Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wants and Needs in Intimacy

Yesterday, Ma'ikwe sent me a link to the Good Men Project, a blog written by Noah Brand. The particular entry she highlighted was styled, "Men Must Be Needed Because We Can't Be Wanted."

She sent me this reference because I've had an enduring issue with low self-esteem as an intimate partner, never really understanding why any woman would pick me (though profoundly thankful that some have). Here is the essence of Brand's thesis:

The core issue is this: many, many men in our society feel they have to be needed, because they can’t imagine they could ever be wanted.

Being needed can take different forms, all of which resemble traditional male roles. Brave protector against danger. Breadwinning economic provider. Indispensable handyman. Problem-solving leader. We get any more macho stereotypes in here, it’s gonna look like a Village People reunion. This is what being masculine means in our culture: to be necessary.

One of the most common complaints about feminism, all the way back to the First Wave, is that feminism seeks to make men obsolete or unnecessary. “If women can [fill in anything about female agency] what will they need men for?” runs the line, in every decade, in response to every advance. And while nobody is arguing that that’s a legitimate criticism, it’s important to understand that it arises out of a real fear. Look at the key word in that sentence, need. It’s always the same concept, however that objection is phrased. Plan A, for men in our society, is to be necessary, to be needed, to be indispensable. There is no plan B. If plan A doesn’t come off, we are lost, we’re adrift, we have nothing. This is an existential fear, on a very deep level.

This writing hit very close to the mark for me. Though I was surprised to hear that the author thinks it's so widespread, it makes sense.

I've always identified strongly with my output—with what I can do for myself, for others, for the world—and I've only just begun to tease apart (with the help of my therapist and Ma'ikwe) the ways in which that undercuts any inherent sense of self worth. This deeply ingrained habit (of identifying with one's product) is problematic on many levels, and leads directly to:

o  My limited ability to handle criticism well (to be clear, I'm not a disaster in this regard; I'm focusing though on the ways that I stumble and slip into deflection, defensiveness and overreaction—all of which undermine relationship and communication). If my worth is tied to my output and my output isn't any good, what worth am I? It gets too scary to let the feedback in. In short, I keep conflating my behavior with my essence.

o  It tends to devalue someone loving me as me, as I constantly discount something I can't make sense of (why would anyone want me, excepting as I can provide?).

o  It distorts engagement in that I'm constantly (if sometimes subtly) trying to demonstrate my worthiness through contribution, which can mask or obscure just being together and enjoying each other. When my partner wants to be seen, I can be so consumed with showing her that I see her that she experiences my absorption with performance as distancing. Ugh!

o  It creates an upper limit to what's possible in intimacy, because I have no confidence in the foundation. On the one hand, I've failed at every intimate relationship I've ever attempted. If I let that be the dominant story then it doesn't take long before I bump into the low ceiling I've set for what's possible in the relationship. 

On the other hand, as a professional facilitator I know that seeing the glass half full (this relationship can be different) has a powerful influence on outcomes—that if you can imagine a positive result you are far more likely to achieve it. So what's the payoff for low expectations (read low self esteem)? I just manifest the crappy result I project. While it makes me right, it's pretty stupid.

I'm starting to see how I've unintentionally shackled partnerships to my fear of being rejected and have thereby crippled the potential of what's possible. My work is to learn to give unconditionally—for the joy in giving and the magic of what can occur if the offer is freely accepted. For that to work, I need to take full responsibility for managing my self esteem if my offer is not met. All I need from my partner is presence and an honest answer.

• • •
Brand postulates that most men can't imagine being wanted, and that's not quite the box canyon I've trapped myself in. I've been around long enough and had enough partners that I know there are women who have wanted to be with me intimately—I just don't understand why. That said, I've definitely struggled with low self-esteem, and that matches well with Brand's picture of how men flounder in intimacy. I'm excited because I think I'm finally getting traction on my self esteem issues and my tendency to downward spiral when presented with intimate criticism.

Here's what I wrote Ma'ikwe this morning, after letting Brand's article percolate overnight:

I don't have the view that you need me. (Actually, I don't think I ever had that view.) While I'm hoping that you'll want me (as an intimate partner, not just as a work partner), and I think I can be good for you (I have that much of a positive image of what I can bring to intimacy), I have every confidence in your ability to have a vibrant full life without Laird if that's what you choose.

Going the other way, I think you're good for me and that I'll have a more joyous and stimulating life by partnering with you. That was what the Offer was about
[to get back together, though on a markedly different basis than the one we started with back in 2005]. At the same time though, I don't think I need you either. I'll be OK and have other options if you turn me down. I haven't spent that much time imagining that path (the road that diverges from you), but I've worked a lot on accepting that that future can be good also.

While I don't know if I've articulated anything new, I wanted to share it because the Good Men Project blog spoke about men being in the trap of not knowing how to be anything other than needed, and I think I've made progress on that. While I still like to be useful (and don't imagine giving that up) I see my work as shifting away from defining myself by what I do, and focusing more on
being when I'm with you.

Despite all the anger I've triggered in you, I see myself as a fundamentally good person and worthy of love.

There is something deliciously congruent about:  

a) The deep sense that coalesced in me July 26 that being with Ma'ikwe is profoundly good for me and that spurred me to make the offer to try again to make a partnership work, differently constructed.

b) Ma'ikwe sending me the Brand blog link (thereby demonstrating that she's actively considering my offer).

c) The benefit I've gotten out of the blog entry (in just 12 hours, some of it sleeping) to further delve into my issues, providing a graphic affirmation of the prime conviction that was the basis for the offer.

I love it when it works like that. And the kicker is that I benefit from doing this work no matter what Ma'ikwe ultimately decides about my offer. 

Today is the one-month anniversary of Ma'ikwe's decision to end our marriage. While I felt like I was dying that first night, overwhelmingly, my experience of the past month is that I've never felt more alive. What an unexpected and wondrous thing has arisen phoenix-like from the ashes of my marriage!

1 comment:

emily.bronte said...

best part of this post is