A Colorado man drove out of a gas station near Washington, Pennsylvania, and continued on through West Virginia and part of Ohio without realizing that his wife – the mother of their two children – was still back at the gas station in Pennsylvania. In Ohio, the man pulled over and – assuming everything was well in the back of the van – decided to take a nap. It was only ninety minutes later that he awoke and recognized the fact that his wife was no longer in the vehicle. At this point he turned around and began driving frantically back east on Route 70 getting as far as Wheeling, West Virginia, where he hit a deer. The crash damaged the van, so he hoofed it to a truck stop where a trucker aided in helping reunite him with his wife.
This happened on Mother’s Day. As I’ve told this story over the years, it is so interesting to watch how differently men and women react to this story. Most women are horrified that any man could possibly leave his wife and not realize it for over ninety minutes. On the other hand, most men laugh at the story. However, their laughter is more of a nervous chuckle because they’re just glad that this has never happened to them. Then the man and the woman stare at each other with the look that says: “We are so different!”
Misunderstandings between a husband and wife keep the marriage from being the best it can be. They can bring frustration and resentment and, in some cases, can even lead to constant arguing, dissatisfaction and broken relationships—especially if the wife gets left at a gas station.
I’m sure that’s not what you want for your marriage—and it’s not what God wants. The first mention of marriage in the Bible refers to the permanent and intimate relationship God planned for couples: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 NIV).
Marriage is a gift from God. It’s an opportunity for two people to support, encourage, and sustain each other as long as they both shall live. But how do you reach that goal of one-flesh unity if you’re frustrated and distracted by differences you just don’t understand?
I want to help you get a grasp on the differences between men and women and the problems with intimacy that arise as a result of those differences.
Are men and women really different? Absolutely! Let's look at five key differences between men and women that most dramatically affect intimacy. Note that these findings are generalizations and summaries that apply to most men or women, but not to all men or all women.
1. Men Communicate Facts; Women Communicate Emotions
Studies show that the average male uses about 12,000 words a day, the entire day, and most of those are spent relating to people at work or on the job. They will talk at length in the workplace in order to successfully complete an assignment, project, or task. But the focus is typically on facts. Here’s a few ways men gobble up their brain’s average word count:
- Giving instructions to other employees
- Giving his input to co-workers
- Debating the current challenges of his job with coworkers at lunchtime.
- Talking to customers
- Talking to his boss
- Giving input at business meetings
- Making business phone calls
A woman, on the other hand, averages 25,000 words. Now these aren’t just any words, but words that must truly impact the heart within her and the hearts of the people around her. In other words, when a woman spends her day in the workplace, generally there are few opportunities for her to really dig in and use her allotment of words.
- Lengthy conversations with other women
- Phone calls to friends, sometimes to describe for upwards of an hour the details of one single event.
- Story-telling to children
- Recapping stories she has read or heard on television.
The same lack of real words and dialogue is true when men and women talk about their appearance. Take something as simple as a haircut. Two women meet and one notices a change in the other’s hairstyle.
“Wow, Janice, did you get your hair cut?”
“Yes, I went to Le Classy Styles! It was amazing.” She does a slight twirl and waves her fingers dramatically at her hair. “Don’t you just love it?”
Studying each tendril of Janice’s hair as though searching for a lost set of car keys, Janice’s friend sucks in a deep breath. “It’s absolutely to die for! It’s so much better than your other girl who cuts it. And the style! I can’t believe how thin it makes you look.”
Janice wrinkles her nose. “You’re sure it doesn’t make my neck look too long?”
“Too long?” Her friend gasps. “Definitely not. You look like a model. Just the way it curls under and the extra shine…”
It could go on that way for an hour and neither woman, not once, would get bored with the topic of Janice’s new hairdo.
Take a man in the same situation. If he notices that his friend got a haircut he might (we’re not talking major odds here) say something like, “Hey, you got your hair cut.”
To which his friend will say something profound like, “Yep.”
And the conversation will be over.
A woman wants meaningful communication, memorable conversations, and instead she gets a few words, mainly focused on the facts. This is because a man’s brain operates so very differently from hers. And it’s this very truth that often makes it difficult to establish and maintain intimacy. Why? At the end of the day – whether the woman works in an office or in the home – there is a huge difference in word counts between the man and the woman. A man has spent nearly all his words. He comes home tired and drained, looking for a place to recharge for the next day’s battle at the office.
