Can men and women really understand each other? Sometimes it seems like the wall between the sexes is impenetrable.
At my annual men’s retreat last month, the difficulty understanding women became a central theme. One after another of the men shared his challenges with his female partner. During dinner on Saturday night, after a very deep and vulnerable day for the men, I was feeling the need to give the group a break for the evening – maybe do something lighter or more entertaining. One of the men and I came up with a funny skit. I would pretend to be his wife (who I actually knew), and he would try to understand and communicate with me. We came up with some pretty funny lines. Except we had no idea what was really in store for us!
The evening program began with several of the men sharing their musical talents. Then I introduced my idea. I felt vulnerable, even though it was my intention to keep it light. It was still a risk for me. I found a feminine-looking scarf to put around my head. The man and I ran through our semi-rehearsed skit, some of which was funny, and some of it more serious.
When we were done, another man raised his hand with a question for his wife (me), “Do I snore?” I instantly quipped back, “Only when you sleep.”
I fully expected these kinds of silly questions but, without warning, the mood shifted with another man’s words to his wife, “I try so hard to protect you. I do so much to make sure you feel safe. Why aren’t we more connected?” He looked like he was on the verge of tears.
Although his real wife might not be able to say this, I felt her answer and compassionately spoke, “You’re so busy being the strong one in our marriage, you rarely give me a chance to protect you. If you would only come to me for help, or lean on my strength, it would make me so happy. We would then be so much closer.”
He started crying and spoke, “I never realised that. I’ve been so vulnerable here at this men’s retreat, but I don’t show you this part of me. Thank you for helping me understand.”
My intention of a light and whimsical evening was turning into something much more meaningful.
Another man spoke to his ‘wife’: “I see how afraid you are. I just don’t know how to help you with your fears…”
I interrupted him, feeling what his wife would want to most say, “Rather than focus so much on my fears which, I admit, I maybe talk too much about, I need to hear about your fears.”
Again, the message from the women (and the woman in me): stop attributing all the vulnerability to me. Be more vulnerable yourself. Rather than trying to fix me, which keeps me weak, let me help you, which makes me strong.
He got it. And I found myself getting more and more energised. I was really getting into this special kind of role-playing, which was turning out to be so much more than role-playing. Even though the mood in the group had turned very serious, all the men were into it as well. Somehow Barry, the workshop leader and the man, had taken a back seat. In his place was every man’s special woman. Even the single men addressed questions to the significant partners from their past.
The next man addressed a former lover: “We had so much trouble communicating. You would ask me a deep question. I would start to ponder the answer but before I could even start to speak, you would ask me another question. This would drive me crazy; so I ended up wordless, and ultimately, woman-less.”
I didn’t have to ponder long for an answer. The woman in me spoke, “I, like many women, am so clued in to my feelings that they always seem to be on the surface, easily accessed. I should have given you more time to answer my feeling-oriented questions. I see now that it just took longer for you to get to your feelings. Each time I got impatient and asked another question, it drew you back up to your head and you had to start the process again. This was my part. Your part was not stopping me to give yourself the time. Instead, you just got more silent. Maybe we would still be together if we both understood this dynamic…”
What I ‘planned’ to last perhaps 15 minutes, ended up lasting one and a half hours. Every man in the room got to understand something important about a woman in his life. We ended with a little more music and then called it an evening. Except I couldn’t sleep. For the next few hours I was wide awake. I had activated my inner woman, my feminine side, and I actually had some difficulty getting back to my masculine side. It was exhilarating. I lay in bed deepening my understanding of Joyce, what she needed from me, especially my own vulnerability and the expression of my deeper feelings.
I wish every man could have my experience of such deep attunement with the inner woman. I believe it would so much help his relationships with women. In the end, I deeply believe that, as souls, we are both male and female. Taking birth as one sex just seems to partially eclipse the expression of the other sex. For me, it just took the Saturday evening of a men’s retreat to more deeply drive this point home.
Barry Vissell, a psychiatrist, is a relationships counsellor working with his wife, Joyce, near Santa Cruz, California. They are widely regarded as among the world’s top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk to Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom, Meant to Be, and A Mother’s Final Gift.
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