Recently I have had discussions with my husband and a close female friend of mine who is also married with children. We’ve been talking through the differences between the way men and women communicate and understand the world and relationships with other people. I’ve worked with a lot of men over the years and many of my closest friends have been men. I don’t have any brothers, since I have two sisters. Through both marriage and my friendships, I’ve noted that there’s always been a barrier in understanding between men and women. It’s a barrier that is very difficult to make clear to either sex. We often make parodies of it, fight about it, or ignore it.
This difference is most easily seen and understood in married life, but it also manifests between co-workers, friends, in ministry, and any other area where men and women interact. Many of the fights men and women have center around the same types of things and the difference in worldview, communication style, and understanding. This often reveals a barrier between a husband and the wife in how a particular topic or issue is approached or comprehended. The same is true in other interactions between men and women. In many cases, both parties acknowledge this gap in understanding and simply find a way to compromise without ever dealing with the gap itself.
The most common complaint women will make is about how they simply want to vent about a problem because women often work through things relationally or socially. We talk it out and in the process sort out the problem. Men on the other hand want to fix the problem since they are problem-solvers. The problem is, most problems women work through don’t have a clear solution and men are left trying to work against their nature through discipline and listen to their spouse, friend, co-worker, daughter, or sister work through the issue. While this is indeed a struggle–and an understandable one–in my mind, it doesn’t get to the issue of how the two sexes actually understand the world.
Men are global thinkers. They focus on the big picture. There are all of these things that need to be done and they are prioritized a certain way in order to fit into the whole. The hierarchy of importance is much larger for men than it often is for women. Our focus is usually smaller scale. We are more focused on the smaller tasks that are given to us. We focus on the relationships around us and if we have been asked to do a particular thing, we put our energy into doing it well. Men place value on the overall picture, while women value the work they may be doing on a smaller scale. It is why we are mothers and are primarily charged with the nurturing of souls and men are not. We are caretakers. We are able to focus on the smaller scale dimensions and not get lost in the big picture or the rest of the world “out there”. This would be detrimental to the souls and people in our care if all we thought about was “out there”.
These two world views fit together and are complementary when they are balanced properly and when a mutual respect and understanding of these differences is understood. More-often-than-not, we either don’t understand the differences or we forget them when conflict arises. I can only speak as a woman, but one of the most destructive things a man can do to a woman is minimize the tasks she has been given or taken on simply because they aren’t as important as X, Y, or Z. We don’t compare our tasks to everything else. If we did, then our tasks wouldn’t ever get done because we’d be too busy comparing what we are doing to everything else of more “importance.”
Why is this damaging? Men attach value on the things they see of most importance in order to achieve the big picture. If a woman minimizes the big picture and says it doesn’t matter, then a man is going to bristle because he knows it’s important. Women objectively get that the big picture matters, even if it isn’t our primary focus and mission. Men unfortunately minimize the “seemingly” smaller tasks of women quite often. I usually give men a pass since–although I get frustrated at times too–unlike much of modern feminism, I don’t view men as a threat, rival, or an enemy. I get we are different, but recently I started to consider why women have coined the term “mansplaining.” I don’t agree with where it’s roots lie, but I see at least part of the reasoning for it.
I suspect it comes out of this difference in understanding of the world and our missions. Men will inadvertently–or even intentionally, depending on the man–talk down to women who focus on the things they have said they will do or have been assigned to do that are a part of the big picture, but not the big picture itself. Men will solely focus and compare it to the “big picture” and minimize and even dismiss the work a woman is doing. Comparing our work to the big picture is almost always interpreted by women as a man dismissing our effort as useless or unimportant. He will tell us how everything else is more important and this is utterly irritating to a woman, because we also know that our part is of value. This is really destructive when a husband views his work as of more importance than what his stay-at-home wife is doing to raise their children. Both tasks have been assigned for the good of the family and are indispensable.
In a woman’s mind she is putting everything into and trying to do the task well, but has now been told that it’s not worth while. This typically illicits both anger and hurt in women. Husbands will do this to wives when a woman is struggling in a particular aspect of her vocation. Focus on the overall goal or picture is what they will tell us. That’s fine and good, but women aren’t wired to focus on the big picture all of the time. We are more detail oriented. We are more relationship oriented. We are focused on each individual task assigned to us. If we’ve been given a project, we will put our entire selves into it in order for it to be done well.
My husband struggles to understand why I will sometimes put off a chore around the house in order to spend quality time with our daughter. I will place that relationship before a chore because I see something that our daughter needs at an emotional level. My primary love language is also quality time. I’ve focused on my daughter’s individual needs over the overall goal of taking care of our home (big picture). He is correct that the chores need to get done, but oftentimes women instinctively know to place other human beings before a task that needs to be done. This may not always be the case, but it seems to be much easier for a woman to understand than a task-oriented man.
These same issues arise in the workplace and in ministry. There’s nothing like a meeting to reveal these differences in understanding. Women will focus on the relational, emotional (this can be good, but a lot of times not), or smaller tasks that are needed to achieve the whole. We are bottom up thinkers while men are top down thinkers. Women build up, while men go out and conquer. Scripture is very instructive here in that the women are often building up the men–that bottom up approach–while the men sort out how to go out into the world to bring the world to Christ. Women are called to do the same, but our approaches vary quite a bit. It’s also one of the aspects of masculinity that makes the all male priesthood instituted by Christ logically consistent to me.
This distinction between the sexes is extremely important for building and maintaining communion within the Mystical Body. Women cannot focus too much on the smaller tasks, the emotional response of other people, relational aspects, and the details too much or men are not going to respond or want to be active in a ministry run in that manner. The same is true for men in the way they respond to women. Telling a woman that what she’s offered to do is not important compared to everything else is destructive for morale. Women do not want to work in those conditions because they do not see their effort as being valuable to the men in the group. Even if men don’t mean it in that manner–although oftentimes they do–women will take it as a direct attack on her person. This is an innate aspect of our nature. We can’t help that our focus is where it is and so when we are told it’s not as important as something else–when it is important to us–we shut down. It’s difficult to want to keep helping if that help is seen as minor, when in reality, the small tasks help form the whole and the mission cannot be achieved without both the small picture and the big picture working together: Complementarity.
The solution is for both sexes to come to understand these differences and figure out a way to bridge that divide. Women need to acknowledge that the big picture is essential and to support the men in our lives through that goal. By the same token, men need to understand that in constantly comparing our “minor” tasks to the big picture they are in fact hurting the women in their lives. It is human nature to want to disengage when the value is taken away from our work. This isn’t some silly emotional response that men often simply attribute to the emotional nature of women or that we aren’t thick-skinned enough. This is in fact tied directly to our nature. If you minimize our efforts, then our response will be anger and hurt because you’ve directly attacked an aspect of our womanhood.
We are never going to fully understand one another on this issue, but if we are truly seeking communion in Christ through the Mystical Body whether it be in our marriages, friendships, parish communities, or our secular responsibilities, then we need to at least acknowledge that this difference in understanding exists and patiently try to find solutions that will appease both men and women. When conflicts do arise, we need to forgive quickly so that any damage done to that communion can be repaired as quickly as possible.