Relationships: Part two

relationship failure problem sad
Contracts: so last year?

So I am back in the women’s discussion group on ‘Are relationships changing?’ and the thread of conversation seems to have slipped from: “There are many more women choosing to be single …”  to: “… for obvious reasons.” I suddenly find myself both in and out of our club at the same time, by virtue of an imperceptible smile or nod. I am really well-trained to question my own pull towards being in a relationship with a man. Why? Partly because of the background anti-male sentiment that circulates around the actual collective oppressive and discriminatory practices of men – this makes it easy to imagine that being ‘independent’ of men is the wisest and safest standpoint a woman can take, personally. This doesn’t logically fit with being a girlfriend or wife – although casual dating seems superficially to be more compatible. The other, related reason, is the various pains that I’ve enjoyed first-hand – seen through the lens of break-ups and the retrospective analysis of what ‘extra work’ I was doing while the relationships were active (and afterwards). I am always alert for, and often anxious about, ways I may not have learned my lessons, ways my hidden needs and insecurities in relation to men may not be done with yet.

Nevertheless, here I am in ‘real life’ enjoying willfully being in a hetero relationship – shit we even talk about the future! And yet I almost fall into the camp where women tacitly agree that hetero relationships are so much hard work for a woman that being in one is an obviously crazy move. Remember those famous statistics about married men and married women? What gives?

If my belief is that the ‘benefits’ of my relationship somehow outweigh the ‘costs’, am I thereby deluding myself that somehow I or we are ‘not the norm’? Are we somehow better or cleverer or saner or more loving or enlightened or less sexist than the millions of other couples who constitute this statistical reality? Or, am I simply gambling with my life, telling myself, since the outcome of our relationship belongs in the future, that we are part of (unknown) future statistics and not past or current ones? You never know when divorce rates are going to suddenly slow down, right? Better still, let’s dodge all these pitfalls just by not getting married. Eureka!

Yet very time we hit a real pitfall, or a boulder or a pothole or even fall in a swamp, the horrible ’emotion work’ we drag ourselves through to work it all out does pay off. There’s work and there’s work. “Relationships are hard work” can mean different things, for example: “Only a woman with low self-esteem would willingly consent to being the lifelong unpaid caretaker for a manchild who may offer love but can never understand or empathise with her burdens.” Alternatively it can mean: “If you want a romantic partner who’s committed to a view of a shared future, then every so often you will have to confront unpredicted challenges, which is hard work. If you do not succeed in fully listening to and hearing each other and both making genuine compromises during those moments, what started as a healthy partnership will slide over time into a power imbalance.”

The shortcut to this is “Everything in life that’s really worth doing is hard work.” Show me someone who is really passionate about their job who didn’t have to struggle to study to qualify for it, or who finds it easy every day. Or find me a parent who will say that it’s easy raising a child, that they love them and they don’t encounter problems and experience excruciatingly hard work.

Our attempt to re-view hetero couple relationships as we reeled from the bleak realities of Thatcherism and absorbed the painful truths of the second wave has become increasingly individualistic. Relationships are ultimately part of the web of human commitments and community functioning that sustains not only family but all human social (and material) life. Make no mistake, individualism, as a stage in our development, has given us a lot of gifts. The idea that a woman is deserving of equal treatment by a male partner as well as in the workplace, in politics and so on, is an individualistic response to the idea that all women should just shut up and share womens’ work. Recognising individuals is a way to raise standards of care and dignity for all and the basis for understanding what equality means.

But we’re only vaguely, and only partially, individuals. In a relationship, we are never really half a person, but we are in certain ways half of a human unit, just as a kid is an integral part of its entire family, and that little family is often part of (one or two or more) bigger family networks. Our little personalities are composites of all our relatives, teachers and friends, with a strand of unique individuality hanging it all together and – crucially – enabling us to make decisions that don’t suit the community majority when we need to.

