Why Couples Fear Challenging the Suffocating Rules of the Gender Binary
Without the mutual courage to grow and change, our relationship can lock us into a gender straight-jacket.
For many couples, both same sex and otherwise, the possibility of shifting or redesigning the gender roles that inform our couple relationships is both seemingly impossible and deeply alarming. Stepping beyond what our culture has conditioned us to be can be even more difficult from within a long term relationship.
In my own work, I often highlight the unspoken rules of our dominant man box culture of masculinity, the single most powerful influence in how men perform gender (and how women expect them to do it). I seek to highlight how man box culture enforces the archaic gender roles we take on in relationships. I say to men and women “Look at these rules for being a man. They date back generations. They have so little to do with where society is going today and STILL men and women follow and enforce them.”
At one time, our dominant culture of masculinity was completely invisible to us. Our roles, our identities as men and women just “were.” But today, the gender conversation is raging. The deconstruction of our collective view of gender is an ongoing conversation. You are in the conversation right now.
Even the most insulated and retrogressive communities of gender thought are witnessing signs of the collapse of the once dominant gender binary, of our culture’s narrow and bullying rules for being men and women. This is why some folks are often so reactive. For them, the collapse of the long standing rules of gender is deeply threatening. But this collapse would not be happening were it not for a sweeping dissatisfaction with the gender rules we have all been saddled with. They are oppressive.
Our binary gender roles have never made us collectively happy. If they did, the wholesale rebellion of women that birthed feminism would never have taken place. In the1960’s, millions of women began to examine, not only the oppressive culture they lived in, but also their complicity in maintaining it. Half a century later, men began having a similar conversation about our own complicity in maintaining an oppressive culture of masculinity within which we have arguably much greater power to make change.
Men and women are no longer chafing at some vague system of social expectations. We are operating with much higher levels of information. Every aspect of the gender binary is being openly deconstructed. We can’t plead ignorance about our dominant man box culture of masculinity. At this point, men and women are becoming consciously aware that we are choosing our performances of gender. There are too many visible alternatives out there for us not to understand that other choices exist.
Yet, even as there is ample research showing that retrogressive conformist performances of gender lead to social isolation, addiction, stress-related diseases, divorce, early mortality and a raft of social ills, millions of couples continue to double down on performing their journey as human beings from within our culture’s narrow and suffocating gender binary. For some, this way of living may be a good fit, but for others, it is a desperate gambit to force a square peg in to a round hole.
For men and women, it is often our fear of acknowledging our own isolation and suffering (and the choices that led us there) that forms a significant block to rethinking our performance of gender and identity.
In conversation with my writing partner Dr. Saliha Bava, a licensed marriage and family therapist, the conversation often turns to the challenges couples face in breaking free of the gender roles they have been conditioned to perform. These challenges exist for couples even when they are fully aware that the choices they are making are deeply unsatisfying.
We are at a pivotal moment in human history.
While generations of human beings have grown up living out lives in which the culture that defined their gender identities was invisible to them, those days are past. We can not unlearn what we are learning. We can not unsee the vast diversity of gender we are seeing. We owe a debt to those who have had the courage to come out of the closets of gender and sexuality and declared their most authentic selves in a dangerous world. They are heroes to those of us who, by nature, seek simply a bit more freedom to deviate, a bit more room to breathe. They are pushing boundaries far out ahead of us, battling at the front lines of our own growing freedoms to authentically express who we are. Thanks to them, we are learning that we each can choose from a much wider range of options in how we live as men and women.
This is why I have written The Little #MeToo Book for Men. At just seventy nine pages, it is a brief, clear outline for men and women on the brutal ways in which we enforce gender roles in man box culture. It shows how men are conditioned from infancy to hide our authentic selves. It reveals how we are violently bullied to conform and how we then internalize and perform that violence generationally. For me, an important part of learning to make change is understanding the machinery by which we are conditioned to conform.
For couples, the depth of this conditioning is what makes the idea of changing how we perform gender so deeply frightening, even if we are increasingly unhappy with our limited choices. This is especially true for couples who already have history in which we have accepted our fairly narrow gender roles as normative and inevitable, performing those roles in ways by which our personal and professional relationships are deeply tied to them. As shallow as the relationships formed in this context can be, they are all we have. But an even more change-resistant influence is the degree to which one partner, shifting their gender performance, can create alarm for the other. This is why couples often fail to break free of the dominant rules for gender. Because it is a mutual shift into a deeply alarming space for both, and both must be committed to facing their own fears in order to proceed.
The path forward is not easy.
That said, should we as couples decide to make changes in how we perform gender, the first step is to differentiate between our culture’s dominant rules for gender and our own sense of identity. This is no small feat. Our culture’s dominant rules for gender are enforced from birth. Much of our fears reside in the depth to which we unknowingly adopt this conditioning as part of our core sense of identity.
The rules of gender as framed by our dominant culture break our roles out in terms of retrogressive and dysfunctional assumptions about what is inherently masculine and feminine. For example, being a provider, being a leader, hiding emotional expression and controlling and dominating others are supposedly masculine traits. Care-giving, being emotionally expressive, being agreeable, and passively supporting your partner are framed as being inherently feminine traits. The end result, men seek to dominate women, seeing them as second class citizens, even as we face epidemic levels of social isolation, addiction, divorce, suicide and early mortality. It’s a terrible system for expressing gender and it fails us, men and women alike, by the millions.
The dominant rules for performing gender, especially for boys, are enforced through daily, if not hourly shaming, bullying and violence. This conditioning begins with infants, growing in its impact and eventual ferocity as our kids enter pre-K, elementary, middle and high school. (See Judy Chu’s book, When Boys Become Boys and see Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets.)
It is the universality of this conditioning that hides the agentic role of culture from us. Conditioning on this level takes hold when we are too young to even understand what is being taken from us: namely our right to express our fully human and authentic selves. Instead, we see our oppressive gender conditioning simply as who we are. When couples even consider shifting our gender performances toward something more authentic or distinctive, we feel this lifelong conditioning as alarm at a deeply personal level. It can feel as if we are at risk of losing our core identities. And so, we fear on a visceral level what will happen if we step away from these rules even as we chafe against them.
The best weapons we have to armor ourselves against these fears?
- Our dominant gender conditioning is deeply isolating.
- Our dominant gender conditioning forces us to hide our authentic selves.
- Our dominant gender conditioning shames us for wanting connection.
- Our dominant gender conditioning results in addiction, depression, and early mortality, especially for men.
- Our dominant gender conditioning strips of our most fundamental creative, social, emotional and sexual aspirations.
- Our dominant gender conditioning is harming our children.
The tool I’m offering to help couple’s get free, is an understanding of the brutal machinery of our dominant culture of masculinity; the better to see it operating in our lives. This is the clear purpose of If you want to start a powerful conversation about masculinity with someone you care about, pick up The Little #MeToo Book for Men here.
But whatever path you choose, understand this. Somewhere out there beyond our isolating gender conditioning our culture subjects us to, lies the rich warm connection and friendships we knew as children. Somewhere out there lies the end of our collective loneliness. Somewhere out there lies more rich and satisfying expression our joyful humanity and purpose in the world. And perhaps most importantly of all, the choice to do the difficult and often frightening work of liberating our expression of gender helps heal the world.