Psychobabble did wonders for my bank balance

Hester Lacey examines the controversial theories that made `Men are from Mars' author John Gray a rich man
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The Independent Online
A remarkable insight into the human psyche or misogynistic drivel? The jury is still out on Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, the bestselling book of psychobabble by Californian John Gray. But one truth about the volume is that it has made Gray a multi-millionaire.

In Britain it has sold half a million copies, 200,000 of them last year. Based on the contention that men and women are so different that they could be from different planets, the book has bounced in and out of the US and British bestseller lists ever since it was published in 1992; it was number six in the 1997 UK paperback non-fiction league.

The new year is a prime time for attempting to change one's life, and fans of Gray's swear by his book. "I have found it incredibly helpful, and just by changing a few ways I interact with my partner I have really changed our relationship - we argue a lot less," says Amanda Taylor, 34. "Some of his points seem really obvious, but unless they are spelled out you just don't see them."

So what are these secrets to happiness? Gray's basic principles are that "Venusian" woman is a twittery little gasbag, overflowing with empathy and longing to share her emotions; she talks and talks and talks, and can't understand why her big, lumbering, emotionally inarticulate "Martian" just wants her to shut up. The Martian, meantime, has delusions of himself as a knight in shining armour; if his woman doesn't admire and approve and trust in his manly righteousness, he gets upset and sulky. Martians need to retire to their "caves" now and again, to take stock, while Venusians' lives follow a "wave pattern" which means that, no matter how well the relationship is going, they will still have emotional peaks and troughs through which they need support.

Gray wants couples to recognise and work round these different patterns without seeking to change each other. He claims to get 300 calls a day from people saying, "This is fantastic. This is saving my marriage."

Saving all these marriages is making Gray a fortune. Globally he has sold 6.4 million volumes; not to mention spin-offs such as companion books Mars and Venus in the Bedroom and Mars and Venus Together Forever, CD-roms, videotapes, audiotapes, baseball caps, badges and T-shirts, plus workshops, lecture tours and cruises, and the Mars-Venus Institute, where counsellors who can afford the $1,000 fee can train over a weekend to become "approved facilitators" of their own Mars-Venus workshops.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about the Gray phenomenon (although Bill Clinton has apparently read the book 20 times to learn Venusian body language). Gray's qualifications are unconventional, to say the least: a former disciple of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, he gained his bachelor's and master's degrees at the Maharishi European Research University in Switzerland, while his doctorate was acquired by correspondence.

He is not a licensed practitioner of psychology. Psychiatrist Frank Pittman, a columnist in the American magazine Psychology Today, says: "His work is based on The Flintstones. It's an effort to protect men from having to change and to do it by discounting the emotions of women."

Lynne Walsh of the British Association for Counselling is also sceptical about Gray. "I thought he was a bit misogynistic - the message seemed to be `men are just like that, and you have to adapt a bit'. It made me wonder what decade we are in."

Self-help books, she says, have become a big market with various qualified authors leaping on to the bandwagon. "Buyers should beware, especially of hype, and check that the author of the book they choose has real qualifications and experience. I think if authors dare to advise the public - which counsellors never do - they ought to have very concrete qualifications to do so. Buyers should also think carefully about what they are looking for - if it's this new-year's- resolution-let's-springclean-my-life idea, women's magazines and Sunday papers do exactly that every January and you can spend pounds 2 rather than pounds 20 on probably very similar advice."

Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman is also unenthusiastic, but adds: "The latest research on gender has shown that men and women are different, that women are more emotionally sophisticated and literate. For the past few decades society has tended to dismiss these differences in the name of equality. I believe that this has caused huge damage to relationships, so there is a useful message in this book."