Reflection 61: Women, Boundaries, and Sex

Radical Decency was created to answer this question: Living in an endemically indecent world, how can we create better lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world? In response, it offers – not an answer – but a process: Of reflection, dialogue, support and collaboration, trial and error, guided always by our values-based approach to living.

This reflection exemplifies this ever-exploratory aspect of the philosophy. Being a psychotherapist, you never stop learning – and never know where the next area of insight and growth will be. Some time ago, now, I realized that my practice included a group of powerful, assertive women who had, what I call, curious power outages. Often, but not always, it was around men: The felt need to placate or put a romantic partner, father, or other significant male first. Working with these women has heightened my sense of how the culture’s gender-based stereotypes play out in the lives of women, the topic of this week’s Reflection.

I have run men’s groups and written about men for many years, and do so with some confidence. Writing about women, however, is different since in key areas I lack the “gut knowing” that comes from shared experience. But assuming an unbridgeable gap in understanding between the genders would defeat our larger purposes. A radically decent relationship requires respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, and acceptance. And these qualities can only emerge if we feel fully capable of understanding the other’s reality. So here are some of my insights about being a woman in this culture, gleaned from my journey of discovery, first of all, with my wife Dale – my teacher and partner in every sense of the word – and with the amazing group of women in my practice. I offer it with what is, I hope, appropriate deference.


Women are, without question, pushed by the culture toward care-taking dispositions. To illustrate this point, Terence Real and Carol Gilligan tell the following story. Ask an 8-year-old girl what kind of pizza she wants and she will tell you. Ask an 11-year old girl and she’ll say, “I’m not sure.”  Ask a 13-year-old girl – now fully socialized to her assigned gender role – and she is likely to ask, “what do you want?”

13-year-old girls – and 30-year-old women – don’t stop wanting their pizza with mushrooms and onions. But engrained in their habitual way of being is a reflexive instinct to compromise their needs to the perceived needs of others. So when it comes to setting appropriate boundaries in their relationships – boundaries that work for them – an inescapable conflict is created. Their wants and desires, often suppressed to the point of unconsciousness, are regularly at odds with their felt need to tend to others.

And even as girls are being socialized to be accommodating and compliant, a complementary process is pushing boys in the opposite direction: To be forceful and aggressive but to suppress their relational needs and desires.

When sex is added to the mix, this already confusing situation becomes even more complicated. Transacting the tricky business of sexual desire in this bifurcated world greatly exacerbates the conflict and confusion that women (and men) experience when is comes to setting appropriate relational boundaries.

Here’s how it works on the women’s side.

Teenage boys long for the relational closeness they are told they shouldn’t need. So starved for affection, touch and stroking, sex takes on inordinate importance – since it is the one place where they can get these needs met in a culturally condoned way.

Raised as men, they typically have no trouble asking for sex, often in deeply aggressive ways. The result? It is the rare women who, from her teenage years forward, hasn’t regularly faced significant male boundary crossing, much of it explicitly sexual.

Given this reality, here is the situation a teenage girl faces. Even as she struggles with her newly emerging sexual desire, she is required to deal with persistent male boundary crossing – and to do so in the context of an insistent, culturally groomed, internalized voice telling her to tend to her partner’s needs. This is a prescription for confusion and pain, not only for a teenage girl, but also for a 30-year-old woman, if she hasn’t cultivated the understanding and emotional tools needed to move beyond her engrained care-taking habits.

Note, very importantly, that this painful pattern plays out with equal force outside the bedroom as well. Men – engaging, unaware, in their part of this culturally dictated dance – regularly cross women’s boundaries in ways that are uninvited and overly aggressive: An unwanted sexualized look; a dirty joke; a rat-tat-tat of sarcastic comments that put the woman in her place; a fart followed by a smirking laugh. Given women’s boundary confusion, their ability to clearly and unambiguously respond to these sorts of behaviors is, all too often, compromised as well.


For women – and men – moving beyond this engrained cultural dance is a vital but tricky business. One significant obstacle is the fact that, while we internalize our gender roles, we are also deeply inducted into the pattern itself. So when women “turn the tables” – becoming sexual aggressors, skilled at emotionally dominating their partners – they do little to heal their boundary confusion. Instead, the pain of the culturally assigned woman’s role is exchanged for the confusion and pain of the man’s role – with the underlying pattern persisting with undiminished force.

