A Conversation with John Gray
for Common Ground Winter 1992
by Virginia Lee
Sometimes when men and women try to understand each other, it’s as if they are from different planets. Renowned author and therapist, John Gray, believes that these fundamental differences between the sexes cannot really be changed, and that in order to understand each other, men and women need to learn whole new language of communication.
In his most recently published book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray translates our very words and actions, our subtlest implications and innuendos, our deepest needs and desires into a language the opposite sex can understand. Often humorous, and always insightful, Gray’s explanations are illustrated in graphic detail by scenes from his own personal life, as well as from the lives of some 25,000 he has helped during his twenty years as a counselor, therapist, seminar leader, father, husband and lover.
John Gray’s mission to make peace between the sexes is nothing new, although it has been garnering lots of attention lately from the mainstream media. The release of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, comes on the heels of two other very successful books: What You Feel, You Can Heal and Men, Women & Relationships. Two guest appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and an article in USA Today have brought John Gray’s message into American mainstream consciousness.
CG: Would you say that your books have grown out of living experience rather than theoretical psychology?
More and more. My most recent book is all taken from practical experience. There’s something in each paragraph that you can use in your relationships.
I think that it’s important to teach about men and women together; it’s too easy to blame the opposite sex for our problems. My way doesn’t make either sex wrong for the way things are.
What is your professional background?
I have been teaching for twenty years. Originally, I taught about meditation and spiritual growth. As I became clearer within myself, I realized that I had something to offer, even though I was celibate at the time.
Then I got involved in intimate relationships and got married. My first marriage had lots of problems, although it did give us the chance to learn a lot about communication. We ended up getting divorced after two years.
As I began to reflect on what happened during that marriage, what mistakes I had made and what mistakes she had made, I realized that there was one thing missing. We were treating each other is if we were the same. We kept trying to change each other again and again, instead of listening to each other and understanding our differences, instead of working with what we had and asking for more.
The way you learn to get what you want out of your relationships is by first remembering that we are different. Imagine that men are from Mars and women are Venus. A long time ago they got together and lived happily ever after. They were happy, that is, until they got in their spaceships and flew to Earth.
When they got to Earth, they were fine for awhile, until all the problems that we have today set in. They forgot that they were from different planets. They got amnesia.
It happens all the time. A woman needs to remember that he isn’t listening to her not because he doesn’t care about her, but because he is a Martian—he focuses on one thing at a time and forgets everything else. A woman doesn’t have that experience—she can be aware of many things at the same time. Knowing that basic difference can help us understand why we’re not getting what we want when we want it.
A woman’s feelings are hurt in a different way than a man’s, like forgetting her birthday or anniversary. As a man, that wouldn’t bother me that much. What would bother me is if I were taking my wife out to dinner for her birthday or anniversary, and she didn’t like the food. Our sensitivities are different.
How valuable do you think therapy is?
As a therapist, I see that therapy has tremendous value. But I also see how it can be another trap. There are some people who are in therapy for years, processing their past experiences and feelings. But unless they get a new education on how relationships work, they will keep recreating the same old patterns. They need information on the differences between men and women so that they can develop new strategies in relationship that work—instantly.
It’s nice when people discover that they don’t have to change partners, because there’s nothing wrong with their partner to begin with. They just need to learn to work within a new set of criteria.
After people do a lot of hard work on recovery—recovering from addictions, dysfunction, and codependence—they need a postive role model for how to have a healthy relationship. Most people don’t know what one looks like. My books are written in a effort to give people that positive picture, so they can learn how to resolve issues without blaming or projecting. People can learn to get out of those traps.
After years and years of therapy, you can only grow so much by receiving support. Then you have to give support. You have to give back what you are receiving. Even teachers need to keep learning in order to keep growing. And if a student isn’t teaching what they are learning, it’s not really becoming a part of them. That’s true for the client/therapist relationship as well. That’s why co-counseling is a good idea; it’s important to switch the roles in order not to get stuck in them.
