Sunday, November 27, 2016

Wrestling with ambiguities in gender relations

Two recent pieces, in this space, have been rattling around in my head, provoking some more reflection.

The first focused on “shades of emasculation” and the second, “reflections on male self-sabotage”.

The first image that comes to mind is that these two ‘conditions’ (emasculation and self-sabotage) could be considered opposite ends of a single continuum especially since the self-sabotage that was being considered was the result of “over-reach, or excessive emotion or aggression”. Another picture that emerges is that both ends of  the continuum might be different components of the same, just different, ways to sabotage our relationships. If we believe we are being “trashed” (emasculated) is our perception contributing to that outcome? If we believe we need to be more aggressive, is that starting place tilting the outcome in that direction?

Men are hard wired to ‘fix’ things, and this hard wiring puts men in situations where engines are refusing to operate, or organizational systems  are dysfunctional, or health conditions crying out for amelioration, or leaky faucets, or lawns that need mowing and driveways that need snow shovelling. Doing, action, remediation….these are the guide words for an active male life. And there are centuries of documentation demonstrating considerable success but in envisioning the world from this perspective (male, action-oriented, and “fixing”) putting the object of the fixing “outside” the individual man. Extrinsics, then are at the core of this world view, and the man is the potential agent of the needed change. When we look in the “dictionary” under the word “human doing” the face of an ordinary male jumps out.

Each of these “objects” of the physical, mental and to some extent emotional energy that men deploy in their pursuit of “fixing” whatever is not operating optimally, are outside the individual man, and subject to the preferred intervention of the male engaged. The degree of learning, experience, skill, imagination and basic competency of each individual male “fixer varies significantly, and the results of each individual “fix” vary just as widely.

Learning the various conditions of dysfunctional manifolds, or crank sensors, or massive air flow sensors is much more interesting and captivating for most men, for example, that the intimate and emotional exchanges that cross the conscious and the unconscious minds of the partners in any human relationship. Similarly, the rhyme and rhythm, the harmonies and the figures of speech of a piece of poetry are so uninteresting and boring to most men, when the alternative available for our curiosity and our personal time and attention might be a desired hunting trip, fishing trip, or a work bench design and construction for our garage.

Robert Fritz, a composer and corporate consultant/trainer, has written and taught a way of viewing organizational “stuckness” as oscillation between two mutually exclusive end results. The failure of the organization to achieve a stated end result is ascribed to the existence of a mutually exclusive and contradictory end result. In order to move from oscillation to ‘resolution’ of the tension implicit in the oscillation one has to first perceive of the two conflicting end results, and then to unpack which of these is to be considered as “primary” and the other as “secondary.” Such clarification is then regarded as facilitating a resolution of the time and resource depletion that accompanies the oscillation.

In an action-oriented, empirically measureable, and goal-driven universe, the construct of resolving tensions that compound the pursuit of shared end results makes good sense. No leader wants to participate in organizational muddles that cost money, energy, commitment while engendering confusion and demoralization among the workers in that organization.

In the arena of human relationships between men and women, the Fritz “technologies for creating” might well be considered a working model that is built on a “male” understanding of the universe. That is a universe, like a medical model, that seems to work well for a period and then develop “vagaries” in symptoms that seem to change the “rules” and generate conflicts, including various expressions of falling interest, commitment, wandering attentions, and perhaps even dissolution itself. If both parties can and do agree with a set of mutually acceptable end results for the relationship, perhaps both male and female partners in a relationsip can commit to a process of monitoring the progress of the relationship toward realizing those end results, and to diagnosing the mutually exclusive end result that could be blocking “progress” toward those end results.

As a starting point, however, for many women, however, this “resolving tension” model could well be considered “imposed” by the male partner, and not as representative of the female world view as some other model of resolving the prevailing tensions.

The model is premised on the concept that all ambiguities, contractions and mutually exclusive end results are categorized as secondary to the “primary” end results. And for the purpose of creating a desired cluster of end results, not only in an organization, but also in a family or even in a relationship, the model depends on the full assimilation of its various components and their potential value to “resolve” prevailing tensions in the situation.

It is the issue of deciding which of the end results is more important than others, in an intimate relationship that comes into question when attempting to apply the Fritz model.

For the sake of this piece, let’s work with the proposition that the woman wants to redecorate the home, and the man prefers a vacation, as two of the desired end results for a specific year. Both have value; both require considerable funding; both can make a considerable contribution to the “life” of the relationship. And there is no apparent reason that through a workable compromise, the two end results could not be scheduled to fit the budget, and the schedules of both.