The true path of healing requires disengagement from the pattern itself. Instead of fighting fire with fire – learning to be as aggressive and boundary crossing as men – women need to let go of their reflexive care taking habits. This does not mean that their nurturing acts of love should end. Instead, these acts need to become more and more volitional. She is should be able to warmly respond to her relational partner’s needs and longings but just as capably say no – to unwanted sex or to a pepperoni pizza.


What I see regularly see in my practice, even in the midst of my clients’ steady progress toward this new mindset, is a subtle and corrosive process that sucks them back toward their old ways.

So, for example, a woman, estranged but not separated from her husband, establishes a clear physical boundary and no sex rule. But instead of respecting her choices, the husband – in his instinctually male way – seeks to erode and push through her boundaries.  He makes her morning coffee, offers unsolicited back rubs, and insinuates himself back into her bedroom and bed. She, in turn, groomed by the culture to be a caretaker, yields to this relentless pressure, inch by imperceptible inch. In the end, the physical and sexual distance she needs to feel safe is compromised.

Another women struggles with a sense of being judged by her husband as the dirty clothes accumulate in the hamper. He, like her, is aware of their gender-based patterns and seeks to do better: Making requests and not boundary crossing demands; pro-actively taking on house keeping chores. But despite their efforts, the old patterns persist and re-emerge. Why? Because his tone of voice and emotional energy communicate far more impatience than he thinks. And she, in turn, is primed to amplify whatever tone of insistence and judgment she perceives in his words and deeds: “My job is to tend to my husband, home and family and in his eyes – and mine – I am falling short.”

A third woman – my wife – is planning to spend Saturday with her girlfriends even though this is a time we usually reserve for each other. Not at my self-aware best, I slip into male boundary crossing behaviors: Annoyance and pouting.

When Dale (my wife) is on her emotional game she comfortably, and lovingly, maintains her autonomy and integrity leaving me with a reassuring hug and these words: “It’s nice to know that my leaving matters you, that I’ll be missed, that I’m loved so much.”  But, at others times, my boundary pushing triggers her engrained care-giving habits of mind and – feeling guilty about her choice – she responds to my behaviors with defensiveness, anger, and withdrawal.


As these vignettes illustrate, women face an enormous challenge as they seek to move beyond their engrained care-taking habits of mind. The work requires new levels of understanding, awareness – and enormous persistence. It also requires the presence of mind and emotional bravery to make new, very different choices in the most trying of situations. But change is possible. Doing so, women can progressively let go of their old patterns, allowing their innate power and assertiveness to emerge.

Finally, because our gender roles are so enmeshed and reinforcing, we men need to recognize the vital role we can play in the growth work of the women in our lives. How?  By tending to, and healing, our own gender-based ways of operating.

Indeed, aspiring to be the best possible husband, parent, friend and co-worker, nothing less will suffice.

Reflection 60: The (Not So) Mysterious Absence of Public Role Models

If we hope to craft more effective change strategies, we need to come to grips with the dynamism of the predominant culture. A marvelously intricate and evolving system, it perpetuates and entrenches itself in so many ways.

Some of these processes are obvious: The aggressive, bullying, and self-aggrandizing attitudes and behaviors that pervade our culture. But many others are hidden and subtle, and we need to come to grips with these processes as well. Why? Because failing to do so, they operate unseen and without restraint in our lives, defeating by indirection our efforts to create a more decent life and world.

A number of these phenomena are discussed in earlier Reflections: # 8, Why We Aren’t Good Students; Why It Matters (the decline of critical thinking); # 22, Consumerism – and the Passivity it Breeds, #29, Losing Our Communal Roots; # 31, Perfectionism; and #51, Monumental Self-Absorption (our culturally distorted view of history).

In this Reflection, I discuss another of these processes: The ways in which we are deprived of public role models to guide and inspire us. In this area, as in so many others, there are multiple, mutually reinforcing cultural forces that lead to this result. Key aspects of this phenomenon are discussed below.

  1. Disqualifying potential leaders and role models.

This process flows directly out of the fact that we live in a culture permeated by a competitive, win/lose mindset: If someone else is up, I must be down.

Because we habitually view the world from this perspective – because we are in competition with everyone else – we reflexively judge others, looking for weaknesses and shortcomings. See Reflection 16, Mainstream Thinking – The Tyranny of Opinion and Judgment. As a result, we are experts, not at identifying and nurturing leaders, but at tearing them down.

When a person emerges as a potential leader, the mainstream media’s coverage is not saturated with stories that explore his or her strengths. Instead the hunt is on for disqualifying flaws and “gotcha” moments: Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my front porch;” Howard Dean’s scream; Bill Clinton’s sex life; Dan Quayle’s “you’re no John Kennedy” moment; Gary Hart’s illicit romp on the Monkey Business; Edmund Muskie’s tears in the snows of New Hampshire; and so on.

