A friend of mine—female—was in a work meeting with a bunch of guys. It was a corporate meeting of department heads several months ago discussing how to fairly handle dress code policy surrounding the culture war between the Black Lives Matter crowd and the Make America Great Again crowd.
She was advocating for the company to take an empathetic position regarding experiences other people have even when we, ourselves, aren’t necessarily affected by them. For example, how me, a middle-class white guy in the United States, doesn’t know the first thing about what it’s like to not know where my next meal is coming from. What it’s like to be side-eyed and morally judged because of who I love. What it’s like to have dark skin around a bunch of people who might have been taught to fear me or hate me.
Somehow, these ideas have been politicized. As if they should be about policy and money rather than about human beings.
When I was younger, because I was so comfortable and safe and surrounded by people like me, I didn’t know how to respect all of the things that didn’t immediately affect me.
I took that condition into my marriage. And I didn’t know how to respect things that affected my wife but didn’t affect me. Her requests for help, or “complaints” about the unpleasantness she sometimes felt because of things I did or didn’t do were met with responses not dissimilar from: “Why are you making YOUR feelings MY problem?”
It was all part of the slow, steady march toward the end of my marriage. I just didn’t know it yet.
So my friend is in this meeting surrounded entirely by guys who didn’t necessarily agree with her point of view. Then, she asked them this question: “When you’re in a strange place, alone on an elevator, have you ever been afraid of the elevator doors opening?”
She looked around the room. Everyone shrugged, shaking their head no. None of the guys had ever even considered the idea of being nervous about who might step onto an elevator with them, or who might be waiting for them when they step off.
But my friend knew the feeling. She couldn’t NOT know it. Being stuck on an elevator with the wrong kind of person was very much a threat to her. No one told her to feel this way. Life had taught her to. Cruelly.
“Well, I am. If I’m alone, I’m a little afraid every time the elevator doors open.”
I wrote last week about my new book now available for preorder, which I’m geeking out about because writing a book has been a dream of mine since I was a child. And here we are.
I was excited to tell you about it. And when I did, someone responded in a way I didn’t see coming. While genuinely happy for me (she even preordered the book, she said), she couldn’t help but share a little pent-up anger with me.
“I am in that space of cognitive dissonance, absolutely joyous for you while absolutely fuming because for generations, women have been expressing (screaming) the exact same things you have now been credited for ‘figuring out’ and making what you refer to as ‘life changing’ gobs of money [sic]. I hope the irony is not lost that this is what happens in business meetings, where a woman will put forth a brilliant idea only to have it be repackaged and credited to the guy in the room. But congratulations.”
For as long as I can remember, the implication from so many societal norms and childhood lessons is that women, while not less valuable than men, were somehow beneath them on the human totem pole. The whole: “Quiet now, little lady. The men are talking.” You know, that bullshit.
I’m no sociology expert, but I think some combination of being taught when I was in preschool that God made the first woman from the rib of the first man, combined with watching my mom, grandma, aunts, and other women more or less handle all of the childcare, cooking, cleaning, and domestic household responsibilities might have played a role in my beliefs about the sexes.
Nobody said: “Hey Matt! You should disrespect women!”
But I think the math result of what I was taught equaled disrespecting women whether or not I realized it.
This is how good people with the best of intentions inadvertently hurt people, and then feel totally justified in defending themselves when they’re called on it.
If she’s saying what I’m doing is bad or wrong, then she’s ALSO saying my mom and dad were wrong and bad. That my friends were wrong and bad. That my extended family was wrong and bad. No way can any of that be true!
Therefore, we feel more than justified in trying to set the record straight or defending ourselves—two responses that inevitably invalidate what our partner just said. And if you don’t already know this, 100 percent of the time you invalidate a human being’s experiences, they will trust you just the tiniest bit less moving forward. And if you do that over and over and over again every day for many years, eventually the perpetually invalidated person won’t trust you at all.
Two Things Can Be True at the Same Time
That’s kind of a Captain Obvious statement, but here’s what I mean.
The natural reaction from someone who genuinely feels happy for me about the book was to also feel anger about the notion that women have been fighting for an equal voice as citizens, as working professionals, as athletes, as artists, as intellectuals, and as romantic partners for eons.
And suddenly, some divorced asshole on the internet (who is a guy) is saying many of the same things she and her fellow wives, girlfriends, and mothers have been fighting for since long before any of us were born. And while the women have collectively felt brushed aside or ignored, particularly by their male romantic partners, suddenly one dickhead starts writing the same crap on the internet and he’s rewarded with book contracts and pats on the back (all after being a shitty husband and putting his wife through the same emotional experiences that they also feel in their relationships).
I totally understand how maddening that must feel to certain people. I hope you do too.
Yet. Two things can be true at the same time. And while everything just covered is totally true, and that angry people are absolutely justified in feeling angry at being ignored, sidelined, hushed, invalidated, and disrespected for millennia, something else can be true.
Me saying it can have a greater impact than them saying it. I don’t think it’s fair. I just think it’s true.
At the root of men and women having conflict in romantic relationships is the tendency by men to invalidate their female partners. NOT because they’re trying to invalidate them. I don’t think most guys even know how to think about it that way. But because they very honestly disagree with something their wife or girlfriend is saying or feeling. And then they say so during conversation or an argument, and the results are predictably bad.
