In all my years as a Licensed Marriage Therapist, one issue derailed otherwise healthy couples more than any other. You probably think I’m going to say communication issues, right? Well, sort of. Communication ties into a deeper problem, which is this:
Most wives have no idea how men think, what they want, and how to make them feel loved. And most husbands are just as clueless about women.
This is because men and women have historically fulfilled very different roles. I don’t mean car mechanics versus nurses. I mean all the way back before history, the world as it was 10,000 years ago, when our brains were formed. Men and women are uniquely designed to support one another as long as both sides are working together. But when the sides don’t value each other, don’t understand each other, or don’t communicate effectively, the machine breaks down.
Today we’re going to discuss Evolutionary Psychology and the innate differences between men and women.
It’s all Greek to me
Despite its name, Evolutionary Psychology doesn’t necessarily equate to the evolution of species. Rather it borrows the principle that certain traits are helpful, and those traits tend to carry on in surviving populations, so over a long enough time period, most of the population will have those traits. In other words, humans reached our current status in the world by meticulous refinement, not by accident. Our species survived because our ancestors possessed traits conducive to survival, while those without helpful traits failed to pass on their genes. On this refinement, both atheist scientists and Catholic Popes have agreed.
Evolutionary Psychology teaches us many things about the masculine and feminine minds and how sexually dimorphic mental traits may have helped us survive as a species. Because our ancestors bred for these traits long before the dawn of written history, they are baked into our very DNA. Our brains have not had time to evolve past them just because we’ve learned to use more complex tools. At our core, we are still primitive beings with instincts and desires based on the original brutal world which shaped our ancestors’ mating choices.
In other words, the human mind is not meant for modern day, with endless conveniences and laws and safe cities. The human mind was designed and cultivated out in the wilds. Picture society as it was ten thousand years ago: Living in caves or huts, barely learning agriculture during the Neolithic Age a mere 10,000 years ago, fighting and hunting with spears and rocks. Think especially of the high infant mortality rates, which will play a key role as we move along in this discussion.
The old hunter-gatherer roles may have changed with the modern employment marketplace, but the impact of these old roles is still with us. Men are still shaped to be hunters, women are still shaped to be gatherers.
So let’s journey back 10,000 years to the dawn of agriculture
Man is first learning that the seeds he eats in fruit and poops out can grow into new plants, and if he drops those seeds in specific places on purpose, he can build a reliable food source instead of nomadic wandering following the herds. Women think this is a great idea because they can raise children in one settled location instead of dragging newborns through the cold.
How did the hunting-gathering lifestyle shape our species prior to agriculture?
As men hunted in the field, communication needed to be abrupt, laconic, and to the point.
“Mammoth coming. Run.”
“Stop biting my leg or I’ll club you.”
“Kill the guy with the big hat.”
Men tend to communicate in directive phrases: “Do this” or “Don’t that.” Information is kept on a need-to-know basis in order to handle the immediate situation, because snap decisions can mean life or death. Only the most relevant data needs to be shared and processed.
Men also think in terms of hierarchies. A hunt requires one unified team, and that means a single leader issuing direct orders which everyone follows without question. Throw ten men in a room for fifteen minutes and one of them will come out on top. Watch the little boys at the playground and you’ll see the natural leaders at work.
Confrontations needed to be brief and decisive. A hunt can turn into a disaster for the entire tribe if simmering resentment boils over and one man doesn’t act to help another man at a crucial point in the fight. You’ve seen little boys argue, beat each other up, and come out best friends. This is a natural processed baked into our DNA from the harsh world 10,000 years ago.
The male mind is specialized to hyper-focus into singular activities. Any wife who’s tried to get her husband’s attention knows men have a one-track mind. This feature likely developed to help men focus on the hunt or battle, focus on creating high-quality weapons and tools, and achieving efficiency in other tasks with life-or-death outcomes. You don’t want the carpenter building your house to have a thousand other things on his mind so that the flimsy roof collapses on your children in the middle of the night. You want him to obsess over building the perfect house until it’s done, then focus on building the perfect front door for defense.
