Reflection 69: Moving Beyond Patriarchy

One of the mindsets, promoted by the mainstream culture to marginalize and disempower change efforts, is an emphasis on “diagnosis” of problems and a corresponding lack of attention to “cure.” Think for example about the basic architecture of our political dialogue. Both sides are very articulate in naming the problem as they see it: Too much government (for conservatives); an exploitative and under regulated business sector (for liberals). But when it comes to doing something different and better – a thought-though cure for our diagnosed disease – things get very murky, very fast.

Through three Republican presidencies over the course of the last 30 years, government spending has continued to grow. And on the Democratic side, Clinton sponsored a major de-regulation of the financial sector while Obama’s response to the most epic banking meltdown since the Great Depression was tepid and marginal. In other words, on all sides of our predominant public discourse, there is massive attention to diagnosis and a contrasting marginalization of any sustained and serious attempt at cure.

This strange state of affairs is no accident. Systems, by their nature, elaborate and perpetuate themselves. And an over emphasis on diagnosis is a wondrously effective way to do this. Groomed to focus on what is wrong and to let the “what to do about it” question atrophy through inattention, our mainstream ways of operating continue, without serious challenge.

This Reflection offers a roadmap for moving through and beyond diagnosis, and into the nitty-gritty of cure, as we seek to deal with one of the mainstream culture’s most engrained and corrosive patterns: Patriarchy.


Patriarchy is a subset of authoritarianism, a pattern of interaction in which the dominant person seeks to push his uncomfortable feelings off onto the subordinate. The boss barks at his secretary “where’s the Smith file” and the secretary, flooded with feelings of anxiety – that rightfully belong to the boss – scurries around, looking for the file.

From time immemorial, authoritarian relationships have been deeply (though not exclusively) gender based. For that reason, focusing on its manifestation in this form is vitally important if we hope to create more decent relationships and a more decent world.

In an authoritarian/patriarchal relationship, no one wins. In the case of the subordinate, the abuse is obvious. But, as Philip Lichtenberg points out in Getting Even (1988), psychological systems naturally move toward a state of equilibrium. So, in our example, the secretary will “get even,” if not with an explicit verbal counterattack, then through sullenness, withdrawal, sarcasm, and/or foot dragging. And, more fundamentally, the boss’ opportunity to enlist the secretary as an empowered, problem-solving partner – as opposed to a cautious, order following toady – will be irrevocably diminished.

Lichtenberg is not suggesting that the price paid by the dominant person is in any way comparable price paid by the subordinate. But the point he makes is a crucial one. Since all of us – even the powerful, bullying male – are net losers in these relationships, we all have a vital interest in their transformation.


In the last 50 years, we have made significant progress in naming patriarchy as a pervasive, fundamentally unhealthy pattern and in identifying its debilitating effects. But what is less apparent is our failure to adequately focus on cure; on how to successfully interact with one another, as men and women, in the territory beyond patriarchy. To the contrary, even the best intentioned among us tend to assume that naming the problem, we have largely solved it; that insight – diagnosis – easily and inevitably morphs into cure.

What I have observed over and over again in my therapy practice – and in my life – is that good intentions, while important, are just the beginning. To overcome patriarchy, we need to steadily attend to a whole series of deeply engrained, culturally reinforced habits of living that pull us back toward our gender-based authoritarian ways of operating.

One very large trap is to think that all or most of the work is on the woman’s side. “If she could just be as assertive about her needs as I am” – “If I could just be as outspoken as he is” – our patriarchal patterns would disappear.

The flaw in this approach? It assumes the problem is with the women’s role and not with the system itself. But the deeper truth is this: When a woman’s new found assertiveness is added to the equation, without more, our authoritarian ways of interacting persist with, at most, a reshuffling of roles:

  • The woman replacing the man in the dominant role; or
  • The partners locking horns in a chronic power struggle; or
  • The relationship ending.

If we hope to move beyond patriarchy, real cure work requires so much more. And while the work is intensely interwoven, the challenges on each side of the gender divide are in many ways distinct.

In what follows I discuss key elements of the challenge, for men and for women.


One important reality that women need to deal with is a fundamental asymmetry in the way that men and women assert themselves. In discrete moments, many women are entirely capable of rising to the occasion, expressing their needs with commendable clarity. But these moments of assertiveness need to be viewed in the context of the typical man who will push for what he wants again – and again – and again. Like the tide, the proto-typical male is steady and, seemingly, relentless in his demands.

The net effect over time? While she may persist in asserting her needs a second or, even a third time, her culturally engrained instinct to defer to his needs will eventually creep back in, bringing with it a reassertion of the old pattern of patriarchal deferral.

Thus, in the typical case, the negotiation is inherently out of balance. With the woman asserting her needs 75% of the time and the man asserting his 100% of the time, the results are depressingly predictable.

So a vital piece of work, on the women’s side, is to cultivate a habit of assertion that is as comfortably and persistently assertive as his.

What makes this work so tricky is that tending to the other’s needs is a quality we want to nurture and encourage. As a result, a woman seeking to reverse patriarchal patterns will often – appropriately and wisely – feel pulled in two directions, seeking to balance her new assertiveness with her more natural nurturing instincts.

