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He Said… She Said…

by Mary J. Simon, Psy.D.

“She’s trying to smother me!”
She: “Since I’ve been in this relationship I don’t know who I am anymore!”

Sound familiar? It seems that, especially in the area of relationships, men and women are quite different. There is no point in blaming yourself or your partner for the difficulties that these differences cause. If your goal is a good relationship, then it is critical that you understand these differences and learn constructive rather than destructive ways to communicate about and grow with them.

Why are we so different? The answer lies in our biology, developmental paths and cultural programming. Little boys are encouraged to give up the connection with their primary caretaker (usually the mother) in order to develop an autonomous sense of self. Little girls, on the other hand, are encouraged to stay in connection with mother and to develop their sense of self while in connection. The hazard for girls is that, although they maintain a strong sense of connection, their sense of self is often vague and weak. The ongoing cultural programming of men and women reinforces these developmental tendencies. Thus, men and women tend to enter adult relationships from very different emotional and psychological places.

A healthy relationship consists of two complete, well-defined “selves” in close connection with each other. Because of the above-mentioned realities, men most often have difficulty with the “self” aspect. Therefore, women are much more likely to exclaim, “I lost myself!” For any relationship to work, both parties need to work on their own growth edges, i.e., men on connection and women on developing their sense of self. For now we’ll look at the women’s part. (More men’s growth in a future issue.)

Let’s start by looking at the concept of boundaries, the metaphorical fences that defines and hold our sense of self. For the reasons stated above, women’s boundaries tend to look like a circle with large gaps.

Women often feel that the large gaps in the their boundaries allow others’ judgments and opinions (especially about how they “should” be) to enter and take over their inner space. These same gaps also result in the feeling that one’s energy can be pulled away to attend to others’ needs, feelings, and problems. Women usually feel powerless to do anything about either. When you don’t experience much sense of control over your personal space and your energy, it’s hard to hold onto a clear sense of your “Self’.

The growth task for many women, then, is to learn to develop a more intact boundary. It is like a cell membrane that can filter what comes and what goes out of one’s psychological space. Let’s call this space our private “circle”.

They need to pull the energy they have been using trying to fix, change or take (inappropriate) care of others back into their own circle. Then they need to use this energy to find and live by their own inner truth. All the while, of course, they need to maintain the connections that are so precious to them. This is a complex task and, of course, is easier said than done. This is a lifetime journey.