Why Men and Women Fight, Part 7: Capitalism

The last two posts discussed the software inputs and pressures that couples face as a result of the social and political movement for equal opportunities and equal rights for women. Another cultural input into our software system is the siren song of capitalism. I love my creature comforts, but the older I get, the more it makes sense to me to simplify, simplify, simplify. Receding into the rear view mirror are the days when it seemed important to keep up with the Jones’s.

Creature comforts are some of the gifts of capitalism, which took over during the Industrial Revolution, 1760-1840, and began to significantly improve the standard of living for the general population. Now, in the West, capitalism is so taken for granted, it’s hard to believe it’s a reason why men and women fight.

But a couple centuries ago, subsistence living was how the general population lived. It was a much simpler time, though much harder, with an average life expectancy of less than 50 years. These days, life is much easier, thanks to the technological boom that began in the Industrial Revolution.

In time, life became much easier for the homemaker, what with washing machines, microwave ovens, refrigerators, etc., and for some homemakers, interests in life outside the home began to grow. However, for a century or so, domestic management continued to be one of the only professions open to her. Then came WWII (1940-1945), and the homemaker found herself taking over her husband’s job in the factory when he went off to war. When he returned, she had developed a taste for the power of the paycheck.

Then, with the Feminist Revolution a generation later (1960+), a large enough number of women entered the workforce, increasing GDP at lightening speed, along with the standard and cost of living. Before long, many families felt the need for two incomes, just to provide what had become the new norm of necessities. Beyond that, having two incomes whet the appetite for material things—things that had been out of reach just a couple decades before.

Several decades later, many men have developed a taste for expensive toys, while many women thirst for an endless supply of items to beautify the home or enrich the lives of the children. Both come up with elaborate justifications for these “needs,” without recognizing that their compulsions and motivations are fed by the expectations and pressures of a capitalistic social structure.

Clearly, this is an extreme simplification of an enormously complex reality contributing to the bitter financial battles for couples. Most often, financial arguments mask other issues, like worth and power, but I work with an awful lot of couples who fight over the incredible stress that results from trying to have it all and be it all—a malady that particularly affects women who (have been led to?) believe that’s possible.

This belief and/or expectation drives many women to do double duty, working full-time outside the home and then coming home to work another full-time position afterwards. They often complain that their husbands don’t support their aspirations for a professional life because he only does one job: the one that gives him a paycheck, not the one that happens after he comes home. Much of the domestic work still remains up to her, she complains. He says that he would help more if he knew what to do, and if it would deliver what she promises: more availability for sex. When it doesn’t, he complains that he can never do enough.

Because men and women usually want to spend both their money and their time so differently, these battles can sometimes divide couples permanently.

What would happen if we took a step back from the expectations of our capitalistic culture and decided that we and our kids didn’t have to keep up with the Jones’s? That being present in relationship is more important than any possession we could purchase? That making a contribution in the world, or making a paycheck, is an important but not all-important measure of our total life? What if both men and women prioritized tending to relationships—being fully present with our loved ones, not taking them for granted—making sure that our contribution outside the home didn’t exceed our contribution within it?

I don’t know of anyone who has gotten to the end of life and said, “I sure wish I had worked more,” but I do know many who have gotten to the end of life and said, “I’m really sorry I wasn’t there for my spouse or my kids like they needed. I regret that.”

That’s the rub of capitalism. Free market trading can make life a lot easier and more enjoyable, but it just can’t buy what we most value in the end.

Why Men and Women Fight, Part 6.1: Feminism 1.1

Yesterday, I promised to elaborate on how a grand social movement that began 250 years ago impacts relationships today. Let me share an example or two.

My boyfriend and I lead a discussion group for people who want to date intentionally and intelligently. Most of the folks who show up are mid-life divorcees with similar stories, desires, fears and anxieties. They want to find love, but they’ve been burnt, and they don’t want to repeat mistakes they’ve already made.

Consistently, we hear men say that women these days are not like the women of yesteryear. Men don’t have to pursue anymore, they say, because there’s no shortage of women who come onto them. This is flattering, of course, until that dynamic plays itself out in the relationship over time.

