Love and the mystery of men and women

I’ve been reading bell hook’s book All About Love: New Visions. In it, she stresses the importance of defining love so that we can’t be controlled by abusive people who claim to love us. She borrows her definition of love from M. Scott Peck: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth…Love is as love does. Love is an act of will–namely, both an intention and an action.” 

hooks later discusses our culture’s reluctance to define love:

It is particularly distressing that so many recent books on love continue to insist that definitions of love are unnecessary and meaningless. Or worse, the authors suggest love should mean something different to men than it does to women–that the sexes should respect and adapt to our inability to communicate since we do not share the same language. This type of literature is popular because it does not demand a change in fixed ways of thinking about gender roles, culture, or love. Rather than sharing strategies that would help us become more loving it actually encourages everyone to adapt to circumstances where love is lacking.

It’s funny how much this idea–that love should mean something different to men than it does to women–has caught on in Christian culture. Funny. And a bit sad.

Cover of the book “Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti”

I think of the books that were popular when I was a teenager and when I was attending a Christian college. The ones that flew off the bookshelf at Lifeway. The ones that the “cool” churches had Young Adult Bible studies on.

There was the For Men Only  and For Women Only series. I remember buying For Men Only with my college suitemate Carina because it made us feel rebellious. We read it in her dorm room and snickered at how dumb it was.But the premise was exactly what bell hooks described above–that men and women  are totally different and must be loved in different ways. The description on Amazon for For Men Only says it all (emphasis mine):

 Now at your fingertips is the tool that will unlock the secret to her mysterious ways. Through hundreds of interviews and the results of a scientific national survey of women, this book demonstrates that women are actually not random and that they really can be systematized and “mapped.” In fact, much to men’s delight, this book shows that women are actually quite easy to understand and please—as long as you know what it is they need. This simple map will guide you to loving your wife or girlfriend in the way she needs to be loved.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only Christian relationship book that emphasizes extreme sex differences when it comes to love.

There’s Eggerich’s Love and Respect, a book that I stopped reading out of frustration when I was dating my last boyfriend: “Psychological studies affirm it, and the Bible has been saying it for ages. Cracking the communication code between husband and wife involves understanding one thing: that unconditional respect is as powerful for him as unconditional love is for her. It’s the secret to marriage that every couple seeks, and yet few couples ever find.”

Again, this idea that men and women need different things in a relationship.

How about the Eldredges’ books Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul and Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul? Secret? Mystery? Or how about Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti? 

Or Hayley and Michael DiMarco’s Marriable: Taking the Desperate Out of Dating, a book I read in college, which had separate chapters for men and women. Most notably, there was a chapter on “Male Porn” and “Female Porn.” The male porn section was on, well, porn. The female porn section was on chick flicks. Even when it comes to sex, says Christian culture, men and women want different things. 

What happens when we insist on this dichotomy between men and women when it comes to love? What happens when we pretend that men and women are too different to understand each other? Or that all men want one thing when it comes to love and all women want another?

That men want respect and women want romance?

That men want physically pleasing sex and women just want to feel close to someone emotionally?

That men are a secret? Women are a mystery?

What happens is we cannot love each other fully. We cannot “nurture another’s spiritual growth,” according to Peck’s definition of love, because we’re only giving another  person half of what they need. Because we’re assuming we know what their needs are based on the genitalia they happen to have (or because we’re assuming we can never really know what they need). Men and women both become dehumanized. They become simply mysterious terrain to be “systematized and mapped.”

I told you I stopped reading Love and Respect. Why? Because I don’t just need love and my boyfriend at the time didn’t just need respect.  We both needed both. Equally. Unconditionally. One cannot exist without the other. I couldn’t stand the idea of being treated as simply this object called Woman–just follow the instructions to please! I couldn’t stand the idea of treating the man I was with in the same way.

The more the church settles for these split-up, scattered, partial definitions of love, the more the church pretends that all men are the same and all women are the same and all men are different from all women, the more that the church withholds holistic, fulfilling definitions of love from both men and women…

…the less the church knows love. The less the church knows God.


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  • Don’t forget about Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus – which I believe is actually a secular book!

    It is dangerous to assume that men and women are all the same. However, some of the books you listed I found rather helpful in my relationship – I remember reading For Women Only and going “Oh yeah, that’s me” quite a bit. (This was a couple years ago…haven’t looked at it recently.) The key is to read books like those – any relationship book, really, I’d think – *with* your significant other, discuss them, take what’s pertinent and *discard the rest.* Unfortunately, these books don’t leave much room for “discarding the rest” in the way they present themselves. :/

    • Yeah that too. I think that was the book hooks used as an example. I think that, you’re right, if you read some of those books critically they could be helpful for some people. I mean, men and women ARE taught to communicate differently, so there may be some learned differences in how we treat each other. Maybe the books can be useful for that if read critically. Unfortunately, so much of the culture in which those books are popular are hugely pro-gender differences so they take the books ulta-seriously. I learned that from my old college.

