21st May, 1994

Understanding Women: An Australian view

By J.J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)


One of the commonest things said by men about women is that women are completely inexplicable and unpredictable. Many men come to accept that their women have different motives from them but very few ever get to understand why. Part of the problem is that women do not normally like men to understand them too well. They like to outsmart men. They like their motives to be a bit of a trade secret.

The view from evolution

The first thing to understand is that the main motivating force behind a woman's behaviour has very little to do with the present. It goes back millions of years. You need an evolutionary perspective. Both women and men are very much a product of a long evolutionary past rather than of anything in the present. And women have a much more narrowly-specified biological role than men -- which in fact makes them easier to predict than men (if you have the key). Their major role has always been to bear children and then bring their children through childhood to adulthood. That is HARD. They need a man to help. Just keeping the children from harm and feeding them is task enough without having to gather the food too. Women do traditionally gather some food but they need men to provide the high-grade protein (game). But they do not need just any man. They need two things in a man: Reliable support from him over many years (because children take so long to grow up) and he must have the strength and vigour to be able to protect his family from the more severe threats (mostly other men). All women to this day seek that sort of man despite the fact that civilization has made the need for such qualities less urgent.

The big problem is that the two sets of qualities do not necessarily go together. Any woman can have a man who will devote his life to her if she is prepared to accept a wimp or a loser. But such a man falls down on the protection-capacity front. On the other hand she can team up with a highly competent livewire and find him unreliable in the long term. If he is attractive to her he will be attractive to other women so she may lose him in full or in part to other women and thus could be left high and dry with her kids.

The view that men are naturally polygamous and women monogamous seems to fit in from an evolutionary point of view. The more women a man makes love to the more kids man is likely to have. This is sometimes called the "fruitfly strategy" as it is even more true of fruitflies, who do not need to care at all for their young (eggs hatch or they don't). As man is a social animal, kids do tend to get cared for to some extent anyway and more are likely to survive than a monogamous strategy would entail. Women, however, are not highly likely to have more children by changing partners and new partners might be hostile to the young of other men. So the "interests" of men and women are different and to an extent opposite. Men may give their genes the best chance of survival by having many different women but women do best by sticking to one partner.

So for many women the choice is between exciting (powerful or vigorous) bastards and reliable wimps. Many women dislike that choice so much that they never marry or have children (and many men are so bad at meeting such requirements that no women ever choose them). Attractive women, however, can wait for a "right" (reliable and strong) man to come along but other women (e.g. overweight women) may have to take any offer that comes up or go without entirely. By the same token "right" men (capable men who are nice to women) can wait for a "right" (attractive, capable and good-hearted) woman to come along as they know that many women will show interest in them.

Since attractiveness is related to health and vigour (e.g. carrying around a load of useless fat is generally maladaptive and uncompetitive in all sorts of ways) the outcome is that healthy, capable and socially-skilled people are (or were) most likely to reproduce. In the days of the welfare state almost anyone can reproduce, of course. Genetic engineering may one day restore selectivity, however.

So what is the outcome for understanding everyday female behaviour? The most noticeable outcome is that women worry about what men see as "silly" things. Giving women flowers on special occasions seems to men most pointless but to women such things show whether or not men are besotted with them. Besotted men are more reliable, you see. And if you are out with one woman and are more attentive to other women, the first woman will get a big message from that. She will conclude that the man is not committed to her and will see it as just about the end of the relationship. Women know that men are "difficult" in terms of their aims so need a lot of reassurance about how highly men regard them as individuals. Women, in other words, are always looking for things that men do not even remotely have in their minds! No wonder men goof! On the other hand, women know men well enough so that men who fawn on them (seem totally preoccupied by them) will most likely be seen as either hypocrites or wimps. As in so many fields, you have to strike the right balance.

Striking that balance is hard to teach. One hint: Being a good listener is a good start. And as you listen do take seriously what the woman says (though you need not always believe it). Everyone likes a good listener. Chatterboxes and blowhards are always tedious and tend to be disliked as they obviously think that what they have to say is more important than what anyone else has to say: Not clever!

