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Book Review

The latest from ‘Mars-Venus’ relationship guru John Gray offers profound and practical ways and means to reduce relationship stress.

By John Gray
HarperElement, 320 pages
ISBN: 978-0007247455

HE says: “There is always something that I haven’t done.” “She wants everything done right now. Why can’t she just relax?” “When I offer to help, she always finds something wrong in my suggestions. Why bother?”

She says: “We both go to work. When we get home, why doesn’t he pitch in and help more?” “He sits in front of the TV while I do everything. I am not his personal maid.” “When I try to talk to him, he is either distracted or he continues to interrupt with solutions.”

Sound familiar? Then read on.

Why Mars and Venus Collide, the latest in a long line of best-selling books from the Mars Venus series (15 in total, to date) written by John Gray, PhD. There is a Mars Venus book for every aspect of your relationship, from compatibility to communication and commitment to maintaining a good connection.

You must be from another planet if you have not heard of Gray and his Mars Venus universe. Fifty million of his books have been sold in 40 different languages. He has also diversified into wellness centres, Nutritional Super Cleanse products, MarsVenus and MarsVenus Coaching.

In his 20s, Gray was personal assistant to transcendental meditation guru to the stars, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and was a Hindu monk for nine years. He was living as a monk in Switzerland when his bipolar brother committed suicide. This event led to Gray returning to the United States to earn a doctorate in psychology. His theories are based on his work as a certified family counsellor. Aged 56, he has been on Oprah 16 times, is married to Bonnie, 57, his second wife of 22 years. They have three children. His dad sold nutritional products and his mother ran a spiritual bookstore.

The Mars-Venus metaphor was first conceived in 1983 when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. was the big movie. Gray happened to say in a talk, “Imagine if your husband were E.T. You wouldn’t be correcting his behaviour. You’d be studying him. He thinks differently. He feels differently. Treat him like he’s from another planet.”

Everybody loved it. Someone later asked, “What planet are men from?” He thought, “What planet would I want to be from? Mars. We (men) are warriors, protectors. What planet are women from? Venus.” Using this metaphor to illustrate the commonly occurring conflicts between men and women, Gray’s interplanetary gospel cleverly avoids allegations of gender stereotyping.

Gray notes that, “Over the last 50 years, life has become more complicated. And in spite of the new technologies designed to connect us, our communication has been reduced to the equivalent of text messaging. We are often stretched to the limit with little energy for our personal lives and are often left with a sense of isolation and exhaustion at home.”

Why Mars and Venus Collide is based on the premise that stress predisposes us to be hypersensitive and defensive. The fact that men and women cope with stress differently is at the root of our conflicts.

The most interesting insight his new book provides is the central concept that in order for men and women to understand and appreciate each other, they must first accept that they are hardwired to be different. Being equals does not mean we are the same.

However, understanding the biological reasons for the different ways we perceive and behave in the world enables us to be realistic about what to expect from our partners and to be more tolerant. Without this understanding, men and women are adjusting their actions and reactions to no avail. Women expect men to react and behave the way women do, while men continue to misunderstand what women really need.

In the past, there was “men’s work” and “women’s work”. The lines have been blurred as women now work outside the home. However, “in our collective fantasy of an ideal relationship, men still want to return home to a happy partner who has prepared dinner in their magazine perfect home.”

Women feel that if “she” is now doing traditional “men’s work”, then “he” should do traditional “women’s work” too. In fact, “women today are so tired and stressed, they too want a happy, loving and supportive ‘wife’ to greet them at home” while most men, to some degree, “want their partners to be the domestic divas their mothers were”.

In a Martian’s world, rest and relaxation come before routine duties. Testosterone is usually generated by both genders in situations involving goal setting, risk, danger, dominance etc, ie in a typical “work” environment. However, testosterone also stimulates stress reduction in men; but by the day’s end, his testosterone levels are depleted. With low testosterone, he is less able to deal effectively with stress and becomes moody and grumpy. A switch turns off in his brain and his body must rebuild testosterone by taking a nap or doing simple, entertaining activities like watching TV or reading a newspaper.

Women do not instinctively understand this need, and often think their husbands are lazy when in fact they have a biological imperative to rest.

Similarly, oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, stimulates stress reduction in women. Too much testosterone (built up at work) in women can lower oxytocin’s effectiveness. Hence, when a woman returns home, her stress levels go up as she is starved of oxytocin. Under stress, women feel the pressure of a never ending “to do” list and need to talk. Oxytocin only increases when women bond through social contact as well as caring, sharing, and nurturing activities (eg, going for a massage, getting a haircut, shopping). Oxytocin decreases when a woman feels alone, ignored, rejected, unsupported, or insignificant.

In short, women now need more of their partners’ time and support just at the time men are running out of energy. Consequently, they both have less to give – causing Mars and Venus to collide.

Why Mars and Venus Collide gives men and women many good tips on how to phrase things better. You may laugh out loud reading the author’s analogies (eg: “Men shopping with their partners may feel exhausted as if they are wandering in the desert”). Perhaps the most surprising advice is for women to talk over problems with female friends before presenting it objectively to their men. We cannot get all of our needs from the person in bed with us, as it is an impossible burden.

When tension arises, we should take a “time-out”. To restore harmony after a time-out, we can schedule Venus Talks and Mars Meetings. A Venus Talk allows a woman to discuss her feelings without any problem-solving attempts. A Mars Meeting is strictly for problem solving.

Another therapeutic solution is to write yourself a letter saying the words you need to hear to feel better; and then write what you would say in response.

There are a few cheesy clichés as well as chunks suspiciously similar to Gray’s other books, but this offering, written in plain English, provided many profound and practical points. It was a refreshing and fun read. It also harnesses well the typical self-help strategy of repeating and summarising lessons with catchy one-liners so that key points stick.

What I like best is that the book can give people some real insight and relief. By updating our skills, our relationships can be a solution to help lower stress rather than being another source of stress. The two celestial bodies can then come into closer orbit with each other and enjoy some close encounters of the heavenly kind.