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Men and women argue differently...(no they don't... yes they do... no they don't... they damn well do!)


In Gapun, a remote village on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, the women take a robust approach to arguing. This is a word-for-word -- and blow-by-blow -- account of one such encounter, recorded by an eminent anthropologist.

It happened after a wife fell through a hole in the rotten floor of their home and blamed her husband for shoddy workmanship. He then hit her with a piece of sugar cane; an unwise move that led her to threaten to slice him up with a machete and burn the home down.

At this point, he deemed it prudent to leave and she launched into a kros -- a traditional angry tirade directed at a husband with the intention of it being heard by everyone in the village. The fury can last for up to 45 minutes, during which time the husband is expected to keep quiet.

This particular kros went along these lines: "You're a f****** rubbish man. You hear? Your f****** prick is full of maggots. Stone balls! F****** black prick! F****** grandfather prick! You have built me a good house that I just fall down in, you get up and hit me on the arm with a piece of sugar cane! 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 quite such an explosive business; except, perhaps, when discussing who is most responsible for a navigational hiccup on the way to lunch at the home of an old flame of our partner's, or getting to the bottom of who left the ****** ******* cap off the **** ******* toothpaste for the third ****** ******* time this ****** ******* week.

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

But are there any broad differences between the sexes in the way that we argue? US research into marital stress on the heart has thrown up an intriguing finding about the way some are prone to "self-silencing" during arguments. The research by Elaine D. Eaker, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, found that more men than women had a tendency to bottle up their feelings during confrontations with partners.

Tim Smith is a psychology professor at the University of Utah, whose own research has 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 in the role of the managers of relationship matters. They are often in the position of bringing up and pursuing things they would like to change. This is seen in wives making a request and pursuing it and husbands withdrawing and pulling 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, explains this male withdrawal process thus: "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."

Gray's thesis is that the differences between men and women don't hurt so much as the ways in which we communicate them. "Most couples start out arguing about one thing and within five minutes are arguing about the way they are arguing."

Gray says we need to remember that our partner objects not to what we are saying but how we are saying it.

"Most arguments escalate when a man begins to invalidate a woman's feelings and she responds to him disapprovingly." When a woman shares her frustration, men go on the defensive. "Every cell in a man's body reacts with a list of explanations and justifications designed to explain away her upset feelings."

Christine Northam, a marriage counsellor, points to An Introduction To Family Therapy, by R. Dallos and R. Draper, which cautions that "despite these differences between men and women, 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 experience of many years of helping couples, the way men and women have been conditioned affects the way they argue and that it is true that 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 does lead to a lot of tension in the relationship and you end up not addressing what you need to be talking about."

She adds that women are also capable of the withdrawal technique. "They change the subject or rubbish it or cry. Crying is a good one and then the man says: 'Oh god, she's in tears'."

Northam says that another major difference between the way men and women argue is that "men tend to resort to aggression very quickly, whereas women are more manipulative and try and present a problem and go on about it rather than being succinct. Men get angry and feel defensive and shameful very quickly, then they get aggressive. In the worst-case scenario they get violent. Men tend to probably become more aggressive more quickly overall -- but not every time by any means."

Deborah Cameron, a professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University, has written a pithy new book The Myth Of Mars And Venus, and is scathing about John Gray's best-seller.

Cameron, who reported the pyrotechnic Papua New Guinea row, believes the differences between the way men and women argue are overstated. "The idea that men and women differ fundamentally in the way they use language to communicate is a myth," she says. "You can't generalise about men and women. Cultural differences are much bigger than gender differences." She says John Gray's work "ignores the difference that context and subject matter make, and is massively generalised and exaggerated".

She says that "it is intriguing to people that there are differences, but people use it as a prop". But while Cameron is probably right that it is extremely hard to prove in a scientific way that there are differences between men and women in the way that they argue, it is also unlikely anyone will ever be able to show conclusively that there are no differences. So as long as men and women are still arguing, researchers and writers and psychobabblers will continue to argue about how they are arguing.

And on that note, I am going to withdraw from this particular discussion.