Tuesday, June 26, 2012

You Probably Weren't Born Like This: On Gender Roles and Ecomomics

The following is wide ranging post on gender roles in response to this post and the comments that followed.

“When women are taking on masculine roles (doing, conquering, competing), it’s very difficult to transition into a feminine role (being, nurturing,emotional).”

from a comment by Michelle

This is an artificial divide. It’s difficult to transition because too many of have never bothered to question at depth the gendered roles that are given to us. Too many simply assume that men have little capacity to nurture, for example, or women aren’t really capable of running successful businesses (or being political leaders, or whatever). Even though strides have been made on both ends, it’s really not enough in my opinion.

Men and women can and should learn how to move across the so called masculine and feminine roles. Instead of insisting that we’re born to do and be certain things, why not instead develop an education and community cultural system that emphasizes more fluidity and training around these roles? I’m not just talking about children here, although children tend to learn quicker and easier than adults. While I’m talking about this on a society-level scale, it can – and already is being done on much smaller scales. I’ve personally been a part of programs with kids where skills that once were gendered were taught across the board. Boys who can cook and easily feel empathy grow up to be better partners. As are girls who can fix cars, direct groups, and develop business plans.

We now see amazingly successful women, but we also see a 50% divorce rate and kids being raised in front of the television or by expensive nannies. I’m certainly not into sending women back to their homes, but as women we need to prioritize and realize that we are still the primary emotional care-takers of our husbands and the primary educators of our children.

from the comments of Fusee

As for the point about women feeling pressure to “take care of the emotional needs of boyfriends and husbands, I say this: a lot of men need to grow up emotionally. We need to step up, and stop training each other through hazing and “guy code” mentalities, which reinforce adolescent norms instead of lead to more mature adults. Operating on a more equitable give and take, where supporting and nurturing are shared and coming from love and wanting to, as opposed to duty and/or guilt, should be a base level focus of all partnerships. Single women and men would do well to advocate for this while dating, and married folks with excessive imbalances would do well to reassess.

This is not about pushing for everyone to be exactly the same. Nor is it a suggestion that men and women have no differences. Those are bs extremes that simply allow people to ignore questions about how gender has been socially constructed, and how often roles have been cultivated and socially assigned, as opposed to being a part of one’s biology. What’s amazing to me is how commonplace arguments of biological determinism and essentialism have become these days.

Before the industrial revolution, women in hunter-gatherer societies focused on the “gathering,” which was a round-the-clock process. Likewise, women in agrarian cultures worked tirelessly in order to help to ensure that the family unit had enough to eat and/or trade.

It was only in the past century when men “went off to work” outside of the home that women were supposed to only sit around and play with kids without a vocation of their own. Not that playing with children isn’t a lot of work, but to say that women who work with something other than children are “another man with a vagina” is not only ignorant, but an insult to our hardworking female ancestors — without whom we wouldn’t be here today.

The points Sarah makes are entirely lost on many people because actual history is absent for a good percentage of society. The role of “male breadwinner” and female “housewife”, for example, were created only a few centuries ago, and so if you want to look at the stresses and often conflicting needs in families, that’s a good place to start. Looking at how family structures were forced to adapt in response to male led industrial capitalist development.

Again, I’ll say that unaddressed, pervasive greed, the devaluing of communities and sharing with neighbors, and our collective obsession with being constantly entertained (often at great financial expense) are all major factors in the stresses of modern families. Individual families can make some changes to lessen a fair amount of stress, but of course that takes time, effort, and priority shifting. However, it's really going to take a significant amount of grassroots, collective social change to deal with the rest of that stress. Which is built in to the systems we all rely on.

Along these lines, an excellent documentary to consider is Learning from Ladakh. There’s background info. here, and you can view the video in four sections on YouTube. As you watch this community in the Tibetan plateau rapidly transformed, it's difficult to not question how our own society was built, and how the roles we often take for granted were developed.

“So we often become just another man in a woman’s body, that’s our energy vibe, that’s how we’re acting, like men.” Michelle again.

This experience fits right in with the history I’m speaking about. Although the way I see it, what you say is “acting like men” I argue is acting like men who have conformed to the norms in order to fit in, “succeed,” and survive in many cases. It’s what they learned about “being a man” growing up, as opposed to the biological differences in our bodies. Certainly men and women often nurture, for example, in somewhat different ways, but I’d sure as hell rather celebrate those differences than the essentialist argument that men are X and women are Y and that’s that.

In the end, whatever biological differences are present between men and women, it's really a lot more helpful to question gender roles, become more flexible, and to cultivate skills and abilities across the field of what has been called "masculine" and feminine.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Finding the Partner Who Meets All Your Needs...

