Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Manhood in relationships - what does it involve?
This is a further response to Labrat's response to my response (!) to an article by North. I've posted two earlier responses (Part One and Part Two) about what it means to be a man, or exercise 'masculinity' or 'manhood', in general terms. This article will focus on how that can be worked out in a relationship with a woman. (I deliberately exclude same-sex romantic or physical relationships, as I've no experience of them. Someone better acquainted with them should tackle that subject.)
I'd like to emphasize that this article contains my own opinions, formed and filtered through my own life experiences. Some of my readers are sure to disagree with them, having been shaped and formed in a different 'forge' to that which shaped and formed me. That's OK - we can differ without being rude to each other. I accept others will have very different perspectives on this subject, and I look forward to reading their views in Comments, or in posts on their own blogs. (The opinions of others on this subject are frequently thought-provoking, if not highly entertaining. See, for example, these articles in the Guardian, the New York Daily News, and the Windmill Perception blog.)
To begin with, we bring ourselves to the relationship in which we find ourselves. Our 'self' is a mixture of upbringing, life experiences, intellectual influences, past social encounters and relationships, and many other influences. Unfortunately, many of us don't bother to analyze exactly what 'makes us tick' as individuals. Each of us will have attitudes, preconceptions, a perspective on life, with which we approach our partner (and our partner, of course, will have precisely the same 'baggage' with which to approach us). Trouble is, very often we don't take the time or the trouble to make our backgrounds and perspectives explicit to one another. That can lead to all sorts of complications when we run headlong into an issue which we see as clear-cut and unambiguous, but our partner doesn't.
That also means that there's no 'one-size-fits-all' solution to marital and relationship issues. Each couple will have to work things out for themselves. I can tell you where I've come from, and how I approach this with my spouse, but that won't necessarily apply to anyone else. Nevertheless, since I have to illustrate the subject somehow, I'll use myself and my partner to illustrate one way of going about it.
My parents were of English (i.e. British) origin. They emigrated to South Africa, where I was born and raised. I grew up with an English home background, tempered by an (initially) quasi-colonial experience of life in Africa. That was tempered in due course by exposure to many other societies - the Afrikaners and the Coloured and Bantu peoples of South Africa (with particular emphasis on the Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Tswana and Sotho tribes), various tribal cultures in countries to the north of South Africa, and - over the past fourteen years - various regions of the United States. This has given me a far wider cultural 'cross-pollination' than most people experience, and has contributed to an eclectic world view that many of my contemporaries and friends sometimes find rather strange. I'm afraid I can't help it - but they seem to tolerate me, nevertheless!
My attitudes to my masculinity have been formed by all of those influences. Some - the earliest, most formative influences, particularly that of my father and his friends - are so deep-seated that I doubt I'll ever be able to change them. My late father fought through World War II in the Royal Air Force (I wrote about him in Weekend Wings #9). Many of his friends, whom I knew when growing up, also fought in the war. That gave them a common bond, a common outlook, which is (I'm sure) very familiar to those who've known combat veterans. It's a brotherhood that's sometimes thicker than blood. I learned from them that 'men' looked out for one another, 'watched one another's six', and went out of their way to protect each other and those entrusted to their care (i.e. wives and children, both their own and each other's). According to their lights, a 'man' would do whatever it takes, without reservation, to fulfil those responsibilities.
Another factor was my intellectual upbringing by my parents. They each had a Doctorate in their respective fields, and encouraged all their children to exercise their intellectual curiosity from an early age. All of us were able to read even before we went to school. In my final year of school - 'matric', the equivalent of 12th grade in the US - I read more than 700 books in addition to my studies. I was intellectually far ahead of my years. A large part of my childhood intellectual formation came from authors such as Winston Churchill, George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, H. Rider Haggard, Roger Lancelyn Green, Monica Edwards, Rosemary Sutcliff, etc. Inevitably, the emphasis of these writers on 'gentlemanly' conduct, in the classic English sense, shaped and formed my understanding of what it meant to be a man.
Another major influence was my experience of war and civil conflict over eighteen years, both in military service and as a civilian. The unrest in South Africa between 1976-1994 was brutal at times. I've written about some of my 'civilian' memories of that time, for example, here and here. Those encounters reinforced the lessons I'd absorbed from my father and his veteran comrades, and added elements of personal experience. My 'protective instinct', to guard those I love and those important to me from violence and harm, is an overriding priority as a result of those life lessons. I daresay it's no longer possible for me to change that instinctive reaction.
Another factor in my developing understanding of what it means to be a man came from my friendship with several Black people, from different Southern African tribes (for example, Inyati). Most of them were traditionalists, imbued with the spirit of ubuntu (which I wrote about last night). This also helped to form my conception of my role as a male in society, and in relationships.
