The attachment literature teaches us that autonomy is a paradox.
Jordan and I are in the car about to drop him off at a weeklong arts program working with teens on a small gulf island off the British Columbia coast.
In front of us through the windshield is a farmstand: berries, eggs, a hand painted welcome sign on sun-starched wood. Sun drifts through tall cedar trees.
Every year for the last six years we drop him off here on a July day, and he goes into a black hole of noncontact for seven days, and I or one of our other close friends pick him up on the other side. He will be one of a group of staff who will enter the full-on schedule and be completely present to the participants for a week, uninterrupted.
Camp schedule is intense. Staff run program all day and plan the next day at night. It is, by design, a highly social and immersive experience, in which the adults create and maintain a container of safety for the group, so Jordan asks us not to contact him while he’s there.
In the car beforehand, we do what in attachment terms is a small ritual of arrival or departure. We’re sitting near one another, feeling connected.
“So you’re there if I need you, right?” I ask, laughing at myself a little. The question is comforting. I already know it is true.
“Of course,” he says. “I need to be able to focus on being here. But if it’s ever important of course you can just come by the desk and ask where I am and I’ll help with whatever you need.”
I don’t really need to ask. In the 12 years I have known him, he has consistently acted in an accessible, responsive way.
“Whatever I need” from someone I’m close to typically means one of two things:
- Proximity. Literally to be near. Like ducks. Because I trust him, when I’m shaken or need human connection, I quietly sit next to him and feel connected.
- To be cuddled. That thing where you hold one another in a comforting way.
Universal human needs, in other words. Regardless of gender or of attachment style, if you have a limbic brain, you have these needs. How individual human beings experience these needs, how conscious they are of them and how comfortable they are with them, varies. Healthy connection needs can be masked under known or even unknown intergenerational trauma, but the needs themselves – being able to be near someone you trust, being held in a comforting way – are universal. He knows these needs are normal, so he meets them easily. We have already spent many hours at home quietly doing our own thing peacefully aware of the connected presence of the other, coming for cuddle naps now and then, acting attuned, accessible, and responsive, so this time apart feels comfortable.
Current attachment science names how this kind of safe presence looks and its pivotal role in creating trust and autonomy. Wired For Love, possibly the best attachment book to cross my desk, describes this as being attuned, accessible, and responsive. Jordan is not, it turns out, unusual: according to attachment research, about 50% of the men on this earth work this way. While attachment theory was first studied between parents and children, more recent research has recognized that human attachments extend from birth to death, and while important patterns are set in the first year of life, attachment needs operate in similar ways across the lifespan. Over time, by consistently creating security together, we can reshape one another’s nervous systems into healthier, optimal patterns.
In the first few months we were together, Jordan got a job installing science equipment on a glacier in Norway for a month, near the Arctic Circle. It was an exciting opportunity and he was virtually out of connection. The only contact possible was via satellite phone when weather allowed. When the credit card company called the house to say “someone used his card in Norway, card frozen, he must contact directly,” I could yell a short message to a colleague of his through the sat phone, if the clouds stayed clear, for about a dollar a minute. Pretty much the definition of logistically out-of-reach.
I already trusted that he was consistently available by this point because he had from the start been willingly reliable and there when it mattered, as I had been for him. We had built secure attachment quickly and well, so this time apart was easy and pleasurable.
As a result of this security we had created, this month of solitude was a deep pleasure for me of feeling loved and held and safe and knowing I had a responsive ally in this person, even as he was away having an adventure and I couldn’t call him up. Meanwhile, he knew while he was stretching himself into a new experience, he had a safe home base, someone who loved and accepted him and was rooting for him as he grew.
I’m an introvert and I love alone time. I loved feeling safe and held and getting to be in the quiet of our room, the peace and stillness of this free time by myself, which I enjoyed all the more because I was held in a human bond. I taped his first postcard up – a blue polar moon scene – on the headboard and kept his shirt next to me in bed. He left me a surprise box of special cookies I could eat a bit at a time if I missed him, and a card on my pillow to keep me connected while he was away.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t call him up at the Arctic Circle to tell him about my day, because by being consistently attuned, accessible, and responsive from the day he met me, he had firmly and quickly established beyond a doubt that he was consistently emotionally available, whatever the details of our logistical situations.
