Why do men and women play so many head-games with one another? Why do dudes freak the fuck out when it seems like we’re not getting our way? The following note originated in my response to a female friend who posted a list of female relationship tactics, and then asked a man to explain the way men think in relationships… specifically, in relationship conflicts. I’m posting it to a wider audience because I think these insights might help folks of all genders understand each other, and themselves, and our conflicts a little bit better.
For the most part, when we’re in an argument with female lovers, men say what we mean. Very often, we DON’T say something if it seems like it will start trouble. By the time a man (and by this, I’m being VERY general here) voices a complaint to his female partner, he’s usually saying some variation of what he feels is true at the time… unless, of course, he’s a manipulative bastard lying to get what he wants – which is one reason so many men HATE IT when a woman uses the so-called “5 Deadly Terms Used by Women.” We know damn well that it’s manipulation, and no one – regardless of gender – likes to be manipulated by someone they care about.
If you want to understand a (typical generalized not-always-heterosexual not-always-American) man, here are 5 facts (+1) that apply to many members of the phallically-possessed set:
(1) Males are schooled by everyone around us (parents, lovers, prospective bed-partners, employers, friends, and especially comrades or co-workers) to believe that weakness = death. The rough dichotomy presented to most boys in childhood is that you are either a predator or you are prey. If you “can’t hack it/ are a pussy/ show weakness/ let us down/ etc. etc. etc.”, you are worthless and weak and cannot be counted upon. Thus, most men hate to show what they (or their companions) perceive as weakness.
(2) Men are human beings, and thus fallible and vulnerable. Yet to SHOW that, to ADMIT it, is to be seen as weak, inferior and unmasculine. (See #1, above).
(3) We need to trust people, yet fear to trust the wrong people too much. Trust demands vulnerability, which triggers points both #1 and #2. When we trust someone, we are giving them power over us; we see it that way, they see it that way, and most other people see it that way.
If you understand that (1) Men cannot afford to be weak, and (2) men must trust someone and (3) trusting someone is, on some levels, a risk of weakness, then it explains why so many men – myself included – freak the fuck out when we feel, rightly or wrongly, like our trust has been manipulated or abused. This is especially dangerous for all parties because…
(4) Men are taught that violence = strength. It’s not true, really, but it IS the dominant lesson. It is literally beaten into us from childhood that anger grants power… and the powerful rush that comes with anger seems to prove it.
(Wow… Could you possibly be MORE Freudian there, Frank?)
Said violence does not have to be physical: it can entail yelling, threats, glares, insults, quiet hostility, treachery, or whatever looks or feels like power at the time. By nature and nurture, we are raised to believe that the “win-win” scenario is a lie – it’s “winner-take-all,” and you either win or you lose… and losing, of course, means you are weak. Therefore, to KEEP from losing, an angry man will feel compelled to do whatever it seems like at that moment will make him win. HE WILL USUALLY BE WRONG BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT AT THE TIME. And if he thinks that the only way to “win” is to destroy the person or thing that makes him feel weak, everything in him will drive him to do so. At that point, Gods help you if you happen to be the person who makes him feel weak, because even if he refuses to follow that urge, his conditioning will pit him against himself… which usually just makes the problem worse.
(5) In the “man’s world,” negotiation is considered weakness unless you get some potent concessions in return. Hence, a man will put up with more unhappiness from an attractive job or person than he will from one that seems like “slumming.” High-paying jobs, for example, involve incredible amounts of shit-eating and abuse; men are willing to put up with a certain amount of that, though, because we feel we’ll get something good in return for it. (The same is true for a great lay or a desirable partner.) If, however, a man feels he’s on the losing side of the bargain, he’ll get pissed… because he’s losing, and thus, he’s weak. This is the point where men get sullen, resentful, furious, vindictive, violent, or simply resigned. No man who considers himself worthy of that title will stay on what he considers to be the losing end of a negotiation for long… and every relationship, romantic or otherwise, is a negotiation.