The result of this process is a debasement of the entire process of finding leaders and role models. Many of our best people avoid the public arena entirely. And those who don’t – and survive this cultural witch hunt – are, typically, cautious and deeply conventional people who have long since learned to hide, rather than share, their true humanity; hardly the sort of people who are capable of leading and inspiring by their example.

  1. Our confused understanding of the leaders we do have.

A second reason for the absence of inspiring role models lies in our confusion about the qualities we are looking for. We may think that we are seeking wise and decent leaders, but the truth is far more complicated. Over the last 40 years, a number of Presidents were seemingly decent men attempting to make thoughtful and responsible decisions including, for example, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush.

The fact that Ford, Carter, and the elder Bush each failed to get re-elected is not, it seems to me, a coincidence. Why? Because, in a culture that puts its highest priority on winning, moderation, reflection, and decency are associated with weakness and the lack of a killer instinct. The result? We have visceral doubts about leaders who exhibit these qualities.

Note, importantly, that the need to feel like a winner – and, with it, the tendency to associate decency with weakness – deeply infiltrates the worldview even of people who view themselves as progressive. It is not just conservatives who view Jimmy Carter as a failed President. And the reason, I think, has less to do with what he did or didn’t do and more to do with the fact that he “lost.”

Progressives may say they want leaders and role models who transcend the mainstream culture’s values. But, then, they judge our leaders by the very win/lose values they purport to condemn. So, for example, Obama was negatively judged for persisting in his efforts to nurture a fruitful dialogue during the budget crises that have marked his years in office. Why? Because he dominate, control, and “win.” And yet – granting that the compromises he agreed to had real consequences – isn’t the pursuit of a civil dialogue as, or more, important than Congress’ vote on the issue du jour?

Progressives seemed far more comfortable with Bill Clinton who “won” by triangulating the opposition – code for embracing dismantling the welfare system and financial deregulation. Thus, while he may have given away the store substantively, he allowed mainstream progressives feel like “winners” in their competition against the right.

  1. Domesticating and marginalizing our heroes.

When a leader who is the real deal does actually emerge, the mainstream culture’s first line of defense is the tearing down process described above. But when that fails, a more subtle process takes hold. The leader is “embraced” by the mainstream culture but is, in the process, transformed into a pale, domesticated version of himself. Over time, as increasingly mainstream stories are told and re-told about him, he is absorbed into a larger cultural narrative that supports and reinforces the very mainstream ways of operating he worked so hard to change.

The most vivid, recent example is Martin Luther King. Here is a man who was committed to fundamental change. He fought against inequity and injustice wherever he saw it; fearlessly risking his life and freedom for the cause; dying as he lived, working to bring economic justice to Memphis’ sanitation workers. His activism, tireless organizing, and nonviolent tactics offered a vivid roadmap for more effectively confronting entrenched privilege and power.

But, now, 40 years after his death, we are left with a safely domesticated, hollowed out version of the man. In our collective, mainstream memory he is remembered, and celebrated, as the leader of the movement – now a fading historical artifact – to end de jure segregation in the South.

De-emphasized to the point of invisibility are the broader, more enduring aspects of his legacy: His campaigns against systemic racism, economic injustice, and American imperialism, as well as his legacy of activism, organizing, and nonviolent confrontation. In other words, the culture has obscured the very things that could make him a vital role model for those of us who long to create a better world.

Historically, the most significant example of this domestication process is Jesus. In The First Coming, a book that exhaustively teases out the known details of his life, the philosopher, Thomas Sheehan, describes a man who was wholly committed to challenging power and fundamentally changing the world in which he lived. But Sheehan then describes a process that, within 60 years of his death, relegated his radical “here and now” vision to the relative margins of the movement, created in his name.

In Sheehan’s telling, as each gospel was written, Jesus was progressively transformed into a messiah who, instead of challenging us to create God’s kingdom in this world, promised salvation in the next. And so, for the last two thousand years, his presence in our lives as an role model for activism and change has been largely superseded by the vision of a transcendent, other worldly messiah who, solely by his grace, bestows salvation; a vision that – not at all accidentally – condones and encourages passivity in the face of systemic injustice.


Radical Decency offers a roadmap that, by counteracting the processes described above, can support us in naming and reclaiming our role models and heroes.

It supports us in viewing others with respect, understanding, and empathy. And, as that mindset becomes habitual, we will become far more curious about what our leaders have to offer and far less willing to engage in the mainstream culture’s “gotcha” game of judgment and dismissal.

