Dr. Pierre Mornell had a hunch that he’d hit a raw nerve when he gave a lecture on why he thought men and women were foundering in their relationships with each other. His hunch was confirmed the next day when he was deluged with excited calls and e-mails from journalists and others around the world. That was back in 1978, and the journalists still contact him about what he once called “modern man’s main secret.”
Even to this day I think about Dr. Mornell’s theory at least once a week, especially if I am speaking at a conference filled with technically-oriented men or observing an arguing couple. So here is Mornell's “troublesome” theory about men and women and arguing.
The most recurring, rage-raising phenomena, according to Dr. Mornell is that “In our own homes, most of us ‘men’ -- we would-be emperors -- have no clothes. We are passive and that drives our women crazy."
“We have met the enemy and he is us.” ~ Pogo
Dr. Mornell understood that many of the couples who come to them for help share a similar style of interaction. At work, the man is active, articulate, proposing and usually successful in his conversations, especially with other men. But at home he becomes inactive, inarticulate, and withdrawn. He becomes passive with his wife.
And his apparent passivity drives her crazy. In the face of his further retreat, she goes wild.
The variation of this phenomena between men and women at work is that women are more likely to propose action, even where there may be conflict whereas the man who senses there might be conflict with the other person, especially a woman, will not speak as directly about the situation. Then the woman becomes more direct and voluble about what should be done and why. The man senses that she is becoming more intense and seeks a way out, almost any way out, to avoid the impending conflict.
In both work and personal relationships woman will then tend to say more, in greater detail and move more. The man, on the other hand, will speak and move less to the point of becoming almost motionless as if that will make him less visible. He sees an impending fight and wants to avoid the unproductive emotional scene. In appearing to retreat he inadvertently sparks her further interest in getting the situation resolved “right now.” In fact he may see impending conflict where she sees active discussion. Both are right, of course.
Webster’s defines these two words as follows:
Passive: Inactive, yielding, taking no part, submissive, acted upon without acting in return.
Wild: Not easily restrained, angry, vexed, crazed, in a state of disorder, disarrangement, confusion.
Sound familiar? Dr. Mornell said that the women he met in therapy were not actually crazed or deranged, but many were certainly angry, vexed, and confused. He said many were also highly intelligent, talented, many working outside the home and of all ages but very unhappy in their marriages. The husbands were also very intelligent, very likeable and working hard in their business lives to be good providers. Then come home to rest and retreat.
While women were much more likely to want a time of companionship at the end of the work day, the men were more likely to want “some peace and quiet.” Either directly or indirectly she asks for more and he, in turn, experiences her behavior as pressure on her part for him to perform, which he resists as a reaction to being told what to do.
Increasingly agitated by his lack of responsiveness, she comes to him with more demands for what he isn’t giving her. That causes him to retreat further. She may become more pressured, even abusive while he lapses into complete silence. Total passivity. She goes wild. The pattern may turn into the scripts that they play out for years.
Joseph Heller wrote a vivid passage about what this feels like for a man in his novel, Something Happened, “I try my best to remember on what terms (my wife) and I parted this morning, or went to sleep last night, in order to know if she is still angry with me for something I did or did not say or do that I a no longer aware of. Is she mad or is she glad? I can’t remember. And I am unable to tell. So I remain on guard…“
Consequently his routine around her begins by being on guard, walking on eggshells, and hers is to speak out more, sooner, longer and wait for him to “get it”, to respond. When he doesn’t, she escalates her attack, gets more specific and detailed, motivated to get him to finally respond. He gets overwhelmed and tunes out sooner, longer and more frequently.
You see something gradually changed. The tenderness left. And tenderness is the lubricant in male/female love relationships. Early in a relationship men and women are innocent until proven guilty.
We literally don’t see what we do not want to see and focus on what we adore. Later, after repetitive “passive men and wild, wild women” episodes of friction, each person is guilty until proven innocent, from the beginning. Because that is what we grow to expect of each other. We then behave to prove ourselves right – and, sadly, succeed at that.
New rules emerge
Whatever he does is now never enough. Right or wrong, he is always wrong. And so is she.
Unfortunately this pattern may continue to be their script. Except one day when one of them may “suddenly” walk from the relationship.
A variation of this same theme occurs in work situations between men and women, just in a milder, lower gear level where there is a thin veneer of apparent civility barely covering the passivity and the intensity in interactions. The stain of scripts and expectations and retaliations gets set there too. We are on ready alert to prove the other person wrong, even knowing what that person has done in the past in response to our actions.
There is the endless ferris wheel of increasing futility that we both step onto and seem unable to step off, because we both keep it moving.
