According to Dr. John Gray’s popular series of self-help relationship books, men and women struggle with one another in their relationships because they are from “different planets.”
One of our readers, Lizette, was curious about the validity of the claims made in Gray’s books. Specifically, she asked: What truth is there to Dr. John Gray’s (Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus) theory that men are like rubber bands?
Gray’s rubber band theory suggests that men have an intimacy cycle that functions like a rubber band: guys pull away from their partners until they reach a point at which they spring back. Gray claims that, “for most men, intimacy is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. They experience it, enjoy it and then become full. They need time and space to feel hungry again.” He suggests that this is a “normal, healthy” relationship cycle for men, and that their female partners should give them space when their guy feels the need to pull away – he suggests women get a pedicure or do some gardening to pass the time (he’s right ladies, all we need is a pedicure to replace an absent lover). According to Gray, women are allowed to contact their partners during this time, but he advises “speaking his language,” a strategy that involves appealing to his sense of being the expert by asking him for help or advice. Yikes!
Here are 3 reasons why you should be very wary of this advice:
1. Independence is not just for men
Attachment theory suggests that a good relationship is one in which partners are always comfortable turning to each other for support.1 It is, of course, important to maintain a sense of self in a relationship, but Gray’s advice does a disservice to both men and women. It implies that men need independence more than women and should not be required to meet the needs of their partners when they don’t feel like it. In reality, both men and women value independence equally.2 His advice also privileges the “male” way of being in a relationship, essentially telling women that if they want to be in a committed relationship with a man, then they simply need to accept being ignored and rejected when their guy feels like pulling away.
2. Focusing exclusively on gender differences limits our understanding of romantic relationships
Although we occasionally find that men’s and women’s approaches to, thoughts about, and behaviors in relationships differ in some respects, presenting men and women as being from different planets and speaking different languages is untrue and potentially damaging for relationships – it suggests that men and women cannot communicate with each other to solve issues, be equal partners, or both get their needs met in a relationship. Conversely, many researchers have presented the gender similarities hypothesis,3 which comes from theory that suggests men and women are in fact from the same planet (you may know it as “Earth”) and that most gender differences we do see are actually very small in magnitude.
3. Even if the “rubber band theory” were accurate (which it is not), Gray’s suggestion would ultimately harm relationships
Dr. John Gottman, a couples therapist and researcher (who actually has a legitimate Ph.D.), has found that one partner pulling away or shutting down is bad for relationships. He refers to this withdrawal as stonewalling and suggests that it is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” – the factors most predictive of break ups and divorce.4 According to Gottman, taking a break during an argument to cool down can be beneficial because it is counterproductive to discuss relationship issues when things get too heated. Stonewalling, however, is not beneficial for relationships. Although partners need to give each other space at times, emotional inexpression over time undermines relationship functioning; rather, it is creating a connection and engaging in positive events that promote relationship success.5
1Feeney, B. C., & Thrush, R. L. (2010). Relationship influences on exploration in adulthood: The characteristics and function of a secure base. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 51-76.
2Gabriel, S., & Gardner, W. L. (1999). Are there ‘his’ and ‘hers’ types of interdependence? The implications of gender differences in collective versus relational interdependence for affect, behavior, and cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(3), 642-655.
3Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581-592.
4Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, 60, 5-22.
5Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Processes, 41, 83-96.
Amy Muise – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Amy’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.
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