Some Differences Between Men and Women

We think and behave different for biological and psychological reasons, not just cultural ones  


Each sex has the same capacity to experience the pleasures and pains of romantic love. Women and men describe being in love in similar terms. This is surely as we would expect, since the deep impulses that give rise to love and the capacity to synthesize those impulses derive from our human nature; the potential for exaltation, transcendence, and transformation is not fundamentally altered by the accident of gender. In love we are more alike than different. Still, there are some important differences between women's and men's experiences of romantic love, particularly in the incidence of the different distortions to which love is prone.

The tapestry of an individual's love chronicles, his need for love, capacity for it, and specific vulnerabilities, is always woven of a complex mixture of social and psychological imperatives, penchants, and possibilities. Many of these are contingent on gender, and gender issues in turn have social and psychological, as well as biological, components. Although men and women face the same existential problems in life—death, aloneness, insufficiency, imperfection—they attempt to solve these problems in different ways and utilize love differently. Why? First, because there is a strong cultural component to love, and there are different cultural imperatives for the sexes. Second, the psychological development of each sex preordains different central problems and different strategies for resolving them. And finally, the ongoing cultural context locks in the pre-existing tendencies toward difference.

Because they are socialized in different ways, men and women tend to have different passionate quests—the passionate quest being that which constitutes the central psychological theme of a person's life. This passionate quest supplies the context for one's pursuit of self-realization, adventure, excitement, and, ultimately, transformation and even transcendence. The passionate quest is always a romance in the larger meaning of the word, but it is not always a quest for romantic love per se.

For women the passionate quest has usually been interpersonal, and has generally involved romantic love; for men it has more often been heroic, the pursuit of achievement or power. One might say that men tend to favor power over love and that women tend to achieve power through love. Socialization seems to be one of the factors that create the different dreams through which each sex shapes its narrative life.

A second, equally powerful source for these different modes of achieving self-realization resides in a child's earliest psychological development. The members of both sexes must struggle to organize a gender identity—by which I mean that each of us constructs a way of being in the world that is either feminine or masculine. Every person seeks to consolidate an inner psychological identity—one based by and large on an identification with the same-sex parent. (Sex of assignment, that "diagnosis" at birth of being either a boy or a girl, is so important that the individual most often identifies accordingly-even those "intersexed" individuals in whom sex of assignment is at variance with biological sex.)

For a girl, whose earliest identifications are with her mother—generally the primary caretaker—the task is in some ways more straightforward than it is for a boy. Most women feel the pull to duplicate the maternal identity by falling in love, pair-bonding, and literally becoming mothers. Love is experienced as part of the girl's destiny, the cornerstone of her feminine identity, and she learns firsthand how to achieve this destiny, growing up, as she does, by the side of her mother. The skills she seeks are psychological, the goal mutuality, the paradigm the nurturant mother. The major challenge to the primacy of romantic love in the female psyche has generally been maternal love, not a professional or work identity.

Just as the girl must establish a feminine identity, so too must the boy establish a masculine identity—at some point by disavowing his ties to the female world. In primitive societies initiation tests and ceremonies prepare for and signal the boy's accession to manhood; in more developed societies the boy enters the adult-male world chiefly through economic independence. Historically, this has often meant following in his father's footsteps—that is, taking the same kind of job, apprenticing to the same trade. Thus, in a sense, the boy's achievement of a "penile equivalence" with his father is marked by his assumption of the father's economic role, a line of continuity that reassures the son of his masculine identity at the same time that it equips him financially to repeat the parental pattern. For the male, then, love is not usually of the utmost importance in consolidating his identity. Generally, he must first seek affirmation of his masculinity through autonomous exploits. And such exploits continue to have priority, taking precedence over romantic love. (For the male, in contrast to the female, romantic love generally conflicts less with parental love than with the necessity for establishing his gender identity.)

One fundamental psychological difference between the sexes, then, appears to arise out of the fact that girls are raised by caretakers of the same sex, and boys aren't. Thus women, by virtue of having been nurtured by the same-sex parent, may achieve a feminine identity more easily than men achieve a masculine one. Not just the mother-infant pairing but the Oedipal triangle as well is different for the two sexes. These differences not only shape the content of the sexes' different passionate quests but also determine the discrepant psychological skills necessary for the journey, and are fundamental to the conscious and unconscious fantasies about the demons and guardian spirits who will be encountered along the way.