There are lots of threads here which still need untangling. How many men are still benefitting from being an individual while a woman does the team bit for them both as an unacknowledged domestic project-manager? Will they live happier lives than their wives? Are men learning to do emotion work? How are men learning how to do emotion work? And is the answer that women are doing even more emotion work to teach them? Is this always true? Is there anything wrong with the idea (or reality) of women ‘teaching’ a male partner how to communicate his needs and how to listen so he really hears? Is there anything wrong with a woman (or man) leaving a partner who is unable or unwilling to learn? Even if she/he has promised a lifelong commitment? Are there women who refuse to do emotion work despite pleas from a hetero male partner?

There are billions of us and we encounter such a tiny percentage (even if we have humungous social media networks), so we can never know in any detail what is behind divorce statistics, life expectancy figures, or what is occurring in the hearts and minds of women and men in hetero relationships, arguing about whether he is doing enough emotion work, washing up or childcare. We don’t even know how our own lives will work out.

To step outside the frame – someone once told me they were on a strict diet to reduce their cholesterol level, so that they wouldn’t be put on statins, which they don’t want. Their danger level was based on their lifestyle plus family history. They can’t do anything to change the effect of their family history on the software determining their danger level – presumably even if their relatives’ illnesses were rooted in ‘lifestyle’ factors – e.g. poor diet. This person was dieting to convince a computer of their health, but they were living an incredibly healthy lifestyle already.

How does this relate? Well to put it simply, we can’t live by statistics, and there is a danger that we may rely on them to stand in for truths about ‘men’ or ‘women’ which fit with personal experiences and make us feel better about them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware how easy it becomes as you get older to amalgamate concrete stories, first hand experiences and countless anecdotes into a truth. This kind of truth is not only helpful for our conversations with others, and to assist us in making sense of our lives, it’s also normally true! Nevertheless, we need to be sure we don’t let an amalgam of statistics and similar stories solidify into the idea that people aren’t changing, when in fact they might be. When it comes to men and emotion work, the chances are they’re changing faster now than ever before.

Whether the pace satisfies onlookers or not is another question, and to answer it we’d have to ask yet another: how can we possibly gain that kind of amalgamated overview for the here and now? Probably the answer is, we can’t, we have to move on with our lives in the same state of not-knowing that we were in when we were young and embarked on all the patriarchally-doomed relationships that those of us in the discussion group have in common. The difference is, when we were young we assumed we did know everything, and now we’re a bit wiser, we know we don’t.

 

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Feminism-ism, or something

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Be what you are

It seems to me that as feminism enjoys a necessary resurgence it is becoming slightly easier to formulate the critique we need to get beyond it. What do I mean by beyond feminism? Possibly not what I thought I used to mean.

For a long time now I have been sitting uneasily on the feminist sidelines, refusing to refuse the label of being a feminist. Not only am I genuinely disturbed by the thought of feminist friends or any other women I know thinking of me as a non-feminist, a woman who doesn’t think women’s problems (such as structural inequality), are real or serious or worth campaigning or complaining about, I also feel by turns passionate about discrimination against women in its many forms, vile, violent and mundane, and that’s a central feminist sentiment right there.

What’s the but? I often come back round to the term pro-feminism, especially with all the waves overlapping and with post-feminism being such a hopelessly compromised term. What does it mean to be pro-feminist? What could it mean? I wonder whether identifying as a pro-feminist marks me out as not-a-woman somehow.

What does it mean to be pro-feminist if that means not quite feminist, or not feminist? Are there well-developed strands of actual feminism which I am simply not doing enough reading or research to discover, which perfectly situate me and my feminist perceptions?

To me, being pro-feminist is an essential ethical position for a man in this political and cultural moment, and I think it’s great that many more men now identify or describe themselves as feminists per se, often with explicit reference to their wives, daughters, relatives and friends, and the struggles and treatment they witness them withstanding. Is one better than the other? Is being a pro-feminist ally different from being a feminist ally? If you are a man, perhaps not. If a man calling himself a feminist was ever considered to be stepping on the toes of a woman’s identity, that time seems to have well and truly passed.

If you are woman however, and you are uneasy about the degree to which the philosophical essence of feminism may (or may not) be self-defeating, perhaps being a pro-feminist is a more honest position. Or perhaps it is just cheating, evading an honest position. If I want to support feminist causes and campaigns, but fear that there is a self-limiting aspect to the wider project, the best thing would probably be to be braver and say that I don’t identify as a feminist (because I cannot get fully behind it philosophically). But that would leave me estranged from my feminist friends: women who might be working harder than I am to effect real cultural change, which I will benefit from… back to square one. As a woman, my very indulgence in philosophy is probably indebted to past feminists.

