Embracing personal responsibility in interpersonal relationships

This is Part One of a three-part series about personal responsibility and societal expectations in regard to gender.

In my interactions with men that I interact with often on a group level, I often find myself in situations where I am frustrated with these men’s seeming lack of empathy and understanding for the female perspective. I often feel ignored in situations where a group conversation is most assuredly occurring, where I may be talked over, or interrupted, or have my experiences discounted before they allow themselves to truly listen to me. These are conversations that range from the everyday chat to the longer, more involved philosophical discussions ranging from politics, gender, or music.

When I feel as thought I’m not being listened to, or that my experiences or voice is being drowned out, it’s very easy (and often quite accurate) to chalk up the experience to sexism. Now, I’m not calling all the men I know sexists; in fact, I would be uncomfortable applying the “misogynist” label to the vast majority of men I interact with on a frequent basis (most people I know likely would, too). I’m not slapping a “sexist!” sticker on their backs for later reference; I’m legitimately irritated, sometimes to the point of frustration and rage, at their very stereotypical male styles of communication.

Conversely, my husband is often annoyed with my sometimes utter lack of ability to talk about an important issue without starting to cry, or my overly-drawn-out communication style in a both casual and more intimate context. In a conversation, I tend toward a more stereotypical “female” approach: I listen to what is being discussed, and when I chime in, especially if I’m in agreement of the opinion of whoever spoke last, I tend to relate examples of how the statement is true from my own, or other friends’ or family’s experience. I also tend to ramble on a great deal, going on tangents and providing my audience with what I’ve later learned to be far more detail than they needed or wanted (perhaps my blogging style is similar). I’ve noticed that men, even the more wordy or conversational types, tend toward more direct, less detailed styles of communicating with friends. If they talk over me, it may be because they want to avoid what they assume will be more detail than necessary, and I may talk a lot and with great detail when given the chance to ensure that I’m being heard, because of the assumption that I won’t be.

A similarity I’ve noticed between the things we are often annoyed with in regard to a typical behavior that we find in men or women respectively is that they are all stereotypical behaviors that receive the most universal complaints, that are so prevalent in the Western world that books are constantly written about them.

What I find to be also prevalent, at least in the feminist world in which I readily include myself, is a tendency to overlook those stereotypical, patriarchy-approved behaviors of our own and instead focus solely on those exhibited by men: aggressiveness, loudness, a tendency to believe that they should be listened to above anyone else, arrogance, and lack of emotion (at least, visible emotions other than anger). We fail to acknowledge and readily admit to the fault of our own tendencies to be passive-aggressive in speech and domestic disputes, our reliance on men with whom we may cohabitate to perform basic household maintenance (or required bug-killing, in my experience), a lack of personal aggressiveness in regards to jobs and careers, and even non-threatening-but-persistent wannabe suitors, whose feelings of attraction we may not reciprocate.

To further elaborate on the last point, the lack of assertiveness in regards to men who are romantically interested in a woman when the feelings are not reciprocated can be an especially tricky mess to navigate, and a frequent enough problem for women and men alike. Men aren’t, of course, always forthright about their lack of long-term or other interest in a woman who shows clear attraction to him. This could be for a number of reasons; perhaps he likes her a great deal, and doesn’t want to potentially hurt the friendship by shooting down her interest. This applies frequently to women, as well. Maybe the man is interested in the possibility of a sexual relationship, but nothing further, so he doesn’t let on that he’s not interested because he hopes for a sexual encounter and isn’t sure she’d be interested in a sexual relationship without a commitment. While many women may delay telling a man she isn’t interested in a relationship for this reason, it’s understood to be a generally male phenomenon and also one that is highly frowned upon. Women, on the other hand, may hold out on telling an interested guy that she’s “not that into him” because she enjoys the attention his interest brings her and her self-esteem, which is commonly understood to be a mostly-female phenomenon– one that is frequently criticized among hetero men.

