Tools for Couples Happiness — 04 February 2006
The price strong women and sensitive men pay

Our cultural messages to men and women are conflicting. Men are encouraged to express more of their feelings, while preserving their strength. Women are encouraged to be self-sufficient, but do so with feminine subservience.

Accomplished women are often judged as hard, tough, and threatening. Men who cry or show vulnerability are viewed as weak and undeserving of leadership roles. Why do we give lip service to wanting each gender to change if we are not willing to enthusiastically endorse their efforts?

One answer is that the idea of sensitive men and independent women is desired by the opposite gender, who is not ready to face the other side of the wished for state. Women who want a softer man in their lives also count on receiving the stoic support men often provide. In the book “Real Men do not eat Quiche”, a woman is quoted telling her friend that she just met a man who is kind, tender, emotional, giving and sweet- too bad he is such a wimp. Conversely, men who desire an equal partner who is self-reliant and successful may also yearn for her to be a submissive, catering female. We must accept that the new desired behaviors may not be compatible with the old ones.

Not only are the role stereotypes limiting both genders’ evolution, they are often associated with pain. As some men intellectually support the equality of women and wish to share life with a working equal, they may also feel threatened by the presence of female co-workers or supervisors. Women who are employed in fields requiring physical strength and stamina such as firefighting, police work or construction still report being the brunt of scorn, jokes and derogatory comments.
Women also express disrespect for men who are softer by mocking their lack of assertiveness, action and aggression.

Another price that competent women pay is that they evoke fear in some insecure men. These males misinterpret strength for harshness. A capable, assertive, successful woman who speaks her mind is assumed to be hard and controlling. She is feared and avoided by weak men who expect her to be critical and overpowering. Very often the assigned negative attributes bear no resemblance to the nature of the strong woman. She may actually be kind, supportive and loving as well as independent and successful. Some of these threatened males may have had a strong, harsh controlling mother, sister or former spouse and are thus programmed to expect competent women to be emotionally dangerous.

Conversely, men who are gentle, agreeable, sensitive and caring may be treated as ineffectual by women who fail to appreciate how emotionally evolved these men are. Often these men are very able to get their ideas across and are effective in their lives without needing to be aggressive, hard, loud or angry. Women who disparage the public softer side of men still desire tenderness in their loving relationship with them. The need for aggressive men may stem from women’s need for protection and safety, which they erroneously believe may be lacking in the gentler male.

As a society we need to foster and value competency and gentleness in both men and women without attributing negative personality traits as an inevitable accompaniment to these traits.

Being a strong individual means that one is a capable, healthy person who has the inner resources to handle him/herself well under most life circumstances. Being a gentle individual means that kindness, consideration and caring for others permeates one’s approach to life. Strength does not equal aggression, nor does sensitivity mean ineptness. Strength and sensitivity work beautifully together.

• If we are to encourage people to modify their behavior, we need to back it up with support and delight rather than scorn and shame.
• Before you decide that a strong woman is harsh or that a gentle man is ineffective, get to know them.
• If you are a capable, effective female, be aware that some males may view you as hard. They may equate competency with lack of tenderness. Allow others to see your fair, kind and considerate side as it compliments your potency.
• If you are a sensitive male, pride yourself on your being and highlight to your partner the many benefits in life and love that your style brings.
• If you are a person who is prone to judge people, ask yourself what motivates your action and how you can become more accepting of yourself and others. Attempt to strengthen both your competence and kindness.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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