As these men with directive communication, hierarchical thinking, abrupt confrontation skills, and a focused mentality applied their advantages in the wild, their offspring had a better chance of survival. They got the best food, maintained good social status, killed their enemies, and built the best houses to keep out the cold (and roaming tigers). Men without these features failed to provide for their families, and they died out. Enough variation remains that some men communicate better than others, but as a general average, this is how modern men still function.
Men also think in terms of expending resources. Sharing information and teaching skills to one another signifies a significant resource expenditure, and men tend to only teach others they consider worthy of teaching. And men begin explaining at the very bottom because they expect other men to say, “Yeah, I know this part, skip ahead a little”. Our modern political complaint about “mansplaining” misses this point, that men share basic information out of respect. Women would only speak the same way to a child, so the explanations are misconstrued as a lack of respect. And women won’t interrupt to say, “I know that part, you can jump ahead.”
Thus comes the modern man, designed to survive in a world ten-thousand years gone. To women, men look like grunting warthogs who charge at anything they don’t understand. Give a little boy a stick and he looks for someone to club over the head. Bend over in front of your husband to tie your shoe, and he turns into a slobbering animal.
What about the women?
Woman specialized in a different way, probably largely due to pregnancy and childbearing. One man can create a hundred children, given sufficient access to partners, but each woman can only create one child at a time (apart from infrequent aberrations such as twins). Pregnancy in the third trimester leads women to waddle like ducks (apologies to my darling wife), which makes them perfect prey for a hungry bear or lion.
Imagine a group of pregnant waddling women attacking a mammoth with spears and you’ll quickly see why men specialized into brutal areas while women specialized into safer areas. For the sake of the survival of the tribe, women had to be kept safe.
And child mortality rates 10,000 years ago were horrifically high. Wandering through the cold and fighting off bears, rival tribes, and mysterious illnesses robbed women of their children time and again. Psychologists study the mothers of modern-day Sierra Leone because infant mortality rates are so brutally high. Studies show the mothers there tend not to form strong emotional attachments to their babies within the first year because they just can’t handle the constant loss. That’s one glimpse into the horrors women endured 10,000 years ago, and why they still value warthog men over sensitive ones.
Women tend to crave security over other aspects. Women specialize in retaining as many resources as possible because the primal areas of their unconscious brain are always aware of the possibility of famine or disaster and the impact this might have on potential children. Their ancestral mothers survived because they possessed powerful instincts in this regard, and modern women possess the same innate strengths of planning and consideration of consequences.
One example is love and courtship. Research shows that men tend to fall in love incredibly fast, and fall out of love the slowest. Women tend to take their time and can pinpoint the moment they decided it was okay to love their husband. You see this reflected in romance novels and Hallmark movies, where the woman takes her time selecting a male, much like a female bird checking out a male bird’s nest to make sure it’s suitable. This careful decision-making is why, from the male perspective, women look like flighty birds. Anyone who’s observed a pregnant woman during her nesting phase will understand.
The rigors of raising children and doing a thousand other tasks at the same time led the female mind to specialize in dispersed focus, or multitasking. Supervising my three children for hours on end is exhausting to me as a man and leaves me frustrated that I can’t also get my work done, but my wife makes it look like a breeze as she also cleans, cooks, and carries on multiple conversations.
When it comes to communication, women tend to converse for several different reasons. They weren’t out on the front lines 10,000 years ago yelling “Run from the mammoth” or “Kill the guy with the big hat”. Our female ancestors likely stayed at home, piled with children they hoped to keep alive. This shaped female social skills in a unique way. Today, most women process their feelings aloud as their ancestors would have, sitting around in a group and sharing feelings to get multiple perspectives on issues and decide on a course together. This is why many times a woman does not actually know how she feels until she talks it through with a trusted confidant and realizes what’s at the heart of her concerns. But women also share their concerns simply to receive comfort from those around them and bond closer together without actually seeking a solution.