That is a hallmark of an emotionally adult man: a peaceful way of relating in the world in which he builds real lived autonomy because he creates safety for himself and those who rely on him.
This is called the dependency paradox. It is a reality of human relating. It isn’t going anywhere.
Because he openly greets attachment needs as the normal, healthy, eminently meetable things they are whether he is logistically available or not, being out of reach for a month was a manageable, even enjoyable, experience for us both.
These same ‘acts of care’ by a guy who was afraid to be relied on would have had a confusing and destabilizing effect. What matters was not the acts, the postcard, the cookies, the card. What made these objects work and created autonomy was that he willingly chose to be emotionally available the whole time, and thus infused these objects with his accessibility.
We do this for one another. He needs normal emotional connection as much as I do; connection is not gendered, it is human. For the purposes of this blog on feminist masculinity, however, I am going to focus on how this might feel from the perspective of those socialized into masculinity when they experience the normal emotional needs of intimates, because power dynamics play out in specifically gendered ways. People socialized into femininity are encouraged to be emotionally responsive – in fact we get flak when we are not quietly nurturing of others. Those socialized into masculinity are more likely to have had this healthy response shamed out of them, sometimes so early and so profoundly they may not remember they have ever had it. In a culture that valorizes rugged individualism, this loss of very real parts of the self can easily be disguised. And yet connectedness is the optimal human state, and in attachment terms, secure connectedness is necessary to autonomy.
Those who do not yet have this capacity to create security may believe no one else does, either; our unconscious working models of the social world can prevent an accurate understanding of reality. Whatever their philosophies about autonomy or interdependence, if you look around at the couples, families, and even the close friends who are, on the whole, feeling trusting and loved in their intimate bonds, you’ll begin to see that this is what they are doing. Really: if you don’t already know how normal and healthy this is, start looking around. You’ll see that many people in families and close friendships are quietly doing this for one another.
Here is where things get interesting.
He has responded to those needs and been accessible, responsive, and attuned from before we were partners, beginning back when we were just friends. Greeting another human being with open arms may be effort at times, but it isn’t scary, because it is how he was raised.
Because he has consistently been accessible and responsive, because we have built that trust, I know without needing to think about it that I can – and want to – assess whether I need him, or whether I want to handle something on my own. Autonomy of this kind is innate; it does not need to be forced, because it emerges organically when our dependency needs are satiated.
Since he is willingly and easily there for me and accepts greeting my normal emotional safety needs as what they are – normal and meetable – air and spaciousness emerged between us over time. When you trust others are really there for you, genuine autonomy grows. We do this for each other simultaneously. In other words, we both become increasingly autonomous by knowing the other is there.
Satiating, rather than denying, the need to depend, results in security and therefore creates the conditions conducive to our innate autonomy needs emerging.
In real, biological terms, this is what autonomy means.
Stop and absorb that for a second.
In order for Jordan to build real felt autonomy, he needs to willingly and consistently meet his intimate’s needs for availability. Wired For Love suggests that this 24/7 security is the foundation of independence.
This kind of autonomy depends on the trusted rock solid presence of others and is distinct from the avoidant attachment sensation of pseudo-autonomy or the aversion to need and intimacy.
As secure attachers do, he doesn’t determine for me when I need him; that insight comes from in me. And it is always ok, even if the need is just for closeness, connection, and reassurance that he is there. He trusts me in turn to respond to his needs by assessing his current needs and mine, and if it’s an inconvenient time, coming for connection only if I do actually need him, or being able to think together about scheduling and life pressures to find a good time. He doesn’t tell me I need any particular logistical reason to need him; connection and emotional safety is its own reason, the best reason there is.
He does this easily for his intimates, because it is how he was raised.
This is how he fosters autonomy around him.
