Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Mama's Boy Myth

Although no one has ever called me one, I could probably be slandered as "a Mama's Boy" if someone wanted to. Not because I fit the stereotype of the weak, emasculated male adult, but because I have always had a close relationship with my mother. A friend of mine posted this review of a book challenging the Mama's Boy narrative, and I'd like to consider a little more closely some of the issues that are talked about in it.

Not only because they seriously impact our intimate relationships, but because they tap into some deeper issues around gender that need to be addressed head on.

Jen, the reviewer, introduces the narrative like this:

For generations, mothers have gotten the same old message when it comes to raising sons: beware of keeping him "too close." A mom who nurtures a deep emotional bond with prevent him from growing up to be a strong, independent man. By refusing to cut those apron strings, she is on track to create the archetypal, effeminate, maladjusted "mama's boy."

First off, I want to say that there is such a thing as "too close" and "smothering." The parent who cooks, cleans, and pays all the bills for her son or daughter well into adulthood being one example. Another the parent who is so emotionally entangled with her child's life that she's regularly jealous of the child's friends or partners, and attempts to monopolize the child's time/attention. Given the sexist division of roles that have dominated our society for generations, often the parent in these cases is the mother, but fathers occasionally are like this as well.

Regardless, though, these are extremes. The jealous, overly involved mother is the stuff of made for TV movies. She does exist in the real world, but in no where near the kind of numbers people might expect. Furthermore, while many of us Gen Xers and younger are struggling to make in the rotten economy these days, the majority of us are not sitting in our mother's basements, playing video games, while being served dinner and getting our clothes washed and folded for us. And even though there are more of this kind of guy these days, blaming the mothers out there is way too simplistic.

Jen writes: It is also extremely interesting to note that we expect mothers to be close to their daughters--best friends in fact. But if a mother is close to her son--she is harming his masculinity.

There are all kinds of layers going on here. In sexist societies, masculinity is upheld as the standard bearer. Something of a pure, holy quality that must be protected from "evil influences." Such as too much mothering. While Americans have progressed a lot on this front, there's still a taint of this kind of thinking present. Furthermore, it's really obvious to me that behind "fears" about "loss of masculinity" is the massive homophobia and hatred of gay and bisexual men that still plagues too much of our world. And finally, there are all the capitalist narratives that have built up over the past few centuries at play here. Specifically, the idea that boys are to be prepared for two things: the world of work and world of war. Both of which mean separation from family, especially the women in the family. While the workplace and the military have become gender integrated in recent decades, those old stories still hold a power for many of us. What it means for a man "to grow up" still, despite the many changes in our culture, is still driven by notions of being a good employee, good defender, and a good provider to some degree.

As I have written in posts here before, there is a lot of confusion in the modern dating world. The majority of us under 40, as well as a number of folks over 40, simply don't believe in the "traditional" dating and relationship narratives anymore. But since there hasn't been any clear models to replace them in the mainstream, the void has left us scrambling. My own experience as a man in touch with his emotions, who wants an equal partnership, and who does not fit the mold of what constitutes "a masculine dude," I have found that many women are shifting through a mixture of liberated approaches, and clinging to the old story lines. They say they want a man who knows how he feels and can communicate well, but then when such a guy comes along, they are often tossing him aside for someone who is more "exciting," "rugged," "edgy," or simply more "sexually attractive." All of this is code in my opinion for "I kind of want that old masculine stereotype, but don't want to admit it to you all." And while it's totally true that some men become too sensitive, cut off their edge, and are simply so nice that they are dull - others of us are trying to actually figure out how to balance our personal power with emotional intelligence and compassion.

Back to the book review.