Both behaviors that seem to be nearly exclusive to men or women are clearly not exclusive, but the prevalence of any behavior in one sex or another are both directly related to what we could call a “patriarchal influence.” Women hold on to the affection and attention a male gives her, while men pursue the possibility of a sexual relationship with a female. It’s an annoyingly generalized way of chalking up a variety of individual experiences, but it’s often true, and it’s often a result of social norms that both men and women are attempting to live up to. Women feel personally validated if they are the recipient of male attention, as popular culture tells us that securing male affection in one way or another is our lifetime goal. Men validate us and they are supposed to “take care” of us, with their money or muscles or comfy, over-sized shirts or something. Men feel personally validated by sexual prowess, because popular culture tells them that in order to be “a man,” they have to “conquer” as many women sexually as possible. Settling down with a woman is to say “no” to more sex with more women, and is to be avoided at all costs.

As both common behaviors are harmful to the recipient, and really cannot (and should not) be compared in terms of what is more harmful to whom, it would be beneficial for women and men to stop focusing solely on the ways in which men or women respectively behave that are influenced by patriarchal ideas, and more on the ways in which they can begin to shed their own role in perpetuating negative stereotypes. A woman’s bad behavior that she learned from popular culture’s sexist expectations shouldn’t be ignored because most people would agree that, as a woman, she’s on the losing end of the patriarchal ideal that put the expectation in place. As we know, men and women both have generally agreed-upon “privileges” that are directly related to patriarchal expectations. While the privileges bestowed on any particular gender or sex may come from a system run primarily by and for men, the more tangible the immediate reality of those privileges and oppressions are in every day life, the less important “the patriarchy’s” becomes.

For example, a communication problem between my husband and myself won’t improve if I’m hollering about the patriarchy’s influence any time he criticizes a less-than-ideal habit I have in my communication style. A better way to approach a criticism like that would be to first, think about what he said; second, think about whether or not it could be true– and for more than a few half-hearted seconds. Then, if it still feels unwarranted, try not to cry, and explain why. Naturally, he’d also be expected to let go of his patriarchy-influenced expectation that emotions not be present in a conversation about an issue we may have– especially considering that few problems would occur in any relationship if someone didn’t have an emotional reaction to something– and no one could say with a straight face that women are the only ones who start arguments based on emotional reactions to something their partner did, so reacting emotionally should not be unexpected; an emotional reaction, on the other hand, can certainly be minimized or “calmed down” before engaging in the problem-solving.

While I am certainly using my own experiences to extrapolate very generalized conclusions, I hear similar complaints often enough that I feel they are applicable to a broader audience, as well as to friendships between a heterosexual male and female, or mixed groups, and are not exclusive to heterosexual partnerships. The relationships between men and women, whether in the context of friendship or romantic and/or sexual relationships, could be greatly improved if we all attempted to rid ourselves of negative behaviors influenced by “the patriarchy,” and not leave the responsibility solely on the shoulders of men.

This does, of course, mean that men must also take responsibility; I write this based on the experiences I have with my own male friends, all of whom are the progressive type, for whom sexism is not an intentional behavior and rarely goes unacknowledged if called out. What I find most immediately pressing, though, for the sake of progressive dialogue to occur, is the inconsistency in which this method is thought of as necessary by the general population of self-identified feminist women– especially in a group setting, whether it be online in a comment thread, or a backyard barbeque. We hear far too often that men created the problems, the war, the violence, and that they’re in charge, and that women shouldn’t be held accountable for the ways in which they are continually brought down by patriarchy; while it’s true that no one is responsible for their own oppression, no matter how small of an oppression we may be experiencing, it is not necessary to avoid our own flaws because they are caused by the very system in which we are fighting. And let’s not forget that men, too, are not immune to patriarchy’s negative influences There is no reason to forgive someone the duty of being responsible for oneself when possible, when those behaviors continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes and hinder important progress in working with men to end negative gender-based expectations.

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14 Responses to Embracing personal responsibility in interpersonal relationships

  1. Jim says:

    God what an awesome.

    “Then, if it still feels unwarranted, try not to cry, and explain why. Naturally, he’d also be expected to let go of his patriarchy-influenced expectation that emotions not be present in a conversation about an issue we may have– especially considering that few problems would occur in any relationship if someone didn’t have an emotional reaction to something”

    Part of this is partriachal, part of this is just cultural incompatiblity. Men in very patriarchal cultures get very emotional in their conversations. Conversely women in lots of cultures are often quite stoic in theit communication, and this is a social expectation of any adult in that culture. By the way this makes for huge communication problems between cultures – if a soemone communicates out of one culture in an emotional way, she or he is bound to be perceived as an aout of control child by someone listening in their other culture. You watch this play out in relations in LA between blacks and Koreans, for instance.
    The patriarchal bit does its share of mischief.

