“What’s really at work when we resist opening up is the sense of vulnerability it produces.”
What’s that you say? You say you don’t have a problem with your attitude toward women? Heaven knows we all love them, but it is hard to acknowledge that we likely have an outdated view of women. In some ways, we may still actually regard them as inferior. Of course, none of us would ever admit that openly, but it’s true that many of us have received feedback from our women about how we treat them, even unintentionally.
Much like our notions of masculinity and manhood, a lot of our views about women are likely “inherited” from our fathers’ view, since most of us adopted many of our fathers’ beliefs without question. Unless you were lucky enough to have a father with a healthy view of women, it’s likely you inherited a few unconscious biases as well.
The problem simply stated is that our unexamined views of women sometimes cause us to disregard their input, resist or fail to share power with them, and fail to learn from their often superior emotional intelligence.
Let’s unpack that statement. In household matters, it’s impossible to disregard a woman’s input as she may speak very directly about how she wants things to be. On such matters, women feel a certain empowerment to speak up because this tends to be an area of huge importance for them and one in which they are traditionally viewed as the experts. On other matters, however, such as how to spend discretionary money, she may yield to your preferences just to keep the peace and avoid confrontation. That doesn’t mean she agrees or has no opinion, but if she has been conditioned to be less assertive, she may fail to speak up.
As for sharing power with women, what else could they want? Their name is on the bank accounts and the deed. They often decide where to go on vacation, which church to attend, and a host of other family decisions. But true power-sharing, especially as a woman might see it, involves collaboration and thinking through options together in an open atmosphere where both parties feel comfortable expressing themselves. Feeling heard.
As men, we tend to speak boldly and forcefully and to put our ideas on the table pretty quickly. But if we do not show some patience and willingness to be influenced by our partner’s opinion, we can come off as rigid and arbitrary––even rude. To your partner, it may seem the decision is already made, or that it would be futile to challenge it.
How many times has it happened to you that you have stated your point of view to your partner only to find out later that she had a different perspective but didn’t speak up at the moment because it seemed your mind was made up. This is often a source of frustration for men: We expect people who have a different point of view to voice it. But, for a woman, that may be difficult because she doesn’t have a lot of history of that working for her. In other words, she may be expecting “softer” statements (“I’m considering” vs. “I’m going to…”) which allow for another point of view or the invitation to influence decisions. And she may see your assertive “action statement” as final and not to be questioned. Women are often conditioned to give up their boundaries for the sake of peace and harmony. But that doesn’t mean the issue is closed. I’ve heard men say that women not being honest about what they are feeling is often the cause of a fight. Generally, it sounds like men should speak a little less forcefully and women a little more so.
What we can do, of course, is state frequently that we are open to hearing other ideas from her, but that statement needs to be accompanied by some actions that support it. If we have positions of power at work (if we are the person “in charge”) we may be even more likely to forget the importance of real collaboration–although sometimes job performance feedback may remind us.
As for a woman’s superior emotional intelligence, most men likely would not challenge that assumption. As men, we are not encouraged to learn the subtler points of relationships and interpersonal negotiation. As a consequence, we can appear brusque and even harsh in interactions with our partners.
We need to talk…
This is the phrase that puts fear in the hearts of men when our partner says this to surface an issue. We’ll talk more about communication issues later, but for now let’s talk about the vulnerability we feel when our partners ask us to speak openly with them. One of the most common complaints I hear is:
“My wife expects me to ‘open up and share’ but I’m not sure she can handle what’s really on my mind and therefore I bite my tongue in order to protect her.”
That’s likely not a good idea because it is based on your understanding of her capacity to handle something, and it denies her the chance to speak for herself. It’s smarter to assume that she can handle what’s on your mind and that she wants to hear it. The simple fact that you are trying to protect her might mean you need to investigate your attitudes about women, especially your partner.
What’s really at work when we resist opening up is the sense of vulnerability it produces. In fact, the word vulnerability is typically missing from our vocabulary because, as men, we see it as a weakness. Talk about contrast! For your partner, vulnerability simply means openness and honesty–and those are signs of strength, not weakness. But to avoid showing any weakness, we often keep our deepest fears and concerns to ourselves. We rationalize that we are “taking care of her” as we have been taught to do. Reminder: She likely has not asked for protection. My former pastor, Dr. Jody Seymour, talks of “appropriate vulnerability” which is not emotional nakedness, but a willingness to do some self-disclosure, especially about feelings.
