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I’ve been doing some relationship work lately with a talented therapist.  While she doesn’t necessarily get everything that we’re laying down, to use a very old phrase, she does do an amazing job of observing and calling out the ways we communicate (or don’t), and helping us zero in on what the problems actually are.

The one thing that drives me a little nuts is that she insists on a lot of essentials around gender.  Were she my personal therapist, I probably would have fired her by now, because I feel there is some fundamental level on which she doesn’t understand other possibilities; she’s rather old-fashioned, and has been working with traditional hetero couples for long enough that it feels like she only has the broad brush to paint with.  But in many ways she’s been remarkably effective for us.

Still, it’s annoying.  I’ve also recently come across this in the posts of Scott Williams, whom, so far, I find fascinating and respect.  (Hi, Scott!)  He has a number of posts that discuss patterns he’s observed in gender differences, including this recent one, detailing the differences in capacity for emotional connection in men and women. To his credit, this one apologizes for engaging in generalizations, and also addresses the complaint I tend to have about my family therapist: she seems to think that gender differences are completely innate, whereas Scott discusses how we’re taught, not just by our parents and peers but by the popular media, about what it means to be a man or a woman.  “Women are typically vastly more in touch with their emotions,” he says, adding, “In fairness, however, I was never really taught to connect on an emotional level. My generation of males did not grow up to value emotional vulnerability. We work out our issues alone. We have caves. I grew up believing that emotionally sensitive guys were barely guys at all…I grew up wanting to shoot people, not cuddle.”

Now I don’t know how true this is for most younger men today.  I find myself in the privileged position of being surrounded by guys who are generally in touch with their emotions.  Some of them had excellent, well-rounded men as role models for being strong and sensitive; some of them went to liberal arts colleges, many of them are queer and therefore have worked out entirely different frameworks for looking at what gender is and how it works.  But I do wonder at the vast majority of folks, and to what degree they believe that this is simply how it is: men are from Mars, women are from Venus – because that is all they see in sitcoms, movies, men’s and women’s magazines, and in the relationships they observe and model from in their childhoods.

I think it’s all very well, and quite useful, to lean on some of the observed essentials in order to help men and women communicate better with one another; it’s useful to translate from Venusian to Martian and back when you’re got people who have been so subtly inculcated with their roles that they can’t connect like human beings.  More cynically, the age-old “battle of the sexes” is a profitable war to continue fighting, if you’re in advertising, marketing, or psychotherapy: here folks, are some Endless Problems that you will keep giving us money to help solve!

But how many people are willing to go the extra mile of making people look at what has made them this way, rather than just throwing up our hands and saying, “Watch kids on the playground: the boys are all running around shouting and playing wargames, and the girls are on the swingsets, talking.”  (My therapist actually said this to us.  Also, stopped me in my explanation of my husband’s avoidant behavior by saying, “In other words, he’s a guy.”)  Really?  That’s what you’ve got?  Blue and pink, it’s all innate, feminism is for nothing, gay boys are always effeminate and gay girls are always butch because they’re just reversing the roles…seriously?

I do believe that there are innate differences between men and women: there are biological differences, physical characteristics, hormonal signals that tend to promote and favor certain traits and behaviors over others.  I also personally know enough gay, lesbian, bi and trans people, not to mention genderqueer folk, to know that biological sex and gender are far from the same thing.  I further know that deciding that men are emotionally stunted (for example), or that women expect men to mind-read, is extremely limiting thinking.  It’s useful to teach men to mirror what women are saying when they talk about their emotions, and make it clear that they are hearing and acknowledging those emotions, instead of jumping to defensiveness or immediately attempting to solve the problem.  It’s useful to teach women that sometimes a man needs to be left alone to percolate on something before he can talk about it, and sometimes even then he’ll want to keep it to himself.  But it’s not useful to pretend that these differences in communication style and emotional availability are innate and unchangeable, that there are no other alternatives.

If we accept that women can be nurturing and also tough, and that men can be strong and also loving; if we commit to the idea that women can be executives or construction workers and men can be nurses or stay-at-home dads; if we cultivate wholenessin all of our clients, rather than reinforcing the shitty, dysfunctional ways they’ve leaned to barely cope with a screwed-up world…well, then we’re getting somewhere.

By the way, Scott – keep up the good work.  I do think that what you’re getting at is essentially true, and useful.  I just want to make sure we’re looking at the problem in a broader context.

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