A woman, however, is just warming up. She has thousands of words left to speak and since her husband’s word count is depleted, the conversations often wind up sounding like nothing more than question-and-answer sessions. This reality continues in the bedroom as well. Whereas a man typically pursues actions over words, his wife will most often want to connect relationally through talking before engaging in sex.
2. A Man’s Identity is Achievement-Oriented; A Woman’s Identity is Relationship-Oriented
A Massachusetts man was loading his two children into the car. He set his three-month old son (strapped in his infant car seat) on the car roof and set about buckling in his two-year-old daughter. Then he climbed in the driver’s seat, shut the door and began driving – completely forgetting the infant on the roof. According to the article the man accelerated onto Interstate 290 when he heard a scraping sound on the roof of the car. This was the first time the man noticed something was wrong. (Note: He didn’t notice that one of his children was missing, but he did notice his car making a strange noise). The car was doing fifty miles per hour when the car seat containing the baby boy sailed off the roof and landed on Interstate 290, where it skidded safely to a stop. The boy was completely unhurt. This also happened on Mother’s Day.
If you were to ask the man in this story about his experience, he would probably focus on how his behavior and the actions lead to this terrible mistake. This focus, however, would be on achievement (or in his case lack of achievement) versus feelings and emotions. This would be pretty consistent with men across the board. A man's sense of self is defined through his ability to achieve results, through success and accomplishment. In general, men are more interested in achieving goals and proving his competence rather than people and feelings. Men rarely talk about their problems unless they are seeking “expert” advice. The bottom line is that for many men, their self-esteem is career and achievement related. Certainly achievement in the bedroom is no less important to a man.
On the other hand, women value love, communication, beauty and relationships. A woman's sense of self is defined through their feelings and the quality of their relationships. They spend much time supporting, nurturing and helping each other. They experience fulfillment through sharing and relating. The bottom line, talking, sharing and relating is how a woman feels good about herself. This is why a woman is more likely to judge the sexual relationship based more on the quality of the marital relationship than on her sexual achievement.
3. Men Are Solution-Focused; Women Are Feelings-Focused
One of the passages of text I’ve found that comes close to describing the way men act in most relationships is this one from Dave Barry’s book, The Complete Guide to Guys:
“A guy in a relationship is like an ant standing on top of a truck tire. The ant is aware – on a very basic level – that something large is there, but he cannot even dimly comprehend what this thing is, or the nature of his involvement with it. And if the truck starts moving, and the tire starts to roll, the ant will sense that something important is happening, but right up until he rolls around to the bottom and is squashed into a small black blot, the only distinct thought that will form in his tiny brain will be, and I quote, ‘Huh?’…
‘How could he?’ (a woman) will ask her best friends. ‘What was he thinking?’
The answer is, he wasn’t thinking in the sense that women mean the word. He can’t. He doesn’t have the appropriate type of brain. He has a guy brain, which is basically an analytical, problem-solving type of organ. It likes things to be definite and measurable and specific. It’s not comfortable with nebulous and imprecise relationship-type concepts such as love and need and trust. If the guy brain has to form an opinion about another person, it prefers to form that opinion based on something concrete about the person, such as his or her earned-run average.”
Some of the couples I’ve interviewed would agree wholeheartedly with this description. Basically, men have a much more difficult time relating to their own feelings, and may feel very threatened by the expression of feelings in their presence. This may cause them to react by withdrawing or attempting to problem solve. On the other hand, women want empathy. They often just want someone to sincerely listen to them. Women want to have their feelings validated. Instead, men often try to change a woman's mood when she is upset by offering solutions to her problems, which she interprets as discounting and invalidating her feelings. This difference between men and women can exacerbate sexual problems in the marriage. Whereas the man wants to simply “solve” the issue, his wife will want to first be heard and understood. Instead, of solving the problem, the woman’s desire is to have her feelings and emotions validated.
4. Men Want Activity; Women Want Relational Connection
If you mention intimacy to a man, he most likely will imagine a host of things that fly in the face of what you’re thinking about. Here’s a few differences in the way women look at intimacy, feelings, and emotions:
- Deep emotional connection
- Daily time sharing your heart
- Daily time hearing the heart of the one you love
- The ability to cry easily and together at emotional moments
- A sensitivity to know immediately when feelings are hurt
- An understanding of each other’s dreams and goals
- Closeness of the heart and soul
Men have very little idea about these ideas of intimacy. Their brains are soaked in testosterone, remember. This means that they are fact-focused. Intimacy means something entirely different to most men. Take a look at this list:
- Deep physical connection
- Hand-holding, hugging, kissing
- An understanding of each other’s physical needs
- The ability to communicate physical needs
- Physical time alone together
- A sensitivity to know when physical needs are present
These two lists illustrate a very important difference between men and women. When defining intimacy (a deep emotional connection), according to renowned sociologist Dr. Deborah Tannen, most men and women do not see eye-to-eye on intimate matters. In other words, men and women define intimacy very differently.
