What He's Really Thinking When You Fight
How to Fix It
But what does all of this mean? If men and women are fundamentally, biologically different, what do those differences mean for the ultimate fate of our relationships? Are Liz and Tim destined to retreat to their sex-specific behaviors and biologically informed brains, to glare angrily at each other over their grubby child? Hopefully not. While it's clear that many of our behaviors have their roots in our sex-specific biology, it's also clear that by understanding our differences and making a genuine attempt to learn from our partners' best coping techniques, we should be able to narrow the gap between us.
This is a lot easier than it sounds. New science shows that for all creatures with a nervous system, the experiences we have of the world around us change the very structure of our brains. If experience changes brain chemistry and structure, and if the brain is the source of all human behavior, then men and women can learn a great deal from each other, changing their own brains in profound ways. Instead of bumping up against the differences between us, we can learn from them. Indeed, many of the same differences that cause us conflict in relationships also cause us joy -- isn't the contrast between his rough cheek and your smooth one at least part of what makes kissing so delicious?
But this new research raises the possibility of whether we can't push this process one step further. If practicing the piano or gymnastics changes our brains so that we get better at those skills, might we not be able to change our brains as well by "practicing" the competencies of the other sex? A helpful skill women might cultivate is the ability to speak clearly and economically when communicating with others. Men, on the other hand, might cultivate the art of listening and observing the facial expressions and body language of the people with whom they negotiate or exchange ideas. If we were to practice empathy, we would no longer have to wonder at the vast chasm that separates us and could instead take advantage of the brain's natural plasticity to become more alike.
To some extent, this metamorphosis is already happening, as the opportunities for women become more like the ones available to men, and our experiences become more similar while our roles become more blurred. As we continue to learn from one another, and in that way become more like each other, I believe we make it possible to live up to our potential in the world and to communicate more effectively with our partners in love and work, instead of firing at each other across the trenches.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, February 2006.
Reprinted from the book Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget by Marianne J. Legato, MD, FACP, founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University and author of Eve's Rib and The Female Heart. Permission granted by Rodale Inc.