(All of this, incidentally, is why so many men yell, drink or drug themselves heavily, and risk or perform self-destructive activities: doing so proves we’re not weak after all… and the weaker we feel, the more we feel we have to prove that we’re NOT.)
One last note:
(6) Males bond through dominance-play. Whether it’s football, chess, politics or war, we bond with one another by literally or symbolically kicking one another’s asses, and thus establishing social dominance. Once one dude wins, the loser is acknowledged for putting up a good fight and hostilities usually cease. Things get vicious only when someone’s determined to take everything s/he can from the losing party – at which point, it’s on for REAL. For the most part, male animals respect effort. The party that does not fight back in some fashion usually is not granted respect. (See point #1.)
It’s been said that men fight for play and women fight for keeps. Quite often, that’s true. I believe that’s part of our biological heritage. Young male animals spar with each other for dominance, but then consider the matter settled (at least for a while) once someone sheds a little blood. (Melodrama aside, male animals within the same community rarely fight one another to the death; outside the community is another matter.) Whatever we might like to think, we ARE still animals, and female animals, in contrast, usually fight either for food or for defense. Female dominance is usually more verbal, social and energetic than it is physical… and so, if things do get physical, there’s a real intent to injure the other party. (Again, this isn’t true in all cases or species, but it’s close enough for general insights.) Females can and do enjoy a a bit of rough-and-tumble, especially in bed; when something real is at stake, though, women often fight with more intensity than men… unless, of course, that man feels like his power is truly at risk, in which case we’re back again to point #4.
Please note: I am NOT saying that all men are violent assholes and all women play nice unless forced. Neither assumption is true. What I AM saying is that men have a greater social and biological imperative and expectation toward “strength” as embodied by forceful, potent victories (physical or otherwise). This might mean financial success, physical prowess, mechanical ability, intellectual superiority, sexual “conquests,” etc. A man who cannot, or is not willing, to “rise to the challenge” (so to speak…) in some capacity is generally considered – by men and women alike – to be less than a “man.” Women can, and often do, play by the same rules; in general, however, they are not expected to do so in order to be feminine… and may in fact be regarded as less feminine if they do.
(Just ask Storm Large…)
So does this mean that you have to bend to a man’s every whim? Of course not, though many people (old-school women especially) maintain that you have to make it SEEM as though you are. That solution, though, is a lose-lose for all parties. No one’s really getting what they need, not even the men deluded enough to think that they are. A key to dealing with conflict with a men involves the following realizations:
(1) Men hate – and cannot afford – to feel weak. Therefore, DO NOT TRY TO DIMINISH A MAN in order to win… because you will not. He may give way momentarily, but sooner or later he will hate you… at which point you’re back at principle #4. That’s not winning, it’s just prolonging and deepening the conflict.
(2) When dealing with a man – hell, for that matter, when dealing with ANYONE, even a child (especially a child, I think), OFFER RESPECT FOR THE OTHER PERSON, EVEN WHEN YOU DISAGREE. Please note, I am N-O-T using the tone argument and saying that women should make nice to men who are being dicks. People who are behaving obnoxiously not only deserve to have that pointed out to them, but sometimes – for the reasons mentioned above – NEED to have it pointed out to them, if only because so many obnoxious behaviors are promoted as being “manly.” What I’m saying is that being deliberately disrespectful to someone on general principle is a losing strategy if you actually want to solve the problem.
Respect is essentially a recognition of the other party’s validity. It’s no accident that warlike societies and violent subcultures contain lots of titles, rituals and honorifics. By offering respect, you show the other party (male or otherwise) that you choose not to take power away from them. This sets the stage for a negotiation where all parties feel empowered by the outcome. And a negotiation where everyone feels respected and powerful will be more successful than one where parties feel insulted and powerless.
