as Soul Work

Men Are From Earth

In the early 1980’s, on a spring day in San Francisco, I wandered into the “Whole Life Expo,” a marketplace of new-age ideas and products. As a psychotherapist leading men’s groups, I was drawn to a presentation promising important new information on the psychology of men and women. Unfortunately, this promise was not kept. The presenter, a slight man with a thin voice, was, to my thinking, neither a compelling speaker nor an original thinker. His “ideas” were repetitions of the same tired stereotypes about women and men that I grew up with, only he employed a marginally clever, though not original, metaphor about us being from different planets. I left the presentation never imagining that these paltry ideas would form the basis of a multi-million dollar pop-psychology empire.

In recent columns, I have taken issue with neo-Darwinist theories that claim evolutionary and biological origins for all differences between women and men. Again, not that there are no differences between the sexes, because there certainly are, just that these theories exaggerate those differences and present simplistic expiations as to their origins. For the most part, I see these theories are junk science, in that they are presented as if they are scientifically factual without any real scientific evidence. Nowhere is this clearer that with John Gray’s pronouncements about intrinsic differences between the sexes.

Why pick on poor John, when he is already coming under increasing scrutiny? In doing internet searches on his ideas, I found hundreds of writings challenging his ideas. In fact, there are entire web-sites devoted to debunking his claims. (see footnotes for further information) Several people have pointed out that his “Ph.D.“ was awarded by an unaccredited correspondence school that has since been forced out of business by the courts and the State of California and his only accredited degree is a high school diploma. He is not licensed in any state to practice psychotherapy, and although he claims to be a “Certified Family Therapist” and to belong to several professional associations, he does not meet the certification or membership criteria for any professional association or license in the field. What is more disturbing, is that, in reaching his conclusions, he conducted not one bit of genuine research. As far as I know, he has not published one journal article demonstrating any kind of experimental or scientific evidence for his ideas, as would be expected of a research oriented psychologist. His books include no references to any research or any sort. Nor, since he is not a psychotherapist, could he have based his theories on clinical experience working with couples, as is usually the case with authors who are clinical psychologists. I have no problem with anyone publishing “common sense” ideas about relationships -- But when someone represents himself as a “Doctor” in the field of Psychology, most people assume that he is either a research psychologist a clinical psychologist, or both, and, therefore the ideas have more credibility. In the field of psychology, there is a tradition that clinical theories and research findings are questioned and debated. In the case of Mr. Gray, too many psychotherapists, to the great discredit of our profession, have simply accepted his ideas, some even recommending his books to their clients. Hungry to ride the coattails of his fame, many psychotherapist have sought his endorsement. His web-site invites therapists to “expand your practice with the mars and venus counseling center licensee program.” This “licensee” program is open only to licensed psychotherapists, so Mr. Gray could not even enroll in his own program!

One of my colleagues, suggested that I may be motivated by jealousy of Mr. Gray‘s success. While I do not claim to be immune from lust for fame and fortune, my opinions of his ideas were formed long before he became the one man industry that he is today. I have no personal enmity towards him. I’m sure he is well meaning, and, some of his ideas have helped some men be more self-accepting. However, I strongly believe, as I did the first day I heard him, that his regressive “theories” are ultimately damaging to men, to women and to relationships between women and men. They codify, as natural, universal and unchanging, ideas about women and men that are really just stereotypes and generalizations.

Are men really from Mars (named after the god of war), or so different from women that it seems as though we are? Are we really oriented towards problem solving and unable to listen to feelings? Are we uncomfortable with emotion and unwilling to talk about our feelings? Do we shun advice because we are afraid of appearing weak or dependent? Do we have a need to ‘”retreat to our cave” and avoid too much intimacy with women? Do we wish to talk about nothing but sports with our male friends? Are these traits hard-wired into our genes and therefore immutable? Sure, some men, some of the time, fit any on these stereotypes. However, in more than twenty-five years of real clinical experience leading men’s groups and providing psychotherapy to men, I have been blessed to see the hearts of men, and know that we are all far more than these stereotypes. Many of us do not fit them at all, and already posses a great emotional intelligence. I have seen other men, who came into a men’s group unaware of and unable to articulate feelings, become emotionally aware, highly skilled communicators.

Doing clinical work and research is hard. Doing experimental research is even harder -- I get a headache just reading the stuff. What does it say about how men feel and communicate:

A research study at Purdue University, by Erina MacGeorge, "The Myth of Gender Cultures: Similarities Outweigh Differences in Men's and Women's Provision of and Responses to Supportive Communication," found only small differences between men's and women's comforting skills. "When it comes to comforting, the Mars-Venus concept is not only wrong, but harmful," MacGeorge says. "For the most part, men and women use, and strongly prefer, the same ways of comforting others - listening, sympathizing and giving thoughtful advice. Yet books like John Gray's 'Men are From Mars …tell men that being masculine means dismissing feelings and downplaying problems. That isn't what most men do, and it isn't good for either men or women."