It seems time may be a key factor. My wishfulness may be another. My perspective on men and on humans in general is obviously heavily involved, but perhaps it is the self-perpetuating nature of -isms that is at the heart of the issue.

Looking into the future I want to see feminism become redundant; arguably any feminist who doesn’t want this is a weird kind of feminist (a career feminist?). It can’t be that I want this more than most, so that therefore I distance myself from the movement in an ultimately pointless gesture of comforting, delusional futurism, or something. It can’t be that I think gazing into a post-feminist future helps anyone win battles, and it doesn’t help me feel less angry or less vulnerable each time I witness or learn about new (or old) affronts to women.

My thoughts are pushed forward by the inevitable question of what will result from our actions, or inactions. There are plenty of examples of things getting worse because of inaction and plenty of successes achieved. But where each of these are amalgamated to promote an overarching movement or philosophy, we must draw on huge generalisations – like men, and women. These are always dangerous. The million dollar question is: do they obscure far more than they reveal? I suspect they do.

My pro-feminism is about wanting to support a just cause without becoming an -ist. I have long felt happy to abstractly denounce ‘isms’ in their own right, and so this remains the simplest thread in my memory of doubt in adopting the feminist label, as my daily life and other struggles (related to my structural position as a woman and a mother), push and pull me so very far from this place where my intellect gets the luxury of forming opinions at all. I like to give isms a wide berth and I’m not afraid to say so, so why can’t I refuse (femin)ism? Because saying I am not a feminist aligns me with anti-feminists? This is the danger with isms, they are world-views, and thus by their very nature they encompass everything, and that includes everyone. If you’re not a feminist you’re part of the problem.

As a way of analysing gender relations in order to redress social inequality and improve the cultural attitudes towards women which have crushed them, feminist movements are superb and vital. Analysts still regularly provide new conceptual tools with which to assess common behavioural patterns which are covertly or demonstrably gendered power-plays, leading to real-life improvements for many people. How many of these particular gains could be achieved, or not, without the rubric of feminism? That’s not a rhetorical question. I know I don’t know.

Meanwhile, what if holding our image of ‘men’ firm, so that our project retains coherence, could prevent us from witnessing, and maybe even conceiving, the future we want where all individuals are held equally responsible for their own behaviour towards others (and, crucially, deserve the assistance of all others if they are not taught well in the first instance)? Maybe the categories of man and woman underpin a feminism-ism, an ideological layer which perpetuates the adversarial thread within gender relations. We know not all gender relations are adversarial, hell we love each other don’t we? And boy are there some noxious women about. Sure, some women’s noxiousness is rooted in their patriarchal subjection and identification. That’s exactly the same place men’s is rooted. They are still women, suffering the loss of a more enjoyable life, in the same way horrid men do.

Women aren’t responsible for teaching men how to treat women mind you; well yes in a way, but not any more than anyone else. We are all responsible for each other, because we are never really individuals in more than name. Are women responsible for their own abuse because they allowed it to happen? No. Maybe every woman who has been abused by a man because she trusted him had a father she could trust. Maybe every woman who has entertained a dangerous man even though she did not trust him had a father she loved but could not trust. Is it therefore every father’s fault if and when his daughter is abused? If not, can it be the fault of mothers that their sons abuse women and girls? How? Maybe every man who has been abused by a woman inhabits a special minority category, which we should research and give a label to? Maybe, maybe not.

To go beyond feminism used to mean to me: envisioning a post-feminist world, in the sense that major feminist goals were realised and the discourse around it fell away, and became a matter of historical interest and reflection, a celebration in fact. But it won’t be that simple. I am certain that there are fundamental obstacles to a true re-visioning of gender relations which the feminist framework holds in place. I still believe we need thousands of concerted ‘feminist’ actions and campaigns to keep bringing a better future closer, and to prevent the conditions of life for women from getting worse. I also believe we can make massive contributions to social change using feminist networks and women’s networks. Going beyond feminism means finding something which does all the work we need feminism to do, even better. It’s a sexy challenge, no?