For this reason, a mutual commitment to the work is key. If the man isn’t as fully engaged as she is, a tension between these two goals is likely to persist. But when he embraces the work as well, this apparent contradiction disappears. She can tend to her partner without fear of victimization, knowing that he is working hard to greet her needs with curiosity and appreciation; as a roadmap for more effectively tending to her as a colleague, friend, or lover.

Another key point on the woman’s side is this hard truth: Bullying is a defining aspect of our patriarchal system. The dominant male isn’t just requesting conformance. He’s demanding it. And to compound the problem, the ways in which he does it are often very subtle – a tone, a look, an unstated assumption – that makes this habitual pattern that much harder to recognize and, thus, to root out.

As a result, a woman’s most readily available model for assertiveness – his – is not a good one; a fact that leads to a second key aspect of her work. In the typical case, women – drawing on her more sophisticated interpersonal skills – will be challenged to craft a new pattern of assertiveness, very different from our “normal” way of interacting.

Simply being more vocal about his failings will never work. As a demand for conformance, it is a bullying move that will only perpetuate the patriarchal system she is seeking to overcome.

Instead, she needs to be clear, consistent, and persistent in asking for what she wants and needs, and about the likely consequences if his response is inadequate. And she should be equally forthright in affirming his (often imperfect) efforts to meet her requests – so long as he is doing is best to respond differently and better to her creative initiatives.

On this point, Dana offers an inspiring example. Relocating to accommodate her partner, she watched in dismay as he progressively withdrew from the relationship. At first, her very understandable reaction was to complain and withdraw. But Dana found her power – and her voice – when she fully accepted the fact that, absent change, she’d need to leave the relationship. Since then her steady message has been this: “I love you. But if you can’t to give me what I want and need I’m leaving.” And while her partner’s initial response has been positive, the key point is that Dana’s new pattern of relating – if it persists – will make a return to patriarchal patterns impossible.


On the man’s side, the threshold challenge is to fully understand that patriarchy is his problem every bit as much as it is hers; that even though he is its net beneficiary, it stinks for him as well. Always remembering this, he is much more likely to avoid this disastrous, all too common mindset: If I placate her and wait “it” out, she’ll get over it and things will get back to “normal.”

Being in a culturally reinforced position of patriarchal power, the status quo deeply serves the man’s purposes – if his goal is to maintain his authority. For this reason, an ever-present temptation is to engage in foot dragging tactics that slow the work, avoid all the confusion and discomfort that comes with it, and pushes the partners back to the familiar and, for him, more comfortable place of male privilege.

In this area, the man needs to be particularly vigilant since, like any work that seeks to undo an engrained cultural norm, the initiatives she undertakes to reverse patriarchal patterns are all too easy to deflate and subvert by, for example, something as seemingly innocent as a “joke” that “teases” her about her “sensitivity.”

A second, essential step, for the typical man, is to embrace his internalized bully. This is – I can attest – an excruciatingly difficult step. For so many of men, patriarchal bullying is so habitual, so engrained.

So when a man seeks, in good faith, to do better, here’s how things typically go. First, patriarchy’s most overt manifestations are excised. This is followed, however, by a prolonged period of confusion and frustration as the man, with steady feedback from this partner, struggles to adapt away from its subtler forms: Terse directive words, cold stares of judgment, sarcastic responses to her unwelcome suggestions, the unspoken tension he exudes when things don’t go his way.

Working diligently to root out these vestiges of patriarchy is vitally important since the culture is always there, beckoning us back to our old authoritarian ways. Rooting out habits of a lifetime is hard work. And because women have been on the receiving end of these bullying ways for so long, it is vitally important for us men to remember this: The women in our lives our indispensible teachers and allies in this effort. We need to seek out and rely on their feedback. If it feels like bullying to them, it probably is – and needs to be addressed.

More fundamentally, we need to remember – always – that the brass ring we are aiming for is the more productive relational style that exists in the territory beyond patriarchy. And because of the different ways in which we were raised, women typically bring to this work more fully developed relational skills. For this reason, we men need to look to them as our indispensable guides as we seek to orient and immerse our selves in what is, for us, an underexplored area of living.

At the same time, however, we need to be unwavering in our belief that, contrary to mainstream stereotypes, we are not in the least defective when is comes to relating in more egalitarian and mutually supportive ways. It is just that – given the different ways in which we were socialized – we have less experience. So while we are likely to be on a steeper learning curve, especially in the early stages, we are apt and capable students who are – if we make the effort – capable of emerging as fully empowered partners in this difficult and creative work.


Finally, both sexes need to remember this: Beyond an initial phase of male growth, we are all a moving into new territory. A whole-hearted commitment to the possibilities that exist beyond patriarchy is, given the world we live in, a journey into the unknown. But it is also a journey whose expectable outcome – and greatest reward – is an amazing sense of solidarity and mutual respect; a new reality that can, with time, utterly eclipse and replace the gender-based tensions that, in unexamined relationships, seem so frustratingly inevitable.