The Mama’s Boy Myth is a fascinating look at just how important mothers are to their sons lives. In an era when there is a boy’s crisis (rising violence and emotional constipation) Lombardi argues who better than mom, to help boys and young men talk through and process the emotional challenges of middle school, high school and college. Boys today are dealing with bullying, break ups, struggling with academics, girlfriends, peer pressure and so on…mothers, not fathers are better equipped to help their sons through the tough times. While we welcome more emotional men as fathers, it simply isn’t the case yet. Fathers just don’t consistently seek out emotional conversations with their sons. They weren’t raised that way. Fathers do not have the same skill set as mothers do.

I can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't had my mother around. She's taught me so much by her own example. Especially how to be true to myself, listen to my deepest callings, and to take risks, even when the majority of people think you are crazy for doing so. And it's also the case that my father was raised in the old school. It took him into my adulthood to really reach out and form a quality relationship with me.

But I have to say that our society, for all the nonsense right wing narratives about how "important" fathers are, supports fathers being more absent than not from their children's lives. Indeed, given the continued stigmas towards men who are more emotionally intelligent, men who want to stay at home and raise their children, men who act in any way "like women," is it any wonder that fathers struggle to really be there for their children.

Although some of the pressure to conform has lessened, the current cultural backlash aimed at the GLBTQ community impacts all of us. And one of things I see in that backlash is an attempt to re-establish rigid, heterosexually defined gender roles. Which makes me wonder if men my age (mid30s) or younger will actually continue to find themselves in a bind between being expressive, caring people and conforming to a stereotype of manhood they neither created nor really want, even those who more readily gravitate towards what looks like "traditional manhood."

While I am highly supportive of Jen's (and the book's author) calls for mothers to reject the old narratives, and be close with their sons, part of me longs for more support as a man who, as a former girlfriend once said "gets it." That calls to reject sexist narratives need to reject them fully, realizing that everyone is oppressed by them. Too often, adult men are set up as card board cut outs to be knocked down, and tossed away as "too screwed up" to be concerned with. It's always the next generation of boys being focused on. Always the future, in other words - rarely, if even, the present.

This work of supporting and upholding a more diverse "masculinity" is something men ourselves need to take responsibility for. But it can't be men alone. And actually, I'd argue that because liberating "masculinity" means freeing it from a rigid attachment to biology, such work requires folks across the gender spectrum. I have seen evidence of this work sprouting up in a variety of place, but it has to become much more prominent. Much more a norm even.

Breaking down the power of stories like the Mama's boy requires people questioning everything. Including what they find attractive in another person and why.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Majority of "Dating Crimes" Are In Our Heads

People will make drama out of the most ridiculous things. The premise of this blog post, that getting friend requests from people you go on dates with is awful and annoying, is a great example.

I left the following response to the post, which may or may not be published.

The thing is that this is your preference. Perhaps he likes to friend people quickly. Or uses FB as a networking tool. Or in any number of other ways that aren’t creepy.

I completely agree with you in wanting to keep a guard around your FB page from random guys you date. At the same time, you are the one choosing to make a big deal out of his request, and then calling him a “fool” and other such names.

There’s no reason why you can’t let the request sit, and if you liked the guy enough to go out again, simply go out again and say you’re not ready to be FB friends yet. His handling of that would be a good sign of whether he can respect boundaries or not.

Frankly, it sounds like you weren’t really interested in this guy anyway. Not enough to cut him any slack for something that is really minor in the big scheme. And again, something that you still have control over. He simply looked up your name and clicked a button. He can’t get in any further unless you let him.

Drama over issues like this is a waste of energy. And while it might feel powerful to fluff your feathers and get all offended, it's actually a demonstration of immaturity. You think you are so special that everyone should instantly know exactly what might upset you, and act accordingly. That you are entitled to being treated like royalty, and anything less than that is a point of judgement and rejection.

And in case you think otherwise, I want to be clear: this isn't a gender-specific thing. I have witnessed entirely too many men who flip their lips at the smallest tease from a woman, or a single direct question about some issue they are sensitive about. "Why didn't you go out with her again? She said World of Warcraft is stupid." I thought you really liked so and so? Well, I did. Until she started questioning my skills. What skills? My skills, man. I don't need some high maintenance woman. That second exchange is indicative of how a lot of men are often unable to pinpoint what got them upset. They just know that something pissed them off, or hurt them, and operate from the vagueness.