Women Search for Intimacy

As already suggested, life's central romance for many women appears to be the quest for an ideal love relationship. The rewards of this feminine quest are elegantly stated by Rachel Brownstein in her book Becoming a Heroine:

The marriage plot most novels depend on is about finding validation of one's uniqueness by being singled out among all other women by a man. The man's love is proof of the girl's value, and payment for it. Her search for perfect love through an incoherent, hostile wilderness of days is the plot that endows the aimless (life) with aim.

Brownstein, like many others, emphasizes the crucial distinction between the female search for feminine identity through intimacy and the male search for masculine identity through achievement.

It is in the problems a woman encounters in her amorous 'quest that the history of her psychological development is most clearly reflected. These problems can be seen in their purest form in romance novels—that enormously popular genre whose enduring appeal reveals the female appetite for romantic love. As shown in Janice A. Radway's study of the romance novel, the central plot generally revolves around the ability of a beautiful young woman to alter the cold and indifferent stance of the slightly menacing, withdrawn hero. The plots of these books, like those of fairy tales, recapitulate both the cultural directive that women seek romance and the major psychological barriers they must faced before brining that quest to a successful conclusion.

Radway describes the typical heroine as feisty, independent, and spirited—this, paradoxically, despite her ultimate goal of surrendering her autonomy to the powerful hero, of losing herself in a romantic union. The man who is sought is distinguished by his extremely masculine characteristics (a stallion of a man, like Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind); this preference is striking because it seems almost to preclude fulfillment of those desires for tender nurturance that are part of the central longings in love. In fact the natures of these two archetypes—fiery, independent heroine and powerful, aloof, even frightening hero—point to the same need: to separate the conscious experience of romantic love from its infantile origins. Apparently, for any of us, female or male, to identify with a romantic story, we must be reassured that the nurturance sought is of a different order from that offered by maternal love.

Fairy tales as well as romance novels are very revealing on the subject of the intersection of the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal struggles in female life. Bruno Bettelheim, in his classic study The Uses of Enchantment, points out the difference between girls' and boys' Oedipal problems as revealed in fairy tales.

What blocks the oedipal girl's uninterrupted blissful existence with Father is an older, ill-intentioned female (i.e. Mother). But since the little girl also wants very much to continue enjoying Mother's loving care, there is also a benevolent female in the past or background of the fairy tale, whose happy memory is kept intact, although she has become inoperative.

In other words, the girl splits her image of the mother into the good (pre-Oedipal) mother and the wicked stepmother. (Bettelheim notes how seldom fairy tales with a male protagonist and a wicked stepmother deal with Oedipal problems.) The girl's internal demons find symbolic expression in many fairy tales that focus on courtship and marriage. Such fairy tales depict the heroine as bound to the past, sometimes by means of an evil perpetrated on her by one or the other of her parents (or parent surrogates—witches, enchantresses, step-parents), until set free by love. Rapunzel is locked away in a tower by a wicked enchantress and awaits rescue by the prince. Cinderella, too, is in the clutches of her past, bound in service to her wicked stepmother. In these stories the girl's actual father, like her mother, is ineffectual (his ineffectuality has the advantage of providing a defense against any residual incestuous longings), and so her rescue must await the prince.

In real life, too, we are bound to and by our past, generally through the internalized images of our parents, which continue to exert an influence on our lives. Only when an internal psychological separation is finally achieved can the Oedipal constraints be symbolically overcome and love prevail. But whereas romance novels and fairy tales generally have happy endings, in real life even many relatively healthy women continue to suffer from unresolved aspects of Oedipal (and pre-Oedipal) conflicts.

Some women, as many observers have remarked, prefer nonsexual caresses and verbal reassurances of love and commitment to sexual ones. While this may perhaps reflect some biological difference between the sexes, it also suggests that such women have not fully escaped the threat posed by their own internalizations of nay-saying Oedipal mothers. Sexual inhibition may be the price some women pay for the shortcut they take by establishing selfhood through a headlong rush into romance, rather than through autonomous achievement and an integration of identifications with good and strong women into their own identity.

Moreover, in their refusal to confront the specter of female competition some women may be left with the nagging fear that another woman will intervene and steal away the beloved. Even women who are firmly ensconced in a love relationship often fear or anticipate its end without any external reason for doing so.

