My friend and I are sitting at the lake on a perfectly smooth driftwood bench. It’s dark and nearing the tail-end of summer. Water crashes against rocks at the corner of this beach with wildflower gardens crawling up the hill behind, as string lights flicker us into silhouette. We are laughing and talking. But mostly processing the disappointments in our dating relationships, as well as men in close proximity (we both have a handful of brothers from which we also incorporate into our sample size). I’m including research and life experiences, as well as the hundreds of stories I’ve listened to over the years. We talk about misogyny, patriarchy, men being held to low standards without accountability, and the systemic circling of hopelessness for obtaining partnerships with the opposite sex that can hold a level of emotional intelligence and honesty. It’s frustrating. It feels hopeless.
I mention how low my standards are. That I am a relatively understanding and non-reactive person who tries to sit with and hold empathy when difficult things come up in my relationships. I don’t get angry (or at least I don’t stay with the anger). I work hard to access the vulnerability underneath it all. “We HAVE to have low standards,” my silver-feathering-haired-friend says emphatically. And she is right. Unfortunately, the standards toward men throughout history have been less than and more flexible compared to standards set for women. We praise men for helping out around the house or taking kids to appointments. We drool over single fathers for doing tasks moms have been doing at 40 times the rate. Fathers of divorce have way more support from family and friends than do mothers. We suggest dads are babysitting their kids when moms are just being moms. These imbalances and double standards can get the fuck out of here.
Modeling of gender roles in my own family history feels more like servanthood. My mom would do almost anything in catering to the males of our family. I joke with my sisters and her when she seems disinterested, “Oh wait, that’s right. This isn’t impressive because we don’t have penises.” (as my sisters and I make half rolling and half laughing eyes at one another in validation). Mom wraps up her 15 minute monologue about how cute and funny my brothers were playing a game of Cranium over the summer holiday. They. Are. Being. Praised. For. Playing. A. Game. And, yet, here we are – her daughters. Spending time with her. Traveling and planning trips to create experiences together, while the boys are nowhere to be seen, yet their value continues to increase. We are mothers, business owners, degree-holders, and travelers. However, the boys are acknowledged for sitting around drinking beer and playing a game. I’ve been to North Carolina dozens of times for my mother’s birthday and spent summers biking across different states with her. She literally cries when one of her sons sends her a text on Mother’s Day.
I have witnessed (and participated in) so many women being “over-understanding” which leads to excuse-making and toward a deficit of accountability in their relationships. I’ve seen grandmothers make comments that reveal responsibility-taking, mothers blaming their daughters for not staying with an abuser, and peers staying stuck in chronically stifling and harmful relationships because they are understanding. Society and generations have been telling them that it is their job to heal, fix, soothe, and stand by a man so he can maybe one day live into the potential we see in him. As women, we are groomed to believe we are responsible for the emotional and action-ary labor of the men around us.
It may seem as though small slow shifts are happening, but the reality is even though there are some woke men around me, most of them still feel entitled and continue to benefit from their privilege. They would like to receive complete fidelity, commitment, and understanding while also having complete independence – accessibility to flirt with and travel, unplugged and withholding. As I listen intently to men talk about what they want, I summarize, “So, you are saying you want all the benefits of a partner who is loyal and committed, but you also want the benefits of being able to do whatever the fuck you want whenever the fuck you want to? Is that right?” “Well, yes. Now that you put it that way. I guess that IS what I’m saying.” This admission slips out of their lips like butter with zero remorse, guilt, or shame attached to it. I envy that, but am also disgusted. That is selfishness. And yes, I’m imposing my values and judgments on this. Because I don’t find selfishness to be an attractive quality, especially when it is at the expense of someone else who has and is being selfless. Or when it exploits someone else’s vulnerabilities. It also has potential to create a clear imbalance of power within a relational dynamic. It seems the perception on this issue is losing out, missing out, becoming stuck, losing control, etc. Underneath that is really just fear, belted by selfishness. A defining character of misogyny is keeping a woman in her place, yet men seem so afraid of being kept in any one place.
In my own desire for a partnership, I’m not asking for someone to be selfless in order to cater only ever to me. I’m not interested in passivity. I’m not asking for someone to love me unconditionally and sacrifice every part of themselves in order to tend to every part of me. I’m asking for mutuality. I’m asking for mutual support, mutual respect, mutual communication, mutual vulnerability, mutual distribution of labor, and mutual holding of power. It would be nice to have someone bloody show up and stay present through the hard emotional labor, the way I force myself to stay present when all I want to do is run away and hide.
I wrote this piece because I was re-processing the ending of a few relationships and thinking about the concept of partnership and mutuality. I’m seeking balance. For some reason, that seems like an impossible feat when living in such an imbalanced society. It is scary to recognize now, after so many years, how I continue to contribute to a system of misogyny by being compliant, passive, and not holding others accountable.
Want in a Man
not a lover
but a man
I would willingly fold toward his integrity
a man with deep-seated humility
the kind that roots itself
not in fields of insecurity
but in totes of intentionality
show me empathy
the kind that defies stop motion thinking
the kind that filters value and care
while actively listening for invisible meaning
I demand your fidelity
I want in a man
one who tends to detailed patience
the ability to hold space while paving paths of safety
one who engages self-control
not out of shame
one who bends with
standing there watching
in a man
nothing more than
that I am