From the perspective of many men, today’s women turn out to be controlling and entitled, not warm and inviting like they were during the hormone high of the first six months. From the perspective of women, men are either passive and lacking in confidence, or emotionally distance and cocky.

From my perspective, men and women simply don’t understand themselves and each other anymore. Feminism, important and necessary though the movement has been (I have my opinions about the problematic and dramatic shift in the movement’s more recent focus on sexuality), has left both genders unsure of what’s essentially good about them, and what each has to offer the world. Men are presenting more like women used to (perhaps because they thought they’d better if they wanted to retain their connection to the regular sex they need), and women are presenting more like men used to (perhaps because men were the only models of the power they desired). Both sexes are in an identity crisis, and relationships are breaking apart in the upheaval.

I find it interesting that some of the men in our discussion group have expressed that they would never date a women whose on-line profile reveals her income to be greater than his. You can call this archaic and politically incorrect, but it’s still the reality for many, and I think it represents a practical example of how a grand social movement can manifest on much smaller scale.

Another way the feminist movement impacts relationships on a small scale involves divorce law. Until the Tender Years Doctrine, a development in England in the late 1800s, fathers were automatically awarded custody of the children post divorce. After feminist activist Carol Norton convinced British Parliament to protect mothers’ rights in 1839, the presumption of maternal custody eventually became the new norm. This is still the most common practice, even though legislation toward the end of the 20th Century refers to granting custody in the “best interests of the child.”

Many Western men tell stories of emotional and financial devastation when they lose regular contact with their children, and sometimes give up more of the financial pie than is equitable, out of a sense of nobility and honor to their former wives.

Of course there are still plenty of Western women who end up financially hamstrung post-divorce, as well, because many have fewer marketable skills and educational qualifications than their former husbands, coupled with a less flexible schedule to work and take classes, because of their responsibility as primary caretakers for the children. Many such women struggle to live into the empowerment afforded by feminism, still experiencing themselves as disadvantaged, oppressed and dependent.

This is the state of affairs 50 years after the Feminist Revolution in the United States began in earnest, and in my opinion, we have to both clean up (in more progressive sectors) and catch up (in less progressive ones), so that men and women can work together as a team to create a good life for themselves and their children.

If men and women can reinvent themselves in this new world, broadening their respective characters in such a way that men can be tender without having to sacrifice their strength, and women can be strong without having to sacrifice their tenderness, we will have achieved the original intents of the feminist movement. Equal opportunity and equal rights for all—human rights—allows men and women to retain inherent qualities of their sex, while developing the ability to be both independent from each other and interdependent on each other…simultaneously.

As a psychotherapist, I could share endless practical examples and stories of how the disruption of traditional power and social structures is impacting real relationship in the 21st Century, but I’m wondering if you’d like to share some of your own? (Please share respectfully.)

Tomorrow: why we fight about money.

Why Men and Women Fight, Part 6: Feminism 1.0

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that in the last five posts we’ve covered the operating system and the hardware that leave men and women fighting like cats and dogs. Let’s talk now about the software that gets programmed into us—the “conditioning,” in the parlance of psychology—that can leave us clawing at each other, too.

When we think of conditioning, we mostly think of what we learn in our families of origin about how to think, what to believe, how to behave, etc., and all of this early training certainly does program us to see the world in the ways our parents conceive. As we develop into adulthood, we sometimes adopt these perspectives and sometimes discard them in favor of others that either resonate with us or that we deem to be somehow advantageous to us.

What we don’t often consider to be part of our software programming—the inputs that shape our perspectives—is the cultural messages that have been fashioned through the ages before us, and then get presented to us in packages as if they are new.

For example, few couples in 2016 realize that they fight as a result of some of the social developments brought on by the French Revolution in 1789-1799. Seriously. The modern era unfolded in the shadow of this revolution because of the social upheaval and change that it sparked world-wide. The toppling of the French monarchy sparked the decline of absolute monarchies globally, replacing them with republics and democracies. Its liberal and radical ideas, including the rights of all human beings, not just the aristocracy, led to the development and proliferation of modern political ideologies, including one of the broad categories of this blog post: feminism.

