Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Men and Women and What's in Between

I don’t really understand men. I don’t think I ever have. Maybe I never will. Men claim that women are complex, unfathomable creatures. But for me, that description applies to men.

According to the New York Times, a fascinating article entitled “As Barriers Disappear, Some Gender Gaps Widen” appeared on September 9, 2008 which stated:

For evolutionary psychologists, the bad news is that the size of the gender gap in personality varies among cultures. For social-role psychologists, the bad news is that the variation is going in the wrong direction. It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India’s or Zimbabwe’s than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge.

The sample size for the study was significant--40,000 men and women from 60 different countries. The article further states:

Dr. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, suggests that as wealthy modern societies level external barriers between women and men, some ancient internal differences are being revived.

The biggest changes recorded by the researchers involve the personalities of men, not women. Men in traditional agricultural societies and poorer countries seem more cautious and anxious, less assertive and less competitive than men in the most progressive and rich countries of Europe and North America.

“Humanity’s jaunt into monotheism, agriculturally based economies and the monopolization of power and resources by a few men was ‘unnatural’ in many ways,” Dr. Schmitt says, alluding to evidence that hunter-gatherers were relatively egalitarian. “In some ways modern progressive cultures are returning us psychologically to our hunter-gatherer roots,” he argues. “That means high sociopolitical gender equality over all, but with men and women expressing predisposed interests in different domains. Removing the stresses of traditional agricultural societies could allow men’s, and to a lesser extent women’s, more ‘natural’ personality traits to emerge.”

So what does this mean? As we approach gender equality that men and women will not understand each other at all?? If it gets any more confusing, I don’t think I’ll ever understand. The study indicates that women are generally more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive while men are generally more competitive, assertive, reckless and emotionally flat.

Of course, studies are studies and statistics are statistics: they don’t account for individual differences as much as they account for generalities. Each person is different in some way from the ‘norm’ for their gender. Every person is unique. Maybe it’s our differences from the norm that attract people to each other, or at least one of the factors that attract others. Maybe a woman who is more competitive or assertive will attract a man who has a tendency towards these traits himself. Does like attract like? Or do opposites attract. The study seems to suggest that as we achieve gender equality before the law, that men and women may be more free to be and do as they wish.

I used to think for relationships that opposites attract--for example, one person is strong in the area the other person is weak, so that couples fit together sort of like jigsaw puzzle, compensating strengths balancing the relationship. In theory, this sounds good to me, but in practice, lately, I’m thinking this isn’t so. If the differences are too great, then the relationship can turn into a pissing match if one or both of the individuals involved aren’t mature enough to accept the disparity and work with them. And it seems awfully tiring to be continually trying to figure out where the other person is coming from.

I really hate to say this but maybe relationships work best when each partner has clearly defined roles. I’m cringing as I write this because it seems so…old-fashioned, so…un-politically correct. Maybe relationships are meant to be more like a dance, like a waltz or a tango. You have someone who leads and someone who follows the lead. And I’m not saying that it’s the man who has to lead. I’m not even saying the woman has to lead. I’m saying that the one who is more suited to the particular arena of interaction leads.

I’ve taken ballroom dancing classes in the past. And being the woman, I’m supposed to let the man lead. But most of the time, I actually try to lead. Why? Because the guy I’m dancing with isn’t assertive enough to take the lead. The best male ballroom dancers take control and propel the woman around the floor and, I can tell you, it’s a glorious experience. My feet don’t end up on my partner’s feet and I can relax and enjoy myself. But if you’re always fighting for control because you don’t think the other person is doing it right, then you’re going to be stomping all over each other and your feet will be bruised and sore by the end of the dance.

So I guess my attitude is if you’re going to lead, then lead or get out of my way because if I don’t feel you can do the job then I’m going to take over. That’s who I am. If I am with someone who can lead in a certain area, and lead well, then I can very easily follow because I respect and can feel the other person’s ability to get us where we need to go. If I don’t trust the other person to lead well, then I will take over. I can’t seem to help myself. Mostly because I hate, really, really hate, doing idiotic things because the ‘lead’ person is confused. I may not always know 100% what I’m doing, but since I can size up most situations quickly, efficiently and accurately, then 99% of the time I do a damn good job, if I do say so myself.

I realize I’ve just contradicted myself here, on one hand saying opposites don’t make the best relationships and on the other hand, saying that the most capable person in an area leads, which sounds a lot like opposites attracting. So I think I need a hybrid theory. And given the study’s findings that gender differences will become more pronounced as gender equality progresses, my hybrid theory is this:

  1. The most capable person in a particular area leads and the other person follows as long as both parties have input into the decision or activity. No dictatorships allowed. No Stepford women or men.
  2. Relationships are fluid. They ebb and flow just like a person doesn’t have the exact same feelings everyday for the rest of their lives. One partner should be able to balance the other partner to some extent.
  3. Respect for and acceptance of the differences between you and your partner is crucial.
  4. No trying to change the other person to ‘fix’ them. No ‘diamond in the rough’ garbage. Accept the person as they are or walk away.
  5. The fundamental values of the two people must match. If they don’t, the relationship probably won’t work.
  6. I realize this is a saying by someone, but here goes: Don’t find someone you can live with, find someone you can’t live without. At the same time, you don’t want to be joined at the hip or helpless without the other person. Just don’t settle for finding someone you can live with.
  7. Have separate interests and hobbies.
  8. Have some interests and hobbies in common.
  9. Be mature. If you can’t be mature, then you’re not ready for a relationship.

So, while my issue of not understanding men still exists, I think my hybrid theory does not require a complete understanding of the other person. It requires attention, respect, acceptance, basic compatibility and love.

I think I’ve just had my epiphany.

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