Twenty-two years ago the book “Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus” hit the “Relationship Help” section of many bookstores. In this book author John Grey created controversy with his bold assertion that, in fact men and women were very different. The differences showed up, according to Dr. Grey, in very fundamental ways…. such as how communication happens, how needs are met, and how a feeling of “safety, security and stress reduction is achieved. In a recent interview, Dr. Grey elaborated on the differences between men and women in terms of stress reduction. He now claims female/male differences are due to the fact that men predominately reduce stress and feel secure by having optimal levels of the hormone “testosterone” available in their nervous system. In contrast to this, women achieve feelings of safety, security, and low stress when they have plenty of the hormone “oxytocin” on board. So, how does this work, and how does he know it is so? It makes sense, actually, when you think about it from an anthropological/sociological perspective
Testosterone and Oxytocin and how they function adaptively as hormones
Testosterone is a hormone produced in men and women, but it is generally produced in larger quantities in men. Testosterone is responsible for sex drive and aggression. It has been found to “flood” the endocrine system, particularly in men, when these men are involved in competitive and/or very “driven” and “goal oriented” activities. Too much testosterone can be a bad thing, obviously, and can lead to violent and “out of control” behavior. Testosterone is associated with anger and destruction. On the “plus” side, it has been postulated that evolutionarily speaking, optimal levels of testosterone in men are correlated with success on the “hunt” in “Hunter/ Gatherer” societies. In earlier days, successful hunting was essential for survival of the species. It could be argued that the men who were doing the hunting felt good, satisfied, and content, after a successful hunt, thus creating the desire to hunt again.
Oxytocin, in contrast to testosterone, is known as the “love” hormone or the bonding hormone. Women produce it in their bodies in order to facilitate bonding with newborn babies,. It is also released in other skin-to-skin contact situations. One can imagine, again in Hunter Gatherer societies, that the women spent a lot of time together in tribes where they found safety in numbers and hung out with other females to take care of the young. There is no doubt that oxytocin release feels good. We are, after all, social animals.
The Oxytocin/Testosterone Dance
It must be said, of course, that both men and women produce oxytocin and testosterone, and also that people vary widely as to how much of these hormones they produce. There are individual differences. John Grey simply suggests that men on the whole tend to “lead” with testosterone, while women are more prone to “lead” with oxytocin. It’s important to note though “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” was first published in 1992. In the book, Dr. Grey outlines the “dance” between men and women as a paradigm where the woman is at home with young children, soaking up the “oxytocin” with her children, but also becoming exhausted with childcare, and wanting to “bond” with her husband when he gets home. She needs the same feeling with him she was able to get with her children…but probably needs a more “adult” version than she can get from young children. When her husband gets home, she pursues him, in Greys Scenario, and begs him to cuddle and bond with her and the children. She wants to enfold her husband with the family oxytocin…and talk through feelings, ECT…. in order to feel more “connected” and secure
“Hubby,” on the other hand, according to Dr. Grey, has just had a full, and probably competitive day at work. He may be feeling low levels of testosterone because he has not been successful in his projects or maybe he has been criticized or “put down”. He may feel insecure and incompetent. It is at this point, suggests Dr. Grey, that “Hubby” may need to temporarily “retreat”…to what has been jokingly called his “man cave”…to replenish his testosterone. He might, for example need to work on projects or hobbies. The argument is, that he needs to have this replenishment time, before he can be available to soak up the oxytocin and bond with wife and family.
The problem is, of course that this testosterone/oxytocin dance belongs to 1992…or even before that. (I would argue)
What About The Intimacy Oxytocin/Testosterone Dance In 2014?
Ok…. so I think we can all agree that the world of work and family life is much different now. Family Life/work/ balance is a matter of how to more evenly share work and family responsibilities between both partners, even in “same sex” couples. Generally, everyone wants things to feel “fair”. If not, anger and resentment can quickly build. The reality is that the majority of adults in households with or without children actually do work in our modern society. (Statistics would bear this out) The “dance” therefore needs to be reworked with a new set of assumptions, new steps, and more careful communication than ever before. It seems to me that the essential question that needs to be asked of each “partner” in the modern “Intimacy dance” is: “What is your particular “internal” balance in terms of how much Oxytocin you need to feel bonded, and secure with an intimate partner? When do you need this “skin to skin” and “eye to eye contact? “ What are your most vulnerable times of the day, for example?
Second Question: “What are your testosterone needs? Do you, (regardless of your sexual identity or orientation) need to work on projects at or away from home that make you feel competent and successful before you can cuddle? Here’s another example: “Do you need your partner to admire your ability to “fix” things around the house, (or anywhere else for that matter) so that you can feel that satisfying surge of testosterone?
Self-knowledge/Communication Is The Key
I like to think of creating and building sustained intimate relationships as an on going co-creative process between any two people who actually have a desire for such a relationship. I don’t think it matters in the least if we are talking about heterosexual or “same sex” couples. The responsibility is equally shared, I think, and entails the ability to know and communicate who you are and what you need…even as you understand deeply the different perspective and needs of your partner. You will not be exactly the same as your “partner”, nor will you or your “partner “remain exactly the same over time. Furthermore, your particular “partnership” mix of oxytocin/testosterone will not be the same as the one you see in any other partnership. We are all beautifully unique that way.
So….Enjoy The Dance!!!
What is left to say except…. do not be afraid to explore and participate in the dance! Be alert to the subtle changes in yourself and your partner that mean you need to change the steps, learn new steps, or change the “leader/follower” paradigm. The ability to make the necessary changes is what will keep your relationship alive and vital. It’s the Art of The Dance…. and the key to lasting joy and satisfaction.