This only works as long as he fully wants me to rely on him. That wanting to be relied on, that subtle turning towards and full owning of his responsibility, is the condition that leads to autonomy emerging organically in the relationships with his closest intimates.
As David Howe writes in Attachment Across the Life Course, in practice, people do not have to be perfect. The phone rings, people are at times distracted. However, if your underlying belief is that you want to be relied on, and your limbic brain holds as an assumption that human connection is healthy, normal, and expected, then you will note small breaks in connection and quickly mend them.
When he has successfully inculcated the knowledge that those close to him can readily count on him, his intimates quite simply rely on him less. Over time as security builds we become more aware of our own feelings of autonomy, which emerge organically when we know we are safe.
It makes sense. Since I have experienced him from the very beginning just being there, accessible, responsive, and attuned, his job at being a safe male presence in my life is easy, in part because I feel my own autonomy needs more, and in part because when I need him at a time when he’s not free, I can rely on familiar shared rituals of connection that we have made that naturally foster comfort and security.
When that trust that depending on one another will be welcome has been fully cultivated, even when he’s busy I can comfort myself with a kind of tea we drink together, or a favourite cup I have seen often in his hands, or a special place we usually sit together, because I know that real him wherever he is in the world at that moment willingly greets my safety needs as the perfectly normal thing they are, whether he is logistically available or not just then – and because when I do genuinely need him, I know he will respond.
I have a memory of a few years ago, a time when I did need connection with him while he was at camp when something big was happening for me. He heard and saw I needed him, so even though it was challenging schedule-wise, we arranged a good time later that day when he was able to take a break. He sat side by side with me in a field together for around a half hour, on a break between commitments, and let his presence comfort me in a responsive way – as he let me know that he couldn’t do this often and asked me to adjust to his needs.
I remember that moment, now, at the farm stand and the handpainted welcome sign, as I say “Right. I know you’re always there when it matters.”
And we say goodbye, unload his bags, and I drive off to go sit by the river.
Jordan is trustworthy. He doesn’t only treat women this way temporarily when he is excited about them or lusting after them or in love with them. They don’t need to do or be anything in particular to be treated this way. It is a quality in him, that he learned is normal from his parents growing up, so he doesn’t withdraw accessibility when he gets bored or when you fight or after he’s used up your worth to him as a conquest. That is not trustworthiness, and only a culture folded backwards on itself could possibly normalize using women in such a disposable way.
Watching him spend time with his mother makes it clear where he learned this; they are connected, they respond to one another, the tether never breaks. She knits him a long grey woolen scarf he can wear as a hug because they live in different cities. It is quiet, this kind of bond, easy to overlook in its incredible significance. Only in seeing a whole, healthy bond in action does one understand what half of us are hurting over, what the shape of the whole picture is that many of us spend our lives attempting to complete.
How does this work in practice? Responsiveness and accessibility mean you actively meet their needs while expressing your own.
It can mean demonstrating in your actions (not just your words), “my needs matter and yours do too.”
It might mean coming near and looking lovingly at them or holding them in a connected way, as you ask them to adapt so your need can get met. Because he responds – with a subtle inner turning towards me, recognizing my body’s signals and greeting them kindly – comforting one another doesn’t typically take very long.
It can mean learning one another over time, and acting responsive to their needs while you give them connected time to adjust to yours.
Healthy boundaries: receptive to the needs of others as you also meet your own needs
It means trusting they will want to adapt for you, while giving them the care and safety to do so.
It means developing healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries are neither utterly porous nor unilateral and rigid. Someone with healthy boundaries is confident enough in their own ability to say yes and no that they can act interdependent and responsive to others without losing themselves, either in the moment or in the long term. If it takes you a month to know that you did a thing you didn’t want to do, your boundaries may be overly porous and you may need work on doing deep inner listening in the moment to be able to know your own body’s cues. If you erect walls that are so rigid you cannot hear or see when someone you love needs you, your boundaries may be overly hard and you may need to develop responsiveness and receptivity – which often comes from that same knowing how to listen to your own body’s deep cues in the moment, knowing your own needs well enough that they do not collapse (or need to be gripped with the fear of them slipping away) when they encounter the valid needs of others. Ideally, someone with healthy boundaries can trust in live time their own capacity to listen to their body, needs, and feelings, and not need external permission to do so, while they also have the resilience and self-awareness that lets them empathize with and respond in the moment to those they care about without losing their own internal cues. Healthy boundaries let you assess your own needs and the needs of others, in a moment-by-moment way. They let you act responsive to others and responsive to yourself.