Please also note that some folks blow their chance at getting respect right off the bat. When a dude tries to paw a complete stranger, comments on her “nice tits,” calls her a whore, or gets his virtual buddies to dogpile her online, he has lost any right to expect respect. That dude simply deserves to be verbally or physically kicked in the nuts. No resolution is possible because he’s already taken resolution off the table and had it shot in the head.
(3) Hear his/ their grievances, and pay attention to what they are. Again, you don’t have to agree with your antagonist’s grievances – just let that person know you’re paying attention, and that you want to find a solution that helps everyone get what s/he needs. No one, regardless of gender, wants to feel ignored. By paying attention to that person’s grievances, you let them know they’re being heard.
(See “Brief Notes on Compassionate Communication” for more about this process.)
(4) When you are offered a man’s trust, BY ALL THAT’S HOLY, DO NOT ABUSE IT LATER. No matter how satisfying it might seem, do not mock this person’s fears. Do not insult his masculinity. Do NOT use the bank card he gave you to clean out the account you both shared. Do not trash the apartment to which he gave you the key, do not steal the car he lent you to run errands, do not post tell-alls about his small penis, or circulate the sex video you staged on the internet. These things are asshole moves no matter who you do them to, but a man whose trust is betrayed this way WILL – note my emphasis on W-I-L-L – utterly hate your guts.
At this point, that hatred may well become destructive. A person who betrays a man’s deep trust puts everyone concerned at risk. A man with a violent temper will get violent, a man with insecurity issues will try to prove them wrong, and a man who feels robbed of all other options will destroy himself and/ or anyone he can harm. Again, this explains why men who lose their jobs in insulting ways “go postal” – it feels, to them, like the only power they still have.
(5) Know your own limits, hold your own power, and be prepared to walk away. You won’t win a dispute with a man by giving away your power to “satisfy” him. First of all, you’ll hate him for it. Secondly, he may well lose respect for you (because he wouldn’t let someone take away his power, so why should you… unless you’re weak?). And thirdly, unless he’s a real douche (in which case, you should walk away), that man will most likely want to achieve a mutually satisfying agreement, so long as he doesn’t feel insulted by the bargain. We humans are social creatures, and besides – real conflict demands more energy than it’s worth. Aside from “friendly fighting” (see point #6, above), dudes don’t want to expend more energy than we have to. If we can all get our needs met with minimal conflict, there’s more energy left for other fun stuff… like sex. 🙂
(Note that these five points rarely work with true sociopaths, male or otherwise; then again, few tactics really do…)
(…except maybe this one…)
Relationships of all kinds work best when everyone feels like they get what they need. Every conflict requires a certain amount of concession and accommodation; if, however, you feel like you’re giving up too much, LEAVE. You’re not winning in that case… and unless you’re literally a slave, you have other, better options.
As my partner Sandi is still in the process of teaching me, CONSENSUS does not mean CONCESSION. As I mentioned earlier, men are conditioned to regard disputes in win/ lose terms; thus, one side “wins” concession from the other. In a consensus, all parties agree to terms they can live with. Ideally, everyone finds an acceptable equilibrium, yet feels respected and acknowledged in the process.
In any relationship, regardless of gender, respect, negotiation, communication and mutual accommodation are essential to a lasting social contract. A relationship where one party gets everything and the other one gets nothing is doomed. Even in oppressive slave situations, the oppressed party either gets some form of concession from the dominant party, or eventually either leaves or destroys the relationship. (In the case of murder-suicide, both.) When dealing with inter-gender conflicts, it’s helpful – I would say essential – to understand the way the other gender thinks. The more we all communicate HONESTLY – that is clearly, without games, obfuscation or self-denying concessions – the more satisfying for all parties our inevitable conflicts become.
This sounds, of course, easier than it is… but then, in the case of most relationships, isn’t the reward worth the extra work… and if it’s NOT, then why the hell maintain that relationship at all?
Copyright(c) 2011 Satyros Phil Brucato. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution given. Spread the word! Greater understandings means fewer fights.