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she argued that women only appear inferior to men because of their lack of education, and suggested that both men and women be treated as rational human beings in a society founded upon reason. We’re now seeing the social development of those ideas en masse, including unique developments in the battle of the sexes, 225 years later.

For example, our education systems have changed so radically that for every four women who graduate from college, only three men do. Consequently, more women are filling management and C-level positions than ever before, leading to marriages in which women are sometimes the primary bread-winners. Some call this “economically mixed” partnerships, although we’ve always had those, just not with women owning the economic part of the mixture.

And this just in the last 50 years. Until Betty Friedan’s research, published in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, women were primarily homemakers and men bread-winners. While that is still the most common configuration for couples, women are entering the public and professional sphere like never before. I’m grateful to the men and women who have fought to make equal opportunities available for people like me—a female from an impoverished, abusive home and religious community—to acquire several advanced degrees and certifications, so that I could not only support myself, but do so with meaningful and rewarding professional work.

However, these important and necessary social movements have had an unanticipated impact on relationships. With more women in the workplace, the opportunity for affairs to develop has increased exponentially. Additionally, the birth control pill (1960), no-fault divorce (1969+), and the legalization of abortion (1972), have contributed to relationship stressors that couples have never had to face before. In 1970, Alvin Toffler published Future Shock in which he describes the psychological state of individuals and entire societies when too much change occurs at too fast a pace for our psyches to keep up.

These shock waves include the blame game that has become especially hot in the feminist political sphere these days. Many Third and Fourth Wave Feminists blame men for the current nuances in the battle of the sexes. Many 21st Century men blame feminism for the social conflict that they believe contributes to the discontent of their female partners and the dissolution of their families.

And so men and women fight partly because of the cultural upheavals that began with the French Revolution, leading to important evolutionary shifts in Western culture and in the human species. Will these shifts lead to the emergence of a more humane existence for all human beings? I believe they can and they will over the next several centuries, but right now, we’re experiencing shock waves from which many relationships are suffering. (See my post: “Feminism: For Better or Worse.”)

Tomorrow, we’ll look more specifically at how these grand social movements can make for heated arguments in real time between couples.

Why Men and Women Fight, Part 5: Dents, Damage and Wounds

We talked last time about the implicit nurturing of a child that results in a style of relating that the child takes with him or her into adulthood. This attachment style is hardwired into place by the age of 4.

Right about that time, the child goes off to school and establishes a social life beyond the home, complete with influences of all kinds. Those who embark on this journey with a secure attachment style navigate the new social sphere with relative ease. Those with an insecure attachment style struggle to make healthy connections, to varying degrees and in varying ways.

For the next 15 years or so, we continue along that social journey, encountering relationships that sometimes bring us joy and hope, and sometimes dent, damage and wound us. We react by further developing our style of relating (See Why Men and Women Fight, Part 4). In effect, we create a wall around our true selves so that we don’t get too hurt in the fray, or so that we at least minimize how hurt we appear to others. After all, a wounded animal is most likely to be left as prey for stronger animals.

Physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual abuse and neglect result in some of the most common wounds, the worst of these being the kind you can’t see…the kind that doesn’t get you to the emergency room. (Research suggests that emotional neglect is even more damaging to the brain than physical abuse.)

So by the time we reach adulthood, most of us have accumulated a variety of dents along the way, and few of us even recognize how we fashion for ourselves a shield of self-protection. We’re just surviving, and we don’t even consciously realize it.

Then we meet some beautiful person who is also all dented up, and our hormones tell us that this person is the perfect solution to fill all the hollow places inside. And they’re looking at us through the same hormone high, expecting us to do the same for them. This works beautifully for about 6 months or so, until the hormone high dissipates and we’re left realizing that the person we thought was going to fill our emptiness is actually expecting us to fill theirs.