    If the man drops his patriarchal care-taker conditioning, he is free to let the women cry if she wants, and she is free to do it, without that derailing the conversation, other than maybe “I can’t make out what your saying between sobs; let’s wait a bit.” But this patriarchal expectation gets enforced on all sides: “You brute; don’t you care that she’s crying? What did you say to her to make her cry?”

    So there’s some work to do.

    • April says:

      Men in very patriarchal cultures get very emotional in their conversations. Conversely women in lots of cultures are often quite stoic in theit communication, and this is a social expectation of any adult in that culture.

      I had not considered other cultures and their ways of gender-influenced communication. Very interesting point; I’ll definitely have to look more into that. Every time I learn more about how other cultures (other than my US-influenced perspective), it’s apparent that gender dichotomies do not play out in anywhere close to the same ways across the board.

    • Jim says:

      A US-influenced perspective will do fine – all those cultures can be observed right here.

      And on a larger scale, the diversity of cultures in US society tends to make a lot of generalizations about gender issues very controversial because they tend to be not as general as they purport to be. The Madonna-Whore dichotomy for instance just really doesn’t apply in most of Scotch-Irish blue collar culture. (In that culture there may be something like a Madonna archetype, but it’s not anything like what oyu see in Latin cultures, and the really strong archetype is the Virago.) It’s not really a feature of any Anglo or Celtic culture, which are after all the dominant or mainstream cultures.

  2. Sunset says:

    Wow. I’m not entirely sure what to say. Part of me agrees, part of me says we already get blamed for everything.

    I think the question I’d ask is…what is your responsibility? How do you tell? What is a “flaw”, and what is an unfair expectation? It’s not as simple a question as it seems. It’s something I find hard to sometimes impossible to tell…I grew up with an everything and everyone is your responsibility (e.g. if a family member is upset it’s your responsibility to fix), and I do find myself swinging to far the other way sometimes.

    • Jim says:

      Maybe the standard should be mature self-sufficiency and inter-dependency and autonomy. The psycho-speak term is “boundaries”.

      We are basically repsonsible for our own emotions. Those emotions are often in response to others’ actions, but they are not the same thing. So it’s one thing to say “Stop doing that; it upsets me” and quite something else to say “Look how you *make* me feel.” and way over the line to say “Look what you made me do.”

    • Sunset says:

      Actually that’s the hardest part for me right there. I grew up with a heavy dose of “why are you so oversensitive,” particularly in response to unwanted physical contact. Accompanied by “no one can make you feel anything,” “take responsibility for yourself,” etc. And the response to “Stop doing that, it upsets me” was generally “Stop being so selfish and controlling.”

      In other words, boundaries are *very* hard to determine, especially if you aren’t used to being allowed to have them. I certainly never had any as a child because it simply wasn’t allowed (FYI I’m only 22). It comes back to exactly what constitutes an appropriate boundary? When does it become controlling? When does it become…ah what’s the opposite of controlling?

    • Jim says:

      You report that you were castigated for setting personal boundaries around physical touching and then fed thios line:” Accompanied by “no one can make you feel anything,” “take responsibility for yourself,” etc.

      That is called a double-bind. it is a classic form of control because it disallows even any recognition of the control.

      “When does it become controlling? When does it become…ah what’s the opposite of controlling?”

      Controlling yourself is alright. Controling others is not. Even when you have the care of a child, controlling behavior has to be kept separate from comntrolling feelings and opinions.

    • April says:

      I really, really hate the blanket statement that “no one can make you feel a certain way,” and all of its’ ilk. While it may not always be meant to do this, it really borders on (and often just is) blaming the victim and absolving abusive people of their responsibility to not be abusive.

    • Jim says:

      Yeah, it’s really a form of abuse in and of itself. It’s different from saying in general we are repsonsible for our own feelings and shouldn’t blame tham on someone else. It’s different because in abuse, the abuser is specifically and intentionally trying to manipulate and wound the victim emotionally, and then trying to deny responibilty for the damage.

