Many of my male friends and I were raised--primarily--by our mothers. This is not uncommon for we Gen Xers, this phenomenon of our fathers being tangentially involved in our lives while our moms took on the tough, sometimes impossible, tasks of care taker, breadwinner and role model. One of the (many) effects of a generation of men being taught how to be men by women is that we have difficulty admitting a very simple fact:
We are men.
Unfortunately, many of us saw firsthand the wreakage left in the wake of our fathers who got to trip off to whatever brighter tomorrow awaited them while our moms were left to forage for something resembling a life. We learned that men could often be inconsiderate assholes, and many of us (generalizing here) took on our share of guilt and shame about the fact that we shared a gender with those people who caused us and our mothers such pain.
But we are men, nonetheless, and because we are men, we handle our relationships in typical male ways even though our mothers raised us (and in some cases, tried to train our male inclinations out of us). I suppose if nothing else we men of my generation at least try to understand why we act the way that we do.
I find myself amazed, for example, that my wife and I cannot avoid what we'll call the 'missing keys' argument. The set up in its simplest form is this: I put an object somewhere, she moves it, and I can't find it. I ask where it is, and she points to the object that is sitting right in front of my unseeing eyeballs.
At the risk of betraying my gender, here is my explanation: men are spatial creatures; we understand our surroundings based on our kinesthetic awareness of the space around us. When I, say, put my keys in the same spot every night upon returning from work, I'm doing this because I know where those keys are based on its spatial relationship to me and the rest of the room. We men don't actually remember where something is by saying to ourselves, 'I left the keys by the front door.' We feel where the keys are. And when someone who is not us picks up those keys and moves those keys even a foot away, that person has broken our kinesthetic relationship to our keys and severed our ability to locate that object.
The connection needs to be reset, and our senses are useless until the connection is remade. Unfortunately it is typically our partners who have to be asked to re-establish this connection for us.
So, when a male (say me) freaks out because our keys have been moved, the reaction is in part amped up by the sensory blindness, the chaos of uncertainty. We set those keys there for a very important reason! (The argument could be made that MANkind--emphasis on the MAN--established whole systems so that he wouldn't have to experience this chaos and thus have to think about where an object is. In fact, not having to think is one of the ultimate goals of my gender, but that's probably fodder for a separate blog entry.)
In their very excellent relationship book, How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking About It, Patricia Love and Steven Stosny detail this very issue and the dynamics behind it. The problem with the missing keys scenario is that women (generalizing) don't understand how important it is to us men to know where our keys are. Women think it's silly to get so wound up about something so trivial; however we men have put a great deal of energy into mapping out our lives so that we know where our stuff is. We've built an intricate (albeit anarchic) system of understanding our world. And when someone messes that up, well, it isn't pretty.
Despite its somewhat flip title, How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking About It, is probably the only relationship book that got the male part correct. I have read several other relationship texts (don't bother yourself with why) that emphasized very non-male approaches to communication, such as using 'I' language.
Well, here's a failed sample of my using 'I' language: I feel bad when you act like a crazy person.
Love and Stosny nail the dynamic that is inherent in most male/female relationships. The men avoid shame, and the women avoid fear, and a relationship begins to fall apart when the women shames the man and when the man makes the woman afraid and the cycle spins and spins until, well, destruction. There is a nice write up on the book here.
If the man can calm the woman's fear, if the woman can avoid shaming the man, the relationship can retain its equilibrium and go back to thriving.
For some of us--those like me who were raised by our mothers--we have the extra work of accepting, and ultimately embracing, the fact that we can be men without having to be our fathers.