Healthy, fulfilling relationships are not based on transactional thinking. When I think of my best friends, for example, there isn't any thought about what they will give me, or not give me. There isn't this sense that they own me something, or that they need to fork up some money, or a gift, or some time even in order to prove they are "a good investment." The connections are so much deeper than that. And in a lot of ways, it doesn't really matter much anymore what we do together, or whether I or friend X has paid for more of this or that.

I consider my immediate family in a similar way, although there is really no way I can ever repay my parents for all they have done for me. Other than to be generous with my time, skills, and life with as many people as possible. But even there, thinking solely in terms of a debt you "can't repay" isn't really helpful. A healthy relationship with a parent is much more, and many of us instinctively understand that, even if we struggle sometimes to articulate it.

Somehow, when it comes to dating, a lot of us seem to think in business terms. What we can get from one another. What someone has to offer us. How "worthy" someone is of "our investment" in them.

Perhaps you might be thinking, "Oh, those are just common words and phrases people use," forgetting that how we language has an impact on our experiences and decisions.

I have certainly been guilty of this kind of thinking in the past. I remember internally tallying expenses I paid on certain trips, or nights out with a former girlfriend who regularly made more money than I did. We rarely argued about money, but I do think that the resentment I had about what I was spending, and her struggles to maintain a decent budget, negatively impacted our relationship. The reality was that any imbalance in spending was probably minimal and so it really was silly to feel resentment, and also let it influence how I viewed her, but I did it anyway. Why? Because some part of me saw the relationship as a series of transactions, and when hers slipped below a certain point, I felt cheated.

I believe she also had some of this attitude. However, instead of money, for her it was about attention and affection. If she felt something was wrong between us, she would withhold not only sex, but most physical attention and contact. Or sometimes, she would heavily increase all of that out of a desperate attempt to please me, or sooth whatever issue was between us. After awhile, I began copying her, almost unconsciously, to the point where during the last several months of our relationship, whenever there was a problem, we did this dance around physical intimacy all driven by a failure to clearly communicate with each other.

Reading dating blogs these days is often a depressing affair. People longing for love tripping all over each other to condemn the folks they are dating, or have dated, as seriously lacking in some shape or form. The lists of "must haves" some folks have are so long that it's difficult to imagine anyone measuring up. In fact, it's likely that behind those endlessly long lists are people afraid to be found out as lacking themselves. Instead of admitting that they aren't perfect either, they dump the blame on others, and proudly proclaim how "smart" they are about dating and relationships.

Healthy, fulfilling relationships are not based on transactional thinking. They aren't about lists. They aren't about finding one person who can "meet all your needs."

If you are trapped in this kind of thinking, it's time for a break. Or to diversify your life, and stop being obsessed about the mythical "one" that's supposedly the only person out there in a world of 6 billion+ that could possibly "get you." It's not too late to wake up. You can start right now.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Road Map to Love

People have a lot of strange ideas about how relationships are supposed to start, how they should progress, and where they should go. Even though no one is given a clear road map at birth to follow, a lot of us act like we have discovered not only our own, but the road maps for every last person on the planet. It's a peculiar arrogance. One that severely gets in the way of the love and compassion our world so desperately needs.

I don't know about you, but when I take a sincere look at my understanding of relationships - real, in the flesh relationships - it's pretty murky. People come to blogs like this looking for guidance, or answers to some question they have about love, and occasionally people like me offer something of value. However, much of the time, we're traveling in the land of abstractions, hypotheticals, and personal examples. All of which have the potential to be inspiring, or a major hindrance, depending upon what your actual needs are.

Notice I said "actual" needs, not "perceived" needs. What you believe you need in a partner is often not what you need. Or it's only partially what you need.

There's nothing wrong with seeking guidance from others. Certainly, some of us have learned a few things over the years, and might be able to steer others in a direction that's more right for them.

At the end of the day, though, you have to learn to listen to yourself, to that voice deep inside of you that would tell you what's right and what's wrong, if only you'd slow down and pay attention to it. Our world is changing fairly rapidly these days. The old rules around gender, sexuality, marriage, having children, and even being single are all shifting and changing. How we define being together isn't the same as it was just a few generations ago. Even the goals people have for relationships are often quite different than they were in the recent past.

The beauty of living today is that there is more freedom to truly discover who you are and what you want to be in the world. And for those who make mistakes early on in life due to youthful ignorance, there are more ways to address those mistakes, whether it means ultimately staying with someone or leaving them.