Women's preoccupation with pair-bonding and the fear of its disruption can perhaps best be understood in the context of specific features of the female Oedipal constellation. The fact that the girl relinquishes her first love object—her mother—in favor of her father has several important ramifications. First of all, in giving up her mother for her father she is giving up a love object whose feeling for her was unconditional and automatic, in favor of one whose love she must act to win. Moreover, she realizes that her mother, now her erotic rival, remains her major source of dependent gratification—a situation that intensifies her fears of retaliation. The fear of losing the dependence object (the mother) leads to a dread of loss of love and consequently of sustenance, a fear that is displaced from mother onto all subsequent love objects. This formulation of the problem emphasizes the girl's special vulnerability to the threats of the Oedipal period, when her rival is also still her much-needed caretaker—which might account for the prevalence of wicked stepmothers in fairy tales with female protagonists. But this formulation is in direct opposition to the classical one, in which the girl, already "castrated" and therefore having nothing to lose, is said to bypass Oedipal competition comparable to what the boy experiences. My interpretation is completely different from the classical one: competition is experienced differently, but, I believe, girls are more vulnerable to it, because their very sustenance is at risk.

To recapitulate: The girl's difficulty (fear of competition) at the threshold of the Oedipal period is reinforced by the consequences of her renunciation of her mother and simultaneous turn to her father. She feels that she has abandoned her mother for an uncertain substitute, and she fears retaliation. Further, the renunciation of her mother is felt as a loss. One could say that all heterosexual women have experienced the loss of their first love object without the hope of ultimately replacing her with someone similar (unlike the situation for men). This early loss (and fear of retribution), along with the threat of the loss of the new love object, appears to be at the core of the female's pervasive dread of losing love. In some women the fear is activated not by any slight on the part of a husband or a lover but by an adulterous impulse of her own. This dynamic, of an adulterous impulse leading to the fear of losing love, occurs so regularly among women that it seems to recapitulate some earlier confusion: did the girl renounce her mother, or was she rejected by her? For women, the lifelong problem seems to be uncertainty about achieving and conserving a love relationship.

Men Seek Achievement

Just as women's popular fiction appears to be preoccupied with romantic love, so men's appears to concentrate on the adventurous. Much of popular male fiction—which I have dubbed "herotica"—stresses the sexual, the heroic, and sometimes the cruel. (I would include here the work of writers such as Harold Robbins, Norman Mailer, and Eric van Lustbader.)

For men, the typical adventurous journey recounted in fairy tale and epic is a prelude to and an embodiment of the amorous quest; the male must establish his masculine identity before he is internally free to love. In the archetypal adventure the hero, alone, sets out somewhat innocently, unaware of the immense tests he will inevitably face. The hero, like the lover, is often looking for something lost—magic sword or Holy Grail (his full phallic strength, perhaps)—or he is bent on defeating an evil dragon or confronting other grave dangers (to self or country, king or maiden). The danger he faces is externalized. It is not Father who presents the problem but the dragon.

In real-life love, too, the lover encounters much that is strange, mysterious, even threatening and therefore exciting, on his journey. He, too, must test his mettle. In order to possess the Other, he must confront certain prohibitions and demons. But unlike the hero, whose demons are found in the external world, the lover's demons are frequently found to reside in his own unconscious. Just as the hero, confronted by external demons, draws on the magic of the sorcerer, so too the lover, whose demons are within, must fight using those internal resources that have been given him—positive identifications and the benevolent images of good parents—as a legacy of growing up.

Just as the heroine confronts and resolves certain basic psychological conflicts, so too does our hero. But the boy's inner psychological journey of separation, individuation, Oedipal thrust, and ultimate reunion is somewhat different from the girl's. The problem of obtaining nurturance does not appear to loom as large for men. And why should it? Women are socialized and psychologically groomed to give nurturance, men to receive it. The hero's problems have more to do with establishing his masculinity; with the potential threat of castration by another male, a father "competitor"; with devising strategies for defeating the father competitor and taking his place; and with the question of whether or not he is powerful enough to fulfill—fill up—a woman.

The nature of the male Oedipal conflict, and of the abiding male fears of competition and castration, are too well established to require more than brief note here. By and large, most psychoanalytic accounts of male-development focus on the boy's struggle with his father, as do the heroic accounts of male adventure. But one must also take into account the primary impact of the mother-son relationship at different points in the boy's development. Too often the female has been portrayed more as a prize than as a protagonist in the developmental process.