Giving women occasional small tokens of esteem (small gifts, dinners out) always helps a lot, too. And remembering (with a gift) birthdays, anniversaries etc is always a "real bottler" (big winner) in terms of its good effects! Amusing, but there it is! Another good idea is to compliment a lady on her appearance. But it must be an observant comment. To say: "Your hair looks nice today" when it is the same hairdo she has had for a month will rightly cause her to think you are a bit of a drongo (fool). If, however, you say: "Your new hairstyle suits you" and say it on the very first occasion she has turned up with that hairstyle, you really win points -- not mainly because of the compliment but because you noticed -- something men often do not. If you noticed she will take it as an indication that she is important to you. If you don't like her new hairstyle you can say "I liked your old hairstyle better" and still win the same sort of points -- possibly more because it shows you are honest and everybody likes honesty.

So the key to understanding women is to realize the inherently difficult dilemma they are in. They have to try to predict the behaviour of a male for at least 15 years ahead. If you were faced with that dilemma you might take exaggerated notice of small things too!

When first meeting women, touching them and putting your arm around them should also be done as soon as at all possible. Women tend to be into all things non-verbal so touching them tends to make them feel that you are a real person who finds them attractive. If they react badly to it, it means that they are either very nervous or that they don't like you at all but in any case it does no harm and will usually be a good start towards finding out what a lady thinks about you.

When similarity is not preferred

One thing that has clearly emerged in the research on the topic of human mating is the contrast between what people in general like and what people like where selecting a mate is involved. The two are very different. We generally prefer similarity in one-another but in selecting a life-partner "opposites" sometimes attract. As sex researcher Glenn Wilson points out, what counts is whether the behaviour, attitude or personality concerned is sex-role-typical or not. Putting it crudely, men like not women who are mannish but women who are feminine. Surprise! And, despite the best efforts of feminism, lots of women still like men who are masculine.

It is perhaps fortunate that similarity is not all that attracts us in one-another. Since men and women are very different and even have characteristically different recreations (what man does knitting, for instance?), it would be very hard to find compatibility at all if compatibility simply equalled similarity.

So should we stop worrying about similarity altogether and just seek sexual attraction in one-another? A basically lustful relationship does have a lot to be said for it but is certainly not enough by itself.

It seems that one needs both similarities and complementarities PLUS physical attraction. The complementarities (i.e. the "opposites" that "attract") will usually be in the areas where men and women have obvious evolutionary differences -- which will generally mean areas where men and women are traditionally complementary: e.g. the man should be more aggressive and dominant (good in hunting and defending) and the lady should be more pleasant and subtle (good in childrearing and relationship maintenance). This is not to say that such a pattern would be sought at the conscious level. Men often wish women had more male virtues and women often wish men had more feminine virtues. So a lady, for instance, might deplore aggression in a man at the cerebral level but nonetheless respond well to it in other ways.

So ideally, it seems that one should seek a life-partner with a complementary personality but with at least some similar interests and cultural background.

Seeking is not the same as finding however so some people no doubt end up with either no-one at all or someone from way out of left field.

On Being a Listener

Another exception to a rule that occurs in male-female relationships concerns the rule that everyone likes a listener. To be a good listener is something of a guarantee of social success. If you mostly listen in conversations people will tend to think what a nice sensible (and intelligent!) person you are. This only applies up to a point when a woman is evaluating a man, however. If a man does little more than listen to a woman she is likely to perceive such behaviour as weak, vacant and wimpish. So with women, men need to spend at least some time advocating their own case and doing it vigorously! But the man should obviously also make sure that he does plenty of listening as well.

Women and dominance

A difficult and very touchy issue to deal with in connection with male-female relationships is dominance. Virtually no woman will say that she likes being dominated but a lot in fact like it very much. What almost all women say is that they like a man to be "strong". Being dominant, however, is part of being "strong" so what it boils down to, at least in part, is that women like to be dominated "nicely". This means that they like to know that the man is the boss in at least some respects but like the man to give them their head on anything that is not really important and to appreciate them generally. They like to be able to trust the man with at least some decisions and appreciate the man leaving other decisions to them.

