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Thursday
Jun302011

Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth

According to Dr. John Gray’s popular series of self-help relationship books, men and women struggle with one another in their relationships because they are from “different planets.”

One of our readers, Lizette, was curious about the validity of the claims made in Gray’s books. Specifically, she asked: What truth is there to Dr. John Gray's (Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus) theory that men are like rubber bands?

Gray's rubber band theory suggests that men have an intimacy cycle that functions like a rubber band: guys pull away from their partners until they reach a point at which they spring back. Gray claims that, “for most men, intimacy is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. They experience it, enjoy it and then become full. They need time and space to feel hungry again.” He suggests that this is a “normal, healthy” relationship cycle for men, and that their female partners should give them space when their guy feels the need to pull away – he suggests women get a pedicure or do some gardening to pass the time (he’s right ladies, all we need is a pedicure to replace an absent lover). According to Gray, women are allowed to contact their partners during this time, but he advises “speaking his language,” a strategy that involves appealing to his sense of being the expert by asking him for help or advice. Yikes!

Here are 3 reasons why you should be very wary of this advice:

1. Independence is not just for men

Attachment theory suggests that a good relationship is one in which partners are always comfortable turning to each other for support.1 It is, of course, important to maintain a sense of self in a relationship, but Gray’s advice does a disservice to both men and women. It implies that men need independence more than women and should not be required to meet the needs of their partners when they don’t feel like it. In reality, both men and women value independence equally.2 His advice also privileges the “male” way of being in a relationship, essentially telling women that if they want to be in a committed relationship with a man, then they simply need to accept being ignored and rejected when their guy feels like pulling away.

2. Focusing exclusively on gender differences limits our understanding of romantic relationships

Although we occasionally find that men’s and women’s approaches to, thoughts about, and behaviors in relationships differ in some respects, presenting men and women as being from different planets and speaking different languages is untrue and potentially damaging for relationships - it suggests that men and women cannot communicate with each other to solve issues, be equal partners, or both get their needs met in a relationship. Conversely, many researchers have presented the gender similarities hypothesis,3 which comes from theory that suggests men and women are in fact from the same planet (you may know it as “Earth”) and that most gender differences we do see are actually very small in magnitude.

3. Even if the “rubber band theory” were accurate (which it is not), Gray’s suggestion would ultimately harm relationships

Dr. John Gottman, a couples therapist and researcher (who actually has a legitimate Ph.D.), has found that one partner pulling away or shutting down is bad for relationships. He refers to this withdrawal as stonewalling and suggests that it is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” – the factors most predictive of break ups and divorce.4 According to Gottman, taking a break during an argument to cool down can be beneficial because it is counterproductive to discuss relationship issues when things get too heated. Stonewalling, however, is not beneficial for relationships. Although partners need to give each other space at times, emotional inexpression over time undermines relationship functioning; rather, it is creating a connection and engaging in positive events that promote relationship success.5

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Feeney, B. C., & Thrush, R. L. (2010). Relationship influences on exploration in adulthood: The characteristics and function of a secure base. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 51-76.

2Gabriel, S., & Gardner, W. L. (1999). Are there 'his' and 'hers' types of interdependence? The implications of gender differences in collective versus relational interdependence for affect, behavior, and cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(3), 642-655.

3Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581-592.

4Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, 60, 5-22.

5Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Processes, 41, 83-96.

Amy Muise - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Amy’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.

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Reader Comments (5)

As someone who's read the book (Men are from mars...), and found it immensely helpful in my relationships, I think this is a thoroughly narrow view of the case he makes in his book.

You made it sound like he says that men should be able to just disappear whenever they like it and women just have to deal with it. Rather, he says that periodically men need space (pretty true in my experience) and that periodically women have a strong need for connection (also true in my experience). In my relationships it's always been clear that I need to make sure I'm giving my partner the emotional intimacy that she needs, and that sometimes I'm going to become distant and she needs to understand that it's not about her, I just need some space to ponder life, the universe and everything.

I think that both sides misunderstanding these two opposing needs is the cause of much of the friction in relationships. Of course everyone's different, but if we're talking about a general book for people in relationships, I think his advice is sound and more people should read the book.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnt

Thanks for your comment.

It sounds like reading John Gray's book helped you and your partner discuss and validate each others needs and that is certaintly a good thing.

The main issue with his general advice is the implication that men and women need fundamentally different things in relationship. While men might sometimes need distance, this is also true of women, and while women might at times have a strong need for connection, so might men. Identifying certain issues as "male" problems or "female" problems can reinforce gender stereotypes that are not always helpful in relationships.

Many of John Gray's ideas are presented as facts about men and women in relationships, but often these ideas are not supported (or at times discredited) by relationship research. The goal of this article was to provide a critical review of one his theories and present some opposing opinions from relationship science.

July 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterDr. Amy Muise

I actually can relate to Gray's "rubber band theory," and recognize that tendency as a flaw I have in relationships. However, I am a woman!

I see why people, women especially, are so offended by Gray's book. Rather than address individual personality traits that impact a relationship, it makes up outrageously inaccurate archetypes of women and men in order to validate the author's own ego and distorted self-perception as a male. He describes women (read: all women) as interdependent and confused, desperately clinging onto the all-capable, self-reliant male who just doesn't get what all that fuss is about. Ick. I'm glad to hear that others are detecting the bullshit.

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

For an alternative view, see:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201302/when-is-sex-difference-real

April 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Emotionally pulling away is a fabulous way to lose your partner. I had a boyfriend who would go through bouts of extreme attentiveness and caring, then all out stonewalling, and not just a little, but a lot. I literally felt like I was pushed entirely out of his life. I wouldn't hear from him for months and any attempts to contact him would be met with silence. Then he would come back very apologetic with tons of excuses ( I was kicked out of my house, I'm busy with school, ect) when I was (understandably) very very cross with him and he would somehow weasel his way back into my life again. After about 2 or 3 episodes of this over the course of 4 years I said "enough's enough" and told him to hit the road. No one deserves to be out and out ignored just because their partner doesn't feel like trying.

June 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteranon

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