The trouble with men and women
I had planned to write a different column than this, and sat down to begin writing it on election night. It was to be about the trouble I see with men and women – how they struggle to understand one another and too often fail to do so, miserably. I believe this often happens when we judge others by our own standards, when our standards simply do not apply. The genders pass by one another like proverbial ships in the night, with no lasting consequence except vague impressions of one another, and disappointments based upon our assumptions and expectations.
The unconscious bias of patriarchy, from which we all suffer, was to have been my central theme. A pervasive misogyny dominates society, based upon an institutionalized male prerogative. The rhetoric of this past campaign provided many examples. I was going to talk about how objectification of the opposite gender makes empathy impossible, and makes caring about the thoughts and feelings of others irrelevant in the pursuit of one’s own agenda. This is where perpetrators and victims find their common origin.
But I made the same mistake in objectifying those who would vote differently than myself – not having empathy for them, and not thinking to care about what it was they cared about. I ignored the reasons they believed as they did, preferring my own, and greatly underestimated the vigor of their concern. For that I am deeply sorry.
We seldom notice that we are speaking English when we talk with others, and yet this language we learned from our parents shapes the very way we think and how we share our values and opinions – much of which we also learned early in life. The idiom in which we are fluent remains our default, easily overlooked, with its own unconscious assumptions that have deep impact upon our relationships.
Empathy is like putting a right hand glove on your left hand – the only way you can do it is by turning the glove inside out. This is the hard work of caring about what others care about, putting on their shoes though they may not fit comfortably, turning yourself inside out for a direct experience of the hopes and concerns of others, as intimately as you experience your own.
I grew up on a remote farm out near the Sonoma coast, with three brothers and no sisters. Girls were, for me, an unfathomable Different Other. They talked differently, acted differently, and were different in every way that I could see. When my brothers and I eventually married we each had several daughters, much to our dismay. My daughters have been, for me, remarkably revelatory.
I’ve run across a couple of books by Louann Brizendine, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist at UCSF, that provide good insight into why men and women think and feel differently. The Female Brain and The Male Brain discuss – in easily accessible language, yet with exhaustive clinical references – how the neurological systems of men and women will evolve and vary from one another over a lifetime, marinated as they are in shifting hormonal tides. The Male Brain is a smaller book, underscoring the inconvenient truth that a woman’s life is much more complicated. It’s been pointed out before that Ginger Rogers was every bit as good a dancer as Fred Astaire – though she danced backward, in high heels.
Throughout the campaign many women suffered, having to account for the bad behavior of men; a few bravely stood forward and spoke up, in a resurgent feminism that I hope now never leaves the room. It’s brought some very meaningful discussions to my practice, as wives have found courage to tell their husbands what they experience, and as husbands have found reasons to listen, and begin to hear. When one recently protested he was simply being blunt, he was able to hear her say, “No – you were being cruel.”
Trump sounded presidential enough in his acceptance speech, when he said, “It is time for America to bind the wounds of division.” Hillary sounded equally conciliatory in her concession, when she said, “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” Outgoing president Obama said, “We all want what’s best for this country. That’s what I heard in Mr. Trump’s remarks last night. That’s what I heard when I spoke to him directly. And I was heartened by that.” Each of them seemed to speak of the rhetoric and atmosphere that now must change – and I hope they mean it.
I mean it: I hope – although I also doubt an effective rehabilitation of the blustering sideshow barker that we’ve heard from over the past several months. But my hope and my doubt are not in conflict, they are restless collaborators wanting to work together to forge my opinions and attitudes – like left hand and right. They are similar, yet opposite; and like men and women, as they develop the interdependent skills of empathy and mutual respect, what troubled them at first can become – over time – a mutually gratifying relationship.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.