And that disillusionment, creates some really hot fights between men and women. Worse, we don’t even realize that those losses along the way have changed us, have wounded us, and that we’ve been demanding our damaged partner to keep us from having to grieve those old losses that left our real self somewhere deep inside a self-protective shell, only sending out a pseudo representative to interact for us until we deem it safe to play without our emotional armor.

Our pseudo representative relates to others through a lens of (mostly unconscious) fear, anxiety and stress. This is the self that manipulates through shame, blame, rewards, threats, distance, proximity and a host of other strategies. This self seeks approval, and is willing to sacrifice the essential self for acceptance. Often times, the essential self, the true, authentic self, has been tucked so far away, it’s hard to even find him or her anymore.

Now imagine partners relating to each other from this posture of self-protection, two pseudo-selves who had imbued the other with superpowers to heal wounds inflicted by people and circumstances that predate the current relationship. Fighting erupts, representing the disappointment and disillusionment that sets in when the foolish belief in the perfect other is exposed for what it is: a lie told by one’s own wishful thinking. Better to blame and resent the other than to take responsibility for being the fool of our pseudo-self’s desire to believe what we wanted to be true, rather than what simply is true.

Fortunately, fighting because of unresolved damage and loss diminishes as both he and she can identify their unresolved wounds, responsibly tend to our own, and allow the other the respect to do the same. Letting go of the demand that one fill the emptiness of the other takes a planet-sized burden off of a relationship.

So now we’ve looked at the operating system and the hardware that make men and women fight. Tomorrow we’ll discuss some software that can also have that effect.

Why Men and Women Fight, Part 4: Attachment Styles

Okay, so we’ve talked about the operating system disparities that make men and women fight. We’re just very different animals right from the get go. It’s natural.

Then there’s the hardware, the result of the early nurturing process, that gets hardwired into our psyches—before we even develop explicit memory (somewhere around age 5). Prior to that, our brains process our experiences on an implicit level, and what we learn from our early life experiences gets etched into our view of the world, without us even realizing it. I’ll call it “nurtural.”

Ideally, in the first 3-4 years of life, our caregivers interact with us in such a way that we develop a solid sense of ourselves and others. Parents do this by providing for our real needs—not needs that they imagine us to have based on their own anxieties, stresses, and immaturity. Caregivers who nurture well, who provide an environment in which the developing child can rely on them for both structure and freedom, as the child actually needs, are also able to regulate their positive and negative emotions, so that the child isn’t drawn into regulating the inner world of the caregivers. Such an environment leaves a child with what we call a secure attachment style, which the child then takes it into all relationships from then on.

Individuals with a secure attachment style are able to both be independent from and intimate with others. They don’t worry about whether others approve of them, so they are free to develop their interests, without having to sacrifice their sense of self out of an undue need for acceptance.

On the other hand, children whose caregivers interact with them based on imagined needs—keeping the child too close or providing too little guidance—create an environment, out of their own anxieties, that promotes one of three insecure attachment styles, that the child takes with him or her into adult relationships.

Adults with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style seek high levels of intimacy, and become fearful when separated from loved ones. They often doubt their worth and blame the other if he or she isn’t responsive enough.

Adults who develop a dismissive-avoidant attachment style deny needing close relationships, and tend to be invulnerable, independent, self-sufficient, and condescending. They usually hide their feelings and distance themselves when they sense rejection.

Those who emerge from childhood with a fearful-avoidant attachment style find it difficult to trust others, although they do express the desire to be in close relationships. These mixed feelings emanate from feeling unworthy of care and suspicious of the intentions of others.

So imagine what a fight might sound like between someone who desires but feels unworthy of care (fearful-avoidant) and whose partner displays little need for close relationship (dismissive-avoidant). Yikes! Or what about someone who feels smothered (dismissive-avoidant) by their partner’s desire to spend all their time together (anxious-ambivalent). Argh!

To make matters worse, we tend to be attracted to others at the same level of our own functioning (not necessarily the same attachment style), so people with a secure attachment style tend to be drawn to others with a secure attachment style, and people with an insecure attachment style tend to be drawn to others with an insecure attachment style.

