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Heart to Heart


Nearly 20 years ago, John Gray published ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ – a somewhat simplistic psycho-social self-help book. Whatever its qualities (and there are many, several of them positive) hardwired gender disparity is now more often accepted as a possible explanation in social and political circles.

This has taken some doing. It is still the case that policy-makers, academics and journalists like to lump people together without regard to important gendered drivers. Naoko Ide and colleagues, in their ‘Separation as an Important Risk Factor for Suicide: A Systematic Review’ which has been published in the recent issue of the Journal of Family Issues, fall into this very trap. Their paper, which reports important gender differences in dealing with relationship breakdown, avoids naming the real facts. Men deal with relationship failure badly and often cope by harming themselves either slowly (destructive drinking) or spectacularly (suicide). Overwhelmingly, men do this, but women don’t. This is not something the authors name or deal with. Why not?

One of the gendered behaviours noted by John Gray is that men try to fix things. I know that the older I got and the further up the command and control ladder I went, the more I was expected to have an answer, a solution for other people’s problems. Once you move beyond that, you find the open-ended, enabling question that empowers others and encourages them to explore their solutions. As a man raised on older ideas of management, I found this very difficult to learn, but extremely rewarding. It was the second stage of leadership for me to see my colleagues find their own solutions.

When relationships break down, in a loosely liberal society, there are simply too many variables to control. Men try, but they can’t play Bob the Builder. They can’t fix it, not on their own, anyway. Sometimes, they don’t want to and they are happy to move on. But often, especially when the relationship has been of longer duration or where their children are involved, men are ill-equipped to handle the complex games playing that ensues.

What has this got to do with gender, suicide and relationship breakdown? Well, work by Matthias Mehl and his colleagues from Arizona (‘Eavesdropping on Happiness’; Psychological Science; 18.02.2010) gives solace to all of us who are dreadful at those bar-room one-liners. They have shown that those who engage in longer and more meaningful conversations are likely to be more happy. Conversely, those who engage primarily in chatty small talk were less likely to score well on a battery of self-report wellbeing and happiness measures.

Whilst this paper does not highlight any gender discrepancy in its findings, it would be interesting to speculate whether women or men were more likely to engage in longer conversational interactions.

The stereotypical British male of my generation always talked too little, save for ‘witty’ one-liners, while their girlfriends would go off together to share long problem-solving chats, usually in the Ladies loo. Yet it is those very conversations, heart-to-hearts – which explore how things work and who people really are – that cushion women disproportionately in the dark days when relationships end.

Practically every dispute, whether industrial or marital, cites a breakdown in communication as a causal factor. Good communication means contributing, thinking and listening by everyone. A career in one line wisecracks isn’t usually a good start. Men need to overcome their socialisation and become more cooperative and invent new social structures to help them deal with divorce.

Mehl & Co end their article with the following apposite words (as do I) “Remarking on Socrates’ dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Dennett (1984) wrote, “The overly examined life is nothing to write home about either” (p. 87). Although we hesitate to enter such delicate philosophical disputes, our findings suggest that people find their lives more worth living when examined―at least when examined together.”

One Comment
  1. One of the problems is that women talking about their problems is to be expected; in men, it is maligned. Not to mention that it is hard-wired in the brain: Men went out for hunting while women stayed close to the cave and raised children in the group.

    Your article certainly gives an impetus to change these behaviors. But it won’t be easy…

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

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