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I've come to believe that women who are in relationship with men often need to learn how to back off more and respect men as they are.

Cat Saunders

Respecting a Man's Space
Tips for Women Who Love Men

By Cat Saunders

I wonder if women sometimes choose abusive men over sensitive men because abusive men's passion, however misguided, is still alive. For men to reclaim the "wild man" (to use Robert Bly's term) and still retain their sensitivity is an exciting prospect.

No woman I know has even been truly satisfied with either the sensitive-but-wimpy "New Age" male or the hunky-but-oblivious macho man. Balance is where it's at.

In an interview in Journey, John Lee says:

If a man can be given the time, support, and safety he needs to get to know and understand himself, he will heal. Women should give men who are actively, committedly working on themselves lots of time.

Sometimes I think it's hard for women to "give" men the space they need to grow. Sometimes women are impatient because they've discovered this new toytheir own power—and they want their male lovers or partners or friends to think, feel, express, grow, and love in the same ways they do. Women sometimes get angry or sad when men don't do things or feel things in the same way women do. In short, women don't always respect a man's maleness.

Let me speak for myself. I've known my partner, John Giovine, since 1983 and we've been together since 1987. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I had a crush on him, which continues to this day. However, during the first four years I knew John as a friend, I was still in my phase of being addicted to men who weren't good for me.

In 1986, I entered into an abusive marriage, which I ended a year later in 1987. That marriage brought many lessons in the shadow side of relationships, and I finally got the message about my own bad choices and my own "victim patterns."

Months after ending that marriage, I asked John out to dinner, and we started dating. I was concerned about entering into a "rebound relationship," but because John was already a trusted friend, I decided to proceed.

Although it might be fun to say that ours was a fairy tale relationship, that wasn't the case. Many times, I seriously wondered if the relationship would work at all. I had a serious case of shellshock from my recent abusive marriage, and John hadn't done two decades of personal work on himself by the time we started dating, as I had. There's no question that John was a sweetheart, and he offered levels of support and safety like I'd never experienced before with a man.

On the other hand, for the first few years of our relationship, I couldn't really get a sense of John in the relationship. In those days, he didn't know much about expressing his thoughts or holding his ground. As a result, it was hard for me to get to know him as easily as he could get to know me.

John repeatedly said that he trusted me more than anyone, and shared more with me than he ever had with anyone else. While I appreciated his trust, I wanted a better balance of sharing between us. The truth is, I wanted more from John than he was able to give at the time.

I think I've sometimes been invasive with John, trying to reach in and pull out the whisperings of his heart. Many times I was impatient with him, as if it was his job to meet my needs.  And many times, I wanted to give up because it was simply too much work!

At some point, I realized I was imposing and I needed to back off. Gradually I stopped focusing so much on what John was or wasn't doing in relation to me, and started focusing more on what I was or wasn't doing in relation to him.

I began to "own" my various dissatisfactions in our relationship as reflections of my own stuff, rather than a function of John not being good enough. I also began to work on the ways I projected disowned parts of myself onto John.

As it turned out, the work we did in couples' counseling revealed that I was actually projecting my "female side" onto him, and he was projecting his "male side" onto me. This may seem strange.

However, because of our respective upbringings and personal styles, John and I have long noticed that I tend to hold the male or "yang" (initiating/active) role in our relationship, and he tends to hold the female or "yin" (receptive/being) role.  Obviously, this is a gross oversimplification of two complex human beings, but we found this observation helpful in our growth as a couple.

Once we identified this imbalance, we decided to work diligently over time to "call back" the parts of ourselves that we had split off onto the other person. I increased my explorations into "yin" qualities—I have so much to learn about just being! Meanwhile, John increased his explorations of "yang" qualities to support his "wild man" self.

I'm saying all this to acknowledge that John Lee is right: Men need the safety to grow in their own way, in their own time.

I'll never forget something Robert Bly taught me about the difference between men and women.  He said that at age 14, women have the capacity to express their feelings in ways that men don't have until their 40s. That blew me away, and it made me realize that I was expecting the men in my life to be like me, instead of being themselves.  

In my work with couples over the years, and in my own life, I've come to believe that women who are in relationship with men sometimes need to learn how to back off more and respect men as they are. For me personally, this has been one of my hardest lessons with John, and I have to work on it continually.

There's one more thing I want to say, and this time I want to say it to men who are in relationship with women. If the woman in your life doesn't "give" you the space you need, remember that it's not hers to "give," but rather, it's yours to claim.

Therefore, if you need more space--for whatever reason--say so clearly. Do it as gently and respectfully as you can, but hold your ground. Only you know what you truly need, and it's your job to take care of your own needs.

This doesn't mean you get a free pass to ignore your partner's concerns, nor does it mean you have the right to be nasty or hurtful, even if she's doingn something you don't like. She may be spot-on about something you need to look at, and if you want her to respect your concerns, you'd better take hers seriously as well.

When your partner speaks up about something she'd like in relation to you, address her concerns directly. Don't blow her off, but do insist on her communicating her needs in a respectful manner. Be kind and clear when stating your boundaries, and be receptive when the same is done in reverse.

If you're doing these things, and if you're working on yourself in the best way you know with outside help as needed, that's great! If you nonetheless get messages from your female friend that whatever you're doing isn't good enough, ask her to be more considerate of your style. Don't be an ogre about it, but be fierce, as Michael Meade would say. Show her that you mean business. Claim the space you need to grow!

Sometimes I get mad when John holds his ground about something, but the truth is, I respect him more when he does. Any woman who doesn't respect a man for holding his ground wants to control him, not love him.

Some days when I look at John, I think to myself, "Wow. He's a man! What an interesting creature!" I don't even know what it really means to be a man, but I'm learning. I'm learning by getting out of the way so I can simply witness him coming home to himself when he has his own time and space to grow.

This revised article is based on an article originally published by The New Times in the "Transitional Man" section, under the title "Time and Space to Grow" (May 1991).

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor and consultant, death doula, and nonsectarian minister in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook (available at Amazon.com). Click here to contact Cat or learn more about her work by returning to the home page. To schedule in-person or telephone consultations, please email Cat or call her 24-hour confidential voice mail at (206) 329-0125.