Do women have more practice and more interest in arguing than the male species?

Damian Whitworth

Damian Whitworth

In Gapun, a remote village in Papua New Guinea, women take a robust approach to arguing. In her new book, The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron reports an anthropologist's account of a dispute between a husband and wife after the woman fell through a hole in the rotten floor of their home and blamed him for shoddy workmanship.

He hit her with a piece of sugarcane, an unwise move that led her to threaten to slice him up with a machete and burn the home to the ground.

At this point he deemed it prudent to leave and she launched into a kros - a traditional angry tirade at a husband with the aim of everyone in the village hearing it. The fury can last 45 minutes, and the husband is expected to keep quiet.

This particular kros went: "You're a f**** rubbish man. You have built me a house that I just fall down in, you hit me on the arm with a piece of sugarcane! You f***** mother's ****!"

Such a domestic scene may be familiar to some readers, but for most of us arguing with our partners is not so explosive.

Human beings argue about everything from adultery to Zionism and do so in different styles, whether we are submissive, passive, aggressive, abusive, etc.

But are there differences between the sexes? US research into marital stress on the heart has thrown up a finding about "self-silence" during arguments. The research by Elaine D Eaker, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, found that more men than women bottled up their feelings during confrontations.

Tim Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, found indications that women's heart health is affected adversely by quarrels and men's when they feel they are losing control. There are clear indications, he says, that it is a male tactic to withdraw from arguments.

"Women are more often managers of relationship matters. Wives bring up and pursue things they want to change and husbands withdraw and pull back.

"The more of it a couple displays, the weaker their relationship future is."

John Gray, whose Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is one of the most successful self-help books of all time, says: "To avoid confrontation Martians may retire into their caves and never come out. This is like a cold war. They refuse to talk and nothing gets resolved."

Edward, 37, a freelance writer, says he uses "the withdrawal method". "I'm useless at arguing. I have things that bother me but when I finally say something I'll get asked for examples and I'll freeze. I don't recall them. I think women are more practised at arguing, or more interested."

Gray's thesis is that the differences and disagreements don't hurt so much as the ways in which we communicate them. "Most couples start out arguing about one thing and end up arguing about the way they are arguing." He says we need to remember that our partner objects not to what we are saying but how we are saying it.

Christine Northam, a counsellor with Relate, the marriage-counselling service, points to An Introduction to Family Therapy, by R Dallos and R Draper, which cautions that "despite differences, especially in the supposed concern that women have with feelings, analysis of everyday conversations does little to bear this out".

But Northam adds that in her many years of helping couples, the way men and women have been conditioned affects the way they argue and men have a greater tendency to withdraw. One popular phrase among psychologists is "the distancer and the pursuer", says Northam. "One of you wants to sort it and the other one backs off. That leads to a lot of tension and you end up not addressing what you need to be talking about.

"I talk with men who find it very difficult to engage with their feelings. Women say: 'He won't respond to me, he won't listen, he thinks he's right all the time.' Men have been socialised to think that they know what they are talking about. I know it's changing, but that's still around. Women get frustrated, hysterical, trying to get their point across because it seems to fall on dead ground. What they are saying is not being acknowledged and dealt with.

"Younger men tend to be more willing to engage with their feelings, keen to understand them and talk about them. Older men find it trickier."

She adds that women are also capable of the withdrawal technique. "They change the subject or rubbish it or cry."

Northam says "men tend to resort to aggression, whereas women are more manipulative and go on and on about a problem rather than being succinct. Men get angry and feel defensive and shameful quickly, then they get aggressive. In the worst-case scenario they get violent.

"All couple disagreements are about power and control: who's going to come out on the top. You have to be ever so grown up to start negotiating and that's what couple counselling is about."

She says men are also more prone not to take their partners' concerns seriously. "They say: 'She's going on again. Oh, here we go.' I'm afraid it is influenced by the way our parents were. We all like to think we are different but we are not. It stays inside you and the way you do emotions is learnt in your family. To look at them, understand them and then make a conscious decision to do it differently is very grown up."

Deborah Cameron, the Rupert Murdoch professor of language at the University of Oxford, believes the differences are overstated. "The idea that men and women differ fundamentally in the way they use language to communicate is a myth," she says. She is sceptical of research that examines what people say in staged situations, or relies on people to report on their own relationships.

She says people argue differently in different cultures and situations. The idea that there is no difference between the arguing styles of a woman in the West, her granny and a woman in a tribal village in Africa is "absolute rubbish".

"You can't generalise about men and women. Cultural differences are much bigger than gender differences." She is scathing of John Gray's work, which she says "is massively generalised and exaggerated".

While Cameron is probably right that it is hard to prove differences in a scientific way , it is also unlikely that anyone will ever be able to show conclusively that there are no differences. So as long as men and women argue, researchers and writers and psychobabblers will continue to argue about how they argue. - The Times News Service, London