Psychotherapy: Counseling: Marital Counseling: Premarital Counseling

I’d like to talk a little about gender issues and talk about how differences in communication styles between genders might contribute to conflict.

John is a 36-year-old computer engineer. He works for a large corporation and is moderately successful. Mary is his 31-year-old wife who is a nurse and works happily at a local hospital. They have been married for three years and have a two-year-old daughter. The couple decided to come into therapy because their arguments have become increasingly unproductive, hurtful and blaming. While they both believe themselves and each other to be reasonable people, they have difficulty negotiating with each other. Both partners are committed to the relationship; but they know if they don’t change soon, their relationship could hit the rocks. Here is what the couple describes as their problem

Mary: I guess I just don’t feel like I get enough support from John. He just doesn’t listen to me. He turns me off. He always accuses me of nagging. He treats me like I’m some kind of child. But, I really don’t nag. There are real problems that need real solutions and sometimes we just need to talk. But when I want to talk about, say our money problems, he just listens and clams up. (John is sitting silently with his arms folded.) There are times when I just want some feedback. I want to know what he’s thinking. But he just thinks I’m a silly nag. See. He’s doing it now. He’s just sitting there like a lump. (John continues silent with his arms folded.) You see! I just wish he could learn to open up more and be more expressive of his feelings. (A long angry silence ensues. The situation feels like both partners are hunkered down in their trenches.)
Jacob: You know Mary, even silences communicate. Do me a favor, could you sit there like John is doing now? Yes, that’s right fold your hands and stay silent for a while. Use his same expression on your face…. The angry silence continues a while longer. Mary I wonder how you are feeling.
Mary: Angry. Defensive. Like… Just try to get at me. I dare you. Don’t cross this line.
Jacob: John, is that what you’re feeling?
John: Darn right. She’s always intruding into everything. I feel like I’m smothering… trapped. I’ve tried to work things out with her, but every time I try to solve the problem, she flips out on me. She says I’m trying to run roughshod over her. She says that I don’t consider her feelings. I try to offer logical and constructive solutions to her problems, but then she refuses to do any kind of problem solving. She just gets upset. I’m tired of her silly immature behavior. I just wish that she’d be less hysterical and more logical.
Mary: Well, at least I have some feelings. I’m not like some cold calculating computer….
John: (Exasperated) Well at least I can solve my problems.
Mary: (Furious) I solve my problems! I’m a nurse! Stop treating me like I’m some kind of stupid, silly child.
John: (To Jacob) I don’t get it. Sometimes I feel like we’re not talking the same language.

Does this sound familiar? The same pattern of complaint seems to resonate in the majority of troubled couples I see. Men complain that women are illogical, silly, intrusive, nagging and hysterical. Women complain they would like their men to be more emotionally expressive, less controlling and aggressive, more sensitive and considerate to their needs. Could it be that men and women not only have different physiologies, but different patterns of personality development?

Kohlberg, Gilligan and Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg studied the moral development of children. Kohlberg was mainly interested in how children solved moral dilemmas across age groups. His method was to provide a child with a vignette of some moral dilemma and try to find patterns in how the child found a solution to the problem. In this process, Gilligan made a striking observation. Male children tended to use roles, rules and logic to solve these moral dilemmas. Female children tended to solve the same dilemmas by looking at the network or relationships involved, and attempted to establish a consensus to ensure that no one was left out. (Gilligan, 1982)

Separate Lines of Individuation and The Language of Men and Women

Gilligan reasoned that men and women established their identities differently very early on while individuating from their mothers. Female children emerged from the womb with similar physiologies and activation levels. Therefore, they saw relatedness in their body types. Their individuation process was based on mirroring and maintaining similarities in emotional responses. Male children emerged from the womb with different physiologies and activation levels. In order to maintain and enhance their differentness from mom, male individuation relied on establishing rules and roles, and clarifying and logically resolving differences. This is why boys will typically evoke a rule (or logic) to establish order amongst their relationships and girls will break rules (or logic) to maintain relatedness.

Going back to our Case History, Mary knows she can logically understand the problem. She doesn’t want John to fix the problem. Mary must first feel relatedness before she moves to logic and problem solving. Mary needs the time to feel that she and John are on the same “feeling wavelength” before she moves on to logical solutions. She just wants John to listen. Once John listens, she will hear John’s desires and do whatever she can to maintain her relationship with him – including breaking the rules.

John’s sense of self is based on moderating differences. He sees Mary suffering. While he feels Mary’s suffering, his response is to jump into his role as husband and take action to reduce her suffering. Logically, why would anyone want to spend time suffering? He can’t understand why anyone would want to spend that much time in so much pain. He begins problem solving at once – and invades Mary’s boundaries. Mary feels railroaded because she hasn’t had time to feel relatedness. She begins to interpret John’s actions as “unfeeling” or “uncaring”. John seems slow or stupid to her.

Not understanding the other’s perspective, John maintains more boundaries and differences the more Mary attempts to increase relatedness by her constant invitations to “share feelings”. John simply sees this as nagging. He also sees Mary’s desire to break rules and logic to maintain relatedness as “silly”, “immature” or neurotic.

Negotiating the Gender Gap

Somehow, despite how silly and neurotic Mary seems to John, she has managed to become a successful nurse and survived quite well before John came along. Likewise, as boorish and thoughtless John may seem to Mary, he also has managed to survive and prosper too. John and Mary will have to learn to take into account the other’s perspective and see value in their mate’s view of the world and their methods of problem solving and negotiation. For instance, Mary may very well benefit from spending less time feeling and more time thinking; while John would probably benefit from spending more time feeling and listening and less time in his head. Each perspective has value and has the potential for enriching the life of the other. Once the separate perspectives of each mate is understood and integrated into the couple’s patterns of communication and negotiation, the couple will find themselves able to get themselves unstuck and move on to greater levels of satisfaction and intimacy in their relationship.

Gilligan, Carol (1982). In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.

Mahler, M., Pine, F. & Bergman, A. (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. BasicBooks/Harper Collins, New York.

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