I recently spent a few hours with a dear friend who was in town, and we got onto the topic of relationships.
My friend never ceases to astonish me with his wisdom and thoughtfulness, and I found myself understanding a big topic with absolute clarity for the first time.
At one point, I actually wanted to stop and take notes.
The topic was something I have both experienced personally, and in my coaching practice, about the growing pains in a relationship when you shift from assessing your partner simply as a human (amazing! sexy! perfect!) to assessing them as your future life partner (too messy! workaholic! their family is bad shit crazy!).
Here’s the gist of my friend’s message:
In the beginning of a relationship, it’s easy to be accommodating and accepting. While wearing your lust-and-optimism new-relationship goggles, you can see your partner’s behaviors in a very flattering and forgiving light. Sure, you might hear a little voice telling you that this particular behavior wouldn’t work for you in the long term, but you don’t say anything, because it’s not a big deal right now.
But then later on, when those new-relationship goggles come off, and you’re planning a future together, you might suddenly realize that there’s a ton of shit you wish was different, but your partner doesn’t know this. So you start telling them– hey this doesn’t work for me. Hey, that needs to change. Hey, I need you to do this differently.
Your partner is shocked, and offended. Things were good enough before, after all. What changed? The relationship has been fine and easy, and they don’t *want* to do all that work now.
Does any of this resonate for you?
It sure as fuck did for me.
I was struck too by the understanding that women need to learn how to assert their needs and desires right from the beginning of a relationship. While this could apply to any gender, and any type of relationship, this seems to me to be most salient among women who are in relationships with men.
In general, given the programming we learn as girls and women (to be happy, nice, polite, pretty, small, and giving) it makes sense that so many women enter new relationships with men with the goal of making themselves “easy to love.”
Typically this means not asking for much from our partners, accepting them however they show up, and just being grateful to be chosen.
In the early days, we typically try really hard to play it cool, and be laidback and casual, in order to not scare our partners off. We hide our emotional ups and downs, we hide how messy and needy we are, we hide what we really want, and we try to just be grateful that we “found a good one.”
Worse still, many women pride themselves on being “different than other girls,” meaning we demand even less from our partners, we express even fewer needs, we hide even more of our feelings… and we’re proud of it.
The problem is that “making things easy” on your partner in the beginning is a sure-fire way to end up unhappy.
Our male partners get used to relationships being suuuppper easy and undemanding, and after a while he may be perfectly content with how things are, while we have a list a mile long of our unmet needs.
Many men might try to convince you that the problem is you– that you’re too demanding, or too needy, or you’re overreacting, or you just “need to relax.”
Other men would be devastated, and unable to handle hearing all the ways they’re making you unhappy without feeling like you were attacking their personal character.
But this isn’t about you, and you don’t need to “relax.” It’s not even about him, or his personal failings.
Trust me, this is much bigger than that.
This is about the roles we are taught to play in heteronormative relationships, and who those roles benefit (hint: it’s not women).
Can you imagine if, overnight, every single woman agreed to be 100% honest and upfront about her expectations, desires, and demands in her relationship from now on?
At first, I suspect there would be a lot of breakups.
Most men would be like UMMMM THIS IS ANNOYING, I’VE NEVER HAD TO WORK THIS HARD AND I DON’T LIKE IT.
That’s because most women would demand more emotional labor, more emotional intelligence, more foreplay and sensual sex, and more of the other stuff we have all taught men they don’t need to do, in order to come off as easy and laidback and likeable.
“It’s true what they say about women: Women are insatiable. We are greedy. Our appetites do need to be controlled if things are to stay in place. If the world were ours too, if we believed we could get away with it, we would ask for more love, more sex, more money, more commitment to children, more food, more care. These sexual, emotional, and physical demands would begin to extend to social demands: payment for care of the elderly, parental leave, childcare, etc. The force of female desire would be so great that society would truly have to reckon with what women want, in bed and in the world.”
-Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
Here’s the thing though.
If every single woman agreed to be upfront about her desires and demands, then after all those early breakups occurred with the men going off in search of “easier” relationships, they would all eventually discover that there was no such thing.
Can you imagine if we all held men accountable for recognizing and dismantling their own privilege, for examining and healing their own traumas, gender role expectations, and personal narratives? If we held them accountable for recognizing and communicating what they were feeling, and for showing up to do exactly half of the emotional labor in every relationship?
Most relationships would look shockingly different, and this hypothetical change would likely feel terribly unfair to men at first.
After all, for thousands and thousands of years, we have taught them that it’s totally ok for them not to do any of that, that they get a free pass because it’s “not in their nature.” (False.)
We have taught them that we women will take responsibility for most (if not all) of the emotional labor so that he can have a good life with lots of connections. We’ll remind him to call his mother on her birthday, bring up problems in our relationships that he “didn’t know how to talk about,” and keeps lists and schedules in our heads about everything that needs to be done to run a household and maintain strong connections to our friends, family, and communities.
It’s no wonder marriage disproportionately benefits men.
We’ve taught men that they don’t need to work hard to learn these skills, they don’t need to really listen to us or take our needs (or feelings) seriously, and they don’t have to change or better themselves.
We’ve even taught men that we’ll agree with them about how difficult/crazy/emotional/needy we’re being… and apologize for it.
So what do we do?
Well for a start,
what if we stopped praising men for doing tiny fractions of the emotional labor in their relationships?
What if we stopped thanking men for tolerating or “handling” our emotions?
What if we stopped applauding every time a man is an active father, does chores at home, talks about his feelings, or sacrifices career success for his family, the way women have been doing for centuries?
What if we demanded that all this (and more) became a baseline of expectation, rather than a reason to celebrate?
This might sounds crazy (and you might be freaking out imagining being even more difficult or demanding in your relationship) but the point is that eventually there would be a shift.
With an “easy relationship” taken off the table, the only option for men would be to step up and learn how to navigate the “difficult” part of a relationship.
Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking “but men just aren’t good at that stuff!”
I hear this excuse a lot, that men and women are just born with different strengths. The same argument has, until very recently, been used to justify men cheating, raping, and sexually assaulting women.
This same line of thinking has also been used to oppress women by saying that we are the more naturally virtuous and chaste gender. (Again giving men a free pass to be sexual and misbehave, while leaving the work of getting everyone to be “good” to whom? Women.)
I don’t buy this.
Yes, men and women are different, but a lot of this stuff is the result of social conditioning, gender role expectations, and unexamined privilege. Rather than lacking some biological gift, all men are lacking is practice and motivation.
(Wow this email really turned into a rant.)
We must not allow our male partners to get away with having “easy” relationships, for fear of chasing them away. We must find ways to challenge these deeply ingrained gender roles around emotional labor, and loudly voice our expectations, desires, and needs from day one.
I don’t want an “easy” relationship, and I don’t want to live in a world where we are teaching men that an easy relationship is even an option.
We all deserve better than that, my sweet sisters.
If we all start demanding more, the men will eventually catch up.
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