In addition, our ability to identify worthy leaders will increase as we evaluate them according Radical Decency’s values, asking over and over: Are they are actively looking for ways to be decent to themselves, others, and the world? Doing so, we will be much less susceptible to seduction by leaders who “talk the talk” but, then, compromise their goals – and ours – in order to provide the mainstream drug of “winning.”

Finally, Radical Decency will support us in the continuing the effort to reclaim the public stories of Jesus, Martin Luther King, and other authentic heroes, past and present, infusing them with the vision, activism, commitment, and fearlessness that made them great; reclaiming them as teachers and vital sources of inspiration.

Reflection 59: Happiness

Here is a settled thought that a lot of thinking and life experience has led me to: Making happiness your life goal is a self-defeating proposition. Indeed, if that is your central preoccupation, two unfortunate things are likely to result. First, you will gravitate toward activities that offer short-term endorphin hits – toys, games, sex, alcohol and drugs, and so on – neglecting, in the process, the more lasting rewards offered by long term, mutually nourishing relationships. 

In addition, you are likely to wind up frustrated since, no matter how wealthy and privileged you are, you will inevitably encounter a slow waitress, a nasty co-worker, injury, illness and death.  I am always amazed – but no longer surprised – at the levels of impatience and frustration exhibited by entitled people. Thinking that their wealth entitles them to a first class ticket in life, they so often feel instantly aggrieved when the least little things goes wrong – hardly a model of happiness.

So is there a more productive path to a happy life? The answer is, I think, yes. The key is to understand our basic biological and psychological processes and, then, to craft an approach to living that while, respecting their reality, nurtures our better nature. In this model, happiness is not the goal. Instead, it is a by-product of the choices we make.


The starting place for me is a series of interrelated orienting frames offered by three of our more generative psychological theorists: Daniel Siegel, Jordan Peterson, and Martin Seligman.

According to Siegel, if life is a river, with one bank representing safety and the other aliveness, the challenge is to creatively integrate and balance the two. An adequate level of safety and predictability is vital to avoid feeling chaotic and out of control. But, equally important, are novelty and aliveness lest we crater on the river’s other shore, creating a life that is drab and flat.

Peterson offers a more pointed, physiological version of the same concept:

Your nervous system being an evolutionary structure is evolved for a universe that is composed of the interaction between chaos and order. Everywhere you go is chaos and order. And the optimally meaningful life is to be found on the border between the two. Your nervous system tells you exactly when you are there, because you’re secure enough to be confident but not so secure that you’re bored. You’re interested enough to be awake but not so interested that you’re terrified. When you’re in that state, when you find things interesting and meaningful, time slips by and you’re no longer self-conscious.

Finally, there is Martin Seligman’s story about the famous biologist, now in his 70s, who arrives at his lab first early one morning and starts to examine samples in his microscope.  Suddenly, the slides became blurry and difficult to see. His immediate, heart-stopping thought: Is my eyesight failing? Is my ability to do the thing I love the most in life at an end? Then he looks up and realizes that the sun has gone down.

This optimally stimulated, timeless, unselfconscious state, that each of these thinkers describes, seems like an excellent end point to strive for in our search for happiness. And Peterson goes on to offer a tangible, day-by-day practice to help us to get from here to there.

Beginning at a place where you don’t exactly know what you’re doing, how do you get to a more knowing place? If you follow your internal intuitions and are honest about them, a star – the thing that makes your life meaningful – will appear to guide you. You’ll take some tentative steps in that direction, get a little ways, and think “no that’s wrong.”  Then your life’s meaning will appear over there, and you’ll take a few steps in that direction and see that that is wrong too. But you keep chasing it, moving forward, doing things. And because you’re honest with yourself, you learn from your mistakes and get wiser and wiser. Then, 20 years down the road, you won’t be making so many mistakes.

To the same point is this from Virginia Satir:

My growth exists in new territory, step by step. One step ahead, see what’s there, to the right or left, whatever seems to have the most space.  Does it fit for me? I cannot map it out ahead of time.  That’s how it is in the unknown. Take a step, then see where I can go, keeping in mind where I might like to end up. I may end up somewhere else; maybe at a place better than what I thought of. But that is the way, step by step.


Notice that, to this point, I have described a remarkably value-free approach to happiness.  In theory, this path could lead to drugs, or compulsive sexual conquests, or the endless pursuit of wealth and privilege. But my gut has always told me that this isn’t – couldn’t – be true.  And in a more recent lecture/podcast, “The Necessity of Virtue,” Peterson explains why.

