Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Intimacy Pedestal


There's an interesting debate going on in the comments section of this post from The Good Men Project. It's about intimacy. Men. Women. And social conditioning. I found myself agreeing with the majority, but also questioning some important sections of the post. Let's take a closer look.

Author Bill Cloke begins with this:

most men are taught from an early age to be competitive, that feelings are a sign of weakness and to avoid vulnerability and dependency at all costs. The ideal for men is fierce independence and strength.

Although there are signs of some change these days, this does reflect how boys are "trained," and how the men those boys grow up to be act, or try to present themselves as in any case.

However, I would argue that more and more American women are embracing "independence and strength" as core virtues. It's quite easy to find Gen X women and those of younger generations placing higher value on being happily single and financially sustainable, than upon being partnered up and dependent in any manner.

Although every last human on the planet is dependent to some degree on others, for the majority of Americans, male or female, being ok with dependence is just not ok. Heterosexual men best not have any financial needs of their female partners because those that do will roundly be slammed as lazy, good for nothing leaches. Heterosexual women best be in a financial position to leave a relationship at a moment's notice if things start going bad. Heterosexual women also would do well to "train" their male partners to not expect emotional coddling by cutting them off at the first pass. Guy starts talking about how difficult things are at work, and the girlfriend tells him to "toughen up." Guy expresses some form of upset about something going on in the relationship and he's told that he's "being too sensitive."
I could go on with more examples, but general idea is this: many Americans love to project independent and strong images of themselves, even when it might harm their intimate relationships to do so.

A little later on in his article, Cloke offers the following:

Men do not do as well as women in the clinches. Men have a harder time with stress reduction, and anxiety around conflict. Women have gears inside built for childbirth where they can tolerate pain. This internal mechanism to withstand anxiety and pain allows women to deal with emotional stress way better than men. Men usually avoid conflict and make every effort to make peace. For this reason they do not tend to resolve conflicts well which creates distance in their relationships. This avoidance of confrontation, pain and anxiety can build up over time and cause the eventual breakup of a marriage.

I don't really buy this. Stress is a cross gender, societal problem these days. Millions of people, for example, are on medications for anxiety, depression, and other stress-related fallout, precisely because they were never taught how to deal with stress naturally. Others have chosen a more destructive route, drowning their stress through illicit drugs, alcohol, or engaging in various forms of violence. In my opinion, what might be gendered is the ways in which men and women "act out." Men are more likely to avoid problems through distancing and silence. They're also more likely to engage in physical violence when things have gotten too pent up. Women are more prone to what I would call forms of emotional violence. Manipulation. Deliberate emotional and/or sexual withdrawal to get what they want. Mind games of various sorts. But all of these are maladaptive responses to stress and dissatisfaction, and none of them are the province of a single gender.

Getting back to the issue of intimacy, I think it's more accurate to say that men and women have somewhat differing intimacy-hindering patterns, and that perhaps the patterns the majority of men choose are more successful at keeping others - especially their partners - away. Distancing, cold silence, and physical violence are pretty effective at cutting off connections, whereas other approaches tend to require some level of connection in order to be successful. And these connections may be mistakenly considered intimacy by the casual onlooker, family members, friends, and even the partner him or herself. Partners enmeshed in elaborate mind games and emotional violence tend to appear "really close." It may be that the dominantly male patterns of avoiding intimacy are simply more visible and obvious than the dominantly female patterns.

One last piece in Cloke's article that I quibble with is this:

Women frequently complain that their partner wants to have sex even though they don’t feel connected emotionally. Men want to have sex to feel connected and women want to feel connected to feel comfortable having sex.

First off, how people express their sexuality is wildly diverse. It's probably always been so, but it's easier to find this diversity out in the open these days. I do think it's fair to say, though, that women in particular have benefited greatly from the sexual liberation of the past forty-fifty years. And one of the ways in which this plays out is that more women are into casual sex, sex without love, or other forms of sexual expression not dependent upon having a close, intimate connection with their sexual partner.

I do think though that there is a fair amount of accuracy to Cloke's statement, but what follows it misses something vitally important in my opinion. He writes:

Because some men want to skip over feelings and go straight to sex, porn and prostitution has taken off since the advent of the internet. Men who find themselves avoiding confrontations and intimacy will find anonymous intimacy in internet chat rooms, porn or prostitutes.

Here's the thing. In a society where other forms of intimacy are deemed by "man culture" as weak or "emasculating," sex becomes the main portal. As such, many men view having sex as the only "safe way" to express care, desire, and vulnerability - something that, if it goes well, pleases their partners and also makes them look good with their male buddies. This is probably a main reason why men are so apt to test long term compatibility via sexual connection. If the sex isn't good enough, a lot of guys probably think somewhere inside "well, there's no place for me here." The "me" being the person who is open, vulnerable, fully alive without being hindered by shame and guilt.

It's kind of ironic that sex - an activity so clouded with moralistic shame and guilt baggage - ends up being the place where so many men go looking for a safe place to be totally themselves.

Overall, I think Cloke's argument that men struggle with intimacy is a fair one. However, he seems to place women on an intimacy pedestal, and then expects men to work towards reaching them. In my view, the dominant patterns brought on by patriarchy and colonialism have made intimacy difficult for everyone. It's time for a more well-rounded picture of what's wrong, and also the many ways in which people might make it right.











4 comments:

  1. I read the article, and then read yours. I totally agree with you. And it tends to be a common theme on The Good Men Project site - they do tend to assume a certain superiority and mental balance in women that can't be assumed.

    I do agree that our culture has taught men to cope with stress in quite damaging ways. But the same society has taught women to either turn their aggressions inward, to manipulate by subterfuge instead of acting openly, etc. As you have detailed.

    Most of all, there is tremendous pressure to conform to expectations, on both sides of the gender divide. And some of the happiest and well-balanced people I've met (who also have rewarding intimate relationships) are those who have managed to shirk off those pressures and simply be genuine.

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  2. Some of the writers over there also seem to be cut from the "Men's Rights" cloth, which tends to lean the other way in elevating men far too much. Kind of a curious website.

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