Bessel Van Der Kolk, civil rights, Destiny Allison, feminism, love, Men Explain Things to Me, neo liberalism, patriarchy, Rebecca Solnit, relationships, sexism, The Body Keeps the Score, women's issues, women's rights
Nobody does it on purpose. We don’t consciously sack souls or dim spirits. We don’t fall in love with the intention of hurting anyone or choose to die inside. And yet, the distance between thrive and survive is a hair’s breadth, a spider’s line.
Recently, a friend dropped a love note to her husband on Facebook. He’d been traveling and wasn’t due home for a couple of weeks. She missed him, but instead of letting the statement sit, she made a list of all the things that had gone wrong in his absence. The swamp cooler broke. The dog got sick on the rug. A snake slithered through the living room. She hadn’t been sleeping and wasn’t getting along with her mom.
The list screamed, “I need you,” more than it said, “I miss you.”
It implied, “What you do for me is more important than who you are.”
While women give, men get, but they also fix. This is part of the unspoken compromise, a recipe for domestic tranquility, a sharing of the load. A woman may fall apart, dissolve into tears, and find comfort in her lover’s arms. Men must solve the problem and fix what’s broken. Reading my friend’s post, I had to wonder if her husband ever dreaded coming home.
In her book, Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit says, “I think the future of something we may no longer call feminism must include a deeper inquiry into men.” When we assail men for their privilege, shame them for behaviors that no longer serve us, and blame them for our lack of progress toward full equality, we do a disservice to our quest. More, we undermine the fragile fabric of our relationships.
Love matters. It’s not the steamy pulp of romance novels or the beneficent charge that love is all things. It is more than life long commitment or sexual exchange. Love is that which requires us to stay engaged.
When the recipe for toxic love or the recipe for domestic tranquility becomes the method through which we communicate, love begins to fade. Then we substitute expectation for experience, physicality for romance, apathy for intimacy, and contentment for joy. The resulting effects are resentment and shame. Nevertheless, most of us would rather use a known recipe than experiment on our own.
One of the lesser known tenets of The Declaration of Independence states, “All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” This document, this call to freedom, is the foundation of our country and yet we continue to ignore the wisdom of its words.
Those shackled by convention must, by definition, relinquish their freedom. Without freedom, they can only express and accept toxic love. And yet women and men continue to go through the motions, clinging blindly to cultural expectation and communal history in spite of the work done to create civil change.
Activists in the 1960’s paved the way for civil rights. They paved the way for women’s rights. A generation fought and bled for equality and, by some remarkable stroke of will or luck, succeeded marginally. Still, we have a long road to travel. That road is made longer by the fact that while we legislated people’s rights to equality, we failed to teach them how to be equal. We changed the rules, but not the game. As such, people continue to perpetuate behaviors long ingrained. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia lurk beneath the thin membrane of political correctness, reptilian remnants essential to the survival of our neo-liberal economic and social system. They are the fight or flight response, the last ditch efforts by a subconscious mind to keep the system intact.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk quotes Elvin Semrad, a teacher he once had. Semrad said, “The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.” This is true for individuals, couples, and the community at large.
The biggest lie I told myself was also the lie I told my husband. I said it over dinner, at the grocery store, while watching a movie, or lying in bed. I’d touch him – stroke his hair or grab his hand – and proclaim with all sincerity, “You are my world.” He’d meet my eyes and respond in kind. “I am yours. You are mine. You are my everything till the end of time.”
When Steve and I first met, I wanted commitment. What I received was something greater and far more terrible. He offered me liberty while claiming his own. That, for many women, is death by a thousand swords.
Women and liberty are almost an oxymoron. To presume liberty is to demand responsibility and most women are not trained for that. Oh, we can be responsible for our children and homes, employees and jobs, but not for our emotions or the way we’re perceived and treated by the world at large.
It was morning the first time Steve brought liberty to me, all shiny with possibility on a platter made of love. The sun streamed through a grimy window high above the bed, making cobwebs glisten and dust motes glow. He lay naked, the bedclothes in a tangle near his feet. I stroked his belly and pushed the agenda I wouldn’t let rest.
“I used to believe in forever, but we both know it’s a lie,” he said.
“I don’t think so. I think you just have to find the right person,” I replied.
I didn’t want him to hear the longing in my voice or make him fear me, but I had no choice. I had to know where he stood because he was the home I’d looked for all my life.
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. Most marriages end in divorce and I don’t know if I can count on one hand the number of happy couples I’ve met.”
“So what’s that mean? Why do you think that is?” I asked.
He rolled over onto an elbow and met my eyes. “I love you. You know that.”
“Yes. And I love you. More than anything, but that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s different for women. You get accolade and high fives because you’ve got a girlfriend and aren’t stuck with a wife. For me, I’m the one who couldn’t win you. I’m the one who’s not good enough. People don’t take me seriously. They think I’m easy or something. It sucks, but it’s true.”
“I don’t see that.”
“Christ, Steve, even my mother does it. Do you want to know why we’re not going to her house tonight? Because she told me your kids aren’t welcome. She doesn’t have enough room to invite them, but that’s okay because they’re not family. Oh, you can come because if you don’t, I won’t, but they can’t. Don’t you see? We’ve been living together for two years and it still doesn’t matter.”
“Your mom’s your mom. Ignore her. I don’t believe in marriage, but I love you. And I choose you, every day. I don’t want to be with you because of some obligation or formal commitment. I want to wake up every morning and decide if I want to be with you today. I want you to do that, too. We have to choose each other all the time if this is going to last and we have to do it consciously. It can’t be something we take for granted. Marriage makes taking you for granted too easy. I did that once. I won’t do it again.”
I pushed him onto his back and cuddled against him, my head in the crook of his arm. The musk of him was like warm hay in sunshine and I inhaled it like a drug.
“So it’s not me. It’s the institution?”
“Yes,” he said. “I choose you. You choose me. If one day one of us no longer does – and I don’t see that ever happening – then we need to be free to go our own way.”
“That’s it? That simple? Today I choose you, tomorrow I don’t and we’re done?” I couldn’t control the edge in my voice.
“Of course it’s not that simple, but you can’t still believe that a ring on your finger and some magic words will make us last.”
I didn’t say it, but I did think those things would give us a better chance.