Men and women: Are we really from different planets?

Men and women: Are we really from different planets? Photo: iStock

Just how true is the men are from Mars, women from are Venus hypothesis?

A new study from the University of Texas set out to settle the debate, and has turned up some interesting results that suggest the popular different-planets perspective might not be so accurate.

For example, gender stereotypes assume emotions don’t play into a man’s reason for having sex. “It’s just physical,” goes the logic. Men are supposed to shag with no strings attached, while women confuse sex with sentiment; ladies ‘make love’, they don’t ‘have sex’.

But the study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, reveals sex is an important channel through which blokes express a very important feeling – love.

That’s right. The more a husband loved his wife, the more he initiated sex. He also wanted to share as much time with his spouse as possible, be it leisure or performing household chores, and be just as likely as his wife to engage in warm, affectionate behaviours like saying “I love you”, offering compliments, or snuggling on the couch.

Meanwhile the more a wife loved her husband, the more likely she was create an ‘accommodating’ environment - the phrase ‘bite her tongue’ was used by way of explanation (cringe).

This accommodation could extend to into the bedroom with the researchers suggesting a “traditional deference to male sexual prerogative” on behalf of their female subjects could explain why couples who were very much in love also had more sex.

Because, it seems, sex for ladies is not really about expressing that loving feeling. In fact, based on the data collected from ‘average’ marriages over 13 years, the psychologists found an inverse relationship between a wife’s love and her likelihood to initiate sex.

In other words, a woman who fears her relationship is in on the rocks might use sex to ‘save’ her marriage.

Unfortunately, for me and my ideals at least, this seems to back up the idea that gender plays a big role in sexual expression (though I raise the notion gender is fluid, not fixed) albeit in a slightly differently to the he has sex’/’she makes love Mars/Venus dichotomy.

And while this is not true for every couple, it does shed some light on the bitter pain and confusion that can arise when long-term relationships fail.

For I know many women who have gone through a break-up and report being stunned that he didn’t see it coming, and men who were left reeling when she walked out the door - could it be because we make assumptions about gender behaviour we shouldn’t?

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Yes, but...

Witness this case study.

Mutual friends of mine split last year. She had been trying to rediscover the love she had for him by making herself as sexually available as possible – planning hot date nights, naughty weekends away, etc. He relished in this new physicality, and took it to mean the niggling fights and her snappiness was little more than the busy, modern life outside their relationship.

But in the end, she decided to call it quits, sparking months of anguished stories shared with our friendship circle. At the time, the common theme running through each lover’s respective perspective was shock, awe, and mystification – how did they not realise it was over?

Yesterday, I flicked them each a copy of the study.

“That explains it,” he wrote.

“I’d been thinking we were closer than ever before she told me,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect, but we were doing all these things together that had me convinced she was more in love with me than when we first met. It made me love her even more. I guess that’s why I was so heartbroken when she turned around and told me it was over.”

Meanwhile, from her:

“Ah. I see.

“All that time I thought the sex didn’t really ‘mean’ anything – that it was just something you did to keep him happy – or that you ‘should do’ as a modern, sexually empowered woman or something. Though they tell you how you should ‘spice things up’ if you really want to save your marriage – you know, buy sexy underwear, plan trips, do all of those things you used to do but don’t anymore because you’ve let familiarity creep in and ruin the romance... what, are we not supposed to do that because he’ll just think that means you love him even more, even if you don’t?”

Well, as ever, what you’re supposed to do is communicate.

That means talking; asking questions, listening for answers, and more than just once.

For if there is anything this study shows, it’s that you should never make assumptions about what your partner means based on what your partner does. And you should never make assumptions about love and sex based on gender alone. In short – you should never make assumptions about anything, ever.

But we do. We can’t seem to help it. At least we should be aware of the consequences.

Don’t you agree?

How do you show your partner you love them? Have gender stereotypes stood in the way of your relationship? Or do you think that men are men, and women are women, and that’s all there really is to it?

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kfeeney@fairfaxmedia.com.au