In other words, collectively we are less trapped by certain norms than folks were fifty years ago. And individually, we each have the potential to be much more liberated when it comes to our intimate relationships.

But in order to make that potential into a reality, you have to spend more time with yourself. You have to really slow down, reflect, and listen beyond the noise of cultural, familial, and friendship circle expectations. And you have to take these skills into any relationship that enter.

I don't believe in sexy, one size fits all road maps to love. If you do believe you have all the answers (even for yourself), I'd like to ask you this: How? How could you know for sure? And how's that working for you anyway?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ready and Not Ready for Love

There has been some pretty intense discussion on this post about a relationship between a man nearly 20 years older than his now fiance. Some of it has been about the age difference. Some of it about the way in which the man waffled about his desire to have children again. There have been several other related issues that have been brought up as well, and I'd invite people to read through the comments section - it's a pretty rich discussion.

One comment in particular, by a guy named Allen, struck me as really important.

We all go through stages of being ready or not ready for love. It is a matter of finding a good match and when both are ready.

It's often hard to admit that you really aren't ready, or available, for deep intimacy with another. For one thing, there's the fear that if you don't act NOW, you might be alone for ever. Which is always a possibility, but also tends to be a wildly exaggerated fear. Another reason we don't want to be honest about "not being ready" is that it seems like an acknowledgement of some personal failure. That we "must be" afraid of commitment or something of the like. Which again, might be true, but often isn't what's holding us back. In my experience, fears of commitment have come up when I have already made some level of commitment to someone. They have happened in relationship, not when I'm single.

Not being ready in the way Allen speaks above is about being the farm field just before spring arrives. The seeds are there. The soil is starting to warm up. But the conditions are just not quite right. We have to learn how to give space for this experience. To not try too much to force the conditions to ripen. Sometimes, this means stepping back from dating and relying on our other relationships (friendships, family, spiritual community, co-workers). Those other relationships are a rich field of their own. Not to be forgotten or dismissed as secondary, even when we find that special someone to be with.

A larger point, though, in Allen's comment is that life is a flux. Even when we are with someone, there will times of more openness, and times of being more closed and internalized. We have to learn to allow some of that flux.

Love isn't what you think it is anyway.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Digging Up Negative Dating Patterns

Somewhere early on in life, a seed was planted within me that something was deeply wrong with how we have arranged ourselves. It didn't make sense to me, for example, that women were rarely considered leaders, and that many women lived in fear of violence from men. Images of destroyed buildings and dead bodies in Lebanon and other places were seared into my young brain, forever rendering warfare an idiotic affair driven by male hubris and greed.

During high school, I found myself careening between the aggression of raging hormones, and a deep fear of hurting anyone. I played multiple sports, excelling at soccer, and yet often fled to reading and writing for general solace. I recall a time when I flipped a teammate on his back during a soccer practice, and after a fierce chewing out from the others on the team, weeks of feeling guilty for having been so careless with someone who was my friend.

I was timid with girls, partly our of fear, but partly out of respect. When I listened to my neighborhood friends talking about "getting a piece of ass" and chasing "bitches," I nodded silently while inwardly cringing at the dehumanization of it all. My first girlfriend most likely dumped me because I wasn't bold enough, didn't take charge enough in certain situations, sexual and otherwise.

There was a battle in my sixteen year old mind between a man not yet born and a boy who wanted to be good and respectful. In some ways, this battle has continued to this very day.

The above is from a short essay I wrote on another one of my blogs. I'm highlighting it here as an example of self-reflection on the development of sexuality and personality in adolescence.

Lately, I have been making a deliberate effort to break free from some old patterns. Patterns that developed and served me when I was younger, but which now are basically hindrances. While they impact other areas of my life, they seem to be most prevalent in the dating/relationship realm.

The reason I re-posted the narrative above is that it's been through reflection on the somewhat distant past that I have unearthed some of these deep seated habits. Things like avoiding conflict out of fear of losing someone, and being too quick to minimize and forgive actions and/or words that have hurt me in some manner or another.

You have to reflect on the past, in order to not repeat it in the future. For the majority of us, this doesn't mean months and years of therapy. But what it does mean is a willingness to see the negative ways in which you contributed to past relationships. To see those patterns, and then vow to stop doing them, to let them go. The vow itself will probably need to be repeated over and over again before the pattern actually breaks apart, but its making that first step which is often the most difficult.

I encourage readers, if you are finding yourself repeating the same dating/relationship mistakes time and again, to take some time and reflect on those early days. Especially those years when your sexuality was opening up and in bloom for the first time.

Your thoughts?

*Photo is from last fall, taken in the neighborhood next to mine.