  • Meredith

    While the “Love women, Respect men” stance has a grain of validity (the application of the larger concept generally improves relationships, according to the people I’ve talked to who have tried it), I think it’s dangerous to separate Love and Respect, because they’re not mutually exclusive. To me, separating the two implies that love doesn’t include respect–as if it’s ok to coddle and patronize women–and that respect doesn’t include love–as if it’s ok to be disgusted by men as long as you honor them with your actions… However, it’s a catchphrase that I see upheld more and more. Thanks for writing about this!

  • Ugh, I stopped reading Love and Respect too because I couldn’t handle the way it blamed the wife for the man’s infidelity and essentially coerced her into sex. . . that’s not love or respect; it’s rape. And actually the more I tried to follow those Christian marriage books that claimed men were so different from women, the more my relationship fell apart. My partner doesn’t want what they claim men want, and I don’t want what he was told women want. We meet each other’s needs so much better when we actually listen to the uniqueness of one another rather than shoving each other into a box labeled “male” or “female.”

  • I’m also annoyed by the idea of “figuring out the secret” to understanding the opposite sex- as if they’re just so totally bizarre and we really have no hope of communicating.

    At the same time, there are differences in general between men and women, and it can be helpful to have an idea of what differences I can expect between my boyfriend and I- otherwise I would just assume that everyone thinks like I do.

    I think what a relationship really needs is honest communication. Then I can read that “what men need” advice and ask my boyfriend if it’s true for him.

  • Anon

    I read For Women Only and For Men Only and I found both books to be incredibly helpful but then I was also always raised and taught to love someone the way you would want to be loved and found the books to be more an aid to discovering areas that I struggled with. Does that makes sense? I find it easy to love my husband in all the ways I need to be loved but sometimes it’s hard to know the other ways he needs love. And that other love isn’t necessarily having to do with gender but sometimes does fit into a gender pattern.
    Also, my mother-in-law was the one who suggested the books but I also appreciate that she told me to read BOTH of the books because both can be very eye opening for both husband/wife male/female. (Those books also acknowledge that there are plenty of people who don’t fit into the “mold” and that communication with your partner is important.)

  • Ed Taylor

    Agreed, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Men and women are different but they consist if more than dichotomy. It is possible to teach the legitimate, biochemical differences without dehumanizing people.

  • Abby Normal

    Female porn is romance novels, not chick flicks. I thought everyone knew that.

  • The trouble is that this idea of difference sells, and it provides on-going sales for a self-help author, a love guru, even a Church. Messages of love and mutuality provide, at the very most, a single sale. If you or I wrote a book about how we should love everyone as individuals, expect them to want roughly the same things we do but also expect them to be a complicated as we are – but not so complicated that *listening* to them isn’t usually effective – well, we’d sell that book, but that our customer base would be sorted, go away and live happily ever after.

    The difference, the idea of puzzles to be cracked, is an eternal product. Because every piece of advice like this fuels more confusion, a greater sense of difference and alienation, more anxiety about whether we are managing this complex business of heterosexual love in the right way (since it’s riddled with mysteries and secrets). So we want more books, more advice, more guidance and authority to help us sort it out. And we’re left generally less happy, so we’re more vulnerable to anything or anyone who wants our cash or attention.

  • So, men prefer syrup poured into all their pores and women like to be smothered in tomato-based sauce?

    Sounds about right to my experience…

  • I just sent this to my husband because we hated the Love and Respect book which was part of our growth group curriculum. My husband and I don’t fit into traditional gender roles–I’m a martial arts instructor who used to full contact fight and he is a nurturer who can’t stand seeing me get hit. He’s the only man who works with newborns at church without his wife (because I like older kids)! We cackled at the whole mess because soooo much of it was more applicable to me than him or vice versa. Our group has been making some plans around how to address the “issue of women” in the church. Namely, they are missing SO MUCH by putting both men and women in boxes. Anyway, I don’t comment much but I read all your posts and am always relieved that I’m not the only one.

  • No one deserves unconditional respect- no one. No matter what your gender, respect is something you earn by living your life in an exemplary manner. Not perfect, but perfectly reasonable, with good will to all and malice toward none, doing your best in even the worst situations, pulling your own weight in life as much as possible- that’s who deserves respect.

    Everyone, on the other hand, deserves unconditional love- everyone. We will all have bad days when we do not behave in a manner that is worthy of respect, but we are all worthy of love because God is love. It’s insane to declare that men do not need love. How ridiculous. People only pass that misinformation on because, like the Emporer’s New Clothes, they have heard everyone else cooing about what good advice it is. I call bullshit.

  • Melkmeid

    I read that Eggerich’s Love and Respect as well and I came up with this: “You can have respect without love, but you can’t have love without respect”

    : )