Unlike Mr. Gray, who relies on anecdotes to support his conclusions, MacGeorge's research is based on questionnaires and interviews. Her research sample was 738 people - 417 women and 321 men. In studying how people support their friends, she found that men and women communicated in very similar ways. "Overall, men and women were both likely to express sympathy, share similar problems with distressed friends or discourage their friends from worrying," MacGeorge says. "Men did give a bit more advice more often than women, and women were slightly more likely to provide support by affirming their friend or offering help. However, men and women were only 2 percent different."

In investigating how men and women respond to advice, she found that both men and women welcomed advice that was relevant to their problems and was delivered in a kind, respectful manner. MacGeorge says, "The different cultures myth says that men reject advice because it threatens their independence, but this study shows that both men and women are equally receptive to friendly and useful advice."

In studying how men and women evaluated comforting comments, such as "Don't worry about it, it's not that big of a deal," or "Wow, that is awful. I can understand why you would be upset." There was a 3 percent difference between the sexes regarding what kind of comforting comments they prefer to hear. "Overall, both men and women disliked stereotypical masculine comforting that dismissed or made light of their problems and preferred stereotypically feminine comforting that validated their feelings and perspectives," MacGeorge says. "According to the Mars-Venus myth, men should have preferred the tough love but, in fact, they also value empathy and warmth."

Wow! Men value empathy and warmth? MacGeorge’s results match my own experience in leading and participating in men’s groups. Most men value empathy and warmth, and, when we find it, we are quite willing to open up and talk about our feelings.

Some men, as MacGeorge’s study suggests, lack skill in comforting. She says, "In earlier studies, my colleagues and I found that men tend to be somewhat more dismissive of others' feelings and problems, even though both men and women dislike this approach. This is one way in which the Mars-Venus myth can be harmful. If we tell men that rejecting the feelings of others is just as good, only culturally different, then we excuse them from becoming good support providers."

Contrary to the oft repeated slur, that men are just insensitive, I have found that most men are or can be good support provides. The first step is believing that we are capable of and willing to be supportive. Many of us already are. In men’s groups, even men who habitually shun feeling can quickly learn to comfort other men and validate their feelings. All they need is some clear feedback on how dismissing the feelings of others is ineffective and a little coaching on effective listening. As long as they do not feel personally under attack, most men can be good listeners. I have seen many men who listen and comfort far better than many women.

However, in a relationship, when a man is in a conflict with an intimate partner, he may believe that he is under attack and will cease listening and hasten to defend himself, often by dismissing the feelings of his partner. This is not because he does not care about his partners’ feelings or opinions. It is because he cares so much! This is one of the biggest and most hidden secrets of male psychology, men are tremendously vulnerable -- more than we would ever imagine -- to the opinions and feelings of those we love. We want so intensely to be loved, respected and appreciated. More than anything, we want those we love to have a high opinion of us. It is not our alleged unwillingness to be vulnerable that makes intimacy difficult, it is our tremendous vulnerability, so misunderstood by women and, to often, ourselves.

Those suffering from the greatest lack of understanding about male psychology, may be psychotherapists themselves. In general, psychotherapists portray men as unemotional, distant, defensive and “resistant” to psychotherapy, No wonder so many therapists uncritically swallow the ‘Men Are From Mars” line. No wonder so many therapists can not work successfully with men. Confronting this sort of bias, and lack of understanding, I sure wouldn’t open up about my feelings.

Over the next few months, I will write more about men’s groups, and, how to more effectively engage in meaningful conversation with men.

©2005, Gary Hoeber

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Psychology has a long past, but only a short history. - Hermann Ebbinghaus

Gary Hoeber has been working as a psychotherapist since 1976, helping a broad range of people successfully deal with a wide variety of life challenges. He is a leading practitioner and teacher of group psychotherapy. An Instructor at John F. Kennedy University since 1988, he offers classes on "The Practice of Group Psychotherapy." His approach to group therapy is highly interpersonal, assisting in the development of effective communication and relationship skills and increasing the capacity for intimacy, friendship and community. His work with individuals focuses less on pathology, and more on the unfolding of one's life purpose, using a depth psychology informed by poetry, story and mythology. Gary is licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist and has offices in Berkeley and San Rafael, California. or Gary will also be reviewing important new books on psychotherap

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