Gender Differences in Relationships

by Kassandra Lamb ~ Gender differences probably cause more problems in relationships than anything else.

Have you ever wondered why a member of the opposite sex said or did something that seemed counterproductive in your mind? Or it was just plain confusing to you?

There are actually psychosocial explanations for these mysterious gender differences in thinking and behavior. And they are often part heredity and part socialization, in varying degrees.

Here are five main gender differences, with short explanations (and links to posts with more details). Please keep in mind that these are generalizations; there will definitely be exceptions.

Men tend to be more hierarchal; women tend to be more egalitarian.

gender differences in relationships
photo by Lisa Wilson, WANA Commons

Men are concerned about where they are in the pecking order of authority. Women tend to emphasize that we’re all in this together.

Most men don’t necessarily need to be at the top of the pecking order (good thing since there can only be one king of the hill). But they want to know where they stand. Women often don’t understand why men see much of life as a competition of sorts. While men may get frustrated with women who want to turn everything into a team effort.

See this post for a lengthier explanation of why this is (and some examples), plus more on competitiveness.

The short version of the explanation is that evolution favored men who were good hunters and warriors, who could provide for and protect their families the best. Both of these skills were best honed through competition.

Meanwhile, women were best able to take care of their families if they worked together, pooling their efforts—some watching the children while others gathered roots and berries, cured meat or tanned hides together.

Men do; women process

Another major gender difference is the way men and women deal with feelings and problems. Men take action; women process feelings.

I’m not saying women don’t act to correct a problem; they do. But they prefer to sort out how they feel about it first, and most women like to do that by talking about the situation and their feelings out loud. And sometimes they have to repeat themselves a few times until they’ve vented sufficiently to move on to a plan of action.

Men don’t get that, because that’s not how they are programmed. Their minds jump more quickly to action. What can they do about the problem?

They tend to mull things over inside their own heads to sort out how they feel about something. So they get real quiet when something is on their minds. Then if they think it’s relevant to share, they’ll tell their mate about it.

This gender difference causes two common communication problems in relationships.

The woman is upset about something, so she starts venting to her man about it, processing her feelings along the way. Halfway through this (or sooner), the man starts jumping in to solve the problem, suggesting what the woman can DO about it. Then he is totally mystified when she gets mad at him and accuses him of never listening.

She doesn’t want him to solve the problem; she wants a listening ear while she processes her feelings.

On the other hand, the man is bothered about something, so he’s gone real quiet and seems preoccupied.

The woman catches on pretty quick that something’s bothering her guy, because women tend to be fairly sensitive to the non-verbals of emotions (I’m not making this up; research has found this to be true). So she assumes that he needs to talk about whatever it is and she starts bugging him to tell her what’s going on.

From his perspective, she’s interrupted his thought process and is now yammering at him, making it difficult to think. So he tells her nothing’s going on and tries to get her to leave him alone.

She views this as him shutting her out and not being willing to share his feelings, and they are off and running.

Check out this post for a couple of fun examples of this gender difference.

Are women more emotional and men more aggressive?

Now, we’ve come to the gender differences that aren’t really what they seem.

Gender and types of aggression

It is true that testosterone, when injected into animals of either gender, immediately makes them more aggressive. It is also true that men have far more testosterone in their bodies than women do. So logic says that men should be more aggressive, and they are, physically.

There are actually four types of aggression (see this post for details on these), three of which involve physical aggression.

The fourth type is relational aggression—using ostracization, spreading rumors, withdrawal of friendship, etc. to punish, manipulate or otherwise intentionally harm others’ social standing.

Studies that only look at physical aggression will most definitely find that boys and men, as a group, exhibit more aggression. But when you include relational aggression, the gender difference disappears.

Also, research studies that attempted to find correlations between testosterone levels and the degree of violence exhibited by incarcerated criminals have had mixed results. Some found a positive correlation; others found none. And still others found that the more violent prisoners tended to have lower testosterone levels.

What is different between males and females regarding aggression is the way in which it is expressed—physically or relationally—and this is mostly a socialized difference.

But women are more emotional, right?


Studies that tease apart how men and women actually feel from what they are willing to express have found that the feelings are the same. One particularly good study asked both men and women to read several scenarios and then asked them to identify what emotion they would feel if they themselves were in such a scenario. They were then asked to rate the intensity of those feelings on a scale of 1 to 10.

Both the men and women identified the same emotions. The anger-provoking scenarios provoked anger; the sad scenarios, sadness; the scary ones, fear; and the you-screwed-up ones, guilt. The more surprising finding, however, was that there was no significant difference between the genders in the intensity of the feelings!

photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Women felt just as angry as the men, and the men felt just as sad, scared, guilty as the women.

Then they were asked to go back and describe how they would express their feelings in each scenario. That’s where the gender differences showed up big time, as learned gender roles came into play.

Bottom line, men and women feel the same feelings, but they express them very differently. (For more on this and some other ramifications in relationships, see this post.)

Women are the “keepers” of relationships

Perhaps there is a genetic component in this. Evolution would favor women who made sure their man was happy, so that he would stick around and help her raise the kids to maturity.

But my educated guess is that at least three-quarters of this is socialized. (I talked about this in a recent post on how difficult it is to be truly respectful of your mate’s feelings and needs.)

Women tend to take on more responsibility for maintaining a healthy relationship. This is probably a residual of the old belief that the woman was supposed to make the man happy.

So today, women—through modeling their mothers, who modeled their mothers before them—tend to analyze their relationships periodically to determine if they are still happy ones.

Men are more likely to assume that everything is okay, unless evidence to the contrary reaches up and smacks them in the face.

As this “keeper of the relationship,” the woman is more likely to realize, sooner than the man does, if there is any problem in the relationship, and she is likely to try to fix the perceived problem by talking to the man about it.

He may or may not get what she is talking about, and he may or may not appreciate her efforts to be the “keeper” of the relationship. If he dismisses what she is saying and tunes her out, or worse yet, accuses her of “being too sensitive” or “seeing problems where none exist,” things could get ugly.

Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading researchers of marriage and divorce, has found in his studies that men who listen to their women and let them take the lead in determining what the relationship needs in order to stay healthy are far less likely to end up divorced!

If you haven’t already done so, you may want to take a look at these other pages on the myths and challenges re: marriage and the four greatest predictors of divorce and how to do the opposite.