Hi there. I'm new to Berkeley Patch, though I've been blogging on the other side of the tunnel for several months now. I'll only give the briefest introduction here. You can view my earlier postings here.
I wrote a series of articles on men in relationships and, when it came time to speak about women, I got cold feet and asked for help from a trusted colleague. What you will find here are the first three postings. I realize it's extra long, but rather than start with Part III (where I am this week in my other Patch locales) I'm just going to take you all the way up through Part III. From next week on, the postings will be shorter.
Thanks for reading.
Women in Relationship, Part I
I want to start this post today by introducing a long time colleague, Deborah Leeds, MFT. Her contact information and website links are at the bottom but for now, I want to say a few words about her, our relationship, and why I've asked her to join me in this post.
Deborah and I have known each other for over 25 years, going to graduate school together, working together at Children's Protective Services in Oakland, and now working together in a group private practice in Pleasant Hill. We have shared many cases over the years, and I have always enjoyed collaborating with her because we are able to differ without our egos getting involved. We are both passionate about working with couples using the Imago methodology (you can check some of my earlier posts for an overview of what this is).
I was nervous about writing about women in relationship for a number of reasons: 1) as a man, I can never be certain if my observations on women are skewed because I simply don't get them as I do a man; 2) I can never know if women respond differently to me than men because I'm not a woman, whereas a woman therapist saying the same thing would get a different (and more favorable) response, and 3) I worry that even if what I say is accurate, female readers will not be able to hear it because it's coming from a man.
So what better way to cope with these concerns than to ask a respected female colleague to help? The way I envision this unfolding is that it will be in the format of Deborah and I writing each other e-mails on the topic in question. You will get to listen in to our correspondence, and we will get to listen in to your thoughts in the comments section below. Let's get started:
Thank you for agreeing to dialog with me on this topic. In some way the format fits the content, in that discussing women in relationship seems to require a more team approach. I had no problem writing about men from an individualistic, this-is-what-I-think standpoint, but I was very uncomfortable trying to do that with women.
The topic I want to raise today has to do with what I see as a woman's struggle to take responsibility for her part in what goes awry in the relationship. I think that women, by and large correctly, think they are the work horses of the relationship. But it seems to blind them to their role in the difficult dance. That's not the real problem for me however. The real problem for me is that I often find it difficult to get a woman to take responsibility for something without prefacing it with a "Yes but." Usually the "Yes but" is connected to something the man is or isn't doing.
I tell myself "Well, this is because women are so relational they have a hard time seeing their actions as existing in a vacuum." But it is sometimes frustrating for their spouses when a woman is unable to simply say, without artifice or excuse, "I messed up. I'm sorry." With a man I simply tell them: "Dude, you screwed up. Apologize." And they do. That just doesn't work with a woman, at least not in my experience. What do you think?
Thank you for welcoming me into this dialog about relationship; my favorite topic!
What struck me today as I read you, was the sentence "…women are so relational that they have a hard time seeing their actions as existing in a vacuum." I laughed, reflecting on the countless times each day I say to people: "Nothing happens in a vacuum!"
And this I truly believe: Nothing happens outside relationship. And that itself may be at the crux of what you are describing.
In my mind's eye I can see on my office bookshelf a book written by Judith Jordan, I believe in the 1980's, called "Women's Growth In Connection." It was a very important book, as it was one of the "pioneering" studies on the very real differences between men and women's psychology. In it, the author describes the huge influence of relational factors in girls' thinking from a very young age. So, perhaps what you are seeing is literally true: women may not separate out their part because, in a woman's psyche, that separation is not as evident as it may be in man's psyche. Perhaps, more predominantly in women, it is within a deeply internal "relational environment" that things occur, are considered, understood, and responded to.
In my work with couples, and in my own history in relationship, I have seen that sometimes, what makes a difference in "getting there" - being able to account for my piece independent from other feelings and the pieces of the story - is feeling understood by my partner as to why I said or did one thing or another; the "how I got there" piece. It is challenging to put that need aside and understand my partner first.
That, it seems, is the challenge for any individual in a relationship: putting aside our own experience, making a large space for our partner's experience, seeing our role in something "in their world", and trusting that in another moment, we will have the opportunity to be understood. Easier said than done! But so important in building trust and safety in a relationship.
Thank you for this thoughtful response. I think you are demonstrating the very thing you are describing. That is, it seems to me you are putting aside your own strong opinion that "Nothing happens in a vacuum!" enough to hear my point that at the very least, it is sometimes necessary for the health of a relationship to act "as if" there is a temporary vacuum. Certainly wives who have been cheated on by their husbands don't want to hear something along the lines of "Yes, I cheated on you. But it's because I was feeling....." There indeed are always relational reasons for affairs, but there is also a time to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for one's actions. Period.
It strikes me that men and women have so much to learn from each other if we can stop trying to change each other. I am certainly aware of how deeply my life has been enriched, how much more I've been able to relax, by opening up more fully to relationships. I think that has been the primary contribution of feminist theory, at least in my book. And I don't think men have articulated an intelligent enough response to it.
