The Taconic Counseling Group
Elisha S. Fisch, Ph.D.Men and the Psycho-Politics of Sex
Why can't a man be more like a woman? Ever since the 1960's, well meaning women and men have been engaged in a psychological and political dance as part of their attempt to choreograph new gender roles and gender relationships. Whether the dance has been the more delicate minuet or the more aggressive tango has varied with the personalities of the dancers. Yet, throughout much of this process, men have been on the defensive.
Until the 1960's, men, whether they were crude or refined, rough or gentle, authoritarian or collaborative, benefited from the privileges of gender that were part of the fundamental cultural givens of our society. When women rose up to protest the damage and disadvantage brought about by this profound privilege imbalance, they often did so fired by the anger we naturally use to protect our wounds. Sometimes these were the wounds inflicted by oppression and abuse, sometimes the wounds inflicted by overtly demeaning attitudes, and sometimes the less provable wounds inflicted by slight and neglect. Women, and many men with them, moved forward to fight for new understandings, new assumptions, new words and labels, and new behaviors as part of the effort to create a more evenly balanced, gender authentic, and respectful, society.
The results of this effort have been varied, good and bad, for both men and women. In this article, I am focusing on the problematic effect of this gender revolution on men. While it is difficult to talk about men as a monolithic block- men vary by age, class, education, ethnicity, regional geography, and personality- there are certain thematic truths that affect the overwhelming majority of men to some degree. Additionally and most importantly, most men want a meaningful love relationship with a woman. It is about this group that I write.
The changes wrought by the gender revolution have most visibly been in gender role definitions. Women began to do 'men things' (in careers, in sports, in hobbies -how many women did carpentry as a hobby before the '60's revolution?), and men began to do 'women things' (change diapers, cook, clean, grocery shop) . My impression is that this broadening of gender role definition has largely worked well, the sole disadvantage being that men and women have not yet figured out how to double the length of their day to accommodate the doubling of their responsibilities and activities.
A less visible change has been a shift in the power to define the other. Women had complained that men defined them, requiring women to exhibit only narrowly defined 'feminine' qualities and behaviors if they were to be loved and accepted by men. For many women the constriction of self required was unconscious. The consciousness raising begun in the 1960's, and now an integral part of our social dialogue, brought an awareness of this constriction to the fore, sometimes combatively so. It has contributed to the ongoing effort by women to discover their gender authenticity.
Men were often the target of this process. Men were held responsible- sometimes lovingly and understandingly, sometimes angrily - for having defined women for their own needs. Men responded sometimes defensively, sometimes acquiescing, sometimes with an "ah ha" of awareness. Men also began to get defined in unflattering ways. Traditional male traits, activities, predispositions, patterns of comfort, manners of relating and experiencing, began to be considered, ...well, barbaric, or pathetically 'unrelated', or perhaps the condescendingly 'cute' expressions of boys who had never grown up. Some women and some men in the world at large, together with many women and many men in the mental health professions, began to conceptualize 'being human' in ways that could be thought to look like 'being feminine'. The feminist complaint that men had defined god in their own image, looked to be inverted with women defining 'human' in their own image. Men, in short, were in danger of having their gender uniqueness defined out of acceptability; of having the same thing done to them by women, that they had done to women.
Probably the most famous line to come out of the movie My Fair Lady is the plaint by Dr. Higgins, "why can't a woman be more like a man?". Herein lies the tragedy of all social relations. Too few of us are willing to experience the other beyond the foreshortened limits of our own ideas, feelings, aesthetics, and mannerisms. This is true nationally, ethnically, religiously, racially, and across class, gender, and even affinity groupings. We respond to the other as if the other, in his or her difference, is either sadly lacking- i.e. inferior- or an affront to decency and proper values- i.e. a threat. When we deem others inferior or a threat, we exert ourselves to change, or punish, or restrict, or banish them. Sadly, much of social relations has consisted of one group treating another group in this way. In our discussion of gender, it is equally tragic whether men do this to women or women do this to men.