Becoming able to respond to both the needs of self and others definitely means each person facing their demons and doing their own emotional work, so they can handle whatever is inside them that might disrupt those signals and that capacity for empathy for both self and other.
He does his best to treat every woman he gets romantically involved with well, by being attuned, accessible, and responsive to their needs, regardless of the status of their relationship or the strength of his romantic feelings at any given time, because that is what he expects is normal.
That is also what it means to be an emotionally safe man.
Children wrap themselves around his neck like scarves. After playing with him for an afternoon children begin to say his name reverently, stretching the vowel out like his name is sacred.
Because Jordan has created so much emotional safety around him, this week while he is working at camp, autonomy emerges between us. I love knowing I am meeting his need for space. I love it because I love taking care of him and this freedom is what he needs.
There is great pleasure in meeting his need for autonomy, because it means I belong. My responsibility to meet his need for autonomy means I am connected in the most human sense.
I love the luxury of knowing he is always there if I need him, and I love the utter freedom of fulfilling my responsibility to create his autonomy.
It is thus precisely in this binding we do with other human beings that our autonomy lies.
Not a theoretical autonomy like that so idealized by western culture, but an embodied, flesh and blood, actually existing autonomy of our beautiful, fragile bodies.
This week while he’s at camp I use my own inner resources, and when I want connection with him, I use an old beach towel he has dragged around from place to place ever since his childhood home. It’s an endearingly ugly towel, dating from his 80s childhood: black and green rectangular shapes and red lines on a faded white background, thinned by many washings.
Because of his consistent emotional availability, wherever I am and wherever he is I can wrap this old comforting familiar thing around my shoulders, that he has put his very real emotional availability into, and feel him near, whether I can access him logistically or not. He, with other intimates and family members both blood and chosen, becomes a touchstone, a soft landing, a springboard into risk and possibility.
Why is it that only about half of us consider this kind of connection ‘obvious’? Limbic brains make ‘rules’ about relationships before we reach our first year of age, and these appear to us as unquestioned laws of reality, encased in ‘neural cement.’ Since his unquestioned limbic pattern holds that people who care about one another shall of course remain connected, he does this for me consistently, and I become more and more autonomous. I can use his funny 80s towel as a pillow and ask myself happily: do I need him right now, or would I rather wait?
We build this interdependence and independence mutually with one another; he doesn’t take it against my will. If he were to take it, to angrily and rigidly say “my needs matter and so I will meet them regardless of the impact on you” – were he to be rigidly utterly unreachable no matter my distress – the destabilizing effect of this experience would destroy the fragile fabric that is trust and its companion: organic autonomy.
As Wired For Love describes, in secure attachment, we give one another the power to access us any time we need. Because I can access him any time I need to, I can give him his space when he needs it, because it is a choice. As a loving (and introverted) adult I understand and empathize with his need to be left alone while he’s at camp, or on a work deadline, or in a meeting, or just needing some introspection time on his own, or stuck on a train between cities when he can only send “wifi cutting out sending love” before losing his signal.
I know that without inner withholding, he is attuned, accessible, and responsive, so I can receive the safety he is trying to give. Logistics are irrelevent as long as he never withdraws acting in an emotionally safe way.
This may sound like a small or hard to pin down distinction but it is the only distinction that matters. To get autonomy, you must want to be relied on.
He knows this instinctively; it is part of his working model of the world. Because he was raised in a more or less optimal way, he understands that if you want autonomy, you meet emotional safety needs promptly and consistently, and your task gets smaller and smaller. So it was a pain to be there for me at camp last time. But here we are next time and I can use an ugly old towel to meet his need for space. Because he showed up then, autonomy and deep trust are readily accessible now.
