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Nov 2011 25

by Yashar Ali

“I’m not going to talk to you when you’re acting this way.”

Whenever I ask my women friends about this phrase and what it means when they hear it from the men in their lives, they always have a strong reaction. One of frustration, anger, and annoyance.

You know how it makes you ultimately feel. This statement is about communication, a way to shut down the potential conversation that should happen. Men typically use this phrase as a way to avoid an uncomfortable or awkward moment — usually a situation in which they are being held accountable for their actions.

More significantly, this phrase is about taking control. When someone says this sentence, they are defining the situation on their terms — a man’s terms.

It’s gaslighting.

 But this phrase is related to a larger issue I’m exploring: why is the tone, tenor, nature, path, and dynamics of the relationships (and not just romantic relationships) that women have with men, so often on the man’s terms?

The man setting the terms of a relationship may seem obvious when we think of romantic relationships, or perhaps, even work dynamics, but I want to engage in a larger exploration about all the kinds of relationships that women have with men, from male relatives, to male friends and co-workers.

Sure, this idea will make sense to some of you, since we do live in a male-dominated society. However, do you fully acknowledge and realize how this male dominance permeates relationships that we don’t even normally think of, in terms of power structures, with respect to gender?

My curiosity about the nature of relationships and how men generally set the terms came about when I realized that all of my major relationships were on the other man’s terms (family, work, friends, and love). Especially my romantic partnerships. But I have no one to blame, except myself. My letting the men in my life decide the terms of the relationships have to do with my insecurities, and nothing to do with societal conditioning.

But for so many woman, conceding their desires and expectations to those of a man, in any relationship, is a consequence being constantly told that her voice, her opinions, her feelings are less relevant and worthy.

In fact, in the process of writing this column, I started to examine some of my friendships with women, and I see that many of these relationships are defined on my terms. And to a certain extent, I still define the conditions of some of these friendships.

When I started writing this column, a friend chastised me for delving into the subject. He told me that his wife controls everything, “I can’t sneeze without her signing off on it.”

He thinks that because his wife is “controlling” whether he can go out with his friends for a beer, that he somehow lives in a matriarchy.

I can’t say it enough, my ultimate mission is to discuss and expose the subtle examples of sexism, the kind of sexism we don’t always notice, don’t think about, the situation we assume as just the way things are.

In talking about men and how they dominate the terms of a relationship, a handful of women were confused about my claim. These women feel strongly in control of their lives and refuse to consider the possibility that they, too, may be facing the same power structures that frustrate so many other women and that these power structures even exist in relationships where they appear to be dominant.

In talking with women about romantic relationships, the most common frustration they express is related to a lack of equality when it comes to communication and time. Women notice that their opinions and time are seen as less valuable than a man’s thoughts, opinions, and time. I hear from many of my woman readers that when they wanted to spend time with the person they are romantically involved with, often, he wasn’t available. Yet, they were expected to be available when he was ready to spend time. It has to do with an equitable sacrifice.

My friend Diana (name changed at her request) has continually dealt with communicating on his husband’s terms. It goes back to the gaslighting phrase, “I’m not going to talk to you when you’re acting this way.”

Whenever Diana wants to discuss anything remotely emotionally inconvenient for her husband, she either hears a phrase like that or he simply brushes her off, “Not now.”

“I’m tired that the most basic discussions, stuff we need to talk about to have a healthy marriage, as being defined as my needs and my “insanity.” He needs to understand that it’s actually about our needs,” she said, when discussing her frustrations with me.

This isn’t an uncommon frustration or issue, it’s been written about before. But are we seeing men as jerks, are we seeing it as their inability to discuss emotional matters, or are we looking at it as his terms, his way, his entitlement? This isn’t always about a man being mean or emotionally unavailable. Too often, it’s about absolute and pure control.

Romantic relationships are the most obvious when it comes to seeing the terms of a partnership. But families and friendships are also not equal — far from it.

When it comes to her father, my friend Vikki has faced the reality of the man setting the relationship of his terms.

“If I try to go to one of my favorite restaurants with my father, it is just going to be a miserable experience, he’ll ruin the place for me, so when I eat out with him, I end up at prime rib restaurant. ”

So why does she, a self-assured, confident woman, concede?

“I feel like a bad daughter if I fight for what I want. I feel like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka, ‘but Daddy I want to go to my restaurant!’ It’s often easier to give in, than fight.”