What might be called the 'feminization of romantic relationships' has put many men on the defensive and made it harder for couples to grow toward that state of mutuality and empathy - the compassionate understanding of the other- so essential for a loving and collaborative relationship of equals. Many traditional 'male' traits -e.g. leaning toward a preference for action over talk, behavior over emotional expressiveness, keeping feelings to oneself to work them out over talking them through, doing things separately over doing things together- have been viewed as interpersonally 'defective' rather than 'validly different'. The result is too much unnecessary disappointment, anger, and hopelessness within couples. Whereas the label 'defective' leads us to want to change it or spurn it, the label 'validly different' invites us to want to learn about it, and work to accommodate and coordinate our different ways and different needs. Indeed, many of these traditional male traits together with traditional female traits, when mutually valued and flexibly coordinated, can form a balanced stability in the life of a couple.
What is needed is a willingness to be interested in, and accepting of, the difference of the other, and a commitment to treating the wounds of the other with sensitivity and validation.
It is impossible to grow up without being emotionally wounded. Some of us are lucky, - we were born into a relatively functional and loving family, into a class, ethnic group, race, or country where our exposure to discrimination or interpersonal cruelty was limited -, and our wounds are few and shallow. Some of us are less lucky, and our wounds are many and deep.
We bring our wounds to our romantic relationships for healing. We want our partner to be sensitive and loving, to act in healing ways toward our wounds even when we are not overt about our need. The most healing gesture we can make to the wounds of a partner is when we offer love and acceptance of their essential self. Men have been socialized to be unaware of their wounds and their needs in order to be strong. Men are exceptionally sensitive to having their wounds revealed because they fear they will be viewed as weak and treated with disdain. They fear both women and other men in this regard.
The emergence of women from their state of wounded constriction often brought with it an anger over the wound as well as a "my hurt deserves primacy" stance in their relations with men. Until the 1960's many women had been quite aware of male woundedness, and in successful relationships had sensitively cared for this wounded self without drawing direct attention to it, and with a minimum of mockery. In the more open and free-wheeling atmosphere of the post-1960's, men were often confronted with: "I am angry over what has been done to me and my hurt deserves reparations from you;" "if you have a wound too it's not my fault, and anyway my wound deserves first attention;" and "if we're going to address your wound you have to be open about it and expose it to my scrutiny no matter how shameful that feels."
Men reeled, and many withdrew in confusion, hurt, self-deprecation, or anger. Men were unprepared for the anger they faced in partners they thought loved them. They were confused by the demands being made upon them to change and become something that sometimes felt alien. They were hurt by the critical or demeaning characterizations of men so casually offered up as simple truths in otherwise benign social discourse. They were reluctant to expose their hurts for fear that in so doing they would feel, or appear to others, less of a man. They grew angry in order to manage their hurt and confusion, sometimes counter-demeaning women. Welcome to our enlightened version of the gender wars.
What some men and women lost at this point was the awareness that difficulties, complaints, and disappointments in a relationship can be addressed constructively, that we are not stuck choosing between merely swallowing our concerns or disdainful combat.
Men should never forget the great injustice done to women over long periods of time, nor should the difficulties faced by men in the post-1960's be treated by women as fair balance. We are all capable of being worried about losing what we need or cherish, or having our emotional bruises chafed. If, because of our worry, we pre-emptively attack or counter-attack others, and those 'others' include the person by whom we want to be cared for and cherished, we damage that which is most precious. In our collective effort to remediate old damage we can inadvertently cause new damage. To some extent this has happened in gender relations.
What is needed now is a fresh and compassionate appreciation of what is unique, idiosyncratic, and, yes, needful about our 'other'. It is ironic that we are attracted to partners who are different from us in certain meaningful ways, in fact we are drawn by those differences, and then, in the post-romantic phase of the relationship find ourselves preoccupied with critical feelings toward what has become the unattractive side of those once attractive differences. We need, instead, in this post-romantic phase, to tutor ourselves to act out of the assumption that what is different about our 'other' is essentially good, and a potential complement to our uniqueness. Our task is to manage our anxieties and fears of difference so we can stay open to, and even embrace, those differences. Then we can create relationships full of exhilaration, growth, and safety for both women and men.