If you do not want to be relied on, you can do all the same ‘acts of care’ – a towel, a postcard, cookies, wifi from the train – but you will find those whose trust you want to gain never feel that deep security that lives and moves fluidly.
If you do not want to be relied on, if inside you, you turn angrily away from connection instead of lovingly towards it even as your body mimics the gestures of care, everyone close to you will get more and more hurt and more and more unsafe, no matter the effort you put in to do ‘acts of care.’
Without genuine attunement, accessibility, and responsiveness, acts of care don’t land as emotional safety. Your autonomy will spiral further and further out of reach as you fight harder and harder to get everyone you care about away from you.
Emotionally immature men who believe that autonomy is something you take, rather than something you create, may live their lives in a continual nightmare of ‘needs they can’t meet’ that they never come to understand. They may blame everyone outside them, never perceiving their own inability to create safety is the cause, as needs and hurt spiral up around them. In the worst cases, where strong dismissive-avoidant attachment or some form of narcissism has not been recognized, understood and healed, the world of human relating may appear utterly confusing, as needs appear to expand behind you as you run.
Like a mythical creature whose body creates volcanoes everywhere they walk on the earth, you do not understand why the world appears to be made entirely of volcanoes.
Herein lies the paradox: if you seek autonomy, you must genuinely enjoy and want to be relied on in an unlimited way. The truth is that comfortable, calm connectedness with intimates is the normal resting position for most people. If your resting position differs from connection, you will have extra healing to do.
If you unilaterally ‘take’ autonomy, hurting your intimates when they need you, rather than building autonomy by being attuned, accessible, and responsive, needs around you will appear from your vantage point as if they grow and grow and expand behind you. If you have not faced this, or if your connection fear is particularly strong, you may perceive other people’s perfectly normal needs as ‘unmeetable,’ and your response to them may create a world for you in which other people’s ‘scary needs’ appear to be forever expanding.
Trust is a kind of magic; learn the subtle art, or it blows up in your face
Each micro-moment that your intimate tries to create healthy connection with you, and you respond with disconnection, or worse, anger, you create a spiral that takes you further and further from your wished-for autonomy. People who care about you may forgive and forgive and forgive, but if you do not understand what you are doing and do not repair the harm, eventually, creating safety begins to feel impossible.
If instead of greeting normal, meetable needs as what they are: normal and meetable, Jordan were instead to try to ‘teach’ his intimates not to rely on him by being unrealiable, he would find his carefully-built autonomy evaporating. Even if he went back to being kind and supportive the next day, all of his efforts at building autonomy would become shaky and unstable because – hello? – trust is by its very nature about consistency.
Trust is delicate, alive, and powerful and needs to be handled like any object whose strength lies in its subtlety. Like your own eyeball, or a glass art piece whose power derives from fineness rather than force, it must be handled with great care to protect its structure.
The first few days and weeks of a new relationship are crucial. This is when you solidly establish that you are accessible, responsive, and attuned. If you do this properly, you establish emotional safety, and the rest of your relationship begins on the right footing, calm, safe, connected. When the basic fabric between two people is connectedness, good faith and trust in one another’s emotional reliability makes repairing breaks in trust easy.
These small ruptures are moments when you do not greet your intimate’s bids for connection with accessibility and responsiveness. These are moments when she turns to you to connect and you abandon her emotionally. These ruptures can be loud, as when she is in distress and clearly needs to be held, and you flail and lash out or run instead of coming close to nurture and connect (dismissive-avoidant attachers, I’m looking at you). These ruptures can also be quiet, as they are not about the location of your body but about your inner orientation to and beliefs about human connection. “The hallmark of a sensitive caregiver,” Howe writes, “is that the ruptures are managed and repaired.”
Stop. Take that in. This is key.
If in these early moments of harm and disconnection, whether they are quiet or loud, instead of doing prompt repair you make the additional mistake of acting like nothing has happened, or worse, angrily blaming the woman you’re hurting for her expected feelings of fear and hurt at your hurtful actions, you may create serious harm by not seeing your own limited capacity is the cause of the distress.