Which isn't to say that I don't think women have something to learn from men and it is here I would like to make the same point, but hopefully from a deeper level. I think that just as women can teach men it's okay to trust in connection, men can show women it's okay to trust in separation. There is something deeply empowering in saying "I did that. I am responsible. I am sorry." Without connecting it to a whole bunch of invisible chords, explanations or anything else. It's like saying "I am capable of self agency, including the capacity to make mistakes and to hurt people. I may not want to do that, but I sometimes do that."
What I am getting from your response is that perhaps if a woman can feel understood first, it will be easier for her to take that step. What I am suggesting is that once a woman is understood, in addition to basking in the glow of connection, she risk separation by taking personal responsibility. Paradoxically, I believe nothing will help her husband feel connected to her more fully.
In connection and separation,
Well said! The ways we each experience that continuum of separation and connection can really be seen as the map of our "relational" development: some points on the map are easy, and some couldn't feel more foreign. When I consider things along the "separation" pole, I think of being able to say "yes" or "no" to my partner without feeling anxious; I think of feeling self-affirming enough to be able to voice my thoughts and feelings on a "stand alone" basis. And, if I really feel relationally mature enough, then I can make a space for the harm I have caused in my partner's world, and just own it.
What is interesting to me, as I feel into that last part, is that I can go there more readily when I feel connected to my partner. It is less about standing apart from, and more about connecting with!
And perhaps that makes sense - as a woman - to be more inclined to own something in a straightforward, nothing else to say about it manner, maybe even to feel more strength in myself, when I feel that connected to the person I love. The empathy that comes naturally in connection makes it easier to say: "Yes, you make sense to me; I can see why and how my action hurt you and I am truly sorry." Connection engenders openness to my partner's experience, and the connection actually helps me put myself aside.
When I sat down to write, I did not expect this to emerge. I was envisioning the line of a continuum. But this consideration seems to have looped into a lovely circle, in which connection grows one's autonomy, which enhances connection. Coming together "in separation" refers to individuals who are mature enough to know they do not have to be, nor could they ever be, perfect. Our humanity connects with another's humanity. Humility is a fine thing.
What’s coming to mind as I read your response is how easy it can be to get stuck in one of the two poles. I know that when I get into my independent position, I become more and more convinced I am a separate entity, and more and more resistant to being called to engage with another in a relational way. Is the obverse true? That is, is it easy for one in feeling deeply connected to resist the call to separate? Based on your comments so far and my own experience, I would have to imagine the answer is “yes.” I know when I am feeling the bliss of connection I don’t want to let go of it.
At this point I’m starting to think of this as less and less about biological males and females, though overall we probably do tend to gravitate toward our gender’s primary impulse of separation and connection, respectively. I’m thinking about it more along the lines of two connected yet separate poles of life, a pulse, a breathing in and out, the systole and diastole of being alive.
I can’t help but go to a spiritual place with this, because I think this discussion reflects what it means to be human at the deepest level. We are simultaneously, I believe, connected to everything and everyone by some invisible fabric of existence at the soul level. And we are also separate, independent entities, with a unique contribution to make to the cosmos which will not be made if we are only submerged in the collective. So we need both: awareness of and participation in our interconnectedness with each other and awareness of and expression of the unique beings we are.
Isn’t this cool where relationship can go when different beings engage with each other without defense?
Yes, our capacity to relate in this open way, even about our differences as men and women, is very cool; something builds on itself effortlessly, and energetically, expanding and allowing us to expand. (I wonder what THAT is!) And I think your last statement is really important: “....where relationship can go when different beings engage with each other without defense.” It is that "without defense" piece that is the clincher.
What does it take to stay open, to not go into defense mode, when there are differences? There was a spiritual teacher who used the phrase, "drop your head", as in drop the thinking that seems so concrete and absolute, let go of your assumptions about what any of it means. Finding one's way to being open with others is, I think, noteworthy work. Because it means becoming familiar with being very present- to ourselves first, and then to our partners - and meeting each other from that place. We cultivate the willingness to drop the content of a conflict just long enough to recognize the connection that exists between us, to be respectful of that connection and to each other, and to then listen and respond to each other. I think that it is that level of connection that is the cure for all of it: the need to feel understood, the importance of apologies without strings. It is a marvel to me that, once again, I have to say, that it is in connection that we are healed and whole. I think that it is for that level of connection, of seeing and being seen, that we hunger.
And, in terms of relationship needs, perhaps we have to "become the change you want to see" in order to have it in our relationships. The conflict and hurt of who-did-what and "what it means to me" is legitimate and has a powerful place in our psyches, not to be dismissed or frowned upon. It is a real question: Who do you want to be in your relationship? And, the sooner one or both of us comes to that wider field, the sooner we connect more deeply with ourselves and each other.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deborah Leeds, MFT, is a couples and individual therapist with offices in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, CA. Visit her website at deborahleeds.com
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.