In case anybody gets carried away, it should be said that nothing said so far here implies that all women like being subjected to sadism in sex (though to varying degrees some do, of course).

The women who have something of a problem, then, are the naturally dominant ones. Because they are dominant it does not mean that they cease to be women. They still want a man to dominate them to at least some degree. But such women make it hard for the men. It is hard to dominate a dominant woman. Is it only very dominant men that can do it. So such women spend a lot of time trying to find the right partner. They seldom succeed. So if such women do marry, they tend to settle for next best -- They marry a weak but very "nice" and reliable man whom they do not love but consent to use. It is a bit sad but if both parties are happy with such an arrangement, who are we to criticize?

Women in the U.S.A.

Sexual relations in the U.S.A. seem to have really broken down. American women very often despise American men. "The men are no good", they say. The reason why is that many American men are dreadful liars (at least with women) and cannot be trusted. They really believe in that reprehensible motto: "All's fair in love and war". It sure leads to a messed-up society. Australia is infinitely better off in that regard.

History is a great help in understanding how the dreadful American situation evolved. It all goes back to the arrival of affluence. Australia, of course, became affluent long before the United States. Around 1875 the average Australian was 70% better off than the average American. A larger amount of gold and land per head is the main reason but Australian technological innovation (in agriculture) and lack of religious obsessions played a part too.

The arrival of affluence brings leisure and options generally. So what do men seek after they are warm, dry, secure and fully-fed? Sex, of course. But sex with the wife is not enough. Sexual variety is even better. But when Australia became affluent it was in the middle of the Victorian era. Moral strictness at the time ruled out any large scale philandering. So Australian men substituted: with alcohol and "mateship". They "left" their women not for other women but to spend time in company with their male drinking friends. They chose friendship and booze instead of sex. To this day what Australians see as moderate drinking seems like alcoholism to Americans. This pattern became fairly well-entrenched in the Australian ethos. The men tend not to stray sexually so have no need to lie to their women but their women just don't see much of them. The women stay home with the kids and the men go to the pub ("bar", in American) and yarn with their "mates" (male friends, "buddies") for much of their free time. Knowing where someone drinks is almost like an address for many Australian men. The women do not really like this but at least they do feel that their men are very predictable and reliable and they certainly feel "on top" of the men. Women feel superior to men in a way that they might feel superior to their children. Perhaps it is still like that in much of small-town America too. The American big cities are in many ways behavioural cesspits but small-town America can be really nice (perhaps in part because they are more religious).

Anyway, when America became affluent times were different. It was early this century and the Victorian influence was on the wane. So American men chased sex. But getting ladies into bed can be hard. So what did American men do to solve that problem? Because they believe in the utterly immoral and quite Hitlerian doctrine that "All's fair in love and war", the answer was simple: "Tell 'em whatever they want to hear" If women wanted to hear that the man loved them, "Tell 'em that!" If women wanted to hear that the man would always be true, "Tell 'em that!" American men resorted to lies, in other words. America became a psychopathic culture -- at least in relations between the sexes. No wonder many American women have become mistrustful shrews! They are so bitter that many an American woman would respond to my above analysis of female motivation by describing it as "a handbook on how to rip off women". How bitter can you get! The end result is that American men have to put up with very bitchy women in general. Unless he is religious, the God of the average affluent American male is his penis. Many of them would not even understand the censure implicit in that comment. "What else is there?", they would say. Family values are a mystery to such people.

One way the women of America adapt is to become very dominant and demanding. (Read some of Ben Stein's articles in The American Spectator). Only by keeping men under their thumb do they feel any security. That can be pretty rough on the men. "Men are second-class citizens in this country", American men have often said to me. Bitter, bitchy, emotionally empty women and lying, oppressed men. What a mess! There are some ways in which America is not a success.

