Because, men. Because, women. Because our culture has a way of sneaking these ideas into our heads.
When Bethany and I started dating we both knew two things — neither of us are “conventional” and both of us had previous relationships.
What we didn’t expect was that the conventional stereotypes we’d learned from our previous relationships might be one of the biggest roadblocks to making it as a couple.
If you had asked either one of us we would have said that we didn’t buy into stereotypes, especially the kind of assumptions people make based on gender. Neither of us believe that men shouldn’t show their emotion, or that women can’t control theirs. Neither of us buy into the idea that men are at the mercy of their carnal urges while women either don’t have them or can maintain a cool head in spite of them. And certainly, neither of us believe that a woman has never yelled at a man while he was sweeping the floor or doing the dishes.
But in the first few years of dating and co-habitation we discovered that there were four subtle, pervasive, and destructive stereotypes we did believe in, because we’d experienced them in previous relationships so we had gotten lulled into thinking our assumptions were based on experience instead of realizing that our experiences to date simply followed generally accepted conventions.
And these assumptions nearly ended our relationship many times over.
A request for communication is not a bid for control
There’s this idea, and we’d both had this in previous relationships, that if a partner wants to know where you are, when you think you’ll be home, or what your schedule looks like for the next day, that it was a way of exerting control.
So when Bethany made a habit of keeping me posted about her schedule for the upcoming day, even texting me if she was going to be home later than expected, I tried to reassure her that it wasn’t necessary — I wasn’t interested in controlling her that way.
And when she asked me about my schedule, or wanted to know what time I thought I’d be home, I tried not to freak out. But yeah, I was freaking out.
Finally, after a lot of discussion and peeling back the layers I realized that, for her, it had nothing to do with control. It was all about coordination and consideration. She’s a writer, which means she can get lost in some story and forget that the rest of the world exists. But she’s in love with me and she wants to be fully present when I’m here. So what she was really asking for was the information she needed in order to arrange her days to be focused on her work when I was gone and be focused on me, on us really, when I was home.
No more freaking out. I get a little thrill now when I send her a text that says, “Home in 5.”
Sometimes “fine” really means “fine”
How many memes have we seen that say it’s stupid, maybe even dangerous, to believe a woman when she says she’s fine?
Yeah, this took me a while to learn too. But when Bethany says she’s fine, that’s exactly what she means. She’s not great, she’s not unwell, she’s not ecstatic, she’s not pissy. She’s just … FINE! In fact, if she says “fine” in that distant tone of voice that supposedly, according to conventional wisdom, means “come on, ask me what’s wrong, I DARE ya!” what she really means is, “I’m fine, a little distracted, but fine.” So instead of racking my brain for what I might have done to upset her, or for a romantic and delicate way to persuade her to tell me what’s really wrong, the best thing I can do is leave her to whatever is going on in her head.
Men aren’t scared of intelligent, independent, powerhouse women
Or at least I’m not, and I’ll bet you guys aren’t either, not really. In fact, I think it’s probably the sexiest thing about my love. Can you guess how long it took me to convince her of that? Almost four years. And sometimes I’m still not sure she’s buying it.
Bethany is crazy smart, not just in an intellectual sense, but in a witchy, how-can-you-be-so-right kind of way. And she’s one of those adamant I’ll-do-it-myself types whose natural response to a problem is “get out of the way, I got this.” She’s had two previous relationships end because she isn’t comfortable being dependent, financially or otherwise, on a partner — one guy even told her she was perfect, except for being independent.
So she’s not only independent, she’s defensively independent. Or was. This probably came closer to ending “us” than any other land mine we tripped over. I’m not scared of smart, or self-reliant. What I was scared of was upsetting her by suggesting that maybe, just maybe, it would be OK to let me say “I’ve got this” once in a while.
We’re mostly over that one, but we had a lot of close calls and it still rises up to nip at us once in a while.
Men can be spontaneously romantic without an agenda
I’m an impulsive kind of guy. At least I am if I’m with someone I trust and I’m feeling comfortably safe. Sometimes I look across the kitchen and there’s Bethany with her hair tied up in a top knot, no makeup, wearing yoga pants and a sloppy sweatshirt, frowning at the counter top for no reason I can see and she’s just so gorgeously HER that I blurt out, “You’re beautiful.” Or I just have to hug her, or dance with her, or something before I burst out of my skin.
In her world before us, when a man said “You’re beautiful” at a time when, by her standards, she is anything but, or when he touched her without warning, or kissed her passionately outside of the bedroom he was either leading up to an apology or a sexual advance.
And that’s the stereotype, isn’t it? That us guys always have sex on the brain and we don’t do anything that isn’t for the primary purpose of getting laid. Hey, I love sex with Bethany, but it’s not what’s on my mind when I tell her I love her, or I’m proud of her, or I think she’s beautiful. It’s not what’s on my mind when I hug her, or kiss her, or pick her up and swing her around without warning. Or at least it’s not the only thing on my mind, and it’s certainly not an expectation, nor are my expressions of love a means to an anticipated end.
So now Bethany doesn’t freak out or freeze up when I get romantic at unexpected moments, and I feel safer and more comfortable being myself.
There have been many more little hurdles in our learning to love, trust, and relax into this amazing life of love. I’m sure we’ll keep discovering how socially accepted “norms” have shaped our expectations more than we would have guessed. But we’ll keep challenging those stereotypes and keep working our way through the relationship hurdles.
Would you like to help us shatter stereotypes about men?
Receive stories from The Good Men Project, delivered to your inbox daily or weekly.
Photo: Getty Images