Regardless of whether you get lost in a detailed list of offenses, or are acting out from the trigger that came from something unnamed or forgotten, the end result tends to be misery. And misery attracts company, which is why blogs and books riddled with bitching and moaning about the "dating crimes" committed by others are so popular.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Learning from Nature

I took this photo in a park near my apartment yesterday afternoon. These trees are a great representation of what a healthy, loving relationship between two people might look like.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Failed Relationships

I think a lot of people are secretly in love with failure. We know that having a stash of traumatic, broken romances to trot out amongst friends and colleagues is often instant cache. Even more so if the stories include a current one. A train already off the tracks, but which has not quite reached it's final resting place yet. "Oh, my heart is breaking. Let me tell you all the juicy details about that jackass."

For some folks, any relationship that doesn't "last a lifetime" is a failure.

But actually, failure is simply a judgement we attach to what happened. In some ways, it doesn't matter if you are with someone a few gorgeous weeks, or if you spend sixty years with them.

Instead of leaping to judgement, consider what you have learned. Consider how much joy came from your connection. How many amazing, unrepeatable experiences you had together.

A little over fours years ago, I dated about seven weeks. Among other things, I learned from her that I could move on. That I didn't have to cling to the false hope of rekindling the long term relationship I had before meeting her. That I wasn't doomed to being single. That the mistakes I made in the past were not being used as some kind of punishment by the cosmic dating gods.

The reality is that I didn't figure out these lessons, or several others, until long after she was gone. I hadn't yet developed the horse-sense to pay closer attention, and take what comes as an opportunity to learn and grow.

One week before she broke up with me, she told me she thought she loved me. "Thought" would turn out to be the key word in the sentence. She wanted to love me, but actually she loved someone else. Someone she'd been friends with for years. Someone with whom, I found out later, she would get married to less than six months after our relationship was done.

When she broke up with me, I was angry with her for "messing with my emotions." In fact, that anger lingered for awhile, months probably if I'm honest. However, when I look back today, I realize that I was really angry at myself. For missing the clear signs of ambivalence she had displayed throughout our time together.

We had some great hikes together though. I remember in particular a moment where I was standing on top of a hill with my arms flung to a partly cloud sky. She looked up at me, laughed, and told me she always wanted to be able to fly.

Every relationship is impermanent, even the ones that last a "lifetime." It's how you live them, and then remember them, that really matters.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Dating Chase

Guys chasing women. It's the old heterosexual norm. Something I tried to fit into during my 20s, but eventually realized was bringing me more grief than anything else.

I'm not into dating games, and chasing feels like a game. In fact, these days, when I get the vibe from a woman that she wants me to chase, I'm much more likely to walk away than anything else.

There's a difference between making an effort to demonstrate your interest and chasing. I'm more than willing to show some interest, and put in my share of effort. However, if there is little or no response in return from the woman in question, I move on. End of story. If someone is naturally shy, I might put a little more time and effort in, but at some point, there has to be some kind of positive response.

The gendered narratives around romance suggest it's sexy for a man to keep calling, keep writing, keep pressing for dates, even if she doesn't respond. It's all about the man being active, while the woman is receptive at best, and more often in a passive position.

Although some might argue otherwise, I believe there is change afoot. More women are stepping up and being proactive in both starting relationships, and also while in relationships. I have actually had an easier time meeting women, getting dates, and developing relationships since I stopped trying so hard with women who probably weren't that interested anyway. While the idea that it's attractive to have a man showering you with attention, and "going the extra mile" even before you know each other still lingers, it's power is starting to break down. In part, I believe, because of how often the same kind of attention is used by players and casual sex seekers to get women into bed.

In the end, chasing is always a one way street. One person does all the work, while the other person sits and judges whether said person did enough to get a date or be considered "relationship material."

