You may remember in elementary school that girls and boys tended to play and hang out in separate groups. In the lunchroom, for example, there were probably “girls’ tables” and “boys’ tables.” Girls and boys also tend to sit together in the classroom and play in same-sex groups on the playground. Almost all of children’s best friends are same-sex peers.
Gender scholar, Eleanor Maccoby referred to these sex-segregated groups as separate worlds and highlighted the role of peer socialization. Parents and other adults play a large role in socializing children and shaping their behavior. However, considerable socialization goes on within same-sex peer groups as well. Behavior is reinforced through positive reactions from same-sex peers and discouraged through rejection. Through this process, girls and boys learn how to interact with peers in somewhat different ways and usually get comfortable with these different interaction styles.
One of the most significant differences between girls’ and boys’ interactions is that girls spend more time talking with friends. The gender difference in talking about problems is especially strong. Females’ greater tendency to talk with friends about problems develops in elementary school and persists into adulthood.
What are the implications of this gender difference for adults’ relationships with the other-sex? If girls develop expectations that disclosure is an integral component of close relationships and boys develop expectations that disclosure is not as critical, does this set up both sexes for disappointment and frustration in relationships with other-sex partners?
Popular psychology texts certainly suggest that men’s and women’s different tendencies to talk about problems is a source of friction. For example, John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, suggests that guys go to their (literal or figurative) “man cave” to calm down, relax, and regroup when they have problems, whereas women tend to seek social support. This difference, he says, is frustrating for both partners.
Surprisingly, though, social scientists draw a different conclusion. Studies of cross-sex friendships and heterosexual romantic relationships typically find that men and women are similar in how much they disclosure to other-sex partners, including in terms of problem talk. The results are found for adolescents’ cross-sex relationships and adults’ cross-sex relationships. One interpretation of these findings has been that boys and men want to talk about problems but feel unable to talk about them with their male friends and so welcome the chance to share personal thoughts and feelings with other-sex friends and romantic partners.
The problem with this interpretation, in my experience, is that men do not buy it. I give a lot of talks on this topic, and, overall, men are just not getting on board with the interpretation that they have always wanted to talk about their problems but only were able to when they developed relationships with female friends and romantic partners.
To reconcile these perspectives, I collected my own data with over 200 young adults (college students). Participants responded to survey measures about problem talk with same-sex friends and other-sex romantic partners. Consistent with past studies, women talked about problems to same-sex friends more than men talked about problems to same-sex friends. However, men reported talking about problems to female romantic partners more than they talked about problems with their male friends. In fact, men reported talking about problems with romantic partners as much as women did.
If I stopped there, I might have drawn the same conclusions that others have – that men wanted to talk about their problems, felt like they couldn’t talk about them to their male buddies, and so were pleased to have a female partner with whom they could share personal thoughts and feelings.
However, I dug deeper and asked men and women how they felt about problem talk with romantic partners. Participants responded to four questions assessing if they felt pressured to talk about their problems (e.g., “My romantic partner pushes me to talk about my problems more than I want to.”) They also responded to four questions assessing if they felt that their partner talked about their problems too much (e.g., “My romantic partner keeps analyzing my problems even after I am ready to stop talking about them.”). Compared to women, men were more likely to feel pressured to talk about problems and to feel that their partners talked about their problems too much.
These results call into question the interpretation that men talk with women more than with their male friends because they want to. Instead, the findings suggest that men talk with women more than with their male buddies because women pull them into problem talk. In other words, the data suggest that when a guy says he doesn’t want to talk about it…he may just really not want to talk about it.
DISCLAIMER: Like all research on average or mean-level gender differences, these results don’t apply to every man or women. Certainly, there are men who talk about problems with their male buddies and men who appreciate being able to talk with female friends and romantic partners. However, these findings suggest that these men are probably the exception rather than the rule.