"I just don't feel like he's listening," said me, said you, said every woman who has been in any type of relationship with a man.
On a recent episode of the Skinny Confidential Him and Her podcast, Marie Forleo talked about the synergy of male and female energies and how we can improve our intimate relationships by understanding the needs of our partners.
Forleo said that are three actions that turn men off: being Criticized, Controlled, or Closed off. Men do not respond well to partners who engage in these behaviors, a theory my personal experience seems to confirm.
The three actions that turn off women are: being Unseen, Unheard, and feeling Unsafe. If our partners do not listen, actually listen we cannot feel emotionally satisfied. Feeling unsafe will close us off, which turns our partners off, and the cycle of unfulfilling or bad communication continues.
These examples are rooted in hetero-normative assumptions, but the "three C's" and "three U's" hold true across all types of relationships: friendships, work relationships, family, et cetera. They have more to do with feminine and masculine energies than with the physical presence of a penis or vagina.
So, what do we do with this knowledge? It seems simple enough.
Women: Stop criticizing.
Men: Start listening.
But of course, nothing is so simple. Women are overwhelming perfectionists, and the desire for our partners to maintain our perfectionist tendencies is almost subliminal. Hence, we criticize. Geema Hartley wrote a freaking book about the emotional labor women undertake, and how our attention to detail is both a strength and a major downfall. Men, on the other hand, are socialized to not listen to women, to be uncomfortable with vulnerability, and to shirk emotional labor. Hence, they don't listen. Both men and women have learned tendencies that are extremely difficult to unlearn, which is not to say that it can't be done.
It would be easy to generalize and vaguely blame sexism for the attitudes men carry, but I don't think sexism is an excuse for women to remain unheard. It does, however, make being heard tricky; a battlefield of managing not only your own emotion, but the emotions/assumptions/biases of everyone else. When the world, or your partner, negates, ignores, or does not believe your life experience, it is only natural to speak up less, to crawl into a shell, to think to yourself, "Maybe they're right." This is the attitude and belief system feminism works to counteract.
Since I identify as a feminine, heterosexual woman, I can only speak and write from this singular perspective. Because I've often not felt heard, I've learned to make myself heard, which often results in arguments with my partners, or incorrect assumptions about my character.
One article I came across while conducting research said, "When trying to communicate with men, it is best to communicate like a man."
For example, in a meeting at work, if you're interrupted, interrupt back. Make direct eye contact. Take credit where credit is due. (This is extremely difficult for many women). Speak with confidence (even if it's contrived) and get to the point. But isn't the idea that women must speak like a man inherently problematic? How exactly, do "all" men communicate? Why is it up to women, who already conduct an overwhelming amount of emotional labor in order to make others comfortable, to shift our communication styles to suit men? Why can't we simply communicate? The problem might not be that men and women communicate differently, but that the patriarchy teaches men, from a very young age, that their voices are the only ones worth hearing.
Simultaneously, the patriarchy teaches women our voices are less important. We are not taught to speak loudly or engage in confrontation. We learn to doubt ourselves and become perfectionists in order to leave no room for doubt. I suppose it is entirely possible to speak loudly. We can choose to engage in confrontation and not care about how our communication will affect others. When we do, we are unilaterally judged and again, often unheard. At worst, we are in physical danger. Not speaking up is a learned behavior, and is one of the most insidious problems women face. It is undoubtedly more complex than I can convey.
This brings up some interesting problems. In my work life, it is often necessary to speak with authority, to make decisions quickly, to make sure my voice is heard and I am not interrupted. When dealing with men or women in professional settings, these skills are indispensable. However, in my relationships with men outside of work, taking on masculine qualities is almost never a successful tactic. Women have taken on the emotional labor of figuring out when men want us to act masculine and when men want us to act feminine. Conversely, men are almost always encouraged to act tough and masculine. Any sign of vulnerability or softness is either met with encouragement and praise, or utter disdain. This must be incredibly confusing and lead to some degree of internal conflict. Individuals of all genders must attempt to master the odd, socially constructed and ever-evolving dance of communication.
While it may be difficult, it is a dance worth mastering. When women aren't heard, we are deeply unhappy. I have witnessed this too many times to count. When men feel controlled or criticized, they feel unhappy, and I've witnessed this, too. The patriarchy makes it difficult for men and women to communicate effectively because it reinforces the very behaviors that leave us emotionally unfulfilled. The best thing we can do is recognize the limitations of the structures in place and find ways to collaboratively subvert them. In a heterosexual romantic relationship, this might look like a husband embracing emotional vulnerability, opening up to his wife, and making her feel seen and heard. It might look like his wife letting go of the perfectionism that keeps the house spotless or the calendar impeccably organized, thereby relinquishing criticizism and control. At work, this might look like a woman "talking like a man" to men, in order to be heard. It might also look like men embracing the thoughts and suggestions of women as entirely valid and normative. Either way, overcoming these emotional barriers, and the sexism that underlies them, is a two-way street.