I took several years off from dating and from being in any real kinds of intimacy (platonic or otherwise) with men.
I did this to heal from the trauma men inflict on women.
I made this choice not to be close to men for several years because I noticed when I took risks on allowing men close to me they left a trail of their deep emotional damage in my life, which then meant resources spent on my own healing that took energy and time and money away from my other life priorities, like writing.
It is not that I am not always on the journey of my own healing, of course. Or that I don't bring my own issues to relationships.
But I am talking about something different—a pattern inside patriarchy that mostly goes unnamed. A pattern having to do with men not showing up for their own healing work at all, or barely so, or very late in the game, and the accumulating effects.
When I was in relationships with men, I also noticed a ripple effect on my relationships with women: we realized we were doing too much of the emotional labor on each other’s behalf to clean up for the behaviors of men that harmed us.
In other words, men not doing their own emotional labor meant that the women in my life supporting me were feeling the collateral effects, as I was feeling collateral effects from their relationships with men. (How patriarchy effects women's relationships with one another is a point I will meditate on in another future article.)
What I knew at this juncture of my life was that the cost was feeling too high to be at close-range with these humans socialized into patriarchy.
And when I felt more healed and started letting men near me again, I was not acclimated anymore to adaptive mechanisms I use to employ. It was illuminating.
It was like eating something again that is toxic to my body after figuring out the thing that was toxic to my body and having removed it for years.
This is the reality of patriarchy that became clear:
In my friendships with women, there is conflict, but I do not feel gaslit.
(Clarification: I have known a few very emotionally abusive women. Of course all genders abuse—but, patriarchy socializes more men to abuse women. If you disagree, we can look at the body count and hundreds of years of abusive patriarchal laws in the legal system.)
By not being gaslit by women, I mean I do not feel my overall sense of reality is being threatened; I do not feel “crazy.” I can spaciously enter their perspectives and reality. I can really try to understand what they are feeling and needing, without feeling totally disoriented. It feels safe to talk through conflict and difference. I feel fundamentally valued and appreciated. I know they will respect my reality and my feelings.
But so often with men, this is what happens:
- Men project their un-healed issues onto women and call that communication.
- I feel physically dizzy from their projections. I am flooded. I lose my own sense of personal power and grounding as their projections ensue. I want to enter their perspectives and meet "half-way", but I fear doing so because I feel so dizzy.
- I start to question if my sense of reality has been totally off and doubt myself, even though I am a centered, powerful, integrated person. It is so confusing. (Men low-grade gaslight women very, very frequently. It is so normalized.)
- Somewhere in me I know that the reason they are projecting is because they either don’t know how to grow emotionally or they refuse to grow emotionally. Because I am empathetic, I also know how they are harming me is interconnected to how patriarchy as a system harms them, too. I feel for the little boy inside them who has been harmed.
- I slowly try to reground in my body to bring myself back to myself. I remember I am interacting with someone whom society has allowed to not grow into an emotional adulthood the way women in my lives are emotional adults. We seem to have spent our adult lives healing from men; but most men have not owned for themselves the work of healing from patriarchy (how they have been harmed by patriarchy and how they harm others).
But here’s the tension with men with whom I want to grow in friendship or romantic relationship with— men whom I respect are trying to own their own emotional work:
- I want to enter their reality and meet them half-way, as I do in my friendships with women. I want to find mutuality and grow and heal together. This relational skill of entering someone's reality is very important.
- But as an empath, and as someone socialized as a woman in this patriarchal society, to enter their reality is often psychologically dangerous to me. Because as people socialized as men within patriarchy, they have been socialized to do some harmful things. They will probably do these things at some point, not because they are bad people or not trying to heal but because we are all unlearning our socialization together. We are all unlearning the toxic scripts.
- Examples of male socialization that play out interpersonally in conflict: They are socialized to get angry instead of naming “I feel insecure because you shine so brightly.” They are socialized to call me “arrogant” because they are uncomfortable with how they have not developed their own gifts and life passions and emotional growth as I have. They are socialized to assume access to women’s care labor, not realizing how intimacy for many women not only means our care labor is used but so are our bodies (and that intimacy often exists laced with trauma). They are socialized to be immediately defensive of our truth instead of examining what women have learned about men in our deep feminist journeys.
I think a lot of men feel guilt: They do not want to acknowledge all the ways they have allowed us to carry so many burdens, instead of taking responsibility for what men collectively enact on women.
Let’s consider for a moment what it means to adapt every day to something in our environments. We need to think more about what it means that we are physically and psychologically developing adaptive mechanisms all the time for the challenges of our relational environments within a patriarchal system.
One of women’s primary modes of adapting is compartmentalizing. This means they do not integrate all their feelings into their relationships with men. They cannot integrate all their feelings and be seen and heard. They cannot integrate all their feelings without receiving emotional and physical retaliation. So, they choose certain feelings and suppress the other ones and use coping behaviors. They swallow their words, their bodies hold those words, often getting ill.
Here’s a coping behavior I learned about myself in my mid-twenties when studying to be a therapist: I learned I say “thank you” to men when I mean “fuck you.” I learned I do not show my anger, and instead I show relentless gratitude for the smallest of efforts they make at emotional engagement or feminist consciousness.
I learned I feel I cannot show my anger: they are too few men who try to learn feminist consciousness. And because I am heterosexual (a curse, it often feels!) I know they have their pick of feminist women, in terms of intimacy. I see them post feminist comments on facebook and a hundred women “love” their update. They are orbited. They have a tremendous amount of what I call male feminist privilege.
(Best to treat them with kid gloves if I want them to interact with me at all or invest in knowing me—if I want any intimate/romantic/or platonic access to men seeking feminist consciousness.)
Here’s a coping behavior I see from others in relationships: They put pictures on Facebook that say “best husband ever” or “best boyfriend ever” or “best father ever” because they are focusing on the positive things they wish to receive, and maybe are receiving, from the man they are in relationship to—but they are also suppressing the fact they maybe he is emotionally abusive 5-10% of the time, and that 5-10% has huge implications because that 5-10% keeps them from really saying the things and feeling the things they need to feel to not compartmentalize.
I am giving this specific example of the 5-10% abuse reality because in my work as a feminist educator, I see and hear this reality all the time. The abuse is most often rooted in men not knowing how to feel emotionally vulnerable feelings, so they feel rage instead and project what is unhealed in their lives onto women.
But we hetero women develop coping mechanisms when the men in our lives will not grow into emotional adulthood. It is the only way to be in intimate relationship with men in patriarchy–unless, of course, those men are willing to do the work of owning the labor needed for their own growth.
And not many are, so we adapt, because being alone in this society actually is very, very hard. And so we numb significant parts of ourselves in the process of adapting to this system so that we can access some of the privileges of the system instead of being excluded from the system all together.
We eat crumbs instead of collectively creating a healing feast.
Eating crumbs and convincing ourselves it is a good-enough meal, we pass on those adaptive behaviors to our children, and patriarchy is reproduced.
My work as a feminist coach, consultant, and educator is about helping all people, all genders, not reproduce patriarchy. We all have healing to do and too much is at stake in this historical moment to be numb, to quiet our voices, to not know our deepest truths.
(For more resources on feminist theory and healing practices: Check out the free archives of my podcast, Writing Feminist Life Together. )
*While I think there are parallel realities we could talk about across other dynamics of social power (like white folks and people of color, rich folks and those systematically denied means to stable financial resources, Christians in a Christian dominant political systems and those without Christian privilege, etc.), I also think there is something very specific and particular about how men are socialized to interact with women in this way I have described. That said, all systems of abusive power rely on gaslighting.