Women usually view intimacy as “deep talking” or connecting through words. This is why my wife does not usually feel “intimate” when we watch TV or “do” something. Instead, she feels a strong connection when we talk or communicate at a deep level, sharing feelings and needs. On the other hand, men usually view intimacy as “doing things” or connecting through activity (e.g., TV, sex, wrestling, or whatever). This is why I do not feel “intimate” when we are merely talking. Now, you get me talking while I’m fishing or playing ping-pong, then I feel connected because of the combination of action and words. This difference certainly impacts a couple’s sexual relationship. Men often view sex as a way to secure intimacy, in that the activity of sex leads to a feeling of intimacy with his wife. On the other hand, women view sex as a consequence of the relationship, in that a good relationship leads to a desire for sex. It’s no wonder “sex” is one of the top conflicts in marriage—look at the difference in how sex is used in the relationship. The man uses sex to feel an intimate connection with his wife, while the woman uses an intimate connection to have sex. We are so different!
5. Men Want To Win; Women Want To Bond
Along with the differences we’ve already discussed, men are generally much more competitive. They want to win even when all that’s at stake is the family Scrabble title. They want to notch a victory or find a solution or invent something. For example, when it comes to shopping, men generally see the outing as a time to conquer. You women on the other hand see it as a relaxing time to chat and catch up on the week’s news or browse shop after shop to see what fashions are in style. This same mentality in reverse is why most hunters are men. You probably think men hunt to help cut back on the meat bill, right? Wrong. Sure a man enjoys bringing home a month’s worth of dinners and providing for his family. But he could do that at the supermarket just as successfully.
Hunting, though, fills that recreational need to win. Women, though, are more likely to get emotionally involved on a hunting trip. A woman will see a herd of deer while out hunting with her husband and she’ll see Bambi, Bambi’s mother, Bambi’s friends and family members. Bambi’s young sweet girlfriend.
She sees relationships and interaction and strong relational bonds between the deer.
A man sees a trophy catch. He pictures the deer strapped to his truck and he thinks, I’m one shot away from victory.
I’ve actually known couples where in this situation the woman jumps up and screams out a warning to the deer. “Run! He’s going to shoot!”
The husband was absolutely furious. He didn’t understand that she was seeing a dead father, a dead son, destroyed relationships. That’s why a woman must understand all of what drives a man. In other words, because his brain works on a factual basis, the man in this situation is completely unable to feel emotional pain for the deer. We want to kill the deer, cut the head off, and mount it and put it on our wall. Then we’ll say, “Me hunter, me did that.” It’s very difficult for the average woman to think that way.
Within the couple’s sexual relationship, this difference can cause problems. Since the man wants to win, success to him is when both reach climax. On the other hand, the wife will typically view success not in terms of orgasms, but whether or not they bonded together as a couple through the sexual encounter.
In Conclusion: The Key is Understanding
A great sex life is founded upon understanding each other. The more you know about each other’s differences, the more empathy and compassion you both develop. The better you both grasp the idea that…
- his brain is soaked in testosterone; her brain has only been lightly sprinkled with testosterone
- he desires to speak less than you and wants to communicate facts; she desires to speak more than you and wants to talk about her emotions
- his identity is often based on achievement; her identity is often based on relationships
- he would rather solve a problem than talk about how he feels about the problem; she would rather talk about how the problem feels than how to solve the problem
- he wants to do something rather than talk about it; she wants to connect on a deep, emotional level
- to him, winning is more important than bonding; to her, bonding is more important than winning
…can help you both better understand each other. It can also help you make sense out of each other’s actions and behaviors.
From this point it’s up to you. The more you’re willing to work within the parameters that make up who your mate is, the better your relationship will be. And the better your sex life can be. At the same time, ignore this crucial information and you’ll find yourself stuck staring at one another again with that look that says, “We are so different!”
This article was adapted from Gary Smalley’s book, Life Lines: Connecting With Your Husband, by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (2003).
- Scripps-Howard News Service, 1992
- Boston Globe, 1992
- Dave Barry’s book, The Complete Guide to Guys: (Pg. 65)
- Tannen, D. (1990). You just don’t understand: women and men in conversation. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.