When we’re not extremely careful in our conversations, we tend to also invalidate others’ experiences whenever we disagree with them.
In most life scenarios this isn’t a big deal. It doesn’t end male friendships very often. It tends to not be an issue at work, or in causing huge riffs with neighbors and family members.
But it DOES damage a romantic relationship—particularly a marriage or cohabitating long-term couple. Because trust.
Consistently, in my work, I see men inadvertently invalidating the experiences their hurt wives or girlfriends are trying to share with them.
And consistently, I am able to have this conversation with guys with greater success than their wives or girlfriends can.
I think wives and girlfriends sometimes feel resentful about this because it feels to them like some asshole stranger who just happens to be a guy is getting more respect than they are. And if I were them, I’d be totally pissed about that too.
Full disclosure: I’ve edited several paragraphs in order to be able to write what I’m adding here right now, nearly a year after originally posting this article. And that is that because I’m male, I simply did not realize how common the experience has been for women in this world to have their words and opinions and ideas ignored or minimized, only to have a guy say the exact same thing, and suddenly those same words and opinions and ideas are accepted and implemented and praised. It’s not okay. At the root of my work is learning how to carefully calculate for the experiences of others, and then mindfully saying and doing things which honor and/or avoid disrespecting their diverse experiences.
Men’s opinions about how women should feel about things unique to the female experience are not very useful to women. White people’s opinions about how black people (or any non-Caucasian ethnic or cultural group) should feel about things unique to their experiences are not very useful to those people. Straight and/or cis people’s opinions about how gay or trans people should feel about things unique to their experiences are not very useful to the LGBTQ+ community.
That said, I would like to gently advocate for mindful communication to our relationship partners, accounting for the possibility that they might have an emotional reaction to what we’re saying that we don’t necessarily appreciate or consider appropriate.
Frequently in my coaching world, when wives or girlfriends try to communicate to their male partners how they feel, the men end up feeling attacked, shamed, judged, criticized, or as if they’re being told they are not good enough. They’re hurt. They’re confused. They’re frustrated. They’re sad. They’re angry. They WANT to be good enough. They don’t want their wives to hurt. And they honestly don’t know how to navigate the situation to an effective, healthy resolution.
And then when I try to communicate to these guys how their wives or girlfriends are feeling, the men DO NOT feel attacked, shamed, judged, criticized, or as if they’re being told they are not good enough. I believe men don’t invalidate the things I say to them in my coaching work because I am very careful to not communicate that I believe they are bad, or that they are wrong, or that there is anything wrong with them. Of course, some percentage of this (hopefully not most) could simply be because men have an unhealthy history of listening to me more respectfully or carefully then they do women, including their relationship partners. (Which is a horrible strategy for maintaining trust and intimacy in our relationships.)
I simply try to communicate that the math result of their actions equals pain for their partner and damage to their marriage. Nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes it lands.
Therefore, the mission for these guys is not to stop being bad and to become good. The mission is not to stop being wrong and to become right. It’s simply about recognizing that sometimes, the result of our actions is inadvertently harmful to people we love. Detached from any conversations about intent or character.
And if we can have the discipline to mindfully develop the habit of NOT invalidating our loved ones when they tell us something is wrong, and to not fail to consider our loved ones in our everyday decision-making, then trust can thrive in our relationships.
Safety and trust can be restored.
And when safety and trust are present, there is very little conflict. When safety and trust are present, we can get through damn near anything together.
For some, this feels a lot like some sexist, patriarchal bullshit that they’ve been battling their entire lives. And that is undoubtedly woven into the fabric of many male-female relationships, romantic or otherwise.
But I think it can be mostly about our habits. About loving someone enough to not allow the math result of our words and actions to hurt them.
For men in male-female relationships, that often shows up as a lack of emotional intelligence, a lack of investment in shared domestic responsibilities, a failure to consider their wives/girlfriends when they make decisions, and a tendency to invalidate them anytime their wives or girlfriends dare to ask for help to hurt less.
And for women in those relationships, I think maybe it sometimes shows up as a failure to consider what it means to allow your words, actions, or tone of voice to communicate that your husband or boyfriend is intentionally trying to ruin your life. That he’s bad, or dumb, or weak, or lazy, or worthless, or some horrible, unlovable thing.
And I think there’s a bit of magic in communicating our pain in a manner that does NOT suggest that we think someone’s bad or shitty or out to get us.
Men bear a ton of responsibility for the awful state of male-female communication in relationships. The majority of it in my estimation.
But the key to breaking through isn’t about sex or gender. It’s as subtle and nuanced as accurately calculating the impact of our words. Because words have power. Because words and ideas matter.
I understand why the men in the meeting had never considered an elevator ride a dangerous or uncomfortable experience. They’d never had reason to.
But then my friend nudged them. She shined a little light into a shadowed corner and asked them to look.
We often don’t hurt the people we love because we’re bad.
We hurt the people we love because we fail to consider how subtly, but somehow also radically, different their experiences are while we’re all so busy trying to navigate all that life throws at us.