If you deny this reality to make it somehow her fault that you are not acting in a safe way, this is unconscious gaslighting.
It is emotional abuse, and it will be very hard for her to trust you after you do this to her, even if she doesn’t quite know why, even if she continues to believe you are trustworthy as you are doing this to her.
Patriarchy teaches women to be pliant and receptive, to adapt to maintain relationship, and most brutally, to doubt our perceptions. It may take a while before confusion and mistrust builds up to a point that can no longer be sustained. If this is a routine mode of operation for you, she may just feel crazy, or like the earth under her keeps shifting as you say you are being good to her and acting safe.
If you do this unconscious gaslighting repeatedly without owning it fully, you actively break fundamental trust. If the larger patriarchal fabric of our culture – if the people around the two of you – allow this process to be naturalized, you are contributing to psychic violence against this person, and you and those around you may not even realize you are doing it.
Because water; fish.
Because a sky-blue marble does not show up against the sky, and that does not mean it is not blue.
I cannot express the incredible feeling of insanity and powerlessness of hearing everyone in a community laud the tremendous nurturing feminist qualities of a great guy who secretly gaslights his partner in ways he doesn’t even see, ways only she, alone and exposed in this vulnerability with no reference points as anchors, can feel. In a world that tells her she is crazy, he’s being so good to her, he’s so good, what a crazy girl.
What a relationship looks like from the outside and what it feels like from the inside can be incredibly mismatched. We so badly want our feminist men to be as whole and loving as we need them to be. As friends, looking on from the outside, we may assume the private inside of an intimate relationship is healthy and nurturing, because it hurts too much to know how far there is to go.
Because patriarchy is in all of us, her distress may show up visibly to others while its causes in your action get silently disguised. This is what it means that we are all inculcated into systems of power. Unless we choose to see, privilege, which is in all of us, disguises its operation. We are never forced to see how we enact it in our own lives, unless we live with integrity, and learn how to deeply believe those whose experiences we do not share.
This kind of betrayal from inside trust is extremely damaging to people. If this is you, you will find your desperately-hoped-for autonomy always out of reach.
If you talk up your feminist commitments or have cultivated a nurturing, feminist reputation, be aware that you can gain trust much more quickly than most guys. If you are known in your community as a great nurturing guy, women who know you socially may come to you already primed to be receptive to your self-talk about how great you are.
If you gain women’s trust by talking about how safe you are while you are also unconsciously doing this to them, the gap may lead them to slowly begin to act ‘crazy’ around you over time.
You’ll think it is them. You may tell them it is them. You may really believe this, even if some part of you suspects you are hiding something from yourself that you have yet to understand.
You may tell your friends or family how ‘crazy’ your ex is.
And because we live in patriarchy, in which women’s normal emotional needs are routinely deemed crazy, people will believe you. Policing women’s normal emotional needs to protect male fragility is a long and well-established tradition. Just because a paradigm is dominant and naturalized and happens to work in your favour, that does not mean it is real, or healthy, or just.
This culture downplays the normalness of human intimacy: proximity, eye contact, cuddling in a connected way. When emotionally secure guys, who ask for my trust, are responsive to those normal human needs early and consistently, we create a feeling of trust together, and autonomy emerges naturally. It is easy. All it takes is showing up.
All it takes to be a safe man, in other words, is to meet the normal emotional safety needs involved in having a mammalian brain.
You can begin to build autonomy at any time, by beginning to act attuned, accessible, and responsive. You can realistically expect, however, that rebuilding trust after you damage it is a lot more work and takes a lot more time – logarithmically more work and time – than just keeping it in the first place. Imagine repairing an eyeball.
The longer you act unstable and unreliable, damaging trust without doing prompt repair, the greater your task becomes. You must own, fully without deflecting or minimizing, if you want to live up to your own values of being an accessible, nurturing, feminist man. If you have caused a lot of harm, you have a lot of cleaning up to do.