It's very different from a mutual effort where both parties do something, say something, or otherwise express something that shows an interest in the other. To me, this is the healthier, more mature approach.

That's my take. What about you?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dynamic Love Affairs

In the past, I would frequently override signs that indicated coming discord or simply a bad match because of one or more of those qualities. I'd notice dysfunctional behavior, but think "oh, but she loves to do the same things as me." Or I'd see that she was responding erratically to my calls or e-mails to get together again, and I'd rationalize that she was busy, or that things were just "moving slowly."

Why did I do this? A few reasons. Being a guy who wanted something that lasts, I would keep trying with women who might just possibly stick around, thinking that persistence would pay off in the long run. Secondly, I didn't have the confidence and self worth needed to be content on my own. When I think back on my 20s and early 30s, I was either in a relationship of some sort, or looking for one. And finally, although I wanted commitment, I was also afraid of it.

Combined, these three elements consistently drew me to women who were either had lukewarm interest, or who, for one reason or another, emotional unavailable. Which really shouldn't be a surprise.

There were also periods of time when I was alone, and miserable. It's hard to love yourself when you are always looking for someone else to appear in your life and love you.

Hope was another thing that plagued me. In fact, hope was probably the biggest reason behind my frequent overriding of red flags. Politicians often play on the hopes of the people they end up supposedly representing. Marketers play on the hopes of the populace as well, saying that whatever product they are selling will cure all our ills and make us happy. And while there are also a small percentage of people who deliberately play on others' hopes in the dating world, more often than not, we let our own hope stories play each of us. The person we are dating might spark the story to surface again, but he or she is simply today's version of the leading role, the current star of the love narrative we can't seem to shake.

I started this blog in part to help inspire people to pay closer attention to their experiences, to unearth the lies they have told themselves, and to become better daters who eventually find great partners. However, in the end, as much as it's about that, it's also about learning to love being yourself completely. Because you are always partnered with yourself, so why not make that the dynamic love affair from which all other love affairs spring.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Physics of Relationships

He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.

—Mary Louise Bell divorce complaint

Richard Feynman was a Nobel award winning physicist who, amongst other things, popularized modern physics by writing and teaching in ways that made sense to the average person. And, as you can see you can see from the complaint above, he had some "challenges" in the love department. Married three times, his first wife died from tuberculosis, and the second wife was ambushed by calculus. Oddly, he proposed to Mary Bell through the mail, while he was doing research in Brazil. Even though it had been several years since the death of his first wife, some suggest he hadn't yet gotten over the grief of losing her. In any event, his marriage to Bell was, from all accounts, a sour experience for both of them.

At the time of his divorce from Mary Bell, Feynman was 36 years old, the same age as I am today. In terms of intimate relationship potential, he was decidedly in the "damaged goods" camp. If Feynman were alive today, and had written an honest online dating profile, he would be overlooked by the majority of women as too much of a risk. Some might even suggest that his "true colors" had already shone through, and that being a "good partner" wasn't amongst them. And for many of them, that might be exactly right.

However, Richard Feynman went on to have a third marriage. One that lasted the rest of his life. Gweneth Howarth was sixteen years his junior, and originally employed by Feynman as a housekeeper. Both of these details would probably be considered major red flags by the majority of daters today, the stuff of dating blog dissections by supposed relationship experts and their fans. And certainly, their life together was fairly unconventional in some respects.

The years moved along. Carl was born, then Michelle. Feynman doodled on the bar napkins of strip joints, experimented with marijuana and flotation tanks, bought a van and had it custom-painted to resemble his famous diagrams. He took his family on camping trips and drew nudes in his home studio.

He also played samba, attempted to crack safe codes, and had some degree of synesthesia for equations. Not your typical husband. And yet, he was an excellent parent, working together with his son in the computer science field, and remembered fondly by his daughter. Furthermore, given Gweneth's passions for travel, music, painting, and adventure in general, it seems they were a good match for each other.

