I’ve always thought that I would be bad at relationships. As a teenager and in my early 20s, I felt that I would never be able to be honest with my partner, never allow myself to open up — I feared that no one would love me if they knew who I really was (a phenomenon quite relatable, I’m sure).
Now, in my 30th year, it seems I have the opposite problem: my callous candour, mostly in relation to patriarchal standards and expectations.
For example, my boyfriend can choose, at any time of the year, to switch from trousers to shorts. Simple as. If one day he wakes up and decides that he’d like to feel the breeze caressing his legs, well there’s nothing stopping him from displaying his bare calves and thighs.
Now for me, and women in general, that’s a whole other saga. Shorts-wearing day is planned in advance. The day before, I make sure not to moisturise my legs that morning and I make a trip to the pharmacy for some waxing strips. I then get home, prepare the strips by rubbing them together and spend about 30–40 minutes enduring physical pain in order to make myself presentable for the next day. Once the wax has been applied and removed, I need to oil down my legs to remove any excess stickiness. And once that’s done I need to sift out my tweezers and pluck out the in-grown hairs. And before anyone asks why I choose to wax my legs and not shave, well, because it lasts longer and I don’t get prickly. And before anyone asks why I remove my hair at all…yeah I’m not even going to bother answering that question.
(If the length of the above paragraphs can stand as a metaphor for our respective beauty regimes, I think we can clearly see just how unequal the expectations of men and women are when it comes to appearance.)
So, I point these things out. And I point out that he earns more and that I do more cooking and that he likes to give me advice and so on, so forth. The problem is, this gets in the way. I don’t know whether to see things as part of the patriarchy, or just two people from completely different worlds struggling to understand one another. I get annoyed at him for the little things he says, for the way he might respond to my actions, and I find a way of linking these to standards set by men who have more power.
And then we argue and he says I pick at everything he does and I say well that’s because no one has ever made him accountable for what he says and we go around in circles having the same fight over and over again. But I can’t figure out who’s right or wrong anymore.
On the one hand, I understand him completely when he says that he’s worried that everything he says or does will be used against him in court. I feel guilty that I choose 3am, when my anxiety is at peak level, to complain about him to him. I feel like my actions must cause him immense stress and injury.
But, on the other hand, I can’t see past the gender roles. When he’s emotionally recounting all the destructive things I do to the relationship, all the ways I’ve belittled him or made him feel small, all I see is a man telling me what’s wrong with me. When he says I fixate on the words he chooses and lament at him that he hasn’t provided the right support for me even though he tries, I fixate on his use of the word “fixate” or “right” and lament at him for trivialising the importance of language. When he says that the sacrifices he makes for me I throw back at him, I think, well, he’s used to being rewarded for every little thing he does, and possibly doesn’t, do (I might add that his race doesn’t work in his favour here either).
My reactions are visceral, too. I cry out in rage, tell him to “f*** off”, threaten him that if he can’t see what I see then we need to break up. It’s like ‘cancel culture’ played out in real life, in real time, with a real life partner. And darkly fitting for someone who invests so much in words, boy, can my words sting.
It’s just, I can’t imagine a relationship in which a man doesn’t have some kind of unyielding power over a woman. Every small act of kindness feels like a sinister attempt to keep me around so I can frolic around in frocks and care for my boyfriend and nurture him.
But man, is that f’d up, or what? How can I possibly deal with a relationship when I only see it as power? When it’s always about who has the upper hand, or who “wears the trousers” so to put it. Whenever I’m wrong, I’m not wrong, I’m just being told what to do (by a man). How do I move forward?
No really, I’m asking. How do I find a way of being in a relationship where I’m not consumed by thoughts of the gender dynamic?
I’m on the verge of turning to Jordan Peterson for a little balance…I might need more productive suggestions though.