Sunday, August 7, 2011

Yesterday's Taboo, Today's Trend, Tomorrow's "Traditional"



Portrait of French King Louis XV as a child, ca. 1710

Although it might not appear to be the case, life IS always changing. And as such, the ways in which we have relationships with each other are also frequently on the move. Not too long ago here in the U.S., it was essentially taboo to even speak of something called "Gay Marriage." Today, same sex couples are legally getting married in certain states, as it slowly moves towards becoming a national trend. Not too long ago, it was quite common for wives to be considered part of their husbands' property, with little or no rights of their own within a marriage. Today, that's basically taboo talk.

In the last post, I considered the value of having role flexibility within our intimate relationships. In this post, I'll look at an old philosophical debate that underpins - whether you know it or not - a lot of our thinking around gender, roles, and the ways in which we opt to structure our relationships.

The philosophical debate is the old nature/nurture question. When you hear someone say "Men are hardwired to do X, Women to do y," that's the "nature" side of the coin. When you hear someone say "Women have been socialized to believe X, and men Y," that's the nurture side of the coin. Although it's probably true that the vast majority of us think it's some mixture of the two sides that builds a person's life, it's also the case that we each have our leanings. Some are much more in the nature camp, seeing much of life as fixed and determined by biological and/or other inherited patterns. While others are much more in the nurture camp, seeing socialization and individual and collective choices as driving much of our lives. I think it's important to consider where you fall along the nature/nurture divide, because it can have a really strong impact upon how you both view intimate relationships, and also how you act in them.

The nature/nurture debate has been going on for centuries. In the 17th century, the English philosopher John Locke proposed that the human mind was a blank slate at birth, and that it is almost entirely environmental conditions - such as family, schooling, community, etc. - that determine how a person acts, feels, and thinks in the world. You might say that I lean in this direction, but couldn't possibly believe we are totally empty slates at birth. Biology does play some role.

On the opposite end, a pair of 19th century Scottish scientists, J. Arthur Thomson and Patrick Geddes, claimed that "social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state" built into our bodies. Of course, anyone who knows even a tiny bit about social conditions for women during the 19th century can imagine how such a theory was employed to control and manipulate all kinds of behavior and ways of being.

The contrasting historical views shared above are just two examples of the numerous ways in which people, famous and not so famous, have opined about the ways in which humans are in the world. When it comes to gender differences, no one really knows for sure how much biology actually impact how we think, feel, and behave. And although trends can suggest that, for example, women are more verbal in relationships than men, it's also the case that differences within a particular group frequently are much wider than differences between different groups. In addition, even if we can say that a majority of women are more verbal and talkative then men, it's unclear what's driving that. How much is socialization? How much is biological? How much is something else?

Furthermore, the standard view that we are divided into two - men and women - actually doesn't hold water. The increasing openness and "out" presence of trans, gender queer, intersex, and others who don't fit the binary add to the bonfire of questions I have for those who lean towards biologically determined gender narratives.

A lot of high-minded talk there, eh? I mean, what's this guy getting at you might be thinking?

Well, take a look at the photo above. Specifically, notice the clothing. Looks pretty "girly" doesn't it? However, that was the fashion of the day for young, well off boys. Think about it, yesterday's fashion is today's cross-dressing. And I'd argue that a fair amount of what many of us believe are "natural" gender roles are actually, at least in great part, socially conditioned.

Why does that matter? If something is more socially conditioned than biologically determined, then it can be changed and experimented with. In other words, anyone in theory can do it. So, I'm of the opinion that we should maximize whatever percentage of "nurture" we have in our relationships. Instead of fixating on gender differences, it would behoove us to develop skills in all areas of a relationship, even ones that are not "traditionally" amongst our roles.


So, instead of going along with the idea that, for example, men always initiate first dates or women are the best caregivers for children, we opt instead to experiment, and learn from the results. In my view, being an "experimenter" in one's intimate relationships brings more freedom to be who you really are with each other, and to develop a flexibility that might actually improve the likelihood of a relationship enjoying longevity.

How? Well, I have a few ideas how. Perhaps you have more.

First off, if both members of a partnership have some skills and experience in doing some of the vital roles within the relationship, then when one person's situation changes, then other person can step up or step down as appropriate. There doesn't need to be an equivalence even - maybe one person has weaker general leadership skills, but still has enough experience and know-how to step up in a crisis where the other person can't lead.

Second, there is more of an opportunity for both members of a partnership to develop as fully realized individuals. I think of my grandmother who, after my grandfather died, had to learn how to drive and other many things that she hadn't done much of, if not at all, because of the fixed roles in their relationship. If it had just been driving, well, that wouldn't have been a big deal. But I remember how lost she seemed to feel in those early years after grandpa was gone, not just because of grief, but because she really hadn't learned how to do a lot of things that others would simply take for granted.

Some might argue that this is representative of relationships built before the rise of feminism and the sexual revolution, amongst other things, and to some degree that's true. However, I still think that many relationships are filled with either conscious or unconscious gendered role playing that, when circumstances change, can cause a lot of havoc.) Right now, I'm thinking of the old "indoor/outdoor" divide, and the numerous men who still can't properly clean house or cook a decent meal, or the numerous women who are clueless around cars, power tools, and/or house maintenance.

Third, and finally, - approaching things in this way increased the “shared” quality of the relationship.

What do you think of all of this?

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