American men who come to Britain or Australia, of course, have a ball. The women believe them! The women concerned pretty soon learn their mistake, however. It is probably one source of the bad image Americans have outside America. They are seen as "Smooth talkers", con-men, in other words. Distrust of American accents is wise. In Britain things are more like in Australia -- but for the opposite reason: Britons are still not yet generally affluent. They can't afford to philander much.

So I would sum up my advice to men as follows: Be your own man with your own goals, values and ideas and don't be afraid to express them. Be polite, observant and considerate but don't let women boss you around and don't pander to their every whim. They will respect you more that way. And, boringly old-fashioned though it may seem, honesty is also the best policy in the long run.


Female Physical Attractiveness

Attractiveness is, of course, a topic of no small interest to both men and women. The merest glance at the men's magazines on sale in any newsagency will strongly suggest that men are generally turned on by big breasts, slim waists and long hair. From a biological point of view, among homo sapiens an "hourglass" figure marks femininity and is hence a key to sexual attraction. Other features do a similar job in other species (e.g. the famous behinds of Mandril monkeys).

Women with an hourglass figure are, however, a small minority in the female population at large so there is some competition among men for such women. Men pander to them.

So ladies with good figures become accustomed to social success because men defer to them and this either gives them confidence or makes them more relaxed in various ways. They also then tend to acquire the values that relaxed and confident people generally tend to have. They tend for instance to become outspoken about what they think and are able to trust. They do not fear the opposite sex or intimate involvement with them. They see relationships as basically rewarding.

Women who are less physically attractive, by contrast, have more adverse experiences with men and tend by their 40s and 50s to have become very defensive and hyper-alert against being ripped off by men. And confident, capable men just seem risky to such women. Such women often seem to conclude therefore that they should only contemplate taking on a weak and less desirable man -- because it is only such a man whom they can control or to whom they can appear irreplaceable. They also have learned to be as self-sufficient as possible and are often unable to admit weaknesses or frailties of any kind. They are often all tensed up and heavily into defensiveness and denial. Physically attractive ladies, however, CAN admit to weaknesses, can be relaxed and can let themselves find confidence and competence in men attractive.

The greater confidence and more relaxed attitude of physically attractive women can have rather paradoxical effects at times. Take the way women react to a man who has many good qualities but who is not physically attractive. Women generally ARE interested in the looks of men but what they like in looks is much more variable than what men like. So who do the less good-looking men end up with? Generally speaking, with less good-looking women. BUT, what about the special case where the less good-looking man has a lot of desirable qualities outside the looks department? Surprisingly, such a man seems quite likely to end up with a good-looking woman. Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti would have to be the best-known example of that. The good-looking woman often seems to feel that she has looks enough for both and can thus be strong enough to overlook appearances and end up with a really good man.

So we seem to have happening something like what Christ described in the parable of the talents. As Christ said there, "To him that hath, more will be given him, and to him that hath not what little he hath will be taken away". In other words, less attractive women tend by their behaviour to lessen their chances of finding happiness and making a good match rather than taking realistic steps to make the best of what they have.

And there is in fact much that they could do to help themselves if they wanted to. Having a slim waist and long hair is in fact perfectly under every woman's control. But so many women fail to give themselves those advantages. I suspect that there is no man alive who has ever found a "perm" (permanent wave) attractive yet so many women in later life waddle around in fat bodies with a silly little "perm" of short tight curls sitting on top of their heads. Such women have for all intents and purposes given up on forming a new relationship. And that does tend to mean giving up on love. Since many of the women concerned are quite fine women in other respects, that does seem a pity.

Female Friendships

Women these days quite routinely hold their friendship structure up as an example to men. They say that females have supportive friendship networks that men lack and that they are emotionally stronger for it. They see men as incapable of the intimate friendships that women have and see this as a weakness that explains many of the problems that men have. They say how much they value their friends, how often they talk to their friends and relate how helpful friends have been to them in times of crisis.