With the women sitting around together day after day, gathering and providing for the family in their own way, social harmony became extraordinarily important. Constant fighting and attacking each other would lead to strife and insecurity in the tribe, so women developed communication styles more suited to indirect sharing of wants and needs. They also don’t interrupt, demand, or bark orders unless the target is someone so far below them that they can do it with no social consequences. This is how women developed incredible social sensitivity not only to what’s being said, but also to what’s not being said. Today, one woman can hint at a desire she has, and every woman within a ten-mile radius knows exactly what she’s trying to say. Even strangers understand her. But her husband beside her misses the point entirely.
Women developed hierarchies of their own, but these are typically fluid and shifting, as are their alliances and connections. High infant and child mortality meant our female ancestors needed to make everything about the survival of their children. Women bond best with other women when there exists the possibility of mutual family support between them. Women competing over partners or resources will find it much harder to love or trust that other woman. This is why the cliché exists that a woman is more angry at her husband’s mistress than at her cheating husband: He’s just a slobbering warthog, but the other woman is a threat to the wife’s children. She might steal the warthog away and leave the family without a hunter. The fact that women can survive without a husband in the modern era does not matter in the slightest when her 10,000-year-old brain is screaming that a rival tribe or a famine could come and kill her children.
When women argue within their social circles, the emphasis is on non-direct confrontations so lasting damage is not done to either party, and to prevent other tribe members from reacting in horror. A woman who stood up from the weaving circle and clubbed her opponent to death would have been quickly ostracized from the rest of the tribe, whether her opponent was being nasty or not. Then her family would wither away and die without support. Those women went extinct, and socially adept women survived. We still have enough variation that some women are more aggressive than others, but there’s a reason female killers are so fascinating to us: It’s three standard deviations outside the realm of the typical female DNA.
Women tend to think relationally about things, whereas men think in concrete terms. Where a man will think, “This tool should go in the garage because tools go in the garage,” a woman might think, “This tool should go right here in the kitchen because my husband needs it a lot and shouldn’t have to walk to the garage.” Any couple who’s tried to arrange a household has likely encountered this problem.
Now, smash these two separate beings together and pray
When the attachment styles are perfectly healthy and the individuals are fully open and engaged with the explicit sharing of needs, the male-female partnership can be truly beautiful. All possible issues are addressed and prepared for. Men manage the outside of the family, women manage the inside. Neither is superior to the other. Both are vital and respected. Men tend to take the lead because they’re responding to existential threats from outside, while women hold power within the household as powerful organizers and nurturers.
The slightest issue in attachment, though, and this partnership can quickly spiral into disastrous misunderstanding and ongoing frustration.
Men communicate to teach or to convey a direct need for action. Women communicate to gather perspectives, receive comfort, and connect with others.
What this means is that each partner must learn to communicate in the style used by their spouse. If they don’t, they’re going to perceive their partner negatively. The only time a woman would speak to another woman as abruptly and directly as a man speaks would be if she was mad or being disrespectful. Women who don’t understand male communication can feel offended, hurt, or even oppressed because they’re assuming female motives. The only time a man would speak to another man as cautiously and evasively as a woman speaks is if that man has something to hide. Men who don’t understand female communication can feel suspicious, lost, or even disrespected because they’re assuming male motives.
One common example: Women asking their husband to help them to feel a certain way will be met with stares of bewilderment.
“I need you to help me feel loved.”
“What the heck does that mean?”
A woman who understands how men think and communicate, though, can increase their communication effectiveness with their husband to get their needs met. Asking for specific behaviors, for example, and providing a measure of required frequency and an explanation of the goal of those behaviors is likely to create a situation where the woman receives exactly what she wants. Many women won’t do this. They say it feels like she’s setting chores and treating her husband like a child, or that his behaviors won’t be genuine because he’s just following instructions. They are assigning female thinking to their husband and treating him the way they’d treat a woman.
The wife who recognizes that this is how men communicate, however, and who uses this directive communication style to get her needs met will have a husband who brags to other men about how easy she makes his life. If you treat your husband like a man instead of like a woman, you’ll both be happy.
