July 2003

Melissa Roy

Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus

So, boys and girls, this month begins my investigation into a trio of self-help books on the topic of relationships (dating or marriage heterosexual relationships, that is). So, for the next three months you'll be getting information on books that address the issues of gender differences, give dating advice, and/or promise to help you find the perfect mate in no time flat. You'll also no doubt be getting a peek, since I did promise to be the "guinea pig" for these books, into my hopelessly nonexistent love life (although, based on past experiences, I can't say that I'm unhappy about that state of affairs at this point). In the cases where I can't apply the suggestions or test-drive the strategies myself, I might just be looking to some my friends (whose names will not even be mentioned in order to protect the...um...innocent) for reactions to these books since, as I'm sure most of you are well aware, romantic relationships seem to be a topic on which everyone has more than their two cents to throw into the pot.

I decided to start off with Dr. John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. I remember hearing about this book and seeing it all over the Barnes & Noble shelves even when it was first published in 1992, when I was (thankfully) much too young to be concerned with any of the torturous, painful, endlessly frustrating issues pertaining to gender differences and the havoc wreaked on relationships by these differences. Since then, particularly lately for some reason, I've been hearing about the book again nonstop from friends and acquaintances who have recently begun reading it. I suppose I can chalk this up to the fact that I'm now at the age where my friends are beginning to get engaged and married (and, I'd bet in most cases, subsequently divorced) and keep passing the book around to each other. In any case, I thought I'd better figure out what everybody kept talking about - I wouldn't want to be missing out on some great insight that would allow me to understand and communicate with men (and they with me) as if they weren't aliens.

After reading the book for this month's column, I came to one conclusion: I wasn't missing that insight by not reading this book.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that Dr. Gray probably has a great deal of insight into relationships, gleaned from many years of studying and counseling struggling couples. However, I believe that his advice is probably best shared and most effective in a personal and private setting where he can use his experience and knowledge on an individual basis without the irritating and, frankly, stupid metaphors that bring this book down. In other words, I wish the spaceship had docked and landed for good when Dr. Gray came up with his title.

Unfortunately, it didn't. He uses the metaphor of men and women as aliens throughout the book, most unfortunately in Chapter One, which has the same title as the book. He weaves a ridiculous story about men actually being aliens from Mars who see women (Venusians) through a telescope and immediately fall in love with them. They build a spaceship to fly to Venus, where they meet the women. There, men and women understand each other and live in harmony. Then, they decide to fly together to Earth, where the new planet's atmosphere causes them to have "selective amnesia" and they forget to appreciate one another's differences. First of all, if an author is going to make up a story on which to base the title of his book and from which to launch a series of chapters on gender differences, you'd think he'd put a little more thought into the detail. If I, as a reader, am going to accept this story - I'm going to need a little more information. Why did the Martians fall in love with the Venusians, and what made the Venusians accept them "with open arms"? If they were so happy on Venus "delighting in being together, doing things together, and sharing together" and living for years "in love and harmony," what on Earth (no pun intended) would make them want to leave? Secondly, I firmly believe that Dr. Gray lost any of his serious readers by beginning the book in that way. I felt as if I were reading a poorly written and poorly thought-out children's book and was practically laughing out loud.

Nonetheless, I trudged through. What I found when I did so is that the rest of the book was as much a disappointment to me as the first chapter because none of the information was revolutionary at this point in time. You really only need to read the chapter titles ("Mr. Fix-It and the Home Improvement Committee," "Men Go to Their Caves and Women Talk") to understand where Dr. Gray is going with the subject matter. As I read through the first few chapters, I also became concerned about something else: in pointing out the differences between men and women and advising his readers to basically just accept them carte blanche, that leaves little motivation for improvement on behalf of either partner. In other words, "that's just the way I am because I'm a man" or "that's a woman's prerogative" might as well become the mantra of people who read the book and don't know any better. On another note, I also found this book less than helpful because I'm not married. Dr. Gray assumes that people reading this book are married and have selected the partner who is appropriate for them, which we all know to be very rarely the case in modern society. If all differences and arguments are attributed to gender variances and poor communication, then what is to say that any one person is better suited to you than another? Dr. Gray offers no advice in learning how to distinguish between problems that are a result of the disparity between "styles" and "characteristics" of each gender and those that are a result of being poorly matched partners.

With that said, I will give Dr. Gray credit for his helpful suggestions on "How to Communicate Difficult Feelings" and "How to Ask for Support and Get It" in his last few chapters. These portions at least demonstrated some helpful suggestions that can apply to relationships between people both married and non-married and teach a valuable lesson in tailoring your message to your audience, which is an important concept throughout life, even outside the romantic arena. I can also forgive Dr. Gray somewhat in light of when this book was written. As I discussed in my introduction to this column, I believe that contemporary society is swamped on a daily basis, whether you read self-help books or not, by pop-culture psychology and everyone knows a little more about themselves and about relationships (or at least about the terminology pertaining to those things) than they did ten years ago. To his credit, he's written several books since then on this same topic that may not seem so juvenile and may take some basic knowledge of gender differences for granted so that he can move beyond the childish and basic information that this book conveys (hopefully he moved beyond the childish and basic metaphors, too...or at least explained them better). Maybe it would have been wiser on my part to start with the latest one and read backward.

In the end, I hesitate to recommend this book because I believe there are more worthwhile and contemporary texts out there at this point and because I have some serious concerns about what Dr. Gray's theories could mean for gender relationships if they were used exactly as he wrote them down, not to mention my concerns about stereotyping the genders to the point that Dr. Gray does. I don't believe in teaching people to make excuses for themselves based on any kind of circumstances, much less gender, and I believe that communicating and understanding people individually, not based on sex, is the real way to learn to love someone fully. But what do I know, right? We'll try to find out more about what other people know that I don't next month with a book of dating advice. See you then!

P.S. For any of you who enjoyed last month's column on Cheryl Richardson's "Life Makeovers" and picked up the book, I would also suggest going to her website at Cherylrichardson.com. Another life coach, Debbie Henry, read the column and sent me a note about the website, which has daily suggestions for making life changes beyond what the books offer, as well as many other resources. She also corrected some of my terminology: when I compared Richardson and Dr. Phil, suggesting that Richardson used some of "his" same terminology, Ms. Henry pointed out that Cheryl has been in the business much longer than Dr. Phil and so, if anything, he's using her stuff! Thanks, Debbie.

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray, PhD
Harper Collins
ISBN 006016848X
286 pages