Are we overblowing gender differences? Are men from Mars and women from Venus?

It’s Keith on the blog today for our men’s corner!

It seems you can’t go to a marriage conference, or read a book on marriage or even have a conversation about relationships without at some point the issue coming up about how different we are.

“Oh, he’s a man; that’s just the way they are.” 

“Well, brother, you know women!” (Which actually means we feel we don’t know ANYTHING about women).

It’s one of those things we tend to take for granted.  Sheila & I are not immune, either.  When we speak at marriage conferences, we often talk about the issue of gender differences.  As a speaker, you want the participants to enjoy themselves and gender differences is just such a ripe area for humour.  There’s just too much low hanging fruit to resist.  And it is a good way to get people to relax and to lighten the mood if we can talk a bit about some of the funny ways that we see the world differently.

I do think there are differences between men and women.  I also think that it is okay to acknowledge and talk about that in the same way that we talk about other differences such as our families of origin or even our basic personality. In a healthy relationship we recognize that we are not always going to see the world exactly the same way and that is normal. But I think we can get into trouble when we place too much emphasis on these differences–and especially if we start getting prescriptive about them.

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Like most people, when Sheila & I were dating and getting to know each other, our differences were the main things that attracted us to each other.

When Sheila and I got married, however, sometimes those differences grated and caused tension.

I think this is a fairly common experience.  When you are single, you can organize your world the way you want. You get used to things being a certain way. Your life experience, your personality, your gender and hundreds of other factors make you who you are and make you see the world the way you do.  It is only natural to assume that your way of understanding how the world works is the CORRECT way to see how the world works.

Now the amazing thing about getting married is all of a sudden there is a person – whom you love so much – who sees the world in many ways very differently than you do. And the first couple of years of marriage can be a real shock as you process how someone so amazing could be so wrong about so many things. (What kind of trauma did you go through that made you think the toilet paper roll folds under instead of over?)

Healthy people in healthy marriages recognize that they are products of all these influences – background, gender, etcetera – and realize that other people with different experiences will have different ways of understanding the same situation.  They learn to sort out what truly are character or moral issues from issues that are just differences of perspective and they treat those two things very differently. Much of the first year or so of marriage is sorting all that out and learning to recognize that when your spouse is “wrong” about how the toilet paper goes on the roller it is a very different thing than when they say something hurtful or do something selfish (as we all do at one time or another).

But I worry in the Church that we have drifted a bit past the mark when it comes to gender differences.  Saying “let’s recognize that God made us different and appreciate that in each other” is something I would fully endorse.  However, too often I hear it framed in terms of “men are like this and woman are like that” and I find that very problematic for several reasons.

First of all, the differences within the genders is often greater that the difference between the genders.

Take something easily measurable like height.  The average woman in the United States is 5’3½” and the average man is 5’9”. So to say that men are taller than women is true – five and a half inches on average to be precise.  But to say that means that all men are taller than all women is clearly not true. In fact, the normal range for height in women is considered 4’11” to 5’8” and for men it’s 5’5” to 6’2”. In both cases, the difference within the gender is nine inches, quite a bit more than the 5.5 inches between them.

The reason this is so important is that there are always exceptions to general trends and these exceptions are normal and to be expected. 

As another example, take watching (or otherwise following) sports.  Men tend to like sports more than women, but there will be some men who have no interest in sports whatsoever and some women who remind us that sports fan is short for sports fanatic.  These people are not wrong for being the way they are.  God is very creative and everything he makes comes in so many different shapes, sizes & variations, humans included. But so often with gender differences we slip past the concept that “men/women tend to be” into the territory of “men/ women always are” without even realizing it.  And when we do that, we risk making our brothers and sisters who are those exceptions feel like they are somehow broken or defective.