Men using direct confrontation and directive language with their wives are likely to be met by a stony wall. Communicating with your wife the way you’d talk to another man is a sure road to disaster. She’ll picture you jabbing your finger into her chest and barking orders in her face, even if you’re not, because that’s how you’re making her feel. She’ll perceive your behavior as angry even if you’re not, because anger is the only reason a woman would speak to her like you’re speaking to her.
Husbands must learn to sit back and ask their wife’s opinion. Ask her to point out considerations you’ve missed. Do not push decisions onto her, but rather ask her advice on decisions and then ask if she’d like you to make the final decision.
Husbands would also be well served learning to ask their wife at the start of conversations, “Are you wanting me to help find a solution, or do you just want me to listen?” Whichever answer she gives serves as your guide for the rest of the conversation. The worst thing to do is shut down her quest for verbal connection by hammering out rigid solutions when all she wants is to share with you.
Each sex evolved to value different things which help them survive and fulfill their role in the family.
Despite social changes and awareness of gendered issues, our brains remain relics of the ancient past. Take this recent article from Forbes magazine discussing a survey:
“84% of working women told ForbesWoman and TheBump that staying home to raise children is a financial luxury they aspire to. What’s more, more than one in three resent their partner for not earning enough to make that dream a reality.“
The old hunter-gatherer roles are still baked into our DNA. Our old needs still exist, too.
Male decision making tends to be fast and performed individually. 10,000 years ago, a man needed to respond quickly during a hunt or battle. Men who stopped to deliberate or ask for opinions got trampled or speared out of the gene pool.
Women went the opposite way. Because they were always working together in a group with other women, usually their relatives, they gathered opinions and came to a group consensus on what to do. Making bad decisions makes you a liability, so no woman wanted to bear the blame if she stuck her neck out and was wrong.
Men and women: Have you ever experienced the battle over deciding where to eat dinner? Men tend to defer the decision to their wife in a show of care and respect. But the wife often perceives this as a huge burden. When if she chooses wrong and he hates the meal? Most women will get analysis paralysis at their options and say, “I don’t know.” The husband will get frustrated and respond, “What do you mean, you don’t know? Just pick somewhere.” This makes the wife more flustered because now he’s annoyed at her, all because she wanted him to get a meal he’d enjoy. Soon both parties are confused and annoyed.
I counsel couples to do this: The husband narrows the choices down to two and specifies he would enjoy both, and the wife picks which one sounds best to her. This allows the husband to feel like he is caring for his wife by giving her a fun night out at her preferred place, and it removes the pressure from the wife because it was a group decision with no wrong answer.
The other answer for some couples is for the husband to simply pick and then check to make sure his wife likes the decision. This is better for couples with a more assertive female partner because many young (and/or insecure) female partners may feel pressured to agree every time without being honest.
Women tend to value men with higher assertiveness levels because these men are more likely to fight off attackers and produce children with high assertiveness. These are both extremely beneficial for a family. However, these more assertive men tend to take the lead and assume a dominant role. Modern gender theories tend to emphasize that partner dominance is dangerous and abusive. However, you can’t deny the DNA. Even the most feminist CEO still prefers an assertive male.
One key difference is dominance versus domineering. A dominant male partner assumes leadership with love for the family he’s leading. He listens to his advisor, his wife, and respects her input. He may even defer to her on internal family issues because that’s her primary domain. In return, he expects her to defer to him on external issues. This functions much the same as the two-king system of ancient Sparta, with one king at a time handling the military and one king handling domestic functions. Most men (and women) gravitate to this two-leader party system where the domestic leader defers to the military leader for survival of the entire group.
This concept mimics the traditional dominant male / submissive female roles except that the masculine is stuck on (external) military duty while the feminine is stuck on (internal) domestic duty. Husbands tend to focus outside the family on existential threats. This means earning money and protecting the family from tigers and villains. Wives tend to focus inside the family on internal and relational threats. This meaning nurturing their children and husband to feel emotionally secure, get good nutrition, and be safe from harm and disease. Modern gender theorists tend to disregard traditional female power, the “domestic king” in this scenario, as worthless and only view the external masculine role as valid. This creates tremendous tension for couples who genetically seek the traditional masculine/feminine pair-bond framework but feel they can’t have it because it’s inherently “evil”.