Which isn't to say the twice divorced guy who was fixated on calculus problems suddenly became a "perfect" partner. Indeed, given his penchant for practicing seduction techniques and attracting beautiful young women to draw in his studio, the odds are he wasn't the most faithful husband in the world. But knowing what kind of life they lived together, I have to wonder if they had some kind of an open relationship.

In any event, I offer this as a story of real people who lived real lives. Of a man who didn't let his past turn him bitter and incapable of intimate relationships. Of a woman who would probably be scolded for dating "an old guy" in today's supposedly progressive (but decidedly confused) dating world, and yet seems to have had a fulfilling marriage all the same.

Certainly, I'm not advising that women overlook what might be called the womanizing tendencies of men like Fenyman, nor that age differences never matter.

What I'm pointing to is the richness of being with someone who is real, alive, and engaged in the world. Someone who is guaranteed to have flaws and struggles - because we all do, at the end of the day. One of the most painful things I witness in dating discussions are all the ways in which people dissect and then dismiss each other. It's as if we live in an age where no one can ever measure up. Which means, if you think about it, that you don't measure up either.

The first law of the physics of relationships is that it's always perfectly imperfect people that come together.

May we all learn to embrace ourselves, so that when the right imperfect other comes along, we'll be ready to embrace him or her too.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Breaking Old Dating Habits

When you have approached things in the same way for so long, it can often feel like there's no way to make changes. The grooves feel too deep, and the fear of change runs through your core.

Today, I want to offer the insights of a fellow blogger whose dating blog I have been reading for awhile now. Lately, she has been make some real effort to shift her patterns around relationships, and the results are starting to come through her words.

I’m doing my best to maintain a positive attitude and so far, it seems to be working. I’ve attracted more men and I’m having a nice time with it. I started contacting men, something I would never have done before, and being flirty and nice. I’m not mad when I don’t hear back and I don’t feel rejected. It takes some work and it takes finesse. It also takes some guts, I will admit. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable because for years I truly felt like the man should always approach the woman. Now, I simply imagine myself standing in line at the grocery store, there’s a cute guy standing behind me who I know nothing about. I just know he’s cute. He has a giant watermelon in his cart, in the front where a child would sit, and I say something witty like, “That’s a big baby you’ve got there!” and then I let him take things from there. Maybe he didn’t approach me because he’s shy or awkward or his mind was elsewhere. Not desperate. Not weird. Just showing that I’m open to him pursuing me, if he wants to.

These views are such a turn around from posts like this one, from about six months ago.

So, think, it really doesn't have to take years to change how you think and approach your life. You don't have to repeat the same old mistakes and feelings over and over again. Through paying attention to patterns, being compassionate with yourself, taking some risks, and letting go of results you can become a much happier, more fulfilled person. Sure, it would be great if you find that wonderful long term partner in the process, but even if you don't, you can enjoy the trying.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Saving Your Girlfriend or Boyfriend

You can't. No matter what you do, how kind you are, or how great of a partner you are, you cannot "save" the person you are with. It is not your job to rehabilitate, train, fix, or put them through a re-education process. And while there are the rare true stories of men and women who "rescue" someone from the emotional, sexual, and/or economic bottoms, even then, it's the person themselves who develops wholeness again. They have to want to be healthy and liberated from the inside, otherwise all the love in the world from a partner, or anyone, won't be enough.

People in healthy, conscious relationships are not primarily in the role of therapist or surrogate parent. They either know when to offer support and constructive criticism, or they admit not knowing exactly what to do and are willing to fumble together - with some compassion - through whatever muck and confusion are arising. A healthy partner also learns to understand their partner's patterns and needs enough to know when to step back, and let them do their own work.

I don't have much more to say today. Mostly, I just wanted to offer a few words to counter all those out there who are busy trying to save their significant others. Instead of doing so, save your time and energy for something or someone else. I bet you'll be a lot more joyful in the long run.