Fortunately, people who enter the adult world with an insecure attachment style can develop a secure attachment style…by doing a hell of a lot of psychological repair of attachment injuries. I’m a product of that process myself, and can attest that it’s not easy work, but I highly recommend it if you want to fight less…or at least more fairly.

More tomorrow on our hardware, and then we’ll talk about our software, which gets men and women into some especially heated battles.

Why Men and Women Fight, Part 3: Justice and Mercy

The research studies of Kohlberg and Gillian (See Why Men & Women Fight, Part 2) roughly approximate an age-old philosophical debate about how to evaluate right and wrong. Men and women do that  differently, too. Kohlberg’s study found that a typical male follows a deontological approach, meaning most men find something to be intrinsically right or wrong, based on principle. Gilligan’s study found that a typical female follows a teleological approach, meaning that she deems something to be right or wrong depending on how much good or harm results.

Philosophers have been waging this debate for ages. Perhaps both approaches are incomplete without the modifying influence of the other. Combining these perspectives results in more complicated moral justification, however. Justice would say that a certain principle should govern a decision. Adding the mercy perspective, requires that the anticipated outcome be considered as part of a decision. The combined approach balances the theoretical with the concrete, the universal with the particular.

Adding the mercy component to a justice orientation also requires that emotions be part of any moral decision-making process, as Aristotle posited in Nichomachean Ethics: “feeling at the right time, about the right things, in relation to the right people; and for the right reason.” Hume also described an ethic that includes both rational analysis and character.

Gilligan suggests that our approach to ethics is formed when we are little boys and girls. Our nature and our nurture, Gilligan contends, leaves boys seeking fairness, equality and impartiality when they encounter other males who want the same item. Girls, on the other hand, come into conflict due to competing responsibilities to the people in their lives. This guides them to a very different ethical approach.

In the end, males and females fight over these perspectives without even realizing it, and without being able to name the differences. Men come to their wives from an adversarial standpoint because it feels as natural as breathing. Women come to their husbands from an empathic standpoint because to consider anything else feels like putting on someone else’s shoes.

So what to do about all this? I don’t know. I know all this stuff, and I still fight with my boyfriend for the very same reasons I’ve outlined in these posts. We just see reality from different angles, and no matter how much you know the other’s perspective is wholly other, it’s really hard to remember this when you have to decide how to parent the kids, how to spend money, where to go for the holidays, or whether tonight’s the night for sex.

And of course, our disparate operating systems are only part of why we fight, so we need to address our differing software, as well.

For now, I’ll just put my longing out there, that we can learn to listen to the other from the standpoint of the other’s operating system, without having to agree with the other. It takes a hell of a lot of commitment, and both partners must have equal parts of that. It’s the only way I can imagine for cats and dogs to occasionally peaceably and amicably share the same bed.

I’ll start addressing various psychological software incompatibilities tomorrow…

Why Men and Women Fight, Part 2: Ethical Development

If you take how men and women view the world and how they arrive at what they know (see blog post titled: Why Men and Women Fight, Part 1) into relationship, you get some hotly contested battles. When people, more typically men, employ objectivity and reason in decisions about character and decision-making, they will tend toward conclusions of rights, fairness and justice. When people, more typically women, employ emotions along with reason, context and responsibility to arrive at how people should act and choose, they will tend toward conclusions of responsibility to others, empathy and mercy.

While Perry and Belenky studied the differences between the sexes in the way they come to know what is “true,” Kohlberg and Gilligan identified differences in moral and ethical development. Kohlberg, studying males, identified three stages of moral development: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

In the preconventional stage, subjects first decide what’s good by what has the most power, and then by reciprocity. What brings pain or pleasure determines right and wrong.

In conventional morality, the focus shifts from self to others, measuring what’s good against the expectations of family and society. Approval and acceptance guide morality at the beginning of this stage, and by the end of it, law and order are even more important.

