’By Dr. Karen Gail Lewis Some of us remember the movie Where The Boys Are. Or, maybe, just the popular theme song from it. The hook was that – back in the 60s and 70s – the girls wanted to be where the boys were.
Times have changed. Today, “the girls” want “the boys” to be where they are – emotionally. This isn’t an idle desire. Let’s look at how this change happened, as there is a lesson in it for all of us.
The women’s movement starting in the ‘70s led to considerable changes in women’s expectations for themselves – both professionally and personally. Women gathered together for support, in Conscious Raising groups in the early years, to make these changes.
Now, at the same time, men started their own movement. However, without the strength of the mutual support groups, after a spurt of a excitement, it lost steam. Check bookstore shelves and you’ll see women’s self-help books far out-number those for men. Women care about self-awareness and self-improvement. There are far fewer books for men. Talk with sales people and you’ll see that women buy most of the men’s books – hoping men will read them.
I have a funny story about this. Years ago in one of my men’s therapy groups, the members were talking about a new relationship book. Lonnie proudly said, “Tanya bought it for me; I keep it on my night stand – unread, but it’s there!”
Art smiled, “When Nance gave it to me, I put it under my pillow. I hope to absorb it while sleeping.” Everyone laughed – except it wasn’t really funny.
The problem here is that men mouth acceptance of women’s financial and emotional independence without understanding what these changes mean for them. Women are in an entirely different position.
Since women don’t need men to support them financially, and it’s no longer shameful to be single, women are freer to make choices based on what’s best for them. They want a man to carry his share of making the relationship work. They want a man to participate in balancing each of their needs. They want a man to share his feelings, to be empathic, and to show interest in their life, not just talk about himself.
Sarah, a mid-30 year old pediatrician, complains about the man she has been dating for 6 months, “I work real hard at making this work with Brendon. He doesn’t seem to appreciate my efforts – and he sure as hell doesn’t make any effort for me. If I can’t get him to respond more to me, then I don’t want to be with him. Yet, I’ve dated enough to know there aren’t that many men out there I even want to consider being with. I feel stuck – either put up with less than I want or be alone.”
This smacks too closely to the old message that women have been nursed on: Don’t be so fussy. Don’t be so choosy.
Marilyn, on the other hand, takes a different perspective. She just turned 40. “In my 20s and 30s, I did all the things I was suppose to do – the on-lines, the blind dates, the bars; I joined groups hoping to meet men with mutual interests. Oh, I got dates, alright. But, I always came home horribly depressed. I don’t know why it took me so long to see how I was making myself miserable. So, yeah, I’ll probably remain single, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be an ‘old maid.’ It means I won’t be abusing myself and my self-esteem with men who aren’t worthy of being with me.”
Women really don’t have many choices. In fact, in my research for With or Without A Man: Single Women Taking Control of Their Lives, I learned when asked if women were single by choice that about 50% said yes and 50% said no. The curious aspect, though, were the comments – which were identical: Both groups said they didn’t like their choices.
What annoys women about today’s men? Men haven’t grown in ways that make them ready for a healthy mutual relationship. So, rather than ask, “Where are the men?” the more accurate question for a woman to ask is, “Why aren’t men working as hard as women to make themselves emotionally ready for a good relationship?”
I have found that men’s relationship problems focus on either one of two things: a) men simply accept that their needs won’t get met and they feel unappreciated, or b) they leave – without a discussion. Too often, they do not look at their part in why a relationship is not going well. They don’t look for patterns from prior relationships to see what they can learn about themselves. Self-awareness is not a strong suit for too many men.
In my office, I seldom have men seek counseling because they are in a bad relationship or have had a string of them. They come when the woman they love drags them or threatens to leave if they won’t get therapy. Or, they come after she has already left and they are broken hearted.
This is not to say that all women do a great job at relationships. But, at least women talk about what they are doing, should have done, or could have done to make a relationship better.
For the most part, the biggest problem for women is not their self-reflection but their self-blame. Even though they know the man is not doing his part to sort out their troubles, they fall back on thinking, “It’s my fault.” By blaming themselves, though, they don’t have to face the reality that they alone can’t make a relationship go well. They need the man’s participation.
In one group of single women, Elaine shared a new insight I now call the Fix-It Solution. She said, “If the problem lies within you, you may view it as a personal failure, but at least you can tell yourself you have a chance to fix the problem. If it’s the man’s problem, there is nothing you can do about it. It’s out of your control.” Anna Beth counters, “Well, frankly, I’d rather think it’s my problem. Then I can do something about it.”
That is the dilemma for women – accept you can’t change a man or take the blame on yourself.
Women – Here are two ways to avoid the Fix-It Solution.
- Do your own personal growth work; understand your part in why relationships don’t work. Read self-help books, go to therapy, and talk with friends. See patterns from prior relationship and avoid repeating them.
- Learn the specific gender differences that may be contributing to your dissatisfaction. Learn them, and then … QTIP: Quit Taking It Personally.
Men – Here are some suggestions to avoid hearing “What’s wrong with men?”
- Women like to be asked about themselves – and then have you listen when they respond, and then have you ask more about what they’ve just told you. This is to say that women like to have a back and forth conversation, not a question and answer session.
- The best aphrodisiac for women is talking about your feelings.
- When there is tension, as happens in all relationships, don’t ignore it and don’t disappear. There really is no such thing as avoiding conflict. There is only putting off dealing with it – when it’ll be much worse.
- Don’t just hold a book on relationships or put it under your pillow. Read it, and then most importantly, apply what you read.
Finally, for both men and women, learn to deal with tension and conflict in healthy, appropriate ways – ways that lead to resolution, with each of you feeling better about yourself and each other. It can and has to be done to have a satisfying relationship.
A good relationship takes work – with continual tweaking. So, whether it’s Low Stress Romance, by Dr. Billy Kidd, or my own Why Don’t You Understand? Gender Relationship Dictionary, or the myriad of books on dealing with conflict, as the old ad said, “Just do it!” Then, feature yourself in the new movie, Here’s Where the Men Are!
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis has been a marriage and family therapist for 39 years. She has authored numerous books and articles on relationships – for married couples, singles, and adult siblings. She also runs Unique Retreats For Women. She has offices in Washington, DC and Cincinnati, plus she offers phone consultations.