My religious faith has also contributed to my understanding of humanity and masculinity. The Biblical world-view isn't normative culturally, of course, but for Christians, it's normative morally. The question is, what part of its world-view is cultural (for example, 'kill homosexuals' or 'don't eat pork') and what part is moral (for example, the Ten Commandments)? How do we distinguish them? That's an ongoing struggle for all churches, and all Christians, to sort out in the context of their daily lives and the cultures within which they live out their faith. (We see this in action in the Bible itself, at the Council of Jerusalem, shortly after the Ascension.) I'm no fundamentalist, and have a real problem with the male-superiority culture that so many of them derive from their simplistic, monochrome view of the Bible; but I also have to apply Biblical standards and norms from day to day. Furthermore, I can't do so in isolation from the rest of humanity. If I tried to tell my wife that I've decided to interpret a particular passage in a way that applies to her, I'd better make sure she interprets it the same way - or sparks will fly!
Finally, I've encountered many different perspectives on masculinity after coming to the United States in the late 1990's. Some of these have been distinctly unhappy. I have a viscerally negative reaction to concepts such as 'metrosexuality' or 'male narcissism'. On the other hand, I've found that American veterans (particularly combat veterans) share many of the views I learned through my own military experience. It seems that military service is much the same in any nation, and the 'life lessons' one draws from it are pretty much alike.
Of course, American women are very different to those I encountered in Africa, irrespective of race in either continent. Women in the USA are far more 'liberated' in many areas of life, more outspoken, more 'brash' (in the sense of being up-front and 'in-your-face' about what they think, like and want), and less withdrawn, reserved and 'shy' (for want of a better word) than their counterparts in Africa. I initially found this difficult to cope with, as I didn't know where they were coming from, and they certainly didn't know where I was coming from! I had to learn to adjust my thinking, attitudes and mode of expression, to avoid inadvertently giving offense. (For example, in English-English, the expression 'to knock someone up' means, literally, to knock on their door, to wake them up or to visit them. In Australian-English, it means to be exhausted. However, in American-English, it means 'to make a woman pregnant'. The first time I - speaking English-English, in all innocence - told an American lady that I'd 'knock her up' next morning, to take her somewhere, the expression on her face was wondrous to behold!)
I hope this illustrates the 'baggage' I've brought with me into my relationship with my spouse. She's an American woman, born and brought up in a radically different milieu to mine. She's had to make allowances for my background, just as I've had to make allowances for the very different influences that have shaped and formed her. We've found it essential to really listen to one another, not taking it for granted that the other understands what we're trying to convey (or the emotions, feelings, perceptions, etc. behind it), but striving to make sure that what they're 'receiving' is the same as what we're trying to 'transmit'. It's not always easy, but we work at it, and generally manage pretty well. (At least, she seems to think so!)
The problem is, every single relationship between a man and a woman will be different from other relationships. The two bring their own life experiences, attitudes, perceptions, 'filters', etc. to the relationship, and they have to make them work in harmony. This isn't always easy - in fact, it's frequently so difficult that the partners split up rather than continue to work at it! I'm all in favor of taking time to make sure of the relationship before taking the plunge into marriage, rather than 'marrying in haste and repenting at leisure'.
I know what I regard as my 'masculine' role in my relationship with my spouse: but she doesn't always agree with me about that, and sometimes complains. At such times, I can either try to put my foot down and insist that things are going to happen 'my way', or I can listen to her, figure out where she's coming from, and work with her to find a way that's acceptable to both of us. There are a few (a very few) areas where I certainly will put my foot down; but they're very limited in scope and circumstances. (Similarly, she has the absolute right to have areas where she's entitled to put her foot down. It's a two-way street.) Most of the time, we can work things out pretty well together. However, this means that both of us have to be willing to put the other person first, and think outside our own 'box', in order to find a mutually satisfactory solution.
I have no hard-and-fast answers as to a general rule for the exercising of one's manhood or masculinity in relationships. I know where I've come from, and the factors that have shaped and formed my perception of my masculine nature. The factors that affect each and every one of my male readers will be different, and they'll each have a perspective that differs to a greater or lesser extent from mine. That doesn't mean that I'm wrong, or that they're wrong: we're simply, each of us, the product of our upbringing, environment, and experiences.
I think the critical factor is that we need to be aware of our upbringing, environment and experiences, and how these have shaped and formed us and our attitudes. Given that self-understanding, we can observe how we approach the women in our lives, and realize what's behind our attitudes and behavior towards them. Some of those things may require adjustment; others may be OK. In the same way, we need to assess whether a particular women will, or will not, fit those attitudes and behaviors. If we're from the 'cave-man' school of masculinity, and find ourselves attracted to a woman of the 'eco-vegetarian-hippy' school of femininity, we'd better realize right from the start that it's going to be very difficult to build a mutually satisfactory and fulfilling relationship with her!
I hope this helps to sum up my previous two articles on manhood, and puts them into perspective as far as relationships are concerned. I'm not sure I've adequately covered all the points I wanted to make, but I daresay Labrat and other commenters will bring out further points for discussion.