In the post-conventional stage of ethical development, Kohlberg’s males demonstrated autonomous, self-determined thinking, most valuing principles such as utilitarianism, the “social contract,” agreements, democratic processes, fairness, respecting the rights of others, and promoting the common good. As this stage develops, individuals often adopt more general, universal principles, such as the Golden Rule, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, justice, reciprocity, human equality and dignity. Kohlberg called living by such principles an ethics of justice, and it is a rational, impartial, objective, non-emotional stance.

Gilligan’s studies, on the other hand, found that women tend to stop at stage three, developing care and responsibility to others, rather than justice and individual rights. Helping others and minimizing harm take center stage in this ethics of care. From this ethical perspective, every situation is different and how to respond must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Every problem requires a tailor-made solution.

While Kohlberg’s stages show male development from a simple to an increasingly abstract way of ethical thinking, Gilligan’s stages show female development from caring only for oneself, moving into a sense of responsibility to others, and ending in an acceptance of the principle of care for others and oneself.

Like Perry and Belenky et al., Kohlberg and Gilligan observed that both males and females start in the same place, external authority and self-centeredness, and move toward forging one’s own ethics.

But there’s the rub: males and females tend to forge a very different ethic, in the end. Men tend toward justice; women tend toward mercy. Treating people with impartiality based on the abstract principle of justice is part and parcel of the (typically) male detachment I describe yesterday. Mercy, on the other hand, with its emphasis on reducing the amount of pain and suffering in the world, is more personal…and more (typically) female.

The journey of Western women toward a more mature ethic requires them to pass through a step that most Western men don’t encounter. In order to reach autonomy and independence, women have to question socialization that says their role is to subjugate their interests for that of their loved ones. Learning to apply an ethics of care as much to herself as anyone else is a critical step on a woman’s development to ethical maturity.

And we wonder why men and women fight? How we ever reach consensus is the greater wonder!

More tomorrow….

Why Men and Women Fight, Part 1: How We Know Things

Men and women fight like cats and dogs, because, well, we are like cats and dogs. We’re just very different animals, so says the research. We experience reality in fundamentally different ways, probably resulting from both nature (body, brain and hormone differences) and nurture (boys and girls are treated differently from birth). Science is still trying to figure all this out, though, so this blog entry is about what is, not about why it is that way.

What we do know is that what we observe. Men tend to understand reality primarily from a detached, objective, logical viewpoint. Women tend to experience reality from a connected, intuitive, emotional viewpoint. Traditionally and empirically, the latter way of knowing has been considered not just different, but inferior in Western cultures. Modern science requires hard facts, not feelings, about how things work, so women’s ways of knowing confounds the empirical method. Or maybe it doesn’t.

Science is now engaging in empirical testing about the voracity of intuitive epistemology, and finding that both ways of knowing can be equally productive…and equally questionable. Psychological research shows that men and women come to know what they know by a different set of stages.

In the 1960s, psychologist William Perry studied (primarily) male college students and identified four stages by which his subjects arrived at conclusions about reality (Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, 1968). In the first stage, duality, black and white thinking rules the day. Authority figures who give facts and answers are assumed to be correct.

In Stage Two, unacceptable multiplicity, it becomes clear that authority figures don’t agree, so one’s own authority figures are assumed correct and the rest wrong or incompetent. Black and white thinking still rules.

In Stage Three, acceptable multiplicity, gray becomes an option, with the individual’s own subjective interpretation of reality being the right one for the individual, while others are allowed to have their own opinions.

In Stage Four, relativism, the individual makes peace with conflicting opinions, and becomes much less tied to absolutes, although there is an special appreciation for the informed opinion, one that is backed by a reasonable explanation, arrived upon by a constructed intellectual approach.

Some 20 years after Perry published his research, a group of female psychologists conducted similar research on females, which identified a different progression of epistemological development. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (Women’s Ways of Knowing, 1986) found that women don’t necessarily follow the pattern toward knowledge that Perry identified for males. Both men and women start and end at roughly the same place—starting with black and white ways of knowing (what Belenky et al. called received knowledge) and ending with an understanding that reality is less precise and objective than it seemed at first, so adopting both objective and subjective ways of knowing becomes important (called constructed knowledge).

