One of my feet is planted firmly in the era of Father Knows Best. My parents married in 1953, just days after graduating from college. When their kids were young, my father made the money, my mother the meals. He left home each morning; she stayed home all day. Thus, I got a taste of the traditional American family that in some circles is so lovingly remembered today.
But as I came of age in the early 1970s, I found myself stepping into a fresh, feminist world. My mother returned to graduate school, then launched her career. My female classmates competed with me for grades and jobs, and often won.
It was in the echo of this era that I met my wife, Kelly Flood. We crossed paths on the job in 1983, both in our mid-20s. I was lured by her smile and optimism. Our differences in personality and family background made for a tumultuous courtship. But something told us not to give up, and after four years of struggle, we pledged ourselves to each other for life.
And then our troubles really began.
I remember a particularly rude awakening in the first year of our marriage. The bedside clock blazed 3:02 a.m., but it was Kelly who was in a state of alarm. Pushing at my shoulder, I heard her say: “We’ve got to talk right now.” It was the third night in a row she’d awakened me this way. As before, she was sitting back against the headboard, sheet pulled to her waist, eyes gleaming like headlights. Then she spoke: “I realize now that we have to get divorced.” She paused. “The sooner the better.”
I have never been a morning person. But I tried nonetheless to catch on to the rhythm of this conversation. Yes, we’re having problems, I thought to myself. We’d been sex-less for weeks. Finances were tight. And worst of all, I was not meeting her standards of affection; cuddling, hand-holding, and little nothings did not come readily from the married me.
Despite my haze, I knew that my response in that bed would be momentous. And so I paused before I launched. “It may be so,” Kelly remembers me finally saying. “It may be that we’ve made a huge mistake. It may be that our life together is over. But”—and here is where I got to the crux of my response—“I am not going to talk about it right now. I’m not going to talk about something this important in the middle of the night.”
Then I dove back into the mattress, and fell asleep.
Nineteen years of marriage later, Kelly and I can look back and smile at that moment. We can also see that it reflects some fundamental differences in the ways that men and women tend to view their relationships.
Over the past three years, I have traveled the country talking with scores of American husbands for my new book, VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think about Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment (Simon & Schuster). In these conversations—which often lasted three hours or longer—I asked each man about the differences he saw in the way he and his wife expressed love in their relationship. And those differences, in many cases, were sweeping.
First, while the female style of loving seems to emphasize sharing feelings, the masculine style focuses on sharing space. The husbands I interviewed recalled “intimate times” with their wives when they were hiking, camping, fishing, kayaking, walking, or running together. While conversations might break out during these space-sharing times, men said, talking was not the point.
Space-sharing has been central to male experience throughout history. In most human communities, past and present, men have been positioned at the perimeter, protecting and hunting, while women have been placed in the center, talking and nurturing. Men in our societies were (and often still are) rewarded for being quiet, stoic, and spatially adept. It’s no wonder that these are the traits that men still tend to act out in their relationships.
Overlapping with this first element, the second element of the masculine style of loving involves the use of words. While the female style of loving stresses talking as a way of improving one’s relationship, the male style emphasizes doing something to improve it.
Husbands said that in most cases their actions said more than their words. One husband said he expresses his love by filling up his wife’s car with gas and taking it to the mechanic for oil changes. Another husband spoke of expressing his love by planning surprise weekend get-aways with his wife. One man leaves chocolates on his wife’s pillow. Another draws a bath for his wife when she returns from a hard day at work.
To men, loving actions can even be mundane. A retired editor, married ten years, told me that he felt closest to his wife every Tuesday afternoon. That’s when he gathers together the household recycling—plastic, glass, newspaper, corrugated cardboard—and places it in boxes on the front lawn to be taken away. His wife is a passionate environmentalist, but can no longer carry heavy loads. So by handling the recycling, this husband says, he is doing something that pleases her. In his words, this man believes loving is “about deeds, not creeds. . . . What men do is often very deep, and reflects a devotion that they can’t express in words.”
I particularly relate to this component of the masculine style of loving. As was evident when Kelly woke me up several nights in a row to talk about our relationship, I resist such conversations. And even all these years later, I tend not to express my love in words. For me, creating a backyard garden for Kelly’s enjoyment, picking up her dry cleaning, and giving massages are my way of expressing love.
The third major component of the masculine style of loving has to do with eye contact. While women’s way of loving tends to focus on face-to-face time, the masculine way emphasizes side-by-side experiences.
Many men I interviewed named among their closest marital moments leisurely time spent with their wives, side-by-side, in the front seat of a car. One man, married more than thirty years, explained why he likes road trips: “We can talk. We can be quiet. . . . There’s no pressure to be there, and no one’s going away.”
This man admitted to being uncomfortable when his wife approached him for face-to-face conversations about relationship issues. It reminded him of when he was a child and his mother lectured him about his behavior. However, pack up the car and hit the road, and the conversations are not nearly as threatening. “Her eyes aren’t boring in on me,” he said.
Indeed, eye contact has a very different meaning in the male community than it does for most women. While females express intimacy by holding eye contact with each other, among men direct eye contact may be construed as a challenge.
So men and women tend to practice love in different ways. But this doesn’t mean they have to clash over the differences. The husbands I spoke with said that their marriages almost always improved at the point when they and their wives decided to accept their different styles rather than fight about them. And, the men added, it took a conscious decision to do so.
Since my wake-up call nineteen years ago, Kelly and I have grappled with our physical needs, spending habits, household chores, and a laundry list of other differences and disagreements. Some of these issues could actually be labeled as “solved.” The great majority of them have resulted in hopeful accommodations, wobbly compromises, and agreements to disagree. We consider our marriage a success.
During the research for my book, I was reassured that most marriages succeed on similar foundations—and 93 percent of husbands said that, if given the chance, they’d marry the same woman again.
Adapted with permission from VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Wives, Their Marriages, Sex, Housework, and Commitment (Simon & Schuster), © 2006 by Neil Chethik. (www.VoiceMaleBook.com)
- VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Wives, Their Marriages, Sex, Housework, and Commitment. By Neil Chethik. Simon & Schuster, 2006. (Amazon.com)
- Neil Chethik’s website.Features selected survey results from the book and the author’s speaking schedule. (VoiceMaleBook.com)