When Venus Crosses Mars

  • There were five couples--all in their 20s and 30s--in the workshop run earlier this year by Peter Fraenkel, director of the PREP Couples Program at New York University's Child Study Center. Fraenkel noticed something curious: when four of the men showed an eagerness to share their feelings more extensively with their partner, the response was, in effect, "What is this guy's problem? He's so needy."

    "I care how he feels," explained one of the women, a 37-year-old administrative assistant. "But it's boring to talk about your problems for two hours. Let's fix it and get it over with."

    After years of begging men to be more emotional...like women...is it possible that women are finally getting tougher...like men? Fraenkel speculates that on the cutting edge of gender evolution, ironically, each sex may be sliding into some of the other's former roles. "Men have been encouraged to actualize their more feminine side to be a healthy male," he says, "and independence has become an important emotional statement for women."

    While the sensitive '90s guy has grown larger in our cultural consciousness, more and more women have been entering the corporate workplace and imbibing its values. "They've learned to keep their own counsel and are proud of themselves," says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington. They're just as likely as their male counterparts, she says, to react with "'What's all this whining? Just get the job done.'"

    None of this surprises Howard Markman, whose book Fighting for Your Marriage represents years of research on couples communication. All the data in the field, Markman declares, run counter to the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus stereotypes. "When men and women talk in a safe setting," he says, "they find they're more similar than different. Men can be just as intimate and positive as women."

    Roger Lake, a family therapist in San Francisco, is working with a couple in their 40s on issues he says he would never have encountered 10 years ago. "She's a 'warrior' who's insistent on getting ahead with things," says Lake. "He's a CEO who's trying to wake up to his feelings. But she'd rather see him as a big strong guy than a guy scared of so many things." Her discomfort is similar to that of other women Lake has seen; they find their partner's emotionality unmasculine. "Women have overtly embraced the idea of feeling, nurturing men," says William Pollack, author of Real Boys, "but inside, they still have the same models of men they were brought up on."

    In fact, tradition-minded women can be just as discomfited by this shift in male roles. In part, they may fear seeing their husband's vulnerability exposed; all along they've been comforted by his stoic assurance, "Don't worry, honey, it'll be fine."

    What men say, though, isn't the only problem--it's how they say it. When these guys finally open the emotional floodgates, the intensity of their expression can be jarring. Compared with women, who typically have explored the subtleties of their inner life from the cradle on, many men are inexperienced at this, express their feelings clumsily and sound to their wives like, well, like babies.

    Most men have not allowed themselves to feel frightened or ashamed since they were children, Roger Lake explains. "When they try to get in touch with these feelings, they turn into little boys." Though women may not react well to this transformation, he advises, "The first thing you see isn't what you get. Keep talking."

    Women also need to see their mate's sudden outpouring from another perspective. Not only has he bottled up these feelings for years, but he probably releases them only with her. It's just not fair to call these guys needy, Schwartz says. "These women are still being 'needy' with their girlfriends. They've gone to lunch, they've bitched and moaned on the phone, and now they're done, while they are probably their husband's only emotional outlet." Most men, she points out, would not feel safe confiding in other men, and they'd feel disloyal talking to other women. So she suggests that women be a little more understanding when their menfolk open up. "It's like when you've already eaten and you watch a starving person wolf down food, you think, 'How gross.' It doesn't look good from the outside. But God knows, we've been saying, do it."

    Lee Morton, 42, a pilot from Brownsburg, Ind., thought he'd give it a shot. He was reading Men Are from Mars...in the living room, while his wife Patty, 42, a mother of two and a former engineer, was watching basketball in the family room. "We were going through lots of stuff, with babies and houses," Lee says, "so I thought I'd try to explain my feelings and ask what she was feeling."

    "All of a sudden he walks in the room," Patty recalls, laughing, "and he wants to know, Am I happy?"

    Her answer? "Get out of here. I'm trying to watch the play-offs!"