs, various mindless distractions, rowdy behavior). Women complain and gossip amongst themselves, read romance novels and consume the dope operas; men just shut up and get away from it all, and engage in purely fun activities, in order to forget their miserable, wretched state. One expresses in an unhealthy, non-constructive way; the other suppresses in an unhealthy, non-constructive way. Both are usually blind to their own faults in the matter (but can see those of the other gender very clearly! :-).

I would suspect that in many cases, such behavior (nagging, etc.) on the part of women is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it actually causes in men's behavior what it purports to be a disgusted reaction against. In the past I was always inclined to believe that men were basically at fault in most bad relationships. Now I think I have a much better understanding of the faults of both sexes in these matters, and a better appreciation of the complexity and multi-faceted nature of causation. I believe much of the relational and communication problems between men and women are a result of innate difference (in key respects), complicated by faulty societal conditioning. This is precisely how I view the business of not being observant and/or considerate, which I have utilized as a springboard for a broader analysis.

A female friend of mine wrote, in the midst of our correspondence:
    My experience is called living with a man. He doesn't read the subtle signs, nor even the not-so-subtle ones. When people want to end a conversation, for instance, they may start taking a step or two backwards. Their answers get shorter, and their eyes look elsewhere. These are such obvious clues-and some, maybe even many, men do pick up on them. Do the others need a remedial class, or what?
This is clearly a fault, which has to be worked on. My experience is that most such people never learn - they are just that way, and that's all there is to it. Many women are also this way, but I suppose men have made themselves masters of this unfortunate characteristic. As for the husband referred to above, I would bet my bottom dollar that his unperceptiveness somehow stems from his childhood background. How did his family relate to each other? How often did his parents express affection towards each other and their children? Where was he in the birth order? Some of it is temperament (extroverts tend to be talkers, and talkers tend not to listen very well). I think everyone's experience of personal hurts has a profound effect.

My friend continued:
    Maybe women are threatened by this unusual behavior [deep sharing by men] -- maybe they want men to be "strong, silent types." Maybe women are trained to expect that, and are afraid a man who is emotional will be unable to be protective, or whatever the strong and silent is supposed to signify.
Interesting. Who knows? But I thought it was common knowledge that women love men who share. It wouldn't surprise me at all that there are many emotional and psychological complexities here, and hidden, unknown variables, as with so many issues regarding both men and women. Wherever the truth lies in all these matters, men and women will never totally figure each other out. And it seems to me that that's the way God planned it; how things should be. Without mystery, life would be pretty boring.

1 comment:

baltasar said...

Thank you for sharing your views.

Women are not the mysterious creatures they are made out to be. Security is very high on their list and any male that is naive or willing enough to provide it will be accepted.

Women do NOT like perceptive or highly intelligent men either - because they are less apt to be taken in by their ruses.

That's what I have observed- as an observant and perhaps overly intuitive male.

I could go on but it's very late here.