Male depression reveals the core need men experience. From all my years counseling, I learned two key components every depressed man faced: A lack of life purpose, or impotence related to accomplishing that mission. If a man didn’t have a mission or didn’t believe he could do it, he’d be crushed. Men need to fulfill their role on the outside of a family or they want to die.
Women were very different. Their depression tended to surround either feeling unloved, or feeling useless to the people they loved. Even female CEOs I treated needed to fulfill their role providing for the inside of a family. They felt torn between motherhood and work even if their husband did the lion’s share of chores at home, because their 10,000-year-old brain told them they were failing their core purpose in life. You can’t socially engineer away your DNA.
In marriage, wives report needing to feel loved. Husbands, though, reported needing to feel respected. This fits with the female/internal and male/external focus. Men would value respect from outside the family, and their wife respecting them in their home would signal to everyone outside that she, the person who knows that man better than anyone else, sees his innate value and has chosen to bond herself to him. Women value love because it means their husband will never abandon them or their children, thus avoiding that 10,000-year-old child mortality rate.
What this means for couples today
In practice, this looks like women wanting to be heard and valued. They want their husband to dote on them a little, expend resources on them to show they’re valuable (hello, diamond jewelry industry), and listen to their opinions as valued advisors. Men in turn value sexual availability in their wife which is her way of saying, “I FEEL SAFE AND SECURE WITH YOU AS THE PERFECT PROVIDER.”
But men also value a wife’s deference to the man’s leadership when it comes to the outside world. If a rival tribe raids the village, the husband doesn’t want to be arguing with his wife over whether or not she needs to leave the house. He wants a wife who obeys his leadership related to outside threats. He’s actually expecting her to relate to him the way other men relate to him: As a trusted leader. A wife’s submission about things outside the home is perceived by the husband to be her declaring him to be trustworthy and strong.
But women perceive this submission discussion the way they would view submission between two women. Women form alliances based on mutual sharing and respect. No woman is truly the boss of the other woman without full consent from the submissive party. Such a relationships would be wildly unbalanced and could lead to abuse.
In reality, both sides are right when it comes to healthy male-female pair-bonding. The man must learn to value his wife as a respected advisor and learn female communication methods to ensure she feels heard instead of trampled. And the wife must learn that her willing submission to her husband related to matter outside the home is one of the best signs she can provide that she trusts him, and provides an immense status boost to her husband outside their home by virtue of her willing consent. A woman who refuses to take her husband’s name, for example, is announcing to society at large that she’d rather stay her father’s daughter than shackle herself to this unworthy man’s legacy. Even if a man agrees to separate names, other men (and women) will perceive him as being weak because his wife has visibly rejected him.
The key here is willing consent. A woman must deem a man truly worthy of leadership. She must feel heard, which means he must actively seek out her counsel and respect her perspective. And he must provide stable leadership which enhances her world rather than threatening it.
This reality is baked into our DNA. Part of the problem is that modern gender theorists have twisted the meaning of internal and external roles. Broken family attachments have led women to not understand or trust men. Men seem like terrifying warthogs on a rampage. Women have to protect their children (or potential children) from these monsters. So women have taken over internal and external family roles. Men, in turn, feel left out in the cold. They’re distrusted by virtue of being men. They must rein in their natural instincts forged since the dawn of time. If they want female sexual approval and female love, they must consent to being treated like defective leaders. If his wife refuses to take his name, a man must applaud her bravery or be called an oppressor.
Maybe the old ways are worth a second look. As long as they’re informed by both parties and operate based on love and mutual respect.
Next, let’s take a look at how Evolutionary Psychology has shaped the two sex drives.
Male and female sexuality
Sex and its frequency is one of the primary arguments most couples have, and Evolutionary Psychology can be applied here as well. While sexuality is complex and includes many factors, the evolutionary principles in the unconscious mind cannot be ignored.