This is in fact, however, only one side of the story and overlooks both the different evolutionary role of men and the full reality of female friendships. In her book Lip Service, American feminist author Kate Fillion notes part of the downside in female friendships: The difficulty women have in being honest with one another. If a woman's friend is wearing a ghastly dress or hairstyle that does not suit her at all, it is almost impossible for her friends to tell her that. The nearest the friend can go is to say something like: "You're looking well today". The friend is supposed to note that she and not the dress was complimented and draw the conclusion that the dress is awful. As nobody wants to receive or believe negative messages about themselves, however, the import of such extremely indirect criticisms is often missed and woman carry on gaily looking awful when honesty might have helped them. So emotional support is given but realistic help is witheld. Men, by contrast, are much more used to giving and receiving criticism and have nothing like these severe barriers against it.

Another problem with female friendships that seems often to be conveniently overlooked is that female "friends" can often be extremely bitchy. If one female seems to be getting ahead of the pack in any way, that female will tend to be put down. If, for instance, she is a sexually attractive older woman who dresses in a way that shows her attractiveness, she will be told that, "You don't want people to say that you are mutton dressed up as lamb, Dear", in an endeavour to get her to dress in a more dowdy way. Great stuff! Really helpful!

The bitchy and trivial-minded nature of female friendships seems to be the major reason why there is in fact a considerable minority of women who have little in the way of female friendships and prefer the company of men. Attractive women, in particular, often remark that they prefer the company of men as they get much more ready acceptance there and much less trivial conversation.

There are however undoubted differences between men and women in their emotional makeup. Men do have their "mates" (Australia) or "buddies" (USA) and these friends do help in emotional crises. They do so differently, however. They do not try to help by listening for hours to a repetitive outpouring of problems, for instance. If a man is "having troubles with his Missus" his mates will, for instance "take him fishing to get his mind off it". Men are interested in solutions to their problems. They seldom find it helpful just to talk about their problems. This appears to be connected with differences in the male and female brains. Recent work in brain physiology suggests that a much larger proportion of the female brain is devoted to emotional processing. Male emotional processing, on the other hand, tends to be connected to "fight or flight" brain centres. So emotional problems will first be worked on in a practical way but if that is not successful, the problem will be dealt with by the man "leaving the field" (either physically or emotionally) rather than by worrying further. So males and females find different things emotionally helpful but that is about all you can say about it.

It does seem true, however, that many men do have few or no close male friends in later life. This is due to the different sex-role specializations that men and women have. Women are the socio-emotional specialists (specialists in emotional relationship maintenance) as part of their biological role as mothers and men are much more task-oriented as part of their biological role as providers and protectors. In later life, these roles are well set for men because they have by then committed much of their life to their generally competitive role as breadwinners. In an endeavour to provide for their families they have developed the competitive side of their nature and neglected their emotional relationships -- in the expectation that the woman in their life will look after that side of things. This is a perfectly normal example of specialization of roles -- and it is role specialization that is mankind's great trick, a trick that is a large part of the advantage mankind has over the other animals. At times of marriage breakups, then, it is little wonder that many men in later life suffer much more emotionally than women do. The specialization of women tends to leave them with friends whereas the specialization of men does not.

The Female Mid-Life Crisis

Almost all male-female relationships require compromise. Partly because men and women are in general different, we almost all have to tolerate in a loved-one some things that we would wish were otherwise. It seems, however, that the cessation of the childbearing role that sets in around the 40 years of age mark has a big effect on what women will tolerate. The "difficult" aspects of their husband that they tolerated in their earlier, potentially reproductive, years become no longer tolerable. So around the 40 mark is "trade-in time" for marriages. Both men and women have a tendency to leave their spouses at that time but women do more of it. Two thirds of all divorces are initiated by women.

Part of the reason why women around 40 tend to dismiss imperfect husbands is that the women seem to undergo quite profound psychological changes at that time. They seem to experience a rapid inflation in self-esteem and become very "independent".