The problem of withholding our feelings from our partners is that it denies us true intimacy with the person from whom we most need openness, trust and closeness. As a result, we feel isolated and deprived of a closeness to which we feel entitled as a partner. But we place the blame on her, not ourselves. This almost always breeds growing resentment as the behavior continues. And our women may feel we are emotionally distant, aren’t willing to share, don’t view them as equals, or just don’t care.
Incidentally, the root of the word vulnerability is from the Latin “vulneris” or wound. So the question we face is whether we are willing to let our partner see our (emotional) “wound” or whether we will keep it covered in hopes neither she nor anyone else will hurt us further. The cruel paradox here is that we try not to appear vulnerable as a way of controlling events and keeping ourselves from experiencing pain. But in truth, realizing we never really have control over people or events can bring a real strength and peace of mind. Personally, that took me some time to digest.
Another example of not accepting true equality in the relationship is when we shift our share of the housework to our partner even if she is the primary breadwinner or working equivalent hours.
How much do you help out around the house, especially in the kitchen? Or how often do you do a load of clothes, including folding and putting them away? Shopping? Cooking? Getting kids to bed?
I talked to a man recently who told me he firmly believes that providing a good income for the family and the benefits of a good lifestyle should be enough. He doesn’t feel he should have to do “housework.” It happens that his wife also has a full-time job and there are three kids to be tended to daily. He says he doesn’t mind dropping them off at school, but beyond that, he feels household duties should be a woman’s job.
If this sounds like you, I hope you will examine your feelings. In today’s environment with both parents working, there are more chores at home than one person can do. Besides, helping out as much as you can will free up time for your wife to spend with you! Not cheerfully helping can create resentment and a sense of unfairness on her part which can kill closeness.
There can also be some good communion time doing chores together. As one slogan said, “No man was ever stabbed to death doing the dishes.”
In his book Straight Talk for Men About Marriage, Martin G. Friedman discusses what men view to be the purpose of marriage. His findings show that “sex” is near the top of the list, suggesting that many men consider sex to be a primary purpose of marriage.1
Many of us have developed a confused notion about women and sex. Our earliest exposure to the titillation of sexual excitement can cause us to see only the physical attributes of a woman (which are plenty exciting), and fail to think about her deeper, more substantive qualities. So we unconsciously begin thinking of women in terms of what they can provide for us sexually. Indeed, men are conditioned from birth to objectify women and to view them as one-dimensional beings.2 When we combine that with our clumsiness in conversation, it can leave a woman feeling that we are only interested in her ability to satisfy us sexually. As you may have experienced, this is deadly for a relationship with a woman and can make her feel devalued and disrespected. It would make you feel that way too. Her feelings may come as a surprise to us when we are trying so desperately to protect her and take care of her. But the combination of our behaviors may send a very different message.
Pornography is so ubiquitous in today’s society that it is almost dismissed as routine and benign. Dismissing its potential for damage is a real mistake in terms of our relationships with the women we love. In his book How Can I Get Through to You: Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women, Terrence Real writes, “Even when not overtly aggressive, pornography posits women as existing for men’s use.”3 (See Resources.) Porn supposedly gives men a sense of power and prestige in that these women are available to him (which completely ignores the fact they are available to anybody). But there is plenty of documentation showing that involving ourselves in pornography leads us to think of women as sex objects, which makes it nearly impossible to think of them as equal partners in a loving relationship. According to everydayhealth.com It also can lead to erectile dysfunction, even in young men.
Our view of women can cause subtle differences in the way we relate to our daughters as opposed to our sons.
With our sons, we typically encourage action-oriented independence and confident decision-making. Treating our daughters differently can sometimes create a distance between us and them. But more importantly, it can damage their self-confidence and self-esteem. If they don’t believe that we think of them as competent and capable, it’s hard for them to think of themselves that way. This is a unique gift that men can give their daughters. If we are overprotective of our daughters, we teach them to be helpless and not to trust their own judgment or ability. Just like our sons, they need to receive our blessing, typically defined as a distinct, pro-active message in which we acknowledge them as a fully functioning, capable, independent person. This assures them they are capable of making their own way in a challenging world. We should also acknowledge that our wives and daughters don’t always need our protection.4
Women at Work
If we are not aware of how our attitude toward women is failing to serve us, we may inadvertently treat the women we work with in a less than appropriate way. If we fail to show proper respect for them and value their input in teams or other collaborative efforts, we send the message that we are clinging to yesterday’s view of women – – and that will likely come back to haunt us.
