Richard G. Petty, MD

Gender and Relationships

I sometimes review interesting or important books at I’ve just done that with a book entitled This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology by Christina Robb that is important for us on several levels. The book reviews the work of three remarkable individuals – Carol Gilligan, Jean Baker Miller and Judith Lewis Herman – who between them changed the way in which we think about some important gender differences.

The philosopher Ken Wilber first alerted me to Carol Gilligan’s work several years ago. In the mid-1970s, she wrote an essay entitled "In a Different Voice," that was subsequently expanded into a book that I recommend highly. She described the marked discrepancies in moral development processes and self-expression between men and women.

According to Gilligan, the whole notion of a woman’s self tends to be inextricably bound up in a web of close relationships. Women tend to be more diligent about maintaining and nurturing these relationships, and inter-personal details tend to be far more important to most of them, than they are for most men. I remember someone sending me a little joke about gender differences, in that mothers know the names of all their children’s friends, their parents’ names, birthdays, favorite music, likes and dislikes in people, food and clothes. While fathers may or may not notice the small people in the house. That was, of course, a joke. But like all jokes it had within it a grain of truth. But notice that I keep using words like “tend to,” when describing gender differences, because there are plenty of men who are into all these interpersonal details and women who are not remotely interested.

At the time that Carol Gilligan started writing about this, much psychological thinking in the United States had not yet dragged itself out of the confines of the post-Freudian theorizing that had dominated American psychology for decades. Gilligan and her co-workers identified relationships as the foundation of psychological and physical states. At the time, the idea that men and women might tend to think and relate in different ways was anathema. I worked in Boston around that time, and it was clear what could and could not be thought about and discussed. Gilligan’s work was courageous, and taken together with the findings of psychiatrists Judith Lewis Herman and Jean Baker Miller, would ultimately lead to radical alterations in the way that we understand the psychology of women. Are these gender differences social, political or biological? The answer is, I think, yes: all of the above.

It is surprising how often discussions of gender differences are still omitted from much work on self-psychology. In an otherwise wonderful book – The Self in Neuroscience and Psychiatry, edited by Tilo Kircher and Anthony David – there is scarcely any mention of gender.

I am not much of a fan of trying neatly to cleave men and women’s thinking styles in two. There will always be a great deal of overlap, and the key is not so much biological gender, but the style normally associated with a gender. The research of these three pioneers and of another pioneer – Deborah Tannen – is teaching us that the roots of many problems in our lives may be a consequence of misunderstandings about what men and women consider to be the most important things in their lives. It is also important to recognize that the amount of “maleness” or “femaleness” that we bring to our relationships and to our sense of self will change and evolve over time. Have you ever watched a relationship between a dominant career oriented male and a passive female gradually change into one in which the male takes the more passive role? This is a good example of a shift in “maleness” and “femaleness.”

I have been impressed by some of the recent work of David Deida, who has done a lot to explore the interplay of male and female essences in our lives. I have already mentioned in some of my other postings the importance of moving from a dominator to a partnership model in all of our relationships.

Consider whether problems in any of your relationships may be a result of misunderstanding gender needs.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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