“MEN ARE JUST DIFFERENT.”
This phrase has a way of popping up in nearly every conversation I have about relationship problems – everything from being blown off to having an unexplained hiatus in communication to seeming aloofness from a partner to his resistance to talk about much of anything serious. The idea, it seems, is that men just don’t think about things the way women do, which sometimes makes them come off as inconsiderate or insensitive.
In my early 20s, I roundly rejected the premise that men are “just different.” Men aren’t inherently bad communicators or inconsiderate of others’ feelings or unemotional or unexpressive. They are not the diametrically-opposed “other” to some thing that women are.
I still believe those things. But a decade of relationships, and recurring relationship problems, and recurring themes emerging in my conversations with female friends young and old about their relationship problems, have exposed a very clear pattern. Generally, communication and consideration and feelings and expressing feelings seem to be difficult areas for men, and that difficulty is often upsetting for women.
(Yes, not all men. But, generally.)
“Men are just different” has some truth to it, but what we do with this phrase has important implications. Do we throw up our hands and try to accept those differences, even if they hurt us at times? Is it an excuse for men to just keep “being different” in such ways?
If the differences were inherent, perhaps that would be the only option. But if, as I believe, these tendencies are the product of socialization, then there’s another way out. It’s not an easy way, but it’s got some good things to offer both partners.
“Men are just different” can remind us to understand that, if a man has difficulty communicating or expressing emotions, it could have everything to do with the messages he has received all his life about how he should behave and what he should avoid, and nothing to do with us personally. It can remind us of how powerful the pressures of socialized gender norms can be, especially or men. And this can help us be more patient and understanding, rather than taking others’ behaviors personally.
Licensed Professional Counselor Tod Fiste put it thus:
Men in particular receive very little training on emotional communication, and often get negative feedback when they express “too much” emotion. When you don’t get training in something and are discouraged from practicing it, you generally don’t develop much skill at it. This is the situation for many men where emotional communication is concerned: they aren’t much good at it.
And, regarding inconsideration:
Men are trained to disregard most of their own emotions, to the point where many men aren’t even aware of what they are feeling most of the time. If you are cut off from your own feelings it is extremely difficult to empathize with someone else’s.
For all that, “men are just different” is not a way of saying “well, carry on, then.” As adults, we’re responsible for reflecting on the messages we have received, how they’ve affected our development, what skills and deficits they may have facilitated, and how to best use those skills and fill those deficits. It’s not easy, but some men need to seriously work on their communication and empathy skills in order to 1) make relationships work and 2) improve their own lives.
Of course, we can turn this back around on ourselves as well and try to understand the ways our own socialization and upbringing may make communication difficult. If we grew up around grand displays of emotion from women and tend to be explosive in our sadness or anger, this may be alarming to partners and shut them down further concerning communication. Learning to gain some level of control over on-the-loose emotional responses can help improve communication, as well as to live a healthier life generally.
It’s also important to get in touch with your own needs. Should a man take up the work of improving on communication and empathy, that is not a mandate for you to stick around during that process. Being compassionate toward his situation doesn’t mean you need to subject yourself to the hurt that often comes with communication breakdowns. What each of us can tolerate, and what is too much, is an individual matter. We owe it to ourselves to respect our needs.
Approaching “men are just different” from a socialization standpoint opens the way up for compassion, but not excuses. It can help us understand why the men in our lives have the difficulties they do without encouraging us to disregard our own needs. And it means that there is potential for improvement.