Nestled in a cozy cabin along the rugged Oregon coast, I pulled a blanket tight across my shoulders. Just a few feet away, behind a bolted bathroom door, my husband of one week was struggling valiantly with a severe case of 24-hour flu.
I knew that if Les really loved me, he would allow me to offer him comfort and sympathy. After all, I wanted to support him the way I expected him to support me. Instead, I was literally locked out of his suffering and feeling terribly dejected.
The next day, Les was restored to health and my doubts about our love for each other vanished. We now poured our energy into romantic honeymoon fun—riding horses along the beach, picnicking on the sand dunes, candlelight dinners. That is until the tables turned. This time, I was the one who awoke in the middle of the night with a burning fever. I groaned with the agony of an upset stomach—desperate for comfort—only to find that Les had tiptoed into another room, leaving me to suffer alone.
I didn't blame Les for passing the virus on to me, but I wanted to accuse him of not acting like a husband. After all, he wasn't there to hold my hand or hear my cries. My doubts about our marriage resurfaced.
Give Me Some Space
Was this the course of married life? Moving from agony to bliss and back again? Surely I had missed an important lesson in my premarital studies. Looking back on it, I must admit that I did. It took me most of our first year to see that this marital yo-yo was due in great part to my lack of understanding a fundamental difference between men and women.
I married Les, in part, because his strengths made up for my weaknesses. When I was discouraged, he was optimistic. When I was shy, he was bold. Being with him gave me a sense of completeness. But it took a dark night on our honeymoon to reveal that our differences could actually leave me feeling more confused than completed. I didn't realize that the differences I thought were strictly between Les and me were actually shared by most other couples.
There is a predictable difference between the sexes, and without this knowledge I had evaluated my husband's behavior according to my feminine standards. Admittedly, you'll always find exceptions. But research and experience generally point to this fundamental yet powerful distinction: in times of stress, men need more space while women desire closeness.
According to John Gray in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (HarperCollins), men, when faced with stress, become increasingly "focused and withdrawn" while women become increasingly "overwhelmed and emotionally involved." Men typically don't want to talk about their pressures or be held and comforted until they have first had time to themselves. Under pressure, they set out on a quest for space, while in similar circumstances a woman craves the reassurance of relational security.
Our honeymoon was my first real encounter with this fundamental difference. At the time it couldn't have been more baffling, but today it makes perfect sense. As a man, Les wanted space to "conquer" his illness. Once he achieved health, he was free to reconnect with me. For me, however, illness in either of us was another opportunity to strengthen our emotional bond; a chance to offer tenderness and support. That night on our honeymoon, as I lay moaning, Les gave me the gift of space not because he didn't care about me, but because he cared so much. In contrast, I interpreted his style of caring as cruelty.
The Love Barometer
Understanding the different ways men and women cope with stress was a major breakthrough for us. But it didn't completely bridge our gender gap. There was yet another fundamental difference we had to discover.
During our fourth or fifth month of marriage, I began wondering why Les wasn't as romantic as he used to be. Before we got married he planned exciting evenings, kissed me at stoplights, saved ticket stubs from our dates and even wrote tender love poems. But once we were married, his romantic side waned. It wasn't that he stopped his romantic ways altogether, but something was distinctly different. "Am I doing something wrong?" I wondered. "Is Les having doubts about our marriage?"
As it turned out, I wasn't the only one who thought things had changed. From Les's perspective, I was more happy-go-lucky before we crossed the threshold. And he was right. Back then, I felt good about our relationship and optimistic about the future. But soon after we married, I became more concerned about "our relationship." Without realizing it, I had relied on Les's romantic gestures to serve as a love barometer. As those outward demonstrations of love diminished, I mistakenly believed his love was disappearing.
I wanted to talk about it and process our feelings together. Not so with Les. My compulsion to talk about our marriage made him feel anxious, like he was failing as a husband. Les just wanted to get on with living as husband and wife.
The truth is that neither of us had really changed. The goal (marriage) that made Les especially romantic was met, so he felt that romance purely for the sake of romance—which I still valued—was no longer a priority. He had shifted his energies to building a stable home with a secure future. He couldn't have been happier with our new life together.
After a dozen years of marriage and after counseling hundreds of newlywed couples, I now realize that these "changes" weren't unique to us. The turbulence we experienced stemmed from the fact that men focus on achievement while women focus on experience.
Les, like the majority of men, focuses on future goals. He justifies a present activity by what it will accomplish in the future. He asks, "What good can this produce?" He likes words such as "progress" and "useful." He can be very patient doing romantic little things as long as they ultimately prove productive.
On the other hand, as a woman I focus on the feelings and activities of the present—for their own sake. I don't need a goal; it's enough to simply enjoy the moment. I read a book simply to experience the story, to allow it to change me. When Les reads a book, he is constantly gathering information for future projects. I like words like "connected" and "relational." I can be very patient doing romantic little things simply because doing them has its own value.
It took some time for us to learn of our gender differences—that men typically focus on autonomy and achievement while women tend to focus on connection and experience. And it has taken us even longer to value and appreciate those differences. And yet those differences, if heeded and accounted for, can become the source of greater intimacy.
On our one-year anniversary, Les and I returned to the same stretch of Oregon coast—this time minus the flu. And it was then that I began to give up my desire to eliminate our differences.
It was Les's idea that we pack a picnic lunch and drive three hours or so up the coast. This could be fun, I thought. We'll have time to talk as we drive and we can share the romance of the lazy day. But Les, now in graduate school, had a different idea. He brought along a taped lecture to listen to on our drive and a pack of flash cards so I could quiz him for his next exam. I felt a familiar sense of desperation. But a big part of cultivating love and intimacy is learning to accept and respect each other's differences, so I decided to take on this challenge.
Realizing that Les was one week into a stressful summer school course, I decided to get involved instead of trying to divert his attention from this uncompleted task. To my great surprise, sharing in his learning opened both of our spirits. By the time we reached our destination, I wasn't resenting Les for not being as romantic as he used to be. Instead, I was inspired by his strength of determination and vision for our shared future.
Recognizing a couple of fundamental differences between men and women allowed Les and me to avoid an ongoing battle between the sexes. In ways we never could have predicted, our differences—once appreciated and accepted on both sides—have made life better for each of us.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., is a marriage and family therapist and co-director of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. She and her husband, Les, are co-authors of several books, including Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts and Becoming Soul Mates (both published by Zondervan).
Copyright © 1996 by Christianity Today/MARRIAGE PARTNERSHIP magazine.