How (Not) to Deal


The past couple weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. About my past relationships, potential future relationships. I’ve been thinking about why the ones in the past went wrong (not all of them did, but most of them), whose “fault” it was, and about why I have a fairly cynical attitude towards future ones. I also hear other women talking about their feelings on similar notions: I don’t want to “settle”, I’d rather be alone; I can’t seem to find a guy that I’m on the same page with; It shouldn’t require so much effort/compromise; When it doesn’t work out, I feel like it’s my fault; and other such sentiments.

There have been some videos circulating recently, about guys as well as girls (not really sure what to think about the “bossy” video, haven’t made up my mind, but that’s another story), that I have felt are really connected to this, but at first wasn’t sure how.

There have also been all these articles lately decrying, or simply commenting on, our depraved and rampant hookup culture in the States, (oddly enough?) pinning most of the blame on women. (Tangent: Doesn’t this tell us something about what happens to decent newspapers when they become private? Give me a break, WP…) Their quotes of women explaining why they would rather hook up in short, apparently meaningless relationships certainly makes the situation look very shallow: “cost-benefit analysis”, really? Seems like we’re in a sorry state.

Rosin talks about this in The End of Men, where hookup culture comes from and why women, in general, are tending to avoid committed relationships more and more often. But her portrayal of women’s side of the story tends to pin the blame on men: they [meaning most men] simply have not caught up to where social gender norms are today. Things have changed very quickly, but [most] men have not changed with the times.

I tend to agree with that, but I think she doesn’t bring the argument full circle: [most] men are able to carry on with their antiquated worldview because we are still raising them to believe in it. Meaning, their fathers and their mothers (and schools, religious institutions, sports organizations and so on).

This is the female version of the men’s activist crowd’s gripe, where they complain about being subject to military draft and losing custody battles, yet refuse to acknowledge their views of masculinity (gender, more broadly) as harmful. Women complain about not being able to find an “emotionally available” man who is willing to commit, yet continue raising their sons with the self-entitlement, masculinity complex and heteronormative ideologies that deprive them of what they’re looking for. Both lines of thinking want to keep their cake and eat it too.

I get it. I feel scared when I have my worldview rattled, too. I feel stupid and ashamed, at times, when that happens. Sometimes it means giving up some power, which is also scary. But paradigm shifts can also be liberating, and transcendental. I mean, wow, they can feel really good! And it is often they case that they can work out for a win-win situation.

Well, what does this mean for me. What do I have to do. I guess it first means taking a long look at my own short-comings, some of which are the result of my [patriarchal] cultural upbringing. As a for instance, I was twenty-one years old when I finally learned how to talk about my feelings. As in, “I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” Sound strange? To be fair, most American girls/women don’t suffer terribly from an inability to label or express their feelings, because they are told being emotional is feminine and they embrace their emotions as a way to embrace their femininity. I didn’t like the idea of femininity, however, didn’t see myself as feminine, and even deplored it, to a degree. [Patriarchal] American mainstream culture also tells us that that which is deemed feminine is lesser, kind of vapid, a little bit pathetic. So while it was how I was “supposed” to behave, I very much rejected it and modeled myself after male role models.

vincent_van_gogh_woman_head_hands

Many (most?) of the boys/men around me would go through the following succession when confronted with strong negative feelings: 1. Humor: Make them laugh, laugh it off, make light of the situation. Especially good if you can laugh at them so they will not feel safe bringing up negative feelings around you in the future (but you can also laugh at yourself, too). If they persist, try 2. Anger: Lash out, put it back on them, make them feel guilty for bringing up negative feelings, generally yell or get pissed until they stop. Good for multiple uses because it also acts as a deterrent to people bringing up negative feelings around you in the future. If this fails, phase 3: Shutting down: Just stop talking. Stop blinking. Maybe even stop breathing. Don’t respond in any way, shape, or form. Eventually they will feel too stupid/hurt/embarrassed/guilty to continue and will go away. It’s like the No Talking game: whoever can out-silence the other person the longest wins. Now, should this not work, you will need to resort to phase 4…: Running away: That’s right. Literally flee the room. Probably they won’t pursue you, but if they do, get to a place where they can’t find you. You could even get in your car and drive away (later you can pass this off as “blowing off steam” so that you still look like you’re in Phase 3 and will save some masculine face, feel me?). It works via Internet too. Are you having a skype conversation that suddenly turns all negatively feely? Slam! Close the lid, problem solved. :D …Right?

It seemed a fairly successful model. For example, it resulted in me not crying for a span of nearly two years, excepting the occasion of my grandfather’s funeral. I got very good at expressing all my negative feelings as just one: anger.

This all sounds pretty emotionally immature, eh? Agreed. This treatment of emotions stunts one’s ability to label and own emotions, to empathize with others, even to feel. But when it is your cultural worldview, it sure seems like the right/good thing to do. And so I did, for years and years, until I felt bad enough to want to Exit Stage Left. Fortunately, fortuitously for me, I fell into a good crowd, and I literally began to have this value set untrained from me. It was rough. It still is rough. But I am fairly certain I treat people a lot better now, and I absolutely feel better off, myself.

Cambodian mainstream culture has only convinced me further that this way of dealing with emotions is harmful, to individuals, relationships, and communities. I see people here go through a similar set of phases when confronted with strong negative feelings, but in the extreme: when jokes and anger don’t work, violence is an all-too-easy method of next resort. A man fired off his assault rifle at a wedding when folks wouldn’t turn the music back on for him. This admiration of hypermasculine values is hardly an American thing, and it doesn’t just hurt women.

I don’t believe this is the Answer to Everything, but I think this could be a really good jumping-off point for addressing harmful patriarchal values on an individual level. It’s something we can do in our own homes. It can be as simple as not laughing at or mocking someone who is crying– be they male or female. You are probably doing so because it is making you feel uncomfortable, perhaps because you don’t have a clue of what to do– because your culture has utterly deprived you of any tools to deal with strong negative feelings, be they your own or someone else’s.

I am a firm believer that empathy can be learned, but just as important as taking on a new value set is eradicating the old one.

Thoughts on this?

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