John Gray on His Book, 'Why Mars and Venus Collide'

The author of 'Men are from Mars, Women from Venus' explains how men and women manage stress differently and what they can do for stress relief.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 04, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

After a stressful day, you need help at home. He just wants to chill. So while you prepare dinner, do the laundry, straighten up, and bathe the kids -- yet again -- he's watching the news. Meanwhile, you're getting angry.

Sound familiar? If so, you're like every other couple in America, says best-selling author John Gray (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus).

In his latest book, Why Mars and Venus Collide: Improving Relationships by Understanding How Men and Women Cope Differently with Stress , he describes the epidemic of stress plaguing us today -- and what men and women can do to meet in the middle for stress relief, while respecting gender differences.

WebMD recently spoke with Gray. Here's what he had to say:

Q. What are women's biggest complaints about their male partners today, and what are men's biggest complaints about their female partners?

A. The biggest complaints women have about men is that men don't listen, they stop being romantic, and they don't help out with chores. Men say that nothing they do is ever good enough.

Q. Everyone agrees that couples are all under a lot of stress these days. But are we really that different from other generations -- say, those who lived through world wars?

A. We are under the greatest stress that's ever been in recorded history. ... We live in a sea of stress, and it's a new cause that really goes unrecognized. Gradually, in the last century, more and more women have become co-providers. Never in history have women been the providers in a family situation. They were always the nurturers, the homemakers.

Q. Are women under more stress than men these days?

A. Women have twice as much stress. Cortisol levels (stress hormones) are twice as high when she walks into the house, because she's thinking about all the problems she has to solve and all the things she has to do.

Q. Why don't men just pitch in?

A. Men are not instinctively motivated to help out around the house. Men are motivated to do things that produce testosterone. As soon as testosterone is produced, they feel better and they have more energy.

Q. So they resist routine, which makes them passive?

A. A man says, "Only do what's necessary." I've seen very capable, dynamic single men who, once married to a very dynamic, capable woman, their whole passion starts to lessen. Their wives start handling everything and doing everything.

What I tell women, you have to start realizing that ... he can do it well and make a difference. If you allow him do it his way, it may not be perfect, but at least you're not doing everything. And your stress levels will go down. Elevated stress levels in women tend to be associated with feeling overwhelmed and for some women, also a desire for perfectionism.

Q. It means giving up perfection then?

A. Yes. When stress levels are low, everything doesn't have to be perfect. When stress levels are high, women tend to have low serotonin. The traditional symptom of low serotonin is depression. That's where perfectionism comes up -- it's the need for someone else's approval. That becomes extremely hard on a relationship.

Q. So it's a vicious cycle.

A. Exactly. And it feeds itself with stress. If there are 20 things on her "to do" list, she asks him to do five of those things. He says, "Sure. If that's going to make your life easier, I'll do those five things." Meanwhile, she has 15 things and he has five. While she's doing the 15 and he's doing the five, she adds five more things. He says, "I did all this and it didn't help at all. I didn't fix it or solve anything." So if a man comes along to help you, and you take on more things, why bother helping you? It doesn't seem to help.

Q. So how can a woman actually motivate a man to help?

A. I tell women to stop giving to him. Stop helping him. What women often do when they want more is to give more. [They] give men a lot of attention and do all sorts of things for him, even when they don't want to, because it's the loving thing to do. That's the big mistake. Instead, help him give to you more. When women are happy, that's when men feel happiest. When men feel successful in making a woman happy, men's stress levels go down.

What motivates a man is to feel like he did this project for her, so she could do what she really likes to do.

Q. What are some ways women can manage their own stress?

A. There are three stress-reducers for women. The general one is to do the things they love to do. The context of my book is to give women permission to support themselves first, knowing that that's even a greater gift to their partner.

Next, what a woman can do to get a man's support is to ask for a date [with this] simple request: "Honey, would you get tickets to this play? Would you pick a movie -- here are three I was thinking. Would you make dinner for me?" That's the romantic factor.

Two, ask for conversation. You can't have any intention of solving a problem with this conversation, but you say, "I'm so glad you're here. I just want to download my day to somebody, and it feels so good when I can do it with you." You have to be very clear. This is FYIO ("for your information only.") You say to him, "You don't have to say anything or do anything. Just look in my direction. I'll do it for 5 or 10 minutes and I promise you, it will really help. It will make me let go of my day."

The first time will seem really awkward, but [afterward] you need to say, "Wow, that really helped. Thanks for listening." Then walk into the other room, which eliminates the temptation for you to talk and the pressure for him to comment. That gives him an experience of just listening. And if he starts to say something, you say, "No, no, no, no! You don't have to say anything. You don't have to fix it."

The third thing is, once [a woman has] been doing all this, to [then] start asking him to do things for you in the domestic arena. Would you run this errand for me? [Ask him for] little projects that are more than what he normally does. But only when your stress levels are lower.

Q. What can men do?

A. The amygdala, the stress center of a man's brain, stimulates the production of dopamine, which gives men energy. When you're talking about problems, if he can't do anything about it, his energy levels start to drop. Knowing that he's solving your problem of stress will keep his energy up somewhat. But there's something that will keep his energy up even more, and that's eye movement. The way the brain is designed in a man is that the amygdala is hooked up to [both] the action center, which solves problems, and the visual center, which is to look. That's why men are much more visual when it comes to sexual attraction. Seeing new and different [things], seeing a challenge, seeing femininity, [all] stimulate energy in his brain much more than a woman's visual center. His whole fight-or-flight center is hooked to the visual cortex of the brain.

So when she's talking, he needs to stay attentive with his eyes. He needs to look into her eyes for a brief moment or two, then look to her cheeks, then slightly look to her nose, then slightly look to her mouth, then take in her whole face and her forehead. Then start over. The woman won't notice anything, but if he can continue doing that -- slightly moving his eyes -- he's selectively taking in more information from your face. It gives him something to do with his brain. It's literally like taking caffeine.

Q. Is this the reason men always look around when women talk to them?

A. You hit it right on the nail. I'm doing my very best, let's say, to be attentive to my wife and my three daughters. I'm in this restaurant and in my view, off to the left, is a TV set. There is no way I can listen to them in their conversation because that movement on the TV pulls my eyes and gives me energy -- unless I'm practicing this technique.

Q. Does this mean that listening is always going to be a problem for men?

A. It's the passive behavior. If I'm talking to you and we're solving a problem, I can look right at you very easily. My action cortex is being activated, which also stimulates dopamine production. But if I'm not actively doing something, my eyes will start wanting to look around. They're looking for action.

Q. What about encouraging romance?

A. Inertia sets into marriage and long-term dating relationships. The man will stop planning dates. Instead, he'll wait until Friday or Saturday night, and he'll ask his wife what she wants to do. He thinks he's being the most wonderful, loving partner he can imagine. Because in a man's mind, if she said, "What would you like to do?" and she said, "Whatever you want?" that would be great. That's what he would want, but what women are looking for is a man with a plan. She needs to know that someone is attending to her needs and taking action for her, so that's one less thing she has to do for herself.

Men don't understand that because men do whatever they want, basically. Particularly after a hard day at work [where] they've sacrificed and yielded their wishes all day long to make money for their family, now they're ready to come home and do what they want. He knows that earning money is a fire that he has to put out. But he does not realize that he has to be romantic. He doesn't understand that that is a necessity, as a major oxytocin-producing activity. And women don't want to ask for it, because they say that's not romantic. That's a hurdle that women have to overcome.

Show Sources

John Gray, author, Why Mars and Venus Collide: Improving Relationships by Understanding How Men and Women Cope Differently with Stress.

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