I've spent some time in the last couple of months reading "Men are from Mars/Women are from Venus," as suggested to me by various people. I have not yet finished the entire book, but I wanted to present my thoughts on what I've said so far.
First let me say what I like about the book. First and foremost, it is a book that encourages spouses to get along. It tells men and women to listen to their mates, to forgive, to be gracious and understanding, supportive and accepting. These qualities, when they play out well n real-life circumstances are laudable and form the framework for success in any relationship. So there is little doubt in my mind that if people follow the advice in this book they will learn to get along with their spouses for a good portion of the time.
That being said, from what I have read there is little evidence actually based on scholarly research that supports his views on men and women being in any way biological. The author apparently got his doctorate from a since debunked university, which was shut down for practically giving out doctorates to people online. His views take established stereotypes and validates them as natural and even necessary, innate differences between men and women. Psychological research has not found this to be the case. John Gray's conclusions are at best a personal leaning about a somewhat uncertain subject in the battle between nature and nurture. There are often biological factors for different personalities and activities, but science has not found any of those factors to necessarily be linked to gender. Thus Gray lands on the side of nature, whilst giving sociological influences (nurture) only a cursory nod.
Here's the essential dilemma and the crucial difference between Gray's biological approach and a more plausible sociological approach: if our gender stereotypes are indeed natural and necessary, then it is only reasonable that we accept them, understand them, and validate them. Gray's approach does just that, encouraging couples to respect their differences and listen to each other in light of an understanding of those differences instead of expecting each other to be more like them. A sociological understanding would suggest to us that the factors involved in our stereotypical habits are external, and can therefore be changed by a change in mental awareness and modifying external factors in helpful ways. In short, the biological approach, though encouraging forgiveness, gentleness and understanding, leaves little room for change and personal growth. A sociological approach, I would argue, need not dispense with the forgiveness and understanding - recognizing that it is difficult for anyone to rise above centuries of socialized behaviors - but also encourages men and women to strive to become better people.
Let's take a couple of stereotypical examples. When I read Mars/Venus, I find it difficult not to sneer at some of the examples he uses for both men and women. His women are whining, complaining, needy, dependent nagging housewives with no control over their emotions who need constant validation and have little self-esteem. His men are lazy, distant, selfish, easily offended, egotists, who require constant admiration and have no feelings. This is, of course, a caricature of Gray's depiction, but as caricatures go, true to form. In Gray's view, these character failings are not failings at all, but rather are natural outcomes of the differences between men and women, and the only solution is to accept them, understand them, and try our best to modify our behavior just enough to leave room for them.
Take, for instance, a woman's tendency to complain. John Gray claims that a woman needs to complain about her day. That in order to feel better, she needs to talk about all her problems and complaints to someone who will listen. A man, he says, will take these complaints as accusations that he is not doing enough to make her happy, and will either get defensive or try to fix the problem, which is supposedly not what she wants.
I find this example frustrating, because what we have here is a problem of a woman complaining too much. Let's give some leeway to women who may be sociologically engineered to talk more than men. Talk away. Talk abut your day. Talk about all the things that interest you and all that was important or meaningful during your day. But if it is mostly complaining, this is what most of the world would call a character flaw. I cannot believe that it is natural and necessary to complain about things. In fact, I believe very strongly that it is counterproductive, stress-inducing, and habit-forming, to complain frequently. Someone who complains a lot, whether male or female, has simply not listened to the simple ancient wisdom that says "look on the bright side." Complaining, might feel like a release for a moment, but people who complain almost always find more to complain about and very soon. This is not a natural activity based on biological needs, this is a bad habit and needs to be changed.
The stereotypes for men have the same issue at heart. Gray claims they are natural, biological needs, when they are really bad habits. He claims that men need to escape into their cave to deal with their problems. They have to become distant and unresponsive in order to sift through their dilemmas. Like a woman's sociological tendency to talk a lot, a man's tendency to escape and deal with things inwardly is not a bad thing in and of itself. Giving some leeway for these sociological tendencies, lets say, "sure," Let your wife know that you need some space for a moment, go and think, have some alone time, process inwardly for a while. But Gray expands this idea into what I believe is a simple habit of laziness. A man, he says, will stay in the cave as long as he has not found an answer to his problems, and he will often need to take a break from thinking and just watch sports, turning his attention to other problems to distract from the his own problems which he is having trouble solving. Thus turning the stereotypical behavior of the unresponsive, uncaring, sports-obsessed man into a biological need. The solution in Mars/Venus is for women to allow him to retreat into his cave, watch sports, work on projects... ignore her... and be there ready for when he comes out.
First of all, I personally enjoy dealing with problems inwardly, and I think there is nothing wrong with that. I also believe that anyone, man or woman, who prefers to deal with problems outwardly, should be validated in that pursuit. But just like complaining about your problems is a bad habit, so is avoiding them. Distraction may help you feel better for a while, but allowed to continue unchecked, you could be distracting yourself for the rest of your life. If you have to process inwardly, go process inwardly (and let your spouse know what you're doing), but distracting yourself, though it might feel good for a moment, is not solving the problem nor will it lead you to a solution. If you are avoiding problems, you are feeding into a cycle just as much as someone who merely complains about them. If you must talk about problems, talk about them constructively. If you must retreat to solve your problems, use that retreat to really focus on solutions. Otherwise, our stereotypical man is just feeding into the bad habits that are expected of him (ignoring his wife).
This is really just a taste, and I might write more later. But that is the gist of it. I wish to contend that men and women in relationships should both strive to be better: better communicators, better people, better spouses. Most of Gray's examples of miscommunication, which he claims are different languages, are just people communicating badly, who should be taught to communicate better.