By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
It’s been a couple of decades since John Gray published the bestselling book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. And, wow, did it ever become popular! People continue to refer to the popular notion that men and women are different by referring to them being from different planets. But a recent study out of the University of Rochester is bringing all the hype down to earth. It has found that men and women are not as different as we think (though, thankfully, there are some fundamental differences that we can see, feel, and appreciate!).
The study collected data on men and women; as well as reanalyzing data from 13 other studies that had revealed significant differences between the sexes. Not surprisingly, men and women truly are different physically – such as in height and waist-to-hip ratio. Some stereotypical activities are also different for men and women – such as women being more likely to be interested in cosmetics and men being more likely to watch boxing. But, after that, it’s difficult to find differences.
The presence of particular psychological traits, personality types, and attitudes is so similar that they usually cannot meaningfully differentiate the sexes. For instance, men and women are not significantly different from each other in their fear of success or their ability to empathize. The authors of this study, Carothers and Reis, explain that there is often a difference in the average scores of men and women. But these scores are not consistent; and they hide the wide variability within the sexes that overlap greatly with each other.
The authors also explain that although people generally relate to the sex stereotypes, these assumptions are inaccurate and can cause problems in relationships. Too often, partners blame their relationship problems on the other person’s sex. This can get in the way of partners thinking more personally about their partner and the dynamics in their relationship that cause problems. As a result, couples can be severely hampered in their efforts to develop intimacy and resolve issues.
So, to make personal use of this study, consider its findings. Think about the things in your partner – or potential partner – that you assume to be true because of their sex. Rather than taking this for granted, get curious about it. If you are going on a first date, be open to the idea that the guy might be emotionally sensitive or that the woman might be assertive. If you have a longtime partner who does fall in line with stereotypes in a way that’s a problem, don’t just assume that it has to be this way because of their sex. Men can learn to become more expressive of emotions. Women can learn to be the initiator of sex. The idea is that you recognize your biases and open up your thinking. By doing this, you also open yourself up to the possibility of a happier relationship.