Men, sex, and relationships
From time to time there are inevitably difficulties in communication between men and women in relationships, over all kinds of things, some trivial, some not.
Women seem to have many questions about why men are the way they are (and of course, so do men about women, though I think generally they spend less time agonizing over the differences).
The idea behind this section is to throw a little light on what makes a man think and behave as he does.
Of course, there’s an assumption here that somehow a man behaves like a man because he’s made that way, rather than because he chooses to act that way.
As we shall see, I think there’s a lot of truth to that, which is why a woman who starts out in a relationship determined to change her man to make him what she wants is doomed to failure and disappointment.
So, if you’re a man who has ever been frustrated by the demands of your partner, or you’re a woman who can’t begin to understand what your man is thinking or feeling, read on.
Just to put into context the kinds of things I’m trying to explain, some common examples of frustration and puzzlement between the sexes might be helpful.
These are posed as questions a woman might ask:
- Why won’t he talk about his problems?
- Why won’t he discuss it when he’s angry?
- Why does he seem to have such different standards of morals and ethics to me?
- Why does he like gadgets and cars so much?
- Why is he so committed to his work?
- Why does he want sex so much?
- Why isn’t romance more important to him?
- Why don’t men cry more?
- Why is he so messy?
- Why can’t he see the house is such a mess?
- Why does he just dismiss my worries about the children with comments like “You worry too much, they’ll be fine”?
- Why do boys (and men) take so many risks?
- Why does his work seem more important than his family?
- Why can he spend an evening with his male friends and find out nothing about their relationships, families and emotional states?
And so on.
Of course we all have a sense that men and women are somehow different, and we can certainly find these differences frustrating.
But often we try and explain this away as a result of socialization: observation shows that male babies, for example, are treated differently to female ones by both parents, and it could be that such child-rearing practices are both the cause and effect of male-female differences, so deeply ingrained in our society that they are perpetuated from one generation to the next.
It is, however, becoming increasingly obvious from hard scientific evidence about how men and women’s brains work that there are real genetic differences between the sexes.
This is not, by the way, an apology for men failing to meet women’s standards or expectations.
It is simply a statement that I believe there are real biological differences between men and women.
Much of the evidence for this statement comes from work by scientists who have examined the different electrical activity and blood-flow in the male and female brain using advanced techniques such as MRI scans, PET scans and so on.
This evidence suggest that our brains do indeed respond to the same input differently.
And we already know that male and female brains are structured differently: only a few weeks after the embryo implants itself in the wall of the uterus, the brain of a boy fetus (with XY sex chromosomes) and that of a girl (with XX sex chromosomes) are receiving completely different amounts of testosterone and estrogen hormones.
And these differences are responsible for significant, well-documented differences in the structure of the brain between the sexes, as we shall see.
How do male and female brains differ?
The human brain consists of three basic parts. First, the brain stem, the oldest and most basic part, in evolutionary terms, responsible for our fundamental life-preserving functions like digestion and breathing.
Next, the limbic system, a part of the brain responsible for emotional responses, which contains three important structures called the amygdala, the hippocampus and the cingulate gyrus.
Third, the cerebral cortex, which handles thinking, reasoning, and all other functions of our human consciousnesses.
Structurally, in men the amygdala, which is responsible for aggression and many other emotions, is larger than in women.
Also, men have fewer nerve pathways between the amygdala and the cortex, which means men may have a lower ability to exercise conscious control over their emotional responses than women.
By contrast, the hippocampus is larger in women, with many more nerve pathways to and from the emotional centers of the brain.
This is one reason why women can remember finer detail better than men: as one man said, “I know when we have an argument, she’ll remember not only what I said, but what I was wearing when I said it!”
There are other differences, too. For example, in men, the nerve pathways that link the left and right haves of the brain are rather smaller than they are in women.
You might expect that structural differences in the brains of men and women would mean they worked in different ways too, and you’d be right. At least, that’s what the evidence seems to suggest.
On a superficial level, men and women often seem to want certain stereotypical things – men like a woman to look good (and women certainly like to look good, though whether for men or women is another question, as testified by the billions of dollars spent on weight loss products and dieting techniques like the Venus Factor and Adonis Golden Ratio – a fitness program for men – every year).
And woman often seem to prefer a man with wealth to a man with good looks…. but the question is, are these stereotypes? Or are they, could they just be, remnants of a genetic inheritance?
For example, when men are at rest, scans of their brains show little neural activity; by contrast, a woman’s brain is nearly always active, and there is almost always more blood flow in the female brain than in the male brain.
Male and female brains contain different amounts of serotonin and oxytocin, chemicals which, broadly speaking, calm us down and help us to bond respectively.
Men’s brains have less serotonin and oxytocin than women’s, which might account for men’s tendency to act first and think later.
It seems logical, too, that women might have more oxytocin because generally they are more likely to bond with other women and children than men are. There are many other similar examples, too.
Of course, making general statements about features of the brain which happen to fit with broad patterns of observable behavior proves nothing.
You might think that the differences in brain structure are the outcome of socialization, for example, rather than something biologically innate.
What’s more, we don’t fall into two distinct categories of male and female – we are all on a continuum of difference, from very feminine to very masculine. You can see where you might fit more clearly if you try the masculinity-femininity brain test.
I believe it is essential for men and women to acknowledge the differences between them and let them enrich their lives rather than try and eradicate the differences in some way.
Surely, it must be OK for men and women to be different, whether that difference goes back to genes, upbringing or culture?
On the same note, I believe it is also important to allow for lots of scope for difference between one man and the next and one woman and the next so that each person can make their own choice about who they are – irrespective of gender.