Male sexuality tends to revolve around the man’s likelihood of death balanced against the resource cost associated with providing for a family. Men typically have an ongoing sexual drive given over to situational arousal and visual stimulation. In short, a man sees something which reminds him of sex, his hyper-focused mind kicks in and focuses on sex, he becomes aroused, and he seeks the most acceptable way to manage his arousal.
“Hey, those two rocks look like boobs. Heh, boobs. Where’s my wife?”
In marriage, this means a husband becomes aroused, stampedes toward his wife like a warthog, and drags her to a secluded location for immediate interaction. It rarely occurs to the male mind that female sexuality could function any other way, and many husbands become confused when women don’t display immediate arousal in the same way.
Women, in turn, are often confused as to how men can be turned on just by seeing two rocks pushed together which kinda reminds them of breasts. Are men really so simple and gross?
Female sexuality tends to follow the previously described pattern of security and safety. 10,000 years ago every sexual act could lead to immediate pregnancy, which then meant nine months of increased resource requirements and, yes, waddling like a duck. Because of this, an ancient woman needed to make sure her children would be provided for, food would be brought to her, and safety for herself and her children could be assured. The man with emotional attachment to her and her children, the man who showed himself to have suitable fatherhood behaviors and nurturing mate-retention behaviors, symbolized the perfect opportunity to have surviving children. Thus, the man who was likely to stay, provide for the family, and protect the family caused the woman to become aroused toward him.
Sexual availability from the wife signals to the husband that she finds him attractive and wants to connect with him. Wives rejecting their husbands sexually sends a message to the man that she considers him unattractive, inferior, and unworthy of breeding.
Sharing emotional vulnerability with a woman signals that the husband trusts her and feels attached to her, so he is likely to stay with her and make the possibility of reproduction safe. Husbands pressuring their wives into constant sex when she isn’t aroused makes the woman feel that she’s viewed as a tool rather than a person, and may cause her to fear that he’s likely to find another woman more attractive or more available and thus abandon her and their children.
Women tend to shut down sexually when they feel no emotional security. Marital arguing, lack of emotional intimacy, and loss of support network can lead to female arousal concerns in a marriage.
Men tend to shut down emotionally when the environment feels too stressful to reliably provide resources for potential children. Loss of job, financial hardship, and mental health issues can lead to male arousal concerns in a marriage.
This struggle between intimacy through sex for men and sex inspired by intimacy for women is the source of many arguments for couples. Finding a balance through the explicit negotiation of needs is a direct way of resolving this required balance.
In marriage therapy, I often suggest that couples rebuilding their sex life schedule sexual activity a set number of times per week, perhaps even selecting two or three specific days or nights. Given this requirement, the partners then negotiate on how to make the activity pleasurable for both parties and build the greatest possible emotional intimacy.
A look at one example couple
Erin shares her sexual concerns with Craig.
“I was hurt by other people for so long, now I don’t know what I want. I’m afraid of being used and hurt again.”
Craig takes her hand. “I’d never do that to you, Erin.”
“I know.” She sniffles and wipes her nose with a tissue. “But I don’t know how to get over it. I can’t just jump straight into sex like you can.”
“Okay,” Craig says. “What do you need to help ease into sex and be comfortable with me?”
“Umm,” Erin thinks. “More time before. Kissing and holding hands. A date once a week would really help. We just don’t talk very much and I don’t know how you feel about me.”
“We can do that.”
“And some touching before. Non-sexual touching, like touching without a goal.”
Craig looks confused. “Without a goal? But the goal is sex.”
“Yeah, but,” Erin sighs. “I mean, touching that’s not sexual so I know you love me. That you don’t just want sex, you want me. Like, you want to be close to me personally, not just any woman.”
“Sure,” Craig says, still hesitant but warming to Erin’s way of thinking. “How much touching would help you, like how long?”
“What, you want to set a timer?” They both laugh together. “I don’t know. Like maybe ten minutes? It will take less if we’ve been on a date recently.”
“Got it,” Craig says. “I can do that.”
For more tips on increasing sexual connection between spouses check out my article How to Have WAY MORE SEX in your Marriage. And for more articles on marriage and attachment check out my list of Psychology articles.