I am not the one with all the answers. Often, the client already has the answer. They just don’t see it, so I show them. Problems will always exist, and no one ever has all the answers.
How does your career impact your marriage? And how does your wife feel when you are so open about your private life?
Bonnie is a a very private person. Years ago, she was scared about my sharing everything that happened between us in my seminars. But when she starting getting so many calls and letters of appreciation telling her how beneficial it was, she began to open up. She doesn’t mind anymore. She actually feels honored that she can make a difference in other people’s lives.
I only talk about our private life with her permission. Once in awhile something will happen, and she specifically asks me not to share it in the seminars. It takes a lot of trust on her part, especially since I choose what to say and what not to say, and say it whether she’s there or not.
For a long time, I loved my career too much, and it began to take away from the time I needed to spend with my wife and family. Now I have learned how not to exhaust myself. I keep a leisurely pace so that I don’t get burned out. It’s a matter of keeping the priorities balanced.
As a teacher, I have learned that to teach who you are is to be completely honest. The teaching is fresh and alive because what I am teaching about probably happened just two days ago. There’s a risk though. When people reject me, it hurts. But when they support and appreciate me, I am empowered.
What do you think of the current men’s movement?
I think it’s fabulous that men are meeting together, but I question if it’s designed to improve relationships. I don’t think the men’s movement has gotten quite that far yet. It’s purpose now is to raise a man’s self-esteem and help a man heal himself. Ultimately, I believe that will lead to better relationships with women.
In some of these groups, there are some men who feel that they have been victimized by women. These men have a lot of anger towards women, which may be a necessary part of the growth process but not the ultimate goal. That bitterness needs to be heard, but each man has to own his responsibilty for whatever has happened in his life. You can’t heal yourself by blaming others.
Conversely, what do you think of the feminist movement and where it’s going?
It’s really the same question with the same answer. Ironically, whenever we make someone else wrong, we start becoming more like them. The women in the feminist movement
who were angry and judgmental towards men became like those men. Many of the women who gave up their female privileges to have more male privileges, now feel ripped off.
The answer is that women can have it all by nurturing female values as well as masculine ones. Holding onto anger sabotages the healing process, but acknowledging negative feelings and moving beyond them is the way out. Like men, this is how women can move out of the victim role.
Instead of fighting your way to the top, women can love their way to the top. The art of feminity is in empowering others to serve you. But when a woman competes with a man, she is sure to lose. She can get a lot farther by validation than by intimidation.
To what do you attribute today’s alarming divorce rate?
The basis of today’s divorce rate is that women now have more rights; they now have the freedom to leave an abusive relationship. Before women just swallowed the abuse because society did not support women being independent.
The problem is that many women don’t know how to get what they want from men. They have to learn a whole new language of cooperation. How can you educate a man to give you what you need without making him wrong? A woman needs to teach a man how to support her, and empower him to give her what she wants. There’s a chapter in my new book telling a woman how to motivate a man to give more, and another part on what she does that turns him off.
When a woman doesn’t feel that she deserves what she wants, she gives up and feels resigned to staying in a lifeless relationship. And when a woman gives up, the man loses too. That’s when a man is likely to go out and have an affair. He’s usually trying to keep some passion in his life, but he doesn’t win that way either. It’s a loss/loss situation for both. What I teach is how to keep the primary relationship alive, so that neither partner needs outside stimulation.
How does a couple revive their sex life if the flame of passion has gone out?
Remembering that men are from Mars, it may be just a matter of technique. Men forget that women need all the romance and foreplay that went on earlier on the relationship. Without that, the passion goes and sex just becomes mechanical. Sometimes a man has to seduce her all over again, doing the little things that open a woman sexually. If a woman tries to open a man the same way, the energy goes the wrong direction. Before I have sex with my wife, I always try and do something nice for her. Sometimes I bring her a gift just to let her know that her love is enough for me.