I suspect that class now underpins virtually all social and cultural sexism and gendered abuse. (I believe that there are some evolutionary psychological reasons why it served societies to demean and devalue women. But it does not serve women, and the costs to societies of this strategy is now painfully obvious.) If ever there were a time when male and female persons were treated with a fundamental asymmetry of justice, within coercive social structures, and class was not a relevant factor, that time is literally prehistoric. The fact that men are a bit bigger is pretty interesting, but a strong person bullying a weak person isn’t sexism, it’s simply violence, it’s human immaturity. It’s also really easy to imagine through hypotheses about the work males have done while women nurtured babies, which they simply did a lot.

My basic understanding of humanity is that a civilisation or tribe or society which does not condemn almost all internal violence is more or less unheard of, and yet, yes, in every case still it erupts. I am categorically not an expert in evolution or anthropology, but I think the class roots of most contemporary sexism and oppression are sitting there waiting to be found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mother of all Confessions

Last week I started a post called Confession time Part 2. I started it with a confession about not having followed up Confession time Part 1 straight away with Confession time part 2. I couldn’t actually remember what the second confession was supposed to be, but had something else to confess; now I can’t remember what I was going to confess last week either. Oh dear.

Then suddenly, before I stood a chance of finishing Confession time Part 2, I realised I am ready to confess something SO BIG, personally speaking, that it can only be done to an anonymous group of online bloggers who don’t know who I am and won’t be remotely shocked.

I have to confess that I am not comfortable being a woman. Okay, so, the disadvantage of confessing to a large group of members of the 21st century public is immediately obvious. This is not rare or surprising nowadays, so barely warrants a gasp. But confessing it is a big deal for me. I’d say that everyone who knows me very well knows I’m a bit iffy when it comes to my gender, but many people who know me quite well would never guess. Then there’s the very close friends and family who are probably pretty sure (hoping) I have got over this by now.

It all started when I became a mother and ‘wife’. Before this, and during many years of it, I wore skirts and dresses in many colours, particularly in purple, red, green, orange and anything multicoloured, patterned and flowery. I had long hair and wore it up, down and around about. I wore necklaces, earrings, rings, bracelets and hair accessories. I thought little about being female, I was and it never caused me a problem. I liked men: somewhat mysterious I suppose but mainly compelling and fascinating. My friends were mainly girls and I was proud of having male friends.

Being a mother was something I took seriously, and intended to be good at. Being a wife was not in my vocabulary: we would be a partnership sharing the raising of children equally, this being the only way to be fair to ourselves and the children and show them that they too could fully participate in family life when they were adults. Didn’t quite happen that way.

My first pregnancy was relatively free from professional interference, though during my second I discovered that I dislike being treated like an idiot. But what really changed things around the birth of our second child was that their Dad got his first full-time job. Before that we were poor students, juggling a beautiful baby and determined to get our qualifications too. Work for him meant home for me, and I have never recovered. I was raised an only child by one parent, so I didn’t understand the concept of self-sacrifice. I barely understood sharing.

Ex and I were very committed, determined to break our family patterns of parental separation. We compromised and worked hard and tried to combine traditional needs like money, food and housing with progressive ideals like men knowing their own kids. Desperate for a life outside the home, I volunteered, did paid work part time, and became more and more critical of the social rules I was cruelly forced to argue with.

Thirteen years on from that birth, I am still angry about my gender. I’m not angry about being born female, nor, in all honesty, about being born into a rich, white, stiff-upper-lipped society with dodgy preconceptions about what men and women should be. Pushed, I could probably think of a hundred worse times and places to be a woman, in ten minutes flat.

My real problem is, as my awareness of the twisted reality of womanhood has grown, so has my empathy for men. Every place I feel empowered to change my life, driven to fight for women’s rights, called upon to challenge prejudice, I see men suffering. Instead of embracing an empowered femininity, I can have nothing to do with it.

Now I wear black a lot, but I mix this with a few colours so as not to draw too much attention to it. I wear black in mourning for the colours that men aren’t supposed to wear. Then sometimes I wear colours, because it seems perverse to neglect the liberties one has because others cannot exercise them. Then I wear black again.