In Gapun, a remote village on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, the women take a robust approach to arguing. In her pithy new book The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron reports an anthropologist’s account of a dispute between a husband and wife that ensued after the woman fell through a hole in the rotten floor of their home and she blamed him for shoddy workmanship. He hit her with a piece of sugar cane, an unwise move that led her to threaten to slice him up with a machete and burn the home to the ground.
At this point he deemed it prudent to leave and she launched into a kros — a traditional angry tirade directed at a husband with the intention of it being heard by everyone in the village. The fury can last for up to 45 minutes, during which time the husband is expected to keep quiet.
Such a domestic scene may be familiar to some readers, but for most of us arguing with our partners is not quite such an explosive business. Human beings argue about everything from adultery to Zionism and we do so in different styles, whether we are submissive, passive, aggressive, abusive, abusive-passive, aggressive-abusive, submissive-aggressive or submissive-passive-aggressive-abusive.
But are there any broad differences between the sexes in the way that they argue' US research into marital stress on the heart has thrown up an intriguing finding about the way some are prone to “self-silencing” during arguments. The research by Elaine D. Eaker, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, found that more men than women had a tendency to bottle up their feelings during confrontations with their partners.
Tim Smith is a psychology professor at the University of Utah, whose research has found indications that women’s heart health is affected adversely by quarrels and men’s when they feel they are losing control. There are clear indications, he says, that it is a male tactic to withdraw from arguments. “Women, on average, are more often in the role of the managers of relationship matters. They are often in the position of bringing up and pursuing things they would like to change. This is seen in wives making a request and pursuing it and husbands withdrawing and pulling back. The more of it a couple displays the weaker their relationship future is.”
John Gray, whose Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is one of the most successful self-help books of all time, explains this male withdrawal process thus: “To avoid confrontation Martians may retire into their caves and never come out. This is like a cold war. They refuse to talk and nothing gets resolved.” He says that it is “passive-aggressive behaviour” and Martians are “afraid of confrontation and would rather lie low and avoid talking about any topic that may cause an argument”.
Gray’s thesis is that the differences and disagreements between men and women don’t hurt so much as the ways in which we communicate them. “Most couples start out arguing about one thing and within five minutes are arguing about the way they are arguing.” The pattern he identifies involves a woman raising an issue, often asking rhetorical questions rather than being direct. The man, rightly or wrongly, hears disapproval. Men, according to Gray, are in great need of approval.
Feeling challenged, the man becomes focused on being right and forgets to be loving. The woman then becomes upset by his delivery and defends herself. Her tone becomes mistrusting and rejecting. Gray says that we need to remember that our partner objects not to what we are saying but how we are saying it. “Most arguments escalate when a man begins to invalidate a woman’s feelings and she responds to him disapprovingly.” When a woman shares her frustration men go on the defensive.
Christine Northam, a counsellor with Relate, the marriage-counselling service, points to An Introduction to Family Therapy, by R. Dallos and R. Draper, which cautions that “despite these differences between men and women, especially in the supposed concern that women have with feelings, analysis of everyday conversations does little to bear this out.”
But Northam adds that in her experience of many years of helping couples, the way men and women have been conditioned affects the way that they argue and that it is true that men have a greater tendency to withdraw. One popular phrase among psychologists is “the distancer and the pursuer”, says Northam. “One of you wants to sort it and the other one backs off…. That does lead to a lot of tension in the relationship and you end up not addressing what you need to be talking about. I do talk with men who find it very, very difficult to engage with their feelings. Men have been socialised to think that they know what they are talking about…. Women internalise that too….”
She adds that women are also capable of the withdrawal technique. “They change the subject or rubbish it or cry. Crying is a good one and then the poor man says: ‘Oh my god, she’s in tears’.”
We all recognise that scenario. “I don’t argue a lot but I do cry a lot,” says Sarah, 32, an advertising executive. “I’ll say something harsh to him and he’ll say something probably only equally harsh and then I’ll be in floods of tears.”
Christine Northam says that another major difference between the way men and women argue is that “men tend to resort to aggression very quickly, whereas women are more manipulative and try and present a problem and go on and on about it rather than being succinct. Men get angry and feel defensive and shameful very quickly, then they get aggressive. In the worst-case scenario they get violent. Men tend to probably become more aggressive more quickly overall — but not every time by any means.
“All couple disagreements are about power and control: who’s going to come out on the top. You have to be ever so grown up to start negotiating and that’s what couple counselling is about — helping to negotiate instead of arguing all the time.”
She says that men are also more prone to decline to take their partner’s concerns seriously. “I’m afraid it goes back to our patterning; the stereotypical stuff we have all been fed. We are very much influenced by the way our parents were or even our grandparents…. It stays inside you and so the way you do emotions is learnt in your family. To look at them, understand them and then make a conscious decision that you will do it differently is very grown up.”
Deborah Cameron, the Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford, believes that the differences between the way men and women argue are overstated. “The idea that men and women differ fundamentally in the way they use language to communicate is a myth,” she says.
Even if people were to be wired up and recorded over a long time to capture spontaneous arguments, it is hard to draw conclusions about differences between the sexes, she says, because people argue differently in different cultures and situations, as her account of the approach of the women of New Guinea suggests. “It depends which men and women you observe,” she says. The idea that there is no difference between the arguing styles of a woman in the West, her granny and a woman in a tribal village in Africa is “absolute rubbish”.
“You can’t generalise about men and women. Cultural differences are much bigger than gender differences. You need to specify what culture and what community within that culture.”
She says: “It is intriguing to people that there are differences, but people use it as a prop.” But while Cameron is probably right that it is extremely hard to prove in a scientific way that there are differences between men and women in the way that they argue, it is also unlikely that anyone will ever be able to show conclusively that there are no differences.
So as long as men and women are still arguing, researchers and writers and psychobabblers will continue to argue about how they are arguing.
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