We live in a world in which a specific set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – are greatly over emphasized. And the pattern of interacting that our obsession with these values sets up is authoritarian, with one person (or group of people) imposing their will on others.
At its root, this pattern is non-gendered. Given the endless variety of people and social roles that exist in the world, there are many situations in which women assume the dominant rote and men are subordinate. Even as we acknowledge this reality, however, we need to recognize how deeply gendered this authoritarian pattern is. Notwithstanding the very real progress we have made in the last 40, patriarchy remains deeply engrained in our psyches as men and women.
Radical Decency is rooted in the belief that the culture’s over-emphasis on these values – and the authoritarian systems it fosters – has out sized consequences for the ways in which we live. And given the extraordinary persistence of patriarchal patterns, its impact on men and women is markedly different. In this Reflection, I deal with the man’s side of this equation only, and do so in the context of a committed romantic relationship.
What I seldom see in my work as a couples counselor is the old “Father Knows Best”/”Mad Men” form of patriarchy. Dad coming home from work to a kiss and a martini, his expectation being that “of course” his wife will prepare dinner and takes care of the kids. But patriarchy persists nonetheless, deeply affecting the choices of both men and women. Focusing on the man’s side of the equation, the simple truth is this: Even as we have learned to “talk a more egalitarian talk,” our choices in so many circumstances – many of them automatic and unconscious – continue to belie our rhetoric.
After 40 years of feminism and with the great majority of women now working, most men agree in principle with the concept of equality. But it’s equality with an asterisk. Yes, her job is as important as mine – in theory – but if someone needs to be at a teacher’s conference, or go clothes shopping with our son, or leave a job for the sake of the family or the other’s career, the implicit default position is that she’ll do it. And, her late nights and weekends at the office tend to be far more optional than his.
When it comes to day by day living, what I often say to men is that their wives are not looking for a helper, a dutiful lieutenant who will do the dishes or take out the trash when asked. What they need instead is a co-general, a partner who understands what needs to be done and, then, does it without being asked. It is at this point, and this point only, that a couple is able to take a decisive turn away from our engrained patriarchal patterns.
Note that co-generalship is not an easy adjustment for either sex. In a true partnership, she is no longer the final arbiter of the proper level of cleanliness – or of the couples’ aesthetic choices – or of how to care for the baby. At the same time, however, the man needs to defer to her greater experience in these areas of living and, as appropriate, even as he progressively inhabits a more co-equal decision-making role, as his expertise grows with experience.
A second very important piece of work, for men, lies in our habitual disposition and tone. Groomed to be aggressive and assertive, we too often talk in authoritarian ways.
- Her: I am thinking about buying a new car. Him: No way. It’s not in our budget.
- Her: The movie seemed to be getting at X. Him: No, that’s not what it meant.
- Her: I left my keys at my friend’s house. Him: What’s your problem? Why are you so disorganized?
Crucial to our work in rooting out patriarchy is a forthright acknowledgement that this authoritative way of speaking is the native language of our mainstream patriarchal culture and that, when we men use it, we are falling short in our effort to move beyond our engrained patriarchal ways.
Interpreted in their worst light, each of these comments imply that the man he has a right to judge and control this partners’ thoughts and actions. But even when that is not his conscious intent, there is a underlying reality that we, as men, need to come to grips with: Far more often than we care to admit, comments such as these represent a leaking of emotions that are, in fact, patriarchal in their origin and, thus, reinforcing of these old patterns.
Thus, in each of the examples, the underlying music is decidedly not “here is my opinion, what’s yours?” It is, instead, an implicit demand for submission and agreement. And when she treats it as a mere opinion her response is often greeted, by him, with annoyance at being contradicted. And where does this annoyed reaction come from? From a deeply instinctual male assumption – the persistent residue of thousands of years of virulent patriarchy – that he is the final arbiter of what is right.
So here’s what we are dealing with: A authoritarian/patriarchal pattern of interacting that is so deeply engrained in our culture that even the most enlightened of us – men and women alike – continue to unwittingly replicate it in our intimate relationships.