For example, Dr. Mornell believes that men and women have very basic needs at night, and that many conflicts spiral out of those core differences. It is just like the conflicts between the energy styles of “morning” people and “evening” people. Whereas a man may get much of his sense of worth from his work, then want to tune out once he gets home, a woman may get a sense of worth from her work, but her feminine side is also nurtured through connection with her man at home.
Men are more likely to focus on what action to take next and who should take it. At work, the man may focus more on getting work done by either leading or competing for leadership or doing it by himself to just “get it done” and done right in the most efficient way.
A woman’s instincts are often to get input from everyone upfront, and get the work done collaboratively through the group. This approach often appears to take more time. Further, she is more likely to be concerned if the people are not getting along in the group than the man would. She may want to focus on clearing up the conflicts, while the man may want to forge ahead to get the task done. Clearly there are big exceptions to these generalizations, especially as more men and women are working in mixed sex groups sooner in their lives. Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages with both approaches. If both ways are respected, more will ultimately get done. But that is rare.
John Gray of the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” fame believes that women speak more to be heard than to seek help in resolving problems. That may be true for some women, but a clear majority of the women with whom I have spoken about this view believe that while they talk to become more clear about what should be done, they are also speaking in the hopes of actually having a conversation with the other person to move further towards a solution, or at least a next step. In other words, they aren’t simply talking to be heard. They want involvement and participation, not passivity. But anything approaching intensity in a woman’s style of speaking is likely to inspire a retreat in the man with whom she is speaking, at work or at home.
This the situation brings out the more traditionally “female” part in a man and the more assertively “male” part in a woman, which is disconcerting and uncomfortable for both. So what do they both do as a consequence of that discomfort? More of the behavior that took them to that tense place.
In personal relationships the woman appears to want too much as the man sees it. She may act bitter. He feels he can’t meet her needs and ends up feeling guilty and sulky.
They both end up blaming each other.
He thinks: If only she’d shut up.
She thinks: If only hed talk to me.
What’s worse? Whenever either person tries to become more like the other sex to get closer, he or she can feel engulfed or stuck in the role. For example, if a man starts sharing more of his feelings in the evening he feels he has whetted their appetite for more. Like an appetizer, they reach out for another helping.
And, if a woman learns to not pile on the comments in a rush of evening conversation, she may get more conversation from him but then immediately response in a full gush of word, reverting back to the old behavior from which he would retreat.
First, for a woman to recognize the powerful role she plays in creating harmony and goodwill when she shines a spotlight on the achievements of the men around her, from her work colleagues to her son, father or husband.
Second, for men to realize that offering genuine praise, admiration and attention for the heroines in his life, especially for the achievements for which they most want recognition, not just for their supportive roles to him, can also lead to a more harmonious and loving relationship for him.
Men want to be admired and respected, then loved.
Women want to be like, respected, then loved.
That subtle but important difference in the sequence of our needs in a situation most often leads to our conflicts.
“The opposite of love is not hate. It is apathy.” ~ Rollo May, Love and Will
As in any relationship, the key is in power and control. In the Sufi religion, there’s a saying, “God makes only co-equal partnerships.”
“The chief cause of problems is solutions” ~ Eric Sevareid
When both a man and a woman believe they have more or less equal power they will act in their most becoming way towards each other, and reinforce that behavior back. Even and especially when one person feels she or he is getting her or his way in a relationship, that person may begin to resent and lose respect for the other, and then act in unbecoming ways that further poison the interactions. Each person must find a way to speak up for his needs and be heard, which of course is easier said than done.
Begin with expectations.
What do you truly expect from yourself and from the other person to make this relationship more satisfying for your both? The more you “expect”, the more open and flexible you must be to the other person’s expectations. The more you are willing to accept that person, without desiring change, the sooner that person will act in a becoming way towards you, closer to how she or he acted when you were first attracted to each other.
As you both soften towards each other, and the possibilities for change open up. Since you can only control your own actions, the softening and acceptance can only begin with you.
The less said, and the more done the better.
Prove your positive intent first in deeds, then in words. That is, by the way, the least likely route for educated “rational” adults to take so they get stuck in thinking, rather than feeling about their relationships. I must say I know that first hand, through my own inadequacies.
For most men, life will continue to be a quest for some sort for achievement and recognition. The hero role is planted firmly in their psyche. What is best for his relationship? Perhaps that he feels he gets to win the prize and share the joy with a woman who is proud of his achievement. The whole point is, after all, to have someone to win the prize for.
As Dr. Wolfgang Lederer once said in a talk about “Love and Redemption in Myth and Reality”, in literature and life we see a repeated theme of a man striving to gain approval or “grace.” If he seeks it only for himself, he ends up isolated and alone. In spite of his achievements life remains empty. She must appear in order to give his achievements a deeper sense of balance, meaning, and completion.
The ultimate answer begins with our refusing to accept the man as passive and the woman as wild, and seeing our differences as also the root of our salvation, our potential for joy in our differences.