How Men Think: Myths And Facts

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Think females are more sensitive than males? Not so fast says clinical psychologist David B. Wexler, Ph.D. Yes, it's true that by the time boys become toddlers, they've already learned to suppress a show of feelings. But Wexler cites evidence that boys actually start out as more emotional (yes, more) than girls.

This made us wonder: What other misconceptions might women have about men? Of course, we've noticed that their heads swivel when a figure-eight female passes on the street; they seem to crave sports and all things competitive; and they loathe stopping to ask for directions even when they're undeniably lost. But what are the psychological, cultural and evolutionary underpinnings of these behaviors -- and might understanding what's behind their actions give women a shot at better communicating with the Mars set?

We think so. To really comprehend the "basic male code" and to uncover what women most often misunderstand about men, we called on two renowned experts in gender development: David Wexler, Ph.D., founder of the Relationship Training Institute in San Diego, and author of When Good Men Behave Badly, and Terrence Real, founder of the Relational Life Institute in Boston, and author of The New Rules of Marriage.

AOL Health: What do women most often misunderstand about men?

Wexler: Women often don't realize how much power they have in men's lives. A man is very sensitized to how he is viewed by the key women in his life -- his mother, his girlfriend, or his wife, for example. Many women don't understand how their level of approval or disapproval -- their look of love or disgust -- can deeply affect a man's sense of well-being, connection, and value. This is not a power that women necessarily seek out: Most women are not power freaks who want to control men. Rather, it's a power that women are stuck with. And yet the more that women realize this, the more it can sensitize them to why a man is reacting in a certain way. Women sometimes fall into criticizing a man's efforts by saying things like, "You're still not doing enough." That's a psychological buzz kill that discourages the man from becoming the man you would like him to be. But here's how she can use her power in a constructive way: Catch him doing something right. You might say, "I really appreciated how attentive you were at dinner tonight" or " It really means a lot to me to see how you're relating to the kids -- even though you were frustrated, I think you really handled it well." Those kinds of words just make a man swell up with pride -- and that's much more likely to bring about the desired result.

Real: If a woman ever wonders what her boyfriend or husband thinks when he looks at her, she can't go wrong if she imagines this: He sees her as an endless abyss of need. In general, men think that women are emotionally insatiable. The endless abyss of need scares men to death, because they fear that they'll never get the things they want. The secret about men is that that they feel powerless in their relationships. They think it's useless to ask a woman to care about what they want or need. So most guys either push women away or placate them.

But here's the thing that most men don't understand: They need as much as women do. They're just too stupid to know it, because they've been raised to believe that they don't have needs. Remember the male code: Need equals vulnerability. What does Superman need? What does the Terminator need? According to most men, needs are for chicks. But in reality, that's baloney. All humans, male and female, are endless abysses of need. So men need to feel appreciated, loved and desired.

If you figure that your man feels underappreciated, you'll be right 99.9 percent of the time. Men need to be appreciated for what they're doing right. A lot of women are long on complaint and short on appreciation -- and their complaints are clearly ineffective, because men keep doing whatever they've been doing. I want women to really shake things up and fight for what they want. How? First, rock the boat. If you give the guy a free pass, he'll take it. Let him know what's important to you, and make it clear that you're willing to make him uncomfortable if he doesn't change his ways. Second, break it down for him. If you want him to be more of an empathetic listener instead of going into problem-solving mode, for instance, say, "Honey, what you're saying doesn't work for me. This is the kind of listening that I like: 'You must feel terrible, I'm sorry.'" Don't wait for the guy to do it wrong and then criticize him; that's a stupid way to train somebody. Lastly, make it worth his while. If you ask him to be more romantic and he tells you that you look nice, don't respond with, "You're just saying that because I told you to." If your guy tries to please you, give him positive feedback. Give him the operating instructions on you, and then make him feel good about becoming an expert on the guidebook you've provided.

AOL Health: Why do men seem so obsessed with sports and competition?

Wexler: Whatever aggression is built into the male brain, psyche, and even DNA, sports and competition are relatively healthy ways for men to express that aggression. And they've been doing that since the beginning of recorded history, when the gladiators took the stage of the Roman Coliseum. Mostly for better and sometimes for worse, men use sports and play to channel aggression that might otherwise be destructive. And we know from both evolutionary and behavioral psychology that when a behavior works, it gets reinforced, repeated and included in humans' behavioral repertoire. So if a guy has an aggressive streak, and he plays or watches football to keep himself out of trouble, that becomes a functional behavior for him. Functional behaviors have staying power, which is why they become part of the social milieu.

Real: Actually, women are becoming just obsessed with sports as men are. Anyway, guys love sports because it gives them a sense of community. While sports are about competition, men don't primarily use sports to compete with other men; they use it to bond and share with other men. Yes, sports are a safe expression of aggression, but it's not really about aggression; it's about tribalism: "We Boston Red Sox beat the snot out of the Yankees, and everybody in Boston is a brother. Aren't we great?" In an us-versus-them scenario, it's our way of solidifying the us.

AOL Health: Are men hardwired with more aggressive tendencies than women have -- or are they just raised to be more aggressive?

Wexler: Both. From an evolutionary perspective, it came in handy for men to be able to fight and handle dangerous situations. So it's no wonder that male aggression has trickled down to our modern society. In addition, most cultures encourage men to be aggressive -- it's associated with classic definitions of masculinity. Testosterone is also a factor: Research shows that men engage in more aggressive, criminal behavior than women do; and young men tend to engage in more of this behavior than older men in their mid-20s, 30s, and 40s. There's a direct drop-off in aggression as men age, and while some of it is due to emotional maturity, it's clear that a lot of it is plain old testosterone-related.