He begins his analysis with one of Buddhism’s fundamental premises: That being – life – is suffering. He then references Cain, who railed against God for favoring Abel and, then, killed his brother. 

What is Peterson’s understanding of the story? Cain screwed up. He failed to accept the fact that, living in an indifferent universe, the suffering that came his way was inevitable.  Instead, he committed the cardinal “Buddhist” mistake of inflicting additional pain on himself and others in his vain attempt to deny and reverse this reality.

This parable, according to Peterson, is foundational. When we emerged into self-consciousness as a species – the very thing that makes us unique – the first thing we became aware of was our own vulnerability and, with it, the inevitability of suffering.  And our instinctual move, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, was to recoil from it; to cover-up, hide, and deny it. 

The problem with this approach? When we deny our vulnerability and attempt to control our destiny, we no longer view another’s good fortune and our bad luck as happenstance, to be accepted with equanimity. Instead, we envy the other’s fate and curse our own. I can – and should – have what he has. Just as it was for Cain, this mindset leads inexorably toward insensitivity and cruelty. We are primed to either take what the other person has or, in our bitter frustration, to destroy this (illusory) object of fate’s beneficence.

A journey toward happiness requires honesty about who we are and what our fate is.   Failing to fully account for our vulnerability and suffering, we will be trapped in “Cain-like” habits of living: Drawn to manipulation and diminishment of others, isolating ourselves in the process, inviting retaliation. We will also brutalize ourselves by vainly seeking to suppress the fear, confusion, and sadness that so inconveniently remind us of our vulnerability.

However, when we accept our vulnerability and let go of our doomed efforts to dominate our world and control outcomes, all kinds of more hopeful possibilities emerge. And this is where Radical Decency enters to picture.

Being radically decent – respectful, understanding and empathic; accepting and appreciative; fair and just – is a perplexing and wisdom stretching challenge, even in the best of circumstances. But living, as we do, in a culture that so powerfully indoctrinates us into a fundamental lie – the myth of our invulnerability – the task is vastly more difficult. For this reason, A committed Radical Decency’s practice virtually demands an ever-deepening understanding of the life’s complexities and realities including, crucially, the vulnerability and suffering that so fundamentally define our existence. 

Why? Because failing to understand these realities – so we can deal with them more effectively in our day-by-day choices – we will be inexorably pulled toward the dominating and controlling behaviors that our culture endlessly models and promotes. And in their wake will come isolation, self-judgment, and sense of failure; hardly a prescription for the happiness we long for!

On the other hand, a full throttled commitment to Radical Decency impels us toward mindsets that are less judgmental and more curious and open. Pre-occupied with the tricky and consuming task of operationalizing this approach to living, the culture’s conventional outlooks wither from neglect. And, on the flip side, attending to the demands of a committed Radical Decency practice will cultivate a deepening sense of empathy for our self and others; a state of mind will, in turn, lead to an increasing acceptance of the vulnerability and suffering that is our lot in life.

And where does this lead? To an ever-deepening sense of:  Living in the present (lessening shame about the past, fear about the future, and need to control); clarity and coherence about our priorities (lessening confusion and anxiety about our choices; creating greater ease in living); and an ennobling sense of purpose (lessening hopelessness and despair; creating an increased sense of pleasure in living).  See Reflection #13, Decency Is Its Own Reward.

The journey of the heart, that Peterson and Satir describe, can lead in endless directions.  But so long as the journey is infused with a commitment to Radical Decency’s values, that is fine. We can trust the process, secure in the knowledge that we are moving toward a place that combines ease and vibrancy in living with that optimally stimulated, timeless, unselfconscious state of mind that is the hallmark of happiness.  


In closing I want to emphasize that this Reflection deals with an aspect of Radical Decency that is personal and individual: How to create a more vibrant and nourishing life.

Focusing on this aspect of the philosophy, however, we always need to remember that Radical Decency encompasses far more than our internal, psychological world. 

Equally indispensable is its effort to fully account for, and to neutralize, the indecencies that pervade our world. Why? Because, failing to do so, the values that dominate the mainstream culture will inevitably invade, diminish, and overwhelm our small, private islands of equanimity.  

We need cultivate respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation; the “attitudinal” aspects of Radical Decency and the hallmarks of our personal journey.  At the same time, however, we need to be equally committed to its change oriented  “action” attributes – fairness and justice – in the choices we make, out there, in the real world.  Decency to self, others, and the world need to be our lodestar – at all times, in every context, and without exception.