I remember after one marriage conference a couple came up to Sheila and me afterwards and were so appreciative that when we talked about libido differences we mentioned that in many cases the woman has the higher libido in the relationship. This woman had never even heard that was a possibility and so despite being in a fairly common situation, she had lived for years feeling there was something wrong with her and perhaps even shamefully so. That is an unnecessary and avoidable tragedy.

So when we talk about gender differences I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to acknowledge some people are the exceptions –and that’s okay.  Because they matter, too.

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The other thing that concerns me is just how extreme people get about emphasizing the differences between the genders.

When I listen to some people talk, it sounds like men & women are two different species entirely.  (Silly me! I thought we were two versions of human.)  Even the wording that men are from Mars and women are from Venus bothers me a little bit. Yes, we are different from each other, but we are not aliens from another planet!  Appreciating gender differences should draw us closer together, not push us apart.  Understanding that the way my spouse processes things is not wrong, but in fact is actually similar to a lot of other people can be very helpful in a relationship.

But often what I hear makes it sound like men and women are so different that they will never understand each other.

To me that just sounds defeatist. I know I will never full understand the world from my wife’s perspective in the same way that I could never understand it fully from one of my male friend’s perspective – simply because I am not them!  I can only imagine what it’s like. But to me, that’s the whole point- –  trying to imagine what life is like from their perspective.  In marriage, trying to see things from your spouse’s perspective is such a powerful force for good.  To suggest the differences between men and women are so great that we can never understand each other, however, suggests that there is no point in even trying.  And giving up on understanding each other is never going to make any marriage grow stronger.

But in some circles in the church we go even farther than that.  We actually try as much as possible to accentuate the differences in gender!

Not satisfied with moving from “men/women tend to be” into “men/women always are” we go flying right past that into “God has ordained that men/women shall be”. We give very prescribed definitions of how a man should look, think & act and how a woman should look, think & act if they want to be “biblical”.  And if people don’t measure up, the clear implication is that there is something wrong with them. Typical of this mindset is this quote from the Wikipedia page on Mark Driscoll where he laments that the problem in the church today is that “sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks.”

Frankly, the whole thing drives me crazy on so many levels.

First off, the blatant sexism inherent in this way of speaking – that women are not just different from men, but actually inferior – I find completely nauseating.

Secondly, I quite simply have no time for people who want to tell me what kind of man I am supposed to be.  I am quite confident in who I am. And I am not going to lose any sleep over whether someone the likes of Mark Driscoll thinks I am “chick-ified” or not.

But what really saddens me is that we seem to miss how completely misplaced this whole concept is! It takes us in the exact opposite direction of where we want to go. We all want a marriage where we grow closer together over the years, more and more in tune with each other over time.  But how are you possibly going to get there if you invest all your time and energy trying to be as different from each other as possible?  It’s insane! The Bible encourages us, both men and women, to be more like Jesus, not to be more like the ideal man or the ideal woman.

Wouldn’t it be healthier if we made it less about trying to be a godly husband or a godly wife and more about just trying to be godly?

So yes, we should value and appreciate the differences we see in each other including differences based on gender. But let’s agree they are just one part of who we are and they are certainly not insurmountable obstacles to a healthy relationship. And, please, instead of trying to cram people into molds their Creator never meant for them, let’s focus on appreciating our spouse for who He actually made them to be.

What do you think? Are gender differences the biggest difference you face, or is it personality, or backgrounds, or emotional needs? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Keith Gregoire

Keith Gregoire

Blog and Podcast Contributor, Co-Author with Sheila of two upcoming marriage books

Keith is the rock that supports Sheila, who runs this blog! Sheila and Keith married when Keith was attending Queen's University medical school in Kingston, Ontario. He later completed his residency in pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children, and has since directed the pediatric undergraduate program at Queen's University, and been Chief of Pediatrics at a community hospital in Belleville, Ontario. He and Sheila speak at marriage conferences around the world, and together they've also done medical missions in Kenya. Next up: They're authoring The Guy's Guide to Great Sex together! Plus, of course, he's an avid birdwatcher.

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