It is in the area of beliefs, attitudes, values (all of them highly complex, and potentially ambiguous) that the model seems wanting. And furthermore, these values are not expressly stated as part of a plan to accomplish a goal or task. They are evolving truths which comprise an integral and essential part of the personhood of every person, and not a “thing to be fixed” or to be “changed” or more dangerously, “removed”.
Neither party’s world view can or should be considered dominant, nor can it easily be categorized as primary or secondary. In fact, the rubbing up against another person’s belief system, value system, attitude cluster, in and of itself, is a worthy experience. And the bumping itself is potentially life-giving for both parties. First, one has to become consciously aware, no matter how troubling that process is, of the various values of another in any intimate partnership. That statement makes the condition of such ‘sharing’ contingent on both parties, the one to share and the other to learn, mutually and reciprocally.

Learning and digesting and coming to terms with the values of another person, in and of itself, is a pathway to enhanced intimacy that too many couples either avoid unconsciously or reject as too problematic. And it is in this part of the potential conversation that the question of the male’s engagement pertains especially.
Demanding such a conversation will clearly sabotage the desired result of even beginning. Walking away from the potential of such a conversation, too, will render its potential mute, as well as the feeling of relevance and need on the part of one of the participants.

And there is a dramatic difference between “housekeeping” details, plans, end results and how to plan and execute the budget, and the meeting and greeting and welcoming the world view of the other. The former is so relatively easy and uncomplicated that it frequently substitutes for deepening the relationship. It is not for the purpose of a rejection of the world view of the other, but rather how each can learn and grow from such an exchange, that such a proposition is offered.

Is the posing of such a complicated end result, the open, disclosive and vulnerable sharing of attitudes, beliefs, fears, dreams and expectations, in all their ambiguities, by each partner in an intimate relationship by itself a proposition unworthy of consideration in the contemporary culture of male-female relationships?
Is the question of male “inclusivity” appropriately considered within the context of such a proposition? Is the potential for male self-sabotage increased by the proposition? Would the female confronted with such a proposition automatically consider it offensive, and determinative of a close to any possibility of a relationship with such a male? Is this another of the many unanswered and complex questions that overhang the issues of gender relationships?

Is the masculine world view, as expressed in such a proposition, so anathema to the authentic world view of women that it belongs only to the male demographic?
So often, men look at the situation facing a group, a family, an organization from a “gestalt” or macro-perspective, and find ourselves engaged in a conversation about the immediate impact of such a ‘ridiculous’ proposition (because it is so impractical, costly, and complicated and wholistic) that we feel redundant, and irrelevant, if not actually irresponsible.

One of the leadership texts entitled, “The Learning Organization,” coming out of M.I.T., recommends to leaders facing an organizational conundrum to ask the question “Why?” a minimum of five times in order to better understand the root of the problem(s). Such a recommendation would be generally considered to have originated in a “male” culture. It refuses to accept the superficial cause-effect equation that both pervades many cultures, and that reduces many complex issues to facile, glib and thereby ineffectual interventions. Similarly, such a premise of asking “why” five times provokes a kind of wholistic view of the situation, one that could demand more time and more imagination and more resources to remove than a simple trial and error approach would entail.

It is the simplistic “trial-and-error” approach that pervades much of contemporary medical practice, much of the “fix-it” trades and most of the hires a household makes to keep the home functioning….fixing the leaky faucet, repairing the leaky roof, even a treatment plan for a torn tendon in a wrist….and too often passes as the “best we can do.”

Maybe, just maybe, this piece is facing a more universal reductionism than the question of male emasculation or self-sabotage. Are we all prepared to participate in a culture in which short-term, simplistic, reductionistic and budget-fitting interventions into our personal, familial, organizational and national/international complexities are the best we can expect of ourselves?

Are we prepared to reduce highly complex issues, including intimate gender relationship issues, to a band-aid solution, without expecting or requiring those in our circles to expand their receptivity to a wider and more diverse world view than the one that commands the conventional respect in our respective associations?
Is there a real potential that our continuum “emasculation….self-sabotage” is itself a kind of simplification of issues so complex and so compelling that our deepest imaginations and most profound creativity are and always will be required to address them respectfully, effectively and also intimately?

 Could men, without worrying about their potential emasculation or aggressive over-compensation actually welcome a more inclusive, more complex and more demanding perspective of the emotional, poetic, spiritual and relational aspects of all issues, including the housekeeping requirements and expectations of minimalism that pervades most of the conversations and the attitudes and the beliefs that attempt to inculcate ambiguous and often incomprehensible realities facing each of us daily?

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