As a result, amazingly praiseworthy attributes are routinely claimed by women over 40 who advertise in the "Personal" columns of newspapers or on the internet. This is perhaps some evidence that the inflated claims older women generally make about themselves are not deliberately deceptive. They really believe that they are wonderful people!

Divorce and its associated events are however almost inevitably a traumatic experience for all concerned and the one "lesson" that many women learn from it all is: "never again". New relationships with men will sometimes not be contemplated at all but if a new relationship is sought, the woman is very definite that the next man has to be "Mr Right". Even though she couldn't find him before, she is determined to wait as long as it takes to find him this time.

This fierce determination to settle only for "Mr Right" that characterizes women in their 40s does have its comical side. All the generally desirable men are of course well and truly married by that age -- to desirable women. All that is left are other women's rejects. Faced with this rather obvious fact, some women say: "But a man who is not right for another woman may be right for me". Really? What woman is NOT seeking a man who is good-looking, tall, sensitive but strong, open, generous, faithful, understanding etc.? If there is a treasure like that out there, some other woman will be hanging on to him for all she is worth and if she IS silly enough to let him go, he won't stay single for much more than five minutes. A wise woman would surely be looking only for "Mr Possible" at that age.

Unattached women in their 40s do perceive in a way that the waters in which they are fishing are pretty fished-out. They often say: "Where are all the men?" and express the firm belief that for some reason there are a lot more single women around at that age than there are single men -- ignoring the fact that a lot of singles parties in fact have a majority of men present and ignoring the fact that census statistics show roughly equal numbers of men and women in all age cohorts up to age 65. I have heard women over 40 utter their plaintive cry about the "shortage" of men even while they are at a function where there are present roughly equal numbers of men and women. When I point out that there are in fact quite a lot of men around them, they say, "Not THOSE men". The males of roughly their own age around them are just not real men, it seems. In other words, such women are looking for a population of ideal (and probably younger) men to choose from rather than being interested in the imperfect and ageing men who are actually available to them.

The women concerned generally explain their unrealistic selectivity by saying that they have been burned in the past by men and that they therefore want to be sure that they are not burned again. This may indeed be true. Or it may be only a red-herring or at best a small part of the story. In favour of the latter view it might be noted that divorced men quite often have bitter complaints about women but that does not generally seem to cause such men to become uncaring about whether they have a woman in their life or not.

It always saddens me to see so many fine women in their 40s so heavily defended against love. Love is trusting. It is incompatible with fear and caution but fear and caution seem to be powerful motives for lots of single women in their 40s. The women concerned may often claim to be happy alone but one wonders how that self-deception feels on many a lonely night. Human beings are social animals, not loners.

Since, however, Australian women of their own age are generally uninterested in them, it is no wonder that so many divorced Australian men in their 40s go to where they can find younger brides -- the Republic of the Philippines. It is nice that the men do have an alternative but it does rather leave the Australian women to stew in their own juices.

Around ten years of waiting, however, is generally enough to make even the most determined woman give up on her hopeless search for the ideal mate. She then either retreats into eccentricity or radically changes her tune. She is 50. She has had something like ten largely lonely years for nothing. So now she generally starts looking seriously for a mate. This COULD be related to the menopause (which happens about then) but it would be simpler to say that women of around 50 who once professed to despise men but who now actively seek them out are motivated by a realization at that time that they face an increasingly enfeebled old-age alone. They fear that and to avoid it they once again seek out those with whom they have in the past had the closest connections -- men.

Unfortunately, of course, their choices are much reduced by this stage. Many men who were available to them in their 40s have now married -- generally to younger women (including younger Filipinas). It does all seem rather a pity.

So I would summarize my advice to women as follows: Accept your biological nature and realize that the closest relationship you will ever have will almost certainly be with a man. Once you have accepted that, look for Mr Possible not Mr Right. And don't ever think you have all the time in the world to find him. And if you want a better class of Mr Possible, you have to be a better class of Ms Possible -- in other words, what MEN want, not what women or feminists say you should be. And I am afraid that, boring as it is, a slim waist and long hair are the most generally useful places to start.

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