So how did Vikki and the other women arrive at a place where even the most basic interactions with the men in their life, are on the man’s terms?

Vikki attributed this to boundary testing as something every animal does. Once we learn the rules, or in this case appropriate, courteous behavior in terms of developing relationships, we have a natural desire to test the boundaries.

“Animals behave a certain way and if it works, they will keep acting that way…”

“Men wouldn’t act this way if it didn’t work…this [boundary testing] is also what 2 year-old children, do.”

Do relationships start on equal terms and then become unbalanced over time? Do men repeatedly test the boundaries to see how far they can go? This boundary testing, in the case of romantic relationships, can be repeatedly enacted by a man rejecting a woman’s request to spend time with her. And when she sticks around, despite the fact that her needs are not acknowledged, it strengthens the man’s resolve to control the path of the relationship.

It’s easy to dismiss the example of a woman’s relationship with her father as a legitimate example, since fathers are ultimately authority figures. But authority has nothing to do with someone dismissing your fundamental desires, or someone disregarding for what you believe in and want. And for the record, many of the women I spoke with faced this dynamic with their brothers and uncles.

Yes, our parents will always be our parents, no matter how old we are. But Vikki is now in her thirties. At what point does her opinion, her needs, her voice carry more weight than when she was ten?

And what about male-female friendships?

My friend Tanya (name changed at her request) deals with behavior from her male friends that I often see. The men in her life ignore her texts when they don’t feel like responding, either because it’s an issue they don’t want to discuss or they are simply not in the mood to write back. However, they expect Tanya to respond to their texts. And when she doesn’t, her guy friends become demanding, texting back, “Where did you go? Hello?”

Elizabeth, a former colleague, had enough of a good male friend. He was very engaged in their friendship in its early phase and then, he slowly started to slip away – only contacting her when he needed something. But he was never around when she wanted to spend time or when she needed support or a sounding board. When Thanksgiving came around and he didn’t go home to visit his family, he was phone-banking her to make plans.

“When he’s desperate or needy, I am the first call…it’s bullshit,” she said to me when describing the dynamics.

Sure, this sort of selfishness exists in all types of relationships, regardless of gender. But I want to look at whether the power dynamics of a relationship have something to do with (gender) conditioning. In this case: male entitlement and dominance as embedded in how relationships form and women conceding, because that’s what we teach them to do with men.

Most readers of this column will acknowledge that work relationships, especially between boss and employee, are already unequal. But when the boss is a man and the employee is a woman, the power dynamics are most often skewed on the side of the male boss.

My friend Amy works at a sales-oriented job in the Midwest. After reaching a sales goal, Amy was excited for her promised increase in salary. When she didn’t receive a bump in salary, she finally gathered enough strength and courage to email her boss. She emailed him a couple times and didn’t get a reply. She even inserted her question about her bonus in an email that was addressing other matters. He replied, addressing the other issues in her email and ignoring her question about the bonus. I asked her why she wouldn’t confront him directly. Amy replied, “He is ignoring me because he knows I will never do that.”

Amy never got her raise. She conceded to her boss’ silence. Would this happen if her boss were dealing with a male employee? I don’t think so. The woman-man dynamics in the workplace isn’t just about power between boss and employee, I also see it about men setting the terms and women fitting themselves into that framework.

This column isn’t an attempt to victimize women. It’s an attempt to acknowledge that power structures exist between men and women, and not just in romantic relationships or at work, but in EVERY relationship.

So is this about male entitlement? Does it have to do with the idea that men are conditioned to have an inherent sense of entitlement in every part of their lives, personal, and professional? To put it simply, are men taught to grab, take, and define the terms of a relationship and are women taught to ask and wait?

It’s time to untangle the web of human relationships and examine whether women have given up too much across the board.

Usually, the answer is that they have…and it’s so often where they least suspect it.

***

Yashar Ali is a Los Angeles-based columnist, commentator, and political veteran whose writings about women, gender inequality, political heroism, and society are showcased on his website, The Current Conscience. Please follow him on Twitter and join him on Facebook.

He will be soon releasing our first short e-book, entitled, A Message To Women From A Man: You Are Not Crazy — How We Teach Men That Women Are Crazy and How We Convince Women To Ignore Their Instincts. If you are interested and want to be notified when the book is released, please click here to sign-up.

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A Message To Women From A Man: You Are Not Crazy

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