Even the first stage is somewhat different for men than for women, Belenky et al. found. Males, from the start, tend to identify themselves as authority figures, viewing the world through an “us/them” perspective, while females tend to see others as authority figures, and themselves as receiving the right way of seeing things.

In the second stage, subjective knowledge, truth is seen as personal, private, subjective, and intuitive. There are still absolutes, but they now arise from within. At this stage, females sometimes make themselves the authority, with empirical methodology taking a back seat to their own intuition.

In the third stage, procedural knowledge, women add objective and rational ways of knowing (separate knowing) to their epistemology, adopting the scientific method as another way of discovering truth. Many women, in this stage, however, begin to rely on empathy (connected knowing) as much as anything as a way to understand reality. Separate knowing relies on impartial but adversarial debate while connected knowing relies on mutual trust and dialogue.

In the fourth stage, constructed knowledge, women try to reconcile the opposing epistemological strategies of exploring facts and experiencing feelings. They try to blend objective, scientific and rational with subjective, intuitive and emotional. Women at this stage have reached the conclusion that all knowledge is constructed, fashioned, and that the knower is an integral part of the context of what becomes known.

That Perry’s model was decidedly absent of intuition and empathy explains, at least in part, why the battle of the sexes is still so hot. Most men simply don’t tend to consider feelings, empathy, trust or personal relationships in their quest for knowledge, and they see the need to as inferior. They remain detached, rather than connected; they come as skeptics, not as believers. Most women, on the other hand, can’t trust a reality that disparages a method that seems to them as natural and necessary as air. No wonder men and women become exasperated with each other! They don’t see the epistemology of the other as legitimate or trustworthy!

You’d think that the maturity and broader perspective that both sexes eventually adopt, which uses data of all kinds to understand and interpret reality, would allow them to see and appreciate the viewpoint of the other. If only….

More tomorrow….

The Justice of Letting Go

I just watched a couple hours of men’s rights activist Karen Straughan on YouTube, and was often encouraged by her intellectual approach to appreciating what men have done to protect and provide for our world for millennia. In the end, however, I was left disturbed and dismayed. The heat around feminism is a lot hotter and the fight much uglier than I realized, with people flinging mud and hand grenades at each other. While Straughan presented a variety of important and reasonable points, she also littered her talk with a generous helping of emotional appeals, strategic omissions of reality, and other propagandistic methods of delivery. It seems like no one can stay on the intellectual level for long in this conversation.

Straughan’s presentation reminded me of Rachel Maddow, whose views I tend to agree with, but whom I can’t watch because of her condescending attitude. To her credit, Straughan was far less sensational than Maddow, but still unable to keep a lid on the sarcasm, mockery and other emotionality that has no legitimate place in an intellectual arena. I call logical fallacy, and I find it disheartening.

Hopeless, really. Growing up in a household where emotional grenades and gender bashing (on both sides) was the norm left me with an aversion to emotional argumentation. I’m hoping my blog can be a place that’s free of this kind of reactivity, but I’m thinking that this topic may be too fraught with anger on all sides.

Plus, the topic itself creates unnecessary tension between me and my partner, and I don’t think it’s worth that. Before Brad, I was mostly oblivious to the depth and breadth of this cultural conversation. I was just surviving a household where traditional gender roles were believed to be God-ordained, and in my particular family, that belief was enforced with violence, overt and covert. I just wanted the fighting to stop, and I wanted to get out of there and live my own life. I didn’t want to be dependent on a man because I saw how unfortunate that deal was for my mom.

I decided that my survival was my own responsibility, no one else’s, so I pursued an education that would afford me a paycheck that would allow me to take care of myself. I was also compelled to offer something meaningful to the world, something that came from resources I had within. So I became a teacher, then a psychotherapist. I love my work, and my clients make real and lasting progress when they take ownership of their healing journey. I don’t care if the person sitting across from me is male or female. Solidity is sexless, and my job is to help each person I see become increasingly solid in who they are as a human being.

