Are men really from Mars and women from Venus, as the popular 1992 book by John Gray declares?
If you ask David Olsen, executive director of the Samaritan Counseling Center of the Capital Region, he’ll give you a resounding, “no.”
“I think it’s incredibly dangerous to think that way and absolutely not true,” said Olsen who has been married for 34 years to his wife, Cheryl. “Are there inherent differences in being male or female. I don’t think so. There are simply differences in how men and women are raised.”
Olsen and his wife will speak about the topic on Tuesday, April 29, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Niskayuna Reformed Church, Troy-Schenectady Road, Niskayuna. The fee is $35 a couple.
In general, Olsen said, women are raised to be more accommodating, more social and more open and expressive with their emotions. While men are historically taught that big boys don’t cry and to keep their feelings to themselves.
’Are Men Really from Mars and Women from Venus? Building Partnerships in Marriage’
WHERE: Niskayuna Reformed Church
WHEN: 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 29
HOW MUCH: $35 a couple
MORE INFO: 374-3514 to register
“It’s not that men are from Mars,” said Olsen. “It’s that they have been socialized to keep many of their feelings inside. You can’t be partners if you think the other person is from a different planet.”
It helps couples if they understand there are differences in their personalities, said Olsen.
“Men’s capacity to express their feelings may be more restrained, and women’s capacity to be more assertive may not be as well developed,” said Olsen. “So the goal for both partners is to help each other draw out more of their repressed side and understand it.”
Olsen said the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test measures four categories:
— Extrovert versus introvert.
— Thinker versus feeler.
— Sensation versus intuition.
— Process versus judgment.
“What Myers-Briggs says is that these are just personality types, which in my mind, is much more helpful than to look at these differences as a gender issue,” said Olsen.
The author Gray, for example, says men are more logical and like to make decisions while women are more feeling-oriented.
“More and more, though, we are seeing women who are incredibly logical, and men who want to talk about their feelings,” said Olsen. “So what I think is most helpful is for couples to not lock into these rigid sex roles stereotypes, but rather to understand more of how their personality works and find a way to adapt.”
Olsen said it’s rare that someone in a marriage doesn’t want to talk.
“Sometimes, they never learned to talk in their family of origin,” he explained. “But once they get comfortable with their partner, they actually talk a lot, and they talk about some very deep feelings.”
What are some other tips for couples to communicate more effectively?
The first thing is to help them to explore some of their own gender stereotypes about their partner, said Olsen.
“If they buy into those stereotypes, they’re not going to try to communicate real hard,” he added.
For example, if a man believes that women are emotional, he may not try to communicate with his wife because he believes she is different from him.
“We actually help couples explore the stereotypes, and we find that many couples are actually offended when they are put into those stereotypical boxes,” said Olsen.
The second thing is to help couples understand their patterns of communication.
“If the pattern is one person pursues while the other distances, my experience doesn’t hold up to any gender stereotypes,” said Olsen. “To get the couple talking, the distancer has to be coached to take a few risks to initiate more conversation and the pursuer has to learn to back off a little.”
Thirdly, Olsen talks about the impact of growing up and what the person learned about communication.
“If someone was raised in a family with violence or high conflict, they’re not going to want to get into any conversations where there might be conflicts, because they are afraid,” said Olsen.
What people have to do is explore gender stereotypes and old family patterns and beliefs.
“It’s complicated work, but we try to help couples understand that there is no such thing as pure communication,” Olsen explained. “Everything is being interpreted all the time.”
For example, a wife says “Where did you put the checkbook?” and the husband says, “Why are you accusing me of being irresponsible?”
“For them, good communication means the way in which we often erroneously interpret what our partner means, and then we shut down or blow up or get defensive,” he said.
Part of teaching couples to communicate is helping them understand those interpretations that are being made constantly, said Olsen. “Some of them are rooted in our family of origin. Some are from our experiences. Some are from our own thinking. But they are very dangerous. Once we form a picture of our partner, then we interpret everything through that picture. If you put the Mars/Venus frame around your partner, that’s all you’re going to see.”
Once that happens, you lose the capacity to really know your partner.
The answer is to find ways to keep rediscovering your partner, said Olsen — “to keep being appreciative of those things we really value, to not get hung up on things we are irritated with, but to be appreciative of the other person and notice the positives.”
When you notice the positives, communication increases. When the other feels valued as opposed to attacked, they want to talk more.
“When we put our partner in a category, we’ve lost our ability to really see them, and I think that’s really sad,” said Olsen. “Marriage can be a wonderful thing when we begin to get out from those boxes.”
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