As men, we’re raised with a few basic mental programs, two of which are particularly active: never show weakness, and women exist for us.
(This is a North American heteronormative context, I might add: other cultures, countries, and regions will have their own versions of this).
The call for looking strong usually causes us to condition ourselves to be invulnerable: the flipside then becomes that we make any notion of being vulnerable bad. We confuse it with weakness. Vulnerability starts to mean that we’ve left a part of ourselves uncovered, open to attack. No man can accept that.
I’m not comfortable with vulnerability, and that’s the point: it’s not supposed to be comfortable. Vulnerability is supposed to wake you up.
Vulnerability is the key to intimacy: we stand naked and exposed to our partners during sex, and we seem to have no problem with this, for the most part. Intimacy means that you should be able to stand openly, as you are, with your loved one and feel safe, and yet at the same time, exhilarated by the experience of exposure.
Most hetero men have no problem being naked with a woman. It’s the emotional exposure where we get tripped up, because we’re simply not outfitted to deal with it for the most part. We become convoluted when we put our feelings on the line, and the reality of love is that we need to put our feelings on the line. That requires vulnerability.
Entitlement to Women
The other training that we have is the notion that women were somehow made for us. We’re conditioned to treat women as prizes to be won; the helpless princess in the castle that needs rescuing; as status symbols for your prowess as a man if you can get a “high status” woman hanging off your arm. Part of the big story of success that men tell themselves as teens and twentysomethings is that we’ll someday find “The One” and she’ll be “meant for us”, and then we’ll win relationships. And so we treat the women we meet on those terms, by and large.
So it’s a source of profound discomfort for us to learn, when we do fall for someone, that it’s not entirely up to us to have a relationship with them.
In relationships, it’s always the lady’s choice. No other reality about dating and relationships drives men over the edge more than this one, and most of them have no idea this is what’s at play behind their insanity.
The principle of “lady’s choice” is simple: if you choose to be in a relationship with her, your choice alone is not enough to create and maintain the relationship. No matter how much you may love and desire the woman who’s captured your heart, she always has the final say on whether or not you two are or will become an item.She must consent, in all things.
For men who don’t do vulnerability or who don’t do it well, this is a most terrifying reality to fathom: that we could finally open our hearts, express our most intimate feelings to someone we perceive as “the woman of our dreams”…..and then have her turn us down. It feels like we’ve been attacked after being assured that we could let down our guards.
Such rejection, we understandably believe, would be fatal. For those men who feel unworthy, it can be enough of a deterrent to keep them from even taking the chance in the first place.
In the film “500 Days of Summer”, the following exchange happens between the boy and girl:
These are simply the realest words about relationships that have ever been uttered in a movie script, far more realistic than “you complete me”. The uncomfortable truth of relationships is that they are all the results of a ongoing series of decisions by both partners to say “yes”.
On any morning, someone can wake up and choose “no”. People, men and women alike, have this happen to them all the time. Nothing is permanent. Lovers can change their minds about each other and there is not much their partners can do about it.
To the men who are in love and do choose “yes”, this can be an agonizing scenario, so what do we do? Simple: we pressure and control. This is where you see men following women down the street, men persisting with women at the bar who have already told them to leave.
There are also other men, who you may never see, refusing to enter the arena at all, believing that the only winning move in love is not to play, lest you get hurt. No one wins under controlled conditions of this sort. The uncertainty is too much to bear.
Soothing the Anxieties: Boundaries and Trust
Relationships that have conditions in the form of boundaries created and respected by both partners win, whether they last 5 weeks or 50 years. Brene Brown has the best definition of boundaries: an agreement by both partners on what’s okay and what’s not okay behaviour in the relationship. Most people don’t like to set those rules up: they run counter to the sappy romanticism of our pop culture that says “love is enough”. It is not: you need agreements. My friend/boss Cailen said it best: love is unconditional: relationships are conditional.
Within reasonable boundaries of respect and compassion, every man needs to get comfortable practicing being uncomfortable at times: that is, with practicing vulnerability, both physical and emotional. It takes knowing that it’s all right to feel what you feel and that if what you feel is sadness and heartbreak, to reach out to your partner for reassurance, and absent her presence, staying connected with your friends and family.
Finally, there’s the trust issue. Some men may read this and believe that I’m letting our girlfriends and wives off the hook. Not at all: they are responsible for themselves, their boundaries, and their actions within the relationship. We have to trust our partners to manage themselves in a responsible way, and then focus on ourselves.
This is big if you’ve ever been cheated on. There is this term called psychological “schema”, the way in which we organize the trillions of bits of information coming in at us from the outside world. When someone cheats on us, it’s easier for our brains to re-arrange the data to fit the basic premise of the schema. We distrust it when we see our partners log on: we wonder “which of these guys is she talking to? Are they hooking up behind my back?” That’s just the damaged schema at work, filtering the data to suit past experiences.
Always remember: she may talk or flirt with someone else, but she chose you. Take her at her word.
Trust means believing our partners when they say “I choose this relationship”, and trusting that they’ll choose it again tomorrow, even if you never know for sure. In a way, that little bit of uncertainty can help ensure you don’t take her for granted in the relationship. If that’s too much for you, you can ask for regular reassurances, but just know that you are both here by choice, and you have the power to choose differently.
Love Made Simple, but Not Easy
If all this sounds easy, it’s not, but it is simple. Walking this path for the last little while, I can tell you, I long for the basic certainty of knowing where I stand, one way or the other.
In the end, I would say the simplest thing is to learn to love without conditions, to love her as much as you can and in the ways that she can best receive you, and to do so in an emotionally healthy way.
To look after yourself, stay in line with your own mission or desires in life outside other human beings, and fill yourself up as much as you can to overflow and give to the lady in your life. That, I feel, is our main responsibility to our lovers, and to ourselves.