Gender dynamics of control

Content warning: cishet relationships, emotional abuse

To the women who at times feel neglected, their passions ignored, and they themselves unable to personally grow within a close relationship with a man

Or to the ones who may have internalized this and rationalize it as the way things just are, likely because they feel already way too committed at this point and they would rather exhaust all other options before having to start all over again

I offer no solutions to this lovers’ impasse, certainly not from my own experience. However, I have heard and read about such stories so many times now that I’m starting to notice some patterns. If I may, I would like to present some mental tools that could be useful to frame related concepts and conversations with the goal of breaking the stalemate and continuing your journey to personal fulfillment and growth.

Let’s first lay some groundwork in a way that you might not be accustomed to when talking about personal relationships. Specifically, I want to encourage us to view them not only as private affairs, but also as important aspects of what makes up the social fabric around us.

It follows that, when we love openly and choose to intertwine our life with someone else’s, that decision is as economic and political as it is deeply spiritual. Thus our choices, as personal as may be, cannot be completely separate from economic and societal influences.

When a man loves a woman, that can be beautiful. It’s also a fact that he loves her in a context of a society that is still deeply patriarchal. Even though he loves her, and he wishes the best for her, he cannot fully protect her from the patriarchy, for that would mean that he somehow managed to fully protect himself from societal influences, thus accomplishing a feat of mental independence that many fantasize about but few are likely to ever attain.

And in case you don’t believe that we still live in a world where there is a profound imbalance in rights based on gender, this is the point where yours and my beliefs diverge, but I implore you to continue reading the rest and see if parts of it still make sense.

When we enter a relationship, we like to think of it as a blank slate because we are used to talk about love as something pure. However, each of us brings a lot of baggage; we carry with us everything that life has bestowed upon us so far, all the confidence and wisdom of past experiences jumbled up together with all the hurt that we haven’t yet identified or healed.

We know this on some level, for it is betrayed in the way we date: we reveal only a tiny bit of ourselves incrementally over time, in the backs of our minds somewhat concerned that the fullness of our being, darkness included, could easily drive someone off.

I tell myself that I fall in love often, but the truth is, that early on I cannot really discern between love and obsession or desire for that person. To paraphrase Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled, many of us confuse “cathexis”—a term coined and in a more precise manner used by Freud, which basically means obsessive thoughts about someone—with “love”. When I desire someone, she may be flattered and more convinced that I love her, but the truth is that desiring an other means that I look at them as an object of my desire, thus as an object in relation to me; and I cannot in full faith say that this feeling reflects that I love her being as she exists without me.

When a woman lays with me, she is not only getting a confident, handsome man who shows her attention and with whom she exchanges affections with. She also lays with a boy who hasn’t fully matured into a man yet, because society—due to the relentless push towards goal-oriented and materialist thinking—allows men to remain emotionally and spiritually immature for longer on average.

She touches a man who, electrified, desperately yearns for her touch partly because his kind has robbed themselves of physical affections with fellow men due to homophobia, and partly because affections are being extended to boys less often when they’re young because they are being raised as “boys”.

She cares for an individual who hasn’t yet fully mastered domestic and self-care, and who finds himself transformed and somewhat dependent by someone fulfilling those roles in life that he often neglected.

She loves a person who, even if he has given up his worth attached to material success and his masculinity, is still struggling to find his value in this world that is separate from the value and status he gains by getting attention from a woman, and may still have a long way to go on the journey to self-love.

And thus, man—still growing, still confused—even though he is truly in love with a woman, starts being dependent on her presence in his life to increase his feeling of worth. Helped heavily by the society around him, and taught from the youngest age that resources available to him should be protected, man starts being invested more and more into preserving the closeness of a person who he gets so much from, that his investment will often continue well beyond the point at which it stops being healthy for the woman who is also a person, also vulnerable, and also motivated to grow. All this happens mostly unconscious and under the guise of “loving”.

A person who feels like they would lose something if they would fully support your expression and your growth can not by definition be a supportive friend and partner in your life.

When a man who loves a woman needs to make a choice that affects her but conflicts between his own fulfillment and her own, he will often be motivated to prioritize his own. Throughout all this, he will be encouraged by patriarchy that will assure him that this is all right; over time, he may dare more and more to restrict a woman’s social life so she would turn more of her attention to him, to restrict her sexual life and expression. The lower economic status for women on average limits her options should she ever try to assert her own structural independence.

Should you not comply with these restrictions, the first and most common tool man will reach for is emotional blackmail; that is, he will point out the negative emotions stirred in him that your actions serve as a catalyst for. An adult himself, he will also shamelessly overlook his own responsibility for these emotions. Because society generally prioritizes a man’s emotions over anyone else’s well-being, a kind and caring woman will have usually internalized this and therefore choose herself to adjust her behavior to avoid pushing against a man’s ego.

