Sex Talk: Knowing How Males and Females Communicate Can Save Your Relationship

Even after 37 years together my wife and I often have difficulty communicating. She sometimes accuses me of not letting her finish her thought before I interrupt with my own ideas. I accuse her of talking so long I can’t figure out what point she’s trying to make. Although I don’t believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, our communication styles often feel like they are from different planets. We all remember Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady asking his friend Pickering, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” No one would really want the sexes to be more alike. What fun would that be? We would, though, like it if the other sex would communicate more clearly (i.e. more like the way we communicate).

There are reasons men and women communicate the way they do. Understanding how and why our communications differ can go a long way to helping us become better listeners and better speakers. What’s at stake? Just the survival of our relationships.  We know that approximately 50% of first marriages end in divorce and later marriages do even worse. Even in marriages that remain intact, communication often is miserable and can lead to irritability and anger, as well as depression and despair.

When I was preparing the chapter on male and female communication for my upcoming book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why The Best is Still to Come I learned a lot from John L. Locke, a linguistics professor at City University of New York. In his book, Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently he says, “The way we talk is not just driven by various cultural norms, but by deep seated, evolutionary-based, sex differences.”

He sums up the differences by saying that the male style of communication is more akin to a duel while the female style is more akin to a duet. One style isn’t better than another, but they serve different purposes. He points out that most studies of communication look at the different ways men and women communicate with each other. Locke points out that to understand our different styles, we need to observe the way men communicate with each other and the ways women communicate with other women.

“In birds and mammals, including the other primates,” says Locke, “sexually mature males are prone to contend with each other in highly public vocal displays that are aggressive or ‘agonistic’ in nature.” Men must compete for access to the most highly prized females.

He describes these male type communications as “duels.”

 “In many primate species, sexually mature females have an equally strong disposition to affiliate with other females in more private and intimate circumstances,” says Locke. Women often survived by supporting each other and connecting emotionally with female kin.

He describes these female type communications as “duets.”

 When men and women come together they often employ communication styles that are appropriate to their own sex and difficulties often arise. See if you recognize some of these male-type communication traits:

  • They interrupt each other.
  • They issue commands, threats, or boasts.
  • They resist each other’s demands.
  • They give information.
  • They heckle.
  • They tell jokes.
  • They try to top another’s story.
  • They insult or denigrate each other.

Likewise, consider these female-type communication traits:

  • They agree with other speakers.
  • They yield to other speakers.
  • They acknowledge points made by other speakers.
  • They try and be polite.
  • They cooperate.
  • They collaborate.
  • They empathize.
  • They listen.

Take a look at this hilarious communication conflict with a man and a woman: It’s Not About the Nail.”

Of course, as with all male/female differences, these aren’t totally separate categories. Many men communicate more towards the female style and many women more toward the male style. We don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that “all men communicate this way” and “all women communicate that way.”

Watching the political debates, I appreciated Hillary Clinton’s more masculine way of communicating, with her constant use of her right hand and arm to make her points. This was contrasted by the recent talk by President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, who was brought nearly to tears throughout his short introductory talk following his nomination.

These differences can help us accept our own gender-specific style and help us better understand the other sex. It’s helpful to reflect on our own style and that of our partner. It’s also helpful to learn to appreciate the way we communicate and also the way our partner communicates. We may also want to learn the sex talk style of the other. Becoming bi-lingual can go a long way towards keeping your relationship alive and well.

Jed Diamond, PhD, LCSW, is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live well throughout their lives. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives. Diamond’s new book, Stress Relief for Men: How to Use the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Healing to Live Well, brings together the wisdom accumulated in 40 years helping more than 20,000 men, women, and children.


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