    • April says:

      Absolutely. If there were a “like” button for comments, I would click it here.

      I think the key component is exactly what you highlighted: maturity. I notice that, at 27, I am not at the same level of maturity as my male peers. Sure, I can go to my decent job 40 hours a week and pay my bills, but I’ve never, ever lived alone, I’ve never been in a position where I had to financially or otherwise support myself, and I’ve always had the ability to rely on another person for things I wasn’t sure I could do myself. These things range between fixing a broken appliance to being able to console myself in times of emotional distress. I simply don’t know how to do it, and I am a less mature and independent person as a result. Part of the “self-responsibility” that I’m talking about it the learned ability to adapt to those changes and acquiring the abilities to take care of oneself. As a woman in the US, I have not been equipped with those tools; that’s not to say that I am incapable of acquiring those capabilities, but that it is difficult to do so one one’s own, and that it is, indeed, something that only I can do for myself at this point.

    • April says:

      We do get blamed for everything, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Writing this post was my own struggle with the line between “it’s not my fault that I am the way I am” and “only I can change who I am and make my own life align better with my philosophy of absolute equality.” It took a lot for me to get to the point where I am able to accept the parts of me that only I can change; part of that realization came with also knowing that there are many things that I am simply not responsible for, such as being unconsciously dominated by a male in conversation who has no idea at the time that he’s doing so. At that point, it’s him that needs to see and change his behavior, and not my responsibility to adapt to his communication style. I don’t want to give anyone a free pass here, but only ensure that everyone is aware that they themselves are not the only ones who know what’s right for communication, behavior, etc. I have more and more of a problem with the “it’s not our fault, YOU fix it” mentality of much of the current feminist movement, and am attempting to own my own responsibility for my own actions, while also not forgetting to continue to hold men accountable for theirs. We all have something we can learn; I just don’t believe that we’ll get anywhere by giving ourselves a free pass from personal responsibility.

    • Jim says:

      “not my responsibility to adapt to his communication style.”

      Huge point right there – negotiating who has to do the adapting.

      This is really a question of cultural values. There is an emerging body of work on one apsect of this, langauge shift and the directionality of borowing beewteen languages, Aleksandra Aikhenvald is a leading researcher, if you are interested. She says for instance that certain structures in a languages inherently tend to be copied inot others in the same community. One example is evidentiary systems, where the speaker has to use a grammatical marker to specify the source or reliability of the information in the sentence. Stop and think what a major adjustment that would be, especially in our society. She points out that once speakers in any of these languages get used to getting this metacummunicative information in anohter of these langauese in the community on a regular basis, they expect it, and when it’s not forthcoming even in their own langugae, that looks like evasiveness. So that language starts developing similar structures because the speakers want them. She points out some other similar examples. The passive voice on verbs is one.

    • April says:

      You’ve been the bringer of interesting and random information lately. Thanks for all the links and recommendations! I’m looking her up right now.

      Also, negotiating who has to do the adapting can be such a conflict-maker. For one, it’s incredibly difficult to even get the other person to recognize that their method of communication is even worth altering, let alone convincing them to do it. It takes a LOT of patience to work out that kind of dispute, and it’s one that I haven’t worked too hard at until this relationship. Typically, I would give up or just pick my battles, which would not be that one. These days, while I’m becoming more accepting of my own communicative “flaws,” I’m also growing increasingly comfortable being productively assertive at calling out those in other people. It’s mentally exhausting, but worth it in the end, at least in my situation.

    • Jim says:

      These days, while I’m becoming more accepting of my own communicative “flaws,”

      Not flaws, mismatches. These “flawed” ways of communicating wiork perfectly well with someone who’s communicating the same way, so they’re not flawed.

      It is hugely tiring work. It is very much like learmning a new langugae entirely. BTW, if you ever get time, read “Dreaming in Hindi”. The author spent a year in India and records the personality changes she experienced in the course of learning her new language. A lot of it had to do with adjusting communcation stratgies.
      Bt what you stand to gain is: 1)a richer relationship and 2) personal enhancement. It really is gaining a new competence.

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