A choice given to you where you are strongly encouraged to pick one of the options while heavily sanctioned for picking anything else can hardly be called exercising free will.

Thus, compulsory monogamy is developed as an institution, and for most of the history it works by enslaving women by celebrating only their chastity and obedience as virtue, but not any other aspects of her being; all while men themselves—especially those of status—organize their unhindered access to that feminine “virtue” throughout all of history, including today.

A faithful and conventionally beautiful wife will therefore be prized and showered with love and public displays of affection, and rewarded at every step for performing her virtue not only by her partner, but by their families and social circles. She gets tons of support for entering a marriage, but much less for surviving one or for voicing her discontent.

Here lies the complexity: since there is so much shame and stigma being attached to having an “unsuccessful” relationship, we will tend to minimize these signs of controlling behavior, often by trivializing them through jokes, and we will often frame them as personal and as if they pertain exclusively to this relationship and thus try to “work on them”—if we didn’t, we would appear to ourselves and to others as if we were betraying our commitments.

Now, I’m not saying that a beautiful, loving relationship between a man and a woman cannot exist due to the institutional differences in our society. What I’m saying is the chances are in favor that your sweet, loving partner, however beautiful and “nice guy” deep down he really is, might have investments in you that significantly conflict with your own interests, and that only slowly get apparent over a longer period of time.

Each individual transgression that a subtly controlling and emotionally manipulative man makes is easily dismissible partly because it’s so small and partly because we’ve been taught to expect these things through our culture, especially through media such as movies and TV shows. Each of these transgressions, if you bring it up in your circle of friends, might be dismissed as something that is not a big deal, that everyone goes though, and that can probably be worked out. It’s likely that your friends know this person and that they only ever get to see parts of him as sweet and loving. But what they do not know, and cannot possibly experience unless they were you, is that when accumulated together, these words and actions that each slightly overstep boundaries can have heavy consequences that disproportionally negatively affect you.

I feel qualified to warn you about the strategies of emotionally manipulative men because I was one. I was quite good at it, if I may say. No, I wasn’t deliberate or conscious about it at all. I thought what I was doing was within my right to try and preserve a valuable relationship. I thought that love is worth fighting for. And fought we did.

This brings me to the following thought. It you remember one takeaway from this piece, let it be this:

Systemic issues are not being recognized as such and are talked about and dealt with as if they are personal failures.

This is true in environmentalist discussions, where activists keep reminding us that it doesn’t matter that you recycle at home if we don’t at the same time challenge the corporations and their unsustainable agricultural and mining practices motivated primarily by capitalism.

In my opinion, righteous anger in face of injustice is not only a healthy emotion, but an essential one. Let us feel righteously angry at those who would sacrifice most of the life on this planet for stuffing the pockets of the few.

This is also true in personal life where it doesn’t matter that a person says “I love you” if they are not actually committed to celebrating you and your way of life every day.

It’s possible that the problem you have with your partner isn’t just between you and him. This doesn’t make it any easier to solve, but it makes it way easier to identify; especially because these problems might span over the totality of your love life, across different partners.

It’s possible for someone to be in love with you and to be hurting you at the same time. It’s also possible for you to love them and to be critical of the way they make you feel right now. You should be allowed to voice that criticism. After all, they’re betraying the normative romantic notion that they would “do anything for you”.

Your feelings are valid if you find yourself righteously angry that someone who says he would do anything for you would not cherish and honor the fuck out of your whole being because he himself was too busy earning status as a man to stop for a second to examine the systemic injustices that affect you, your sisters, and your entire lineage of female ancestry.

You can be critical, you can be angry, and you can still love that person. All these feelings can coexist.

You have better shit to do than to babysit feelings for a person who can’t do it for himself.

I myself am glad that so many of my exes have decided to not babysit me and instead focus on advancing in their own life. I’m proud of the choice they have made for both of us, even when I wasn’t at the time feeling appreciative of said choices. It gave me the motivation and the space to man up, grow up, grow some ovaries. And now I can be better friend and support to my lovers that I am yet to meet.

It is important to emphasize that even at times when he was still confused by the mysteries of Life, Nature, and Woman, [man] never relinquished his power; when, terrified by the dangerous magic woman possesses, he posits her as the essential, it is he who posits her, and he who realizes himself thereby as the essential in this alienation he grants; in spite of the [fertile] virtues that infuse her, man remains her master, just as he is master of the fertile earth; she is destined to be subordinated, possessed and exploited, as is also Nature, whose magic fertility she incarnates.

—Simone de Beauvoir, 1949