Respecting a Man’s Space: Tips for Women Who Love Men
“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
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 ever 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 toy—their own power—and they want their male lovers or partners or friends to think, feel, express, grow, and love in the same ways women 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. In 1986, I married a man. Within a few days of the ceremony, because of how he acted once I had committed, I realized I’d made a serious mistake. To make a long story short, the marriage turned out to be abusive, and I ended it a year later. One night while he was away, two of my friends came and helped me move out of the house. For a month, I hid out in the home of a friend, a dear woman who helped me remember what it was like to feel safe at home. Months after ending that marriage, I asked a longtime male friend out to dinner, and we started dating. I was concerned about entering into a “rebound relationship.” But because this man (I’ll call him Bill) was already a trusted friend, I decided to proceed. Although it would be nice to say that ours was a fairy tale relationship, that wasn’t the case. Many times, I seriously wondered if the relationship would work. Aside from our personal differences, I also had a serious case of shellshock from my recent abusive marriage. In addition, during the first two years of being with Bill, I couldn’t really get a sense of him in the relationship. He didn’t share much about himself. In fact, he barely even talked at all. As a result, it was hard for me to get to know him as easily as I let him get to know me. Bill repeatedly said he trusted me more than anyone,. He also said that he shared more with me than he’d ever shared with anyone else. While I appreciated his trust, I wanted a better balance of sharing between us. The truth is, I wanted more from Bill than he was able to give at the time. In retrospect, I think I was sometimes invasive with Bill, trying to get him to share more before he was ready. Many times I was impatient with him, as if it was his job to meet my expectations. Many times, I simply wanted to give up. At some point, I realized I was the one at fault and I needed to back off. Gradually I stopped focusing so much on what Bill was doing and instead focused more on my own part. Gradually, I began to take more responsibility for my various dissatisfactions in our relationship. I tried to treat them as reflections of my own stuff, rather than a function of his not being good enough. I also began to work on the ways I projected “disowned” parts of myself onto Bill. The work we did in couples’ counseling revealed that I was projecting my “female side” onto Bill, and he was projecting his “male side” onto me. That may sound strange. But because of our different upbringings and personal styles, Bill and I noticed that I usually held the male or “yang” role in relationship, and he usually held the female or “yin” position. Obviously, this is a gross oversimplification of two complex human beings, but we found this observation helpful. Once we identified this imbalance, we decided to work toward “calling back” the parts of ourselves we had projected onto the other person. I increased my explorations of “yin” qualities. Meanwhile, Bill increased his explorations of “yang” qualities. I’m saying all this to acknowledge that I think John Lee is right. Men need the space 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. It made me realize that I was expecting men to be like me, instead of being themselves. There’s something I’d like to say here to men who may be reading this tip sheet for women. That is, if the woman in your life doesn’t “give” you the space you need, remember that it’s really not hers to give. Rather, it’s yours to claim. Therefore, if you need more space—for whatever reason—say so clearly. Do this as gently and respectfully as possible, but hold your ground. Only you know what you truly need, and it’s your job to take care of your own needs. If you’re working on yourself as best you can—including outside support as needed—but your female partner still thinks it’s not good enough, try this. Ask her to be more respectful of your efforts. Don’t be an ogre about it, but be clear and strong. On the flip side, if you want to be the best person you can be individually and in relationship, you might want to proactively solicit and sincerely receive honest input from the woman in your life. Just be sure that you both feel safe and respected when you give and receive input. If you don’t know how to communicate effectively in this way, get help. Most of us didn’t have good modeling for compassionate communication growing up. And unfortunately, there are precious few examples of healthy relationships in the media. There is no shame in needing further education about good communication now that you’re an adult. The only shame is to keep hurting yourself and your partner when you know there are better ways of communicating. In closing, let me say one last thing to both women and men. If you don’t respect your partner’s position, you may be seeking control, not love. Love is open-handed. Control is a power play. What do you really want?
This article was originally published by The New Times in the “Transitional Man” section, under the title “Time and Space to Grow” (May 1991). It has been revised several times over the years and most recently updated in June 2020.
In the latest revision, I’ve decided to reveal the identity of the pseudonym “Bill,” which I used when I first wrote this article in 1991. “Bill” is actually John Giovine, who has been my partner since 1987.
I wish I had known at the beginning of our relationship what I learned the hard way (as described in this article), because I deeply regret all the ways I pressured John to grow in the ways I thought best, instead of honoring his own way of being and growing.
An important side note: Everything I say in this article can also apply to LGBTQ relationships, because there is often one person in any form of coupledom who needs to back off from controlling behavior so the other has more space to honor their own style of growth.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).