How do male and female brains differ?
I think it is important to investigate and talk about anatomical differences in men and women. However, there is a great danger in equating anatomical structures with people’s real capabilities: “Because men in general have fewer pathways between the amygdala and the cortex they can not control their anger as well as women.”
This statement is wrong as it oversimplifies and misinterprets anatomical differences. Most men I have met in my life had no problems controlling their anger at all, fewer pathways or not.
It’s clear that as we try to make sense of the differences between men and women we will go back to our respective physiologies to look for hard evidence of how we differ.
However, we may never find hard evidence to really explain our psychological differences.
That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I believe it is important to honor difference and to allow space for the true human spirit: that we are much more than our biology and each one of us has a good measure of free will to decide on who we are.
But the thing is, we all know the stereotypes – women spend a lot of time making themselves attractive (is this because they are competing for men’s attention or competing among themselves?)
Many of us seem to think men generally prefer a certain type of female body. Something like the Venus figure, perhaps with a certain amount of fat on it. Could it be that this is a preference which is biologically determined, so that children would be more likely to survive in hard times?
If men are indeed attracted to a Venus Factor because they want women to look a certain way – and in all honesty, I haven’t met a lot of men who wouldn’t like an overweight partner to lose weight and look shapely – how can we ever hope to overcome the power of our genetic determination?
Can it really be true that men are looking for a Venus-like Goddess, while women, true to cliché, are looking for men who are good providers?
Men show certain quite characteristic patterns of behavior: broadly speaking, these center on the need to define a male self-image through achievement at work, competition with other men, setting goals and fulfilling them, and making some mark in the world.
While both sexes can have these experiences, I believe it is true that women have a greater tendency to experience self-worth through building relationships and achieving intimate relationships.
Men seem to be more externally directed. One author has called this the male “performance imperative” and the female “intimacy imperative”. (1)
In addition, men’s natural style of nurturing others – including children – is often based on encouraging them to keep going in the face of setbacks (e.g., “Come on, you can do it, it’s only a little hurt”).
This reflects a male’s focus on goal setting and risk taking, a process through which he achieves and maintains his own self-esteem.
Compare this with the female style of nurturing, based on empathy and the expression of feelings, and it’s no wonder that men are confused in relationships.
Empathy and talking about feelings has become the socially expected and acceptable way for both sexes to express their support of others, due in no small part to a large number of self-help books setting this out as a desirable position.
The truth may be, however, that this is not a very natural process for men. And it’s worth observing that while empathy and expression of feelings is essential in our interactions, the male approach to nurturing fosters goal setting and independence, which are also vital skills in our society.
Think for a moment about your attitude to sex. If you are a man, do you take delight in knowing how to satisfy a woman in bed, or do you simply see her as a sexual outlet for your own pleasure? These are fundamental questions which can help you work out how you feel about sex and how you see male and female sex roles.
How to pleasure a woman?
If you’re a woman, are you conscious of the influence the patriarchy has had on you in your life? Do you see sex as a physical pleasure of a way of bonding emotionally?
One obvious difference between the sexes is that women bear children, and men do not.
Could it be that women gain an inherent sense of self-worth and purpose from the knowledge that they hold the key to creating life, that the nurturance of the next generation, and, to a large extent, the family and society, comes from their womanhood?
If so, then where would men get their sense of self-worth from? Potentially, of course, from creating life also, but it does sometimes seem as if they are less attached to their children and families than their jobs.
Perhaps the truth is that men have to earn self-worth, and that they have to do so by creating a purpose, a calling, a role in life which gives them that sense of self-worth and defines their position in society, while also allowing them to challenge and test themselves in systems and hierarchies.
But what would it mean for society in general and men in particular if men are rewarded by their careers in the way their ancestors were by the hunt and the experience of conquest?
What if a man’s career was “a sacred way of developing inherent worth and of belonging in society and the greater world”?
If it is true that men need to find ways of expressing potency and power, of leaving a legacy that is personally meaningful to them, and of testing themselves to develop self-worth, then no wonder that even when men delight in their families, they continue to value self-expression through their work and through their experiences outside the family just as much, if not more.
These ideas may not be popular, for it is fashionable to express the view that we are all more similar than we are different, that first and foremost we are humans, not men and women, and so our needs must be similar.
And that may well be so, but it does not preclude the possibility that each sex has particular needs, which be neither appreciated nor met in our society.
I fully agree with Rod’s sentiment about acknowledging the difference between the two sexes.
There are obvious biological differences, why shouldn’t there be psychological differences too? It may not matter much, in my opinion, whether these are biological differences (nature) or differences created through upbringing and culture (nurture).
In the end adult men see themselves and experience themselves as different from adult women and they have every right to be different.
I believe it is important to let men be different, to support them search out and create their own identities and goals and not expect them to feel, act and think like women. Isn’t it the sense of adventure we embark on when loving someone so different that attracts women to men?
I guess whenever we talk about the other sex in general we will always end up with major clichés, which may not be valid when applied to any particular individual.
As a woman, I do object to being defined by my fertility and the potential for motherhood, as my reproductive biology doesn’t play much part in my own sense of identity.
Also, women have been defined by men in these terms for so long, it’s getting a bit tedious. There is a lot more to women than that! However, it may be hard for men to find a different common denominator for women against which they can differentiate themselves.
On the other hand, wouldn’t that be great for both sexes? It would mean we’d have to think again about our male and female identities, and we could base them on new principles like sexual potential, relatedness, aspirations and spiritual awareness rather than old stuff like child bearing, money, status, and so on.
1 Michael Gurian in What Could He Be Thinking? published by Element Books, London, 2004