Two very different images of women run through male fantasy life: woman as temptress, seductress, femme fatale, and woman as nurturer, comforter, eternal mother. In the first category are images of the sirens, of the Bride of Darkness and the Whore of Babylon, of Medusa, Delilah, Carmen, and Cleopatra. In the second category are the Muses, Lady Luck, Beatrice, the pure Virgin, and Lotte, whom Werther first sees distributing bread to children. In Frank R. Stockton's short story "The Lady or the Tiger?" the hero's life hinges on whether his beloved is a loving, self-sacrificing woman who will try to save him by relinquishing him to another woman, or a serpent-woman who will let him go to his death rather than let another woman have him.

How is it that the bountiful, nurturant mother of childhood is so often imaginatively transformed into the serpent-woman, the emblematic kiss of death? Or, alternatively, how is it that so few men seem able to find satisfaction with one woman only? Just as the girl may have problems with the Oedipal father, and not just the Oedipal mother, so too does the boy's erotic development show the traces of tension with both Oedipal parents. The history of the boy's development as regards his mother is fairly complex. Freud, Homey, and, more recently, some of the French theorists have suggested that the first blow to the boy's narcissism is his inability to secure his mother's exclusive love. In other words, the boy's fear of his father and the threat of castration are not the only factors in the boy's renunciation of his mother. He withdraws his emotional investment in her also because he does not have the genital equipment to compete with his father. His sense is that his mother rejects him because his penis is too small, that he is altogether an inadequate replacement for his father. In essence the boy, like the girl, must renounce his libidinal tie to his mother, though for different reasons.

In order to compensate for anxieties about their masculine adequacy, men resort to power remedies. I use the term power in the sense of a set of impulses intended not just to defeat male competitors but also to control women, so as to ensure the availability of the source of gratification without jeopardizing independence. The man's control of the woman becomes a device compensating him for his childhood sense of inadequacy and inferiority vis-ˆ-vis both parents. Out of a need for revenge, the man reverses his infantile experience: he demands sexual and amorous fidelity while disavowing it himself.

The boy's original narcissistic wound is aggravated in adolescence by the hypersexuality of the adolescent male, whose female counterpart is generally not tormented by a comparable hormonal surge., The typical male adolescent experience is one of perpetual sexual arousal without an adequate outlet. This recapitulates the intensely non-gratifying situation of the Oedipal period and reawakens his feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis other men. Throughout life he can never be certain of a woman's sexual desire; it is not so evident as his erection. This sexual difference intensifies his doubts about the woman's feelings for him, giving him another reason to try to control her, body and soul.

The male's fear of (and anger at) the female stems from several developmental levels: fear of the pre-Oedipal mother of infancy, who both abandons and engulfs; of the phallic-narcissistic mother, who both confirms and denigrates masculinity; of the Oedipal mother, who cannot be fulfilled, who falsely seduces, rejects, and prefers the father. Out of these fears arises the male propensity to divorce romantic longing from sexual longing. Alternatively, some men protect themselves, either through overt domination of the beloved or through recourse to split-object triangles (concurrent involvements with two women).

By and large, women escape into love, whereas men fear being made vulnerable by love,. Women establish their feminine identity through loving, whereas men must be sure of their masculine identification before they can fall in love. Consequently, women often distort love in the direction of submission, men in the direction of dominance-though these distortions are not invariably gender-linked, individual psychology taking priority over cultural directives.

One of the most prominent differences between the sexes as regards love is that their capacity for it—and vulnerability to it—may well peak at different periods in the life cycle, a difference in timetables that is the result both of socialization and of discrepant object relations. Although the two sexes experience first love at about the same time, in adolescence or young adulthood, the subsequent pattern is often different. Men may be more vulnerable to the sorrows of first love, an experience that can be such a blow that it causes some men to withdraw from any subsequent emotional exposure, to avoid being hurt. In young adulthood women feel a great readiness and urgency to fall in love. Many young men, too, continue to be prone to love attacks, but other men may be willing to run the risks of romantic love again only in middle age or later. Inhibited in the search for love by fear of loss of either autonomy or power (or both), such men return to it only after repetitive conquests are finally perceived as empty, or the limits of achievement have been explored and have either confirmed masculine identity or found it wanting. While the appetite for romantic love, does not always abate in women, some opt in later adult life to seek the rewards of different pursuits, in particular motherhood or work. For many, these years offer the first opportunity to pursue power, to seek a different kind of identity consolidation and transcendence in the work of the mind or the imagination.