Real: Men are absolutely not more aggressive than women -- they just express their aggression in a different way. It's true that testosterone leads to physical aggression. But Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees and Wannabes [on which the 2004 film Mean Girls is based] shows just how incredibly aggressive females can be -- yet it's more verbal and psychological than it is straight-up physical. That's because men are socialized to be direct with their aggression, and women are socialized to be indirect.

AOL Health: Why are men so visually stimulated?

Wexler: That capacity men have to size up a woman by her visually observable qualities made sense at one time in human history. There have been studies about the particular female shape and waist-to-hip ratio men most often find attractive -- and men originally used this as a measure because it allowed them to observe which women would be good child bearers. Over the years, that original function has been translated into a cultural preference for ample breasts, small waist, and curviness.

While men are visually stimulated, women usually need to feel a connection. They need romance. Visual input matters to women -- it just matters less than it does to men. In fact, neurological studies have proven that when men and women look at pictures of the opposite sex, different parts of their brains light up in response to the visual stimuli.

AOL Health: Are men really hardwired to seek out multiple sexual partners?

Wexler: That's a controversial question. Men are a somewhat hardwired to seek out multiple partners -- but that doesn't account for their decision to act on that impulse. There was a time when having more children meant having more laborers who could hunt wild boar. So yes, there's an evolutionary function for men spreading their seed, building a clan, and making themselves more powerful in their communities. But this idea is easily misused by modern men who claim, "I cannot help myself, I'm hardwired to seek out multiple partners." Humans are extremely capable of transcending things that we're somewhat hardwired to do. For instance, we all have aggressive impulses -- but mature people choose not to act on them in a destructive way. Likewise, men have lustful and promiscuous impulses, but plenty of men transcend those impulses and recognize the value and richness of a monogamous relationship.

AOL Health: For men, is it true that sex can be completely separate from love?

Wexler: Yes -- because men are capable of compartmentalizing. For men, the desire for sex is typically on a schedule, as in, "Okay, it has been three days, and now it's time," or "I need to have a sexual experience -- and if it's not with this woman, then I'll have it with another one." I don't know how much of that is social and how much of it is hardwired, but it definitely distinguishes men from women. The only counterpoint is that once men are in a relationship, they become softies. They are sensitive to the level of connection in the relationship, in the same way that women are. At that point, a man's sexuality is governed by how close he feels to his partner, and whether he feels safe, trusted, loving, and loved. So when it comes to the correlation between sex and love, the bonding experience really levels the playing field for men and women.

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Real: Men don't need a lot of emotional connection in order to be sexual. Here's the bottom line for a lot of men: Love is love, and sex is sex. Healthy men appreciate that sex with love is the best of both worlds.

AOL Health: Is it true that men hate asking for directions?

Wexler: Yes. One of the core qualities associated with masculinity is competence. That doesn't mean that girls and women don't care about being competent, but it's not quite as central to their identities as it to men's. The mere suggestion that a guy doesn't know where he's going is a direct threat to his sense of manhood. If he has to ask someone for directions, he also has to face what I call a "broken mirror" -- a reflection of himself that says, "You're needy. You're dependent. You're not fully successful." For many men, that's an intolerable reflection. Therefore, we men will do whatever we can to avoid putting ourselves in that situation. The pressure that men feel to be competent is somewhat hardwired, since there's an evolutionary function in men being able to think clearly and solve problems. And yet most of this behavior is the result of socialization.

Real: Most men hate asking for anything. Not knowing what you're doing is a sign of vulnerability. This doesn't just pertain to driving: Men also see going to the doctor as a sign of weakness. For at least fifty years, we've known that men drop dead at least 10 years earlier than women do. Everyone thinks this is biological. It's not: It's because men don't go to the doctor. Even when they do, they don't follow the doctor's advice. That's because taking directions, taking pills or taking care of himself are all signs to a guy that he might be vulnerable.

AOL Health: Are men really less emotional than women -- or are they just less emotionally expressive?

Wexler: Men are not less emotional than women -- they just express fewer emotions. Early childhood studies show that boys are actually more sensitive to feelings of danger, aloneness, disconnection and mother-child separation than girls are. Yet on some non-verbal, primitive level, boys learn to mask those feelings and to cope with their anxiety by developing the "I don't care" classic male persona. Though boys' core emotional vulnerability is equal to or even greater than that of girls, that vulnerability is streamlined out as a result of the cultural expectations that boys pick up on. Somewhere between ages three and five, they've already been socialized to be less emotionally expressive.

Real: Before boys learn to read, they've already read the basic male code: Men are not emotional. The more invulnerable you are, the more manly you are. That's why in my office every day, I see guys who are just awash of emotions and they have no idea what's happening. All the things boys learn about traditional masculinity -- to hold back emotions, to be tough, to act as if you don't care what others think -- are exactly the characteristics that make men bad husbands by today's standards. The essence of today's marriage is emotional intimacy: Women want men to share their feelings. So as a boy, you're taught not to have feelings -- and as a man, you're asked to share your feelings. There's a discrepancy between the code of masculinity and the new demands of adult relationships.

When a woman asks a man to express his feelings, I think she should have some empathy for the fact that this goes against everything the guy was trained to do. In fact, not only has the guy been trained to hold back feelings -- he has been taught to hold feelings in contempt. And yet I don't want women to give men a free pass. Yes, it's hard to express emotion -- but men still need to do it. Because you know what? As children, we're taught all sorts of things that we have to get over. So I'm asking men to step up, take a look at what they've been trained to do and then move beyond it.

Written by Michelle Burford for AOL Health