And what is that we, as good men who want to do better, need to do? Here are some thoughts.
First, we need to come to grips with the depth of the problem. Because we tend to be thinkers and problem-solvers, many of us, implicitly or explicitly, say to our selves and our partners, “hey, now that I get it, I’ll stop doing it,” sincerely believing that a change in behavior will naturally flow out of our new understanding.
But, as the earlier discussion illustrates, we are seeking to overcome behavioral patterns that, are deeply engrained in our habitual ways of living. So while intellectual understanding is extremely helpful, it is just the beginning. We also need to enlist our intellect as an ally in a sustained, ongoing effort to uncover our many layers of patriarchy. Why? Because in the absence of this detective work, we will never to able to cultivate alternative ways of being that truly address and root out the many manifestation of patriarchy that have insinuated themselves into our habitual behaviors.
On the flip side, however, we cannot use the depth of the challenge as an excuse for not trying, telling ourselves, for example, that “she’s right; I don’t get it; this is just the way we men are.” This perspective is wrong on the facts. When it comes to healing and growth, men are every bit as capable as women. It’s just that, given the different ways in which we are socialized, we begin the work at a different place. See, Reflection 57: Men — We Make Complete Sense!
More deeply, we need to see this supposedly self-effacing mindset for what it really is: A manipulation of our partner’s frustration with her subordinated position – hence the anger and judgment in her comments – to maintain the status quo and, thus, our privileged position. As beneficiaries of a deeply exploitative system, we men bear a special responsibility to avoid these sorts of self-serving tactics; tactics so easily available to people – such as us – who have inherited culturally ascribed power and privilege.
The final piece of the equation I want to highlight – by far the most challenging and the most rewarding – is the need to act differently in the many moments in which all of our engrained, patriarchal instincts are pushing us in a very different direction. It is these moments that I refer to as men’s moments of truth.
When do they come up? All the time – and here are a few examples.
He has a long scheduled out of town business meeting, important but not make or break, that overlaps with her relatively routine knee operation. Emotionally, it is just so hard for him to cancel the meeting. So he asks her how she feels about him not going to the hospital with her.
Do you see the problem with this? He is, in effect, asking his partner – trained by patriarchy to be compliant with his requests – to sanction his patriarchal-tinged choice. Doing his work, this man would instead take responsibility for his choice, manage the discomfort of cancelling the trip, and go to the hospital with his partner, no questions asked.
A couple – in this case, my wife and I – is having a tense discussion. Sensing her resistance to the point he is making, his tone grows more and more strident. She interrupts the back and forth of the argument, saying she feels bullied. His immediate reaction is a rapid spike in frustration and an intense desire to react with these words: “Dammit, I’m not doing anything wrong. Why can’t you just listen to what I’m saying?”
Doing his work, however, he contains and manages his frustration – an internally painful process to be sure. Then, understanding his partner’s very understandable sensitivity to an authoritative/authoritarian tone, he interrupts this all too typical pattern. He lowers his voice, puts aside (for the moment) his advocacy for “his position,” and shifts into listening mode – understanding that loving his wife takes precedence over the issue du jour.
The new baby has arrived and, without being asked, he strives for parity. He becomes an active advocate at work for an 8-week leave – just like his wife. And, if that is not feasible, he strives to maintain a 50/50 division of labor when it comes to getting up with the baby. And his wife never hears these words: “I can’t do the 3 am shift with the baby. I need my sleep so I can get through my days at work.”
The message I hope to illustrate with these examples is this: When a man is doing his work, a singular moment of truth never arrives. Instead, these make or break moments just keep coming. Understanding our patriarchal patterns and progressively replacing them with new, more egalitarian habits of living is a day-by-day war of attrition.
The good news, however, is that if we, as men, fully commit to this work, the upside is truly life changing. Our tense, need to be in control habits will progressively be replaced by more relaxed, relational ways of being that invite the intimacy that we – like all humans – truly long for. And we need always to remember that the alternative, settling for the easy privileges that come our way as the beneficiaries of our patriarchal system, is life’s booby prize.