Now that I know Brad, who is deeply invested in this feminism vs. men’s rights debate due to his own experiences in his previous long-term relationships, I have learned more than I want to know, I think. I’m not sure I want to carry this torch. I have other torches to carry, torches that my life experience has made me more passionate about.

Besides, I miss my innocence, my uninformedness about feminism and men’s rights, which is probably just another way of saying ignorance is bliss. I’m sure that seems to some like sticking my head in the sand, but from my perspective, it’s just not my fight to fight. It’s been difficult enough trying to fight the demons of my own past, trying to reconcile the injustices of my upbringing. Carrying those old wounds around with me eventually became too cumbersome, and I realized they were only stealing from my present and my future. Continuing to cry oppression and victimization after one has escaped the battlefield and healed from the wounds inflicted there only allows perpetrators to continue to win, long after the blood has dried on the battlefield.

So rather than allowing the harmful people of my past to keep stealing from me, I had to stop seeking justice some someone else as a proxy for those who’d done me wrong, and let it all go.

Plus, I just want to enjoy my present life with my awesome boyfriend, without tension sparked by unresolved wounds from past relationships. Letting go is just a more certain route to freedom than clinging to justice sometimes.

To Forgive is Human; to Reconcile, Divine.

In 1994, Rwanda experienced a bloody genocide, resulting in over 800,000 brutal murders, including about 300,000 children with another 100,000 losing their parents. The killers who were caught were eventually imprisoned for their crimes. While in prison, some participated in programs that helped them own their atrocities and develop empathy for the victims and their families.

Simultaneously, survivors of the atrocities, many of whom had watched friends and family members murdered by machete, were grieving their losses and coming to terms with what they had seen and experienced. After much internal wrestling, some were able to forgive their killers. Amazing.

In 2003, when the offenders began to be released from prison, an even more amazing initiative developed: A program to bring the two sides together in a process of reconciliation. Seriously? Who in their right mind would associate in any way with someone who had murdered their love ones?

Forgiveness is hard enough, but it only takes one, and individuals can eventually let go of the anger, hurt pain, and disillusionment, while still remembering what happened. But reconciliation takes two, and you can never be sure if the other party has sincere motives.

Believe it or not, some victims and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide were genuinely invested in healing the breach of trust. The perpetrators had to own their harm and live with the remorse and regret of their actions. The victims had to grieve the losses and come to terms with the humanity of their victimizers, so that they could forgive them and open their hearts to the terrifying possibility of reconciliation. And yet, if Rwanda is any example, this is precisely what we’re able to do as human beings. In my view, it represents our highest capacity.

The bridge that crosses this divide? Empathy. Mutual empathy.

You would think that the battle of the sexes is small potatoes compared to genocide, so could we not learn from the example of those Rwandans who have been able to transcend the natural survival instincts of our species to relate to each other on a whole new level? Can empathy help us appreciate the human struggles of both male and female as our species and society has evolved? Can we listen to one another deeply enough to feel for the pain that the other has born, so that we can bury the hatchet in this ancient conflict of the sexes? If they can pull off such a divine feat in Rwanda, can we not do this in the West between men and women? Yeah, maybe I’m dreaming.

I have longed for, and pursued, this kind of healing in my own family, and it hasn’t happened. There are still family secrets that we can’t discuss openly, honestly, humbly, and the wounds remain tender and sore. What a shame. What a waste of the short time we have on this planet.

Here on this earth, men and women—people—have their own contributions to make. Is there a way that we can support, encourage and appreciate whatever that may be, without wrangling over the sex of the person making a particular contribution? Is there a way to reconcile the relationship between men and women? Can both come to the table with an open heart and mind for the further development of our species? Can we find a way to transcend our basic emotional reactivity to one another? Can we do better?

[Check out how they’re doing it in Rwanda in As We Forgive, by Catherine Claire Larson. The most powerful book I’ve ever read on forgiveness and reconciliation. Amazing stories of incredible people. We could learn from them.]