Research shows that men interrupt women more than they do other men—and more than women interrupt others.5 The result is that we lose the benefit of women’s thinking and experience. If a woman speaks up, the men often ignore her input and talk to each other.
I have talked with a number of men who report to female managers on the job who have issues arising from their own prejudices–or their boss perceiving that they have prejudices. Further, the more we see women mainly as sex objects, the more likely we are to engage in inappropriate relationships in the workplace such as affairs or sexual harassment. This can result in our losing our job or damaging key relationships at a minimum. In many cases there are actual punitive consequences for such behavior. We have certainly seen a large number of prominent men torpedo their careers with just this sort of behavior.
Just a note to conclude: If your view of women is that they are primarily to be protected and sheltered, you might ask first if she wants that. Some do, but some might find it offensive. Still, I would say opening the car door for her is better than just using the remote. Helping her with her chair at a restaurant is still a good thing. Chivalry is not totally dead. If you are unclear about her preferences, ask her.
Most of us could use some work in our attitudes toward women. Through our conditioning, we have learned bad habits that have harmed us in our connection with our partners, our daughters and sometimes our female co-workers or managers. While we may appear to have less emotional intelligence than some women, we can improve our communication and our relationships with women by using more collaborative and egalitarian approaches. The payoff for this is a level of intimacy, partnership, and connectedness with our women that we may never have experienced.
Stonewalling and pretending that we have no issues in this area does not help us get to where we need to be.
The Balanced Approach
We must recognize the equality of women in all we do while, at the same time, ask about her preferences if we are uncertain.
|Keeping your balance
On the scale below put a ^ mark where you think you are in your attitude toward women and another ^ where you would like to be and will work toward.
- In what areas of your life have you been guilty of a poor attitude toward women? How is this affecting your relationships with your partner, your daughters, your sisters, and work associates?
- What was your father’s view of the way to treat women? Do you subscribe to that view? What changes would you make?
- Do you have a daughter? Would you be comfortable if she married someone with your view of women? How would that help/harm her?
- Do you have sons? Are you treating them differently than you would a daughter? How so? Why?
- Have you found yourself passing along jokes or emails which stereotype or disrespect women (“all in good fun”)?
- After reading this chapter, what changes do you want to make in your own life?
- Do you agree that, as men, our attitude toward women can cause problems in relationships? Why or why not?
- Are you involved in pornography? How do you think that involvement is impacting your view of women or your relationship with your partner?
- Are you involved in an affair, justifying it because of problems at home?
Action Steps Men Can Take
- Initiate a discussion with your wife asking for feedback about how you interact with her, what she needs more of, less of.
- Pay attention to your language. Do you find yourself referring to adult women, especially in the office, as “girls” or even more derogatory terms? If so, drop that language immediately.
- Are you pulling your weight on household duties? Empty the dishwasher, vacuum the floor, clean up the kitchen, do the laundry frequently.
- Collaborate with your wife to make consensus decisions (e.g. purchases, choice of restaurant, financial decisions).
- End any use of pornography. Examine why you are drawn to it. Get counseling if needed before it causes problems in your relationships.
- Increasingly share your fears and concerns with your partner to assure yourself she cares and can handle them. I almost guarantee she can.
- If you are in an affair, get some counseling for yourself and find a way to end it before it wrecks your life.
Action Steps Women Can Take
- Gently, lovingly, firmly, correct your man when he says things that are sexist or derogatory about women.
- Initiate a discussion with him about this topic to learn how he came to his views. Stay on topic. Make “I” Statements, not “You” statements. (For example, “I feel better when you…” vs. “You always do…”)
- Monitor yourself to make sure you aren’t encouraging negative views of women such as laughing at sexist jokes, for example.
- Reassure your partner that it is safe to talk about this or any other topic with you.
- Ask for what you want and need. Don’t expect him to read your mind.
- Help him to learn how to show he loves and respects you (reward the good behaviors).
- Make your preferences clear about such things as helping you with your chair, opening the car door, etc.
- If your partner already demonstrates a good model in this area, tell him directly.