If a relationship doesn’t grow in a climate of honesty and intimacy, then sex isn’t going to be satisfying no matter how good your technique is. The breakdown usually begins when a man doesn’t know how to listen to a woman, especially at the end of the day when she needs to tell him everything that happened. It’s the last thing a Martian wants to do.
When a woman starts talking about the problems of the day, he thinks she wants him to solve them, when what she really wants is for him to listen to her. When he tries to offer solutions, she gets mad because he’s interrupting her, and he gets defensive because he feels she doesn’t appreciate him. Then he doesn’t want to listen to her anymore. And that’s when the communication breakdown usually begins.
If a woman doesn’t have permission to talk, expand and generally complain about her day, then she is going to close up to her feelings. And if she can’t be in touch with her feelings, then she can’t feel passion. The man may want sex, but she won’t be able to respond to it.
To the men out there—You want sex? You want passion? Then listen to what she has to say. Empathize and make sure your woman feels that she is being heard. Honor her feelings, whatever they are. When she feels it is safe to talk, then she is safe to feel. Once a man realizes that a woman comes from Venus, he will see that there is absolutely nothing wrong with her. Thirty minutes later she will have forgotten all about it.
Have you ever met someone you couldn’t help?
Yes. And it’s usually when someone wants their partner to change. We can really only work with whatever we already are.
Usually people who don’t grow in therapy are people who have a secret that they won’t tell, which most often means they are having an affair.
What is your opinion of people who get involved in extramarital affairs?
People who have affairs are like anyone else except they don’t know how to make their marriage work. They are still good people, but having affairs does ruin marriages. When you withhold energy by keeping a secret, the passion goes away. But opening up and asking forgiveness will usually bring it back.
In the past I would never work with clients unless they were willing to tell the truth about the past to their partners. Now I just ask them to start telling the truth from today. If you have had an affair and don’t want to tell your partner about it, you don’t have to ; you can just be honest about the present. As the relationship gets better and better, and trust is been re-established, then it’s safe to reveal the truth about the past.
Do you think that having an affair means that there is something wrong in the relationship?
Yes. But I don’t judge other people for having affairs. It’s just where they’re at.
Some people don’t believe in marriage while others see it as a lifetime commitment. What is your opinion?
Again, I can support both camps. To the people who never want to be married again, I can support them in never wanting to be married the way they were married. They had a dysfunctional marriage, and if I thought marriages had to be dysfunctional, I wouldn’t want to be married either.
But there is a different way of being married. I believe in marriage as a positive experience, and worth striving for. I am very committed to the concept of marriage, and realize that it requires a level of maturity that some people aren’t ready for. There are some people who are so committed to the concept of marriage that they stay in dysfunctional marriages.
But it’s not as simple as “Marriage is right, and divorce is wrong.” I don’t agree with that either. If you are in a dysfunctional marriage and you are not growing in it, the best thing you can do is to separate. You may need to work on yourself for awhile and live alone. Heal yourself first, then you can decide what to do about the relationship. Otherwise you will recreate the same problems.
How do you counsel people who take divorce as a personal failure?
I have been divorced too. I am in my second marriage. My first marriage lasted two years, and I took it as a huge failure. I feel that we betrayed our comitment to each other. It’s a normal feeling to have. Time helped me heal that wound, and being able to create a new relationship. I could have been in therapy the rest of my life processing this, but what really helped me overcome the failure of my old one was success in my new one.
I learned that I was still a good person even though my first marriage didn’t work. And I saw that there were some good reasons that it had ended. It’s hard to create a new relationship if you are still feeling vicitmized by the old one. I finally had to accept that we were just incompatible.
What is your highest goal?
My real goal is to bring more peace into this world by creating peace between the sexes. If we can accept and respect the differences between men and women, and learn to communicate better, we can have more harmonious relationships on all levels. If we can do that, then maybe we can accept and respect the different cultures and religions of the world beyond the invisible barriers that exist today.