That does not mean it is impossible; it just means that by the time you have this click moment and recognize the impacts of your actions, you may have spilled an awful lot of milk, and need a longer while of mopping up if you want safety to emerge. You don’t need a bigger mop, or grandiose one-time gestures. You just need to trust time – days, weeks, months of willingly acting in a consistently reliable way, knowing it is normal, deriving your inner good feeling from these acts of connection for their own sake.
You do not get to be a safe man by wanting to be. Or wishing you were. Not by telling me how safe you are, how good of a feminist you are. That’s like getting into better shape by wishing you were really active, or telling me how often you work out, without ever actually exercising. And in a culture that loudly rewards men for even the smallest acts of reliable nurturance while attacking women who do not quietly, invisibly hold together the world around them, you have an extra responsibility to keep your integrity whole: to name these shearing moments between perception and reality.
If women you get involved with actually get safe around you, because you are attuned, accessible, and responsive, you are a safe man. You don’t get to determine this. They do.
Faced with the prospect of a new potential lover, the male capacity to bullshit can fill galaxies. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Jordan and I haven’t been partners in four years. To my knowledge we haven’t thought of one another sexually in at least three.
When we broke up we went on a camping trip together, and at the top of a mountain at sunrise did a divorce ceremony in which we told each other what we were no longer giving each other, and what we were continuing to give each other.
What we are no longer giving each other is sex, romantic feeling, and partnership – we are no longer committing to live together or have children together or make our lives in the same geographical location. Because he is by his nature monogamous (ie not because we think this is the only good way to be, but because it is how he genuinely is), he will need his new girlfriend and eventual life partner to have priority decision-making power over how physically close he and I will be. We cried and grieved those decisions in a healthy way.
What we are continuing to give one another is connection, trust and safety.
The grieving of our sexual and romantic relationship did hurt – we both cried on the mountain that day, and I grieved in many small moments over the following year – but it was healthy and manageable, because our breakup involved no betrayal of trust or catastrophic pain.
He never retraumatized me by repeating the high-betrayal harm I had had done to me growing up. We remained connected, attuned, accessible, and responsive to one another throughout the change. He knew he had accessed the inside of my trust, and understood this great gift and the responsibility it entails. He handled it with the skill that this honour deserved. This is safety.
There has been healthy grieving, the kind that keeps you whole and lets you move on. There was no traumatic grieving, no getting all the way into one another’s trust and then smashing everything up from the inside. He was and is still an utterly safe, trustworthy person in my life.
Held securely this way, I become able to range further and further afield. I have room to expand my inner resourcefulness. Knowing a human bond is there for me at the shore, I have the security I need to swim further out into the middle of life’s current: to develop my inner self-love, build my connection inside myself and my direct connection to the universe.
For those of you who choose to get close to women who have histories of gendered violence and neglect in their bodies, or for those of you who have made a commitment to be part of women’s healing in this very fucked up world: this is what it means to not retraumatize a woman you get close to. It is a healthy amount of emotional maturity, in a culture of exceptionally immature men.
As we have grown accustomed to the parameters of our new relationship, he has needed room and time to date and build his new relationship without his ex girlfriend hanging around.
I am responsible to meet this need.
I won’t lie, I didn’t get it right at first. At first I got triggered watching him with his arms around his new person, and I had growing to do here. Had we frozen in despair at this stage we may never have gotten to where we are now.
I had to push myself hard to get here, but I owe him his autonomy, and I want him to be happy – and he never gave up on me or on himself, so I got here after a while.
I can now hang out with him and his girlfriend, know my trust with him is solid, and duck out happily when he needs me to. I no longer get triggered watching him with someone else, not because we shattered the trust we had built, but because in our current configuration, we deepened it even further into something sustainable and free.
We kept at it without giving up – him asking for his need while consistently meeting mine.
We kept at it, and I love him, so I adjusted, and here we are.
Part of how we got here was we decided together that it would be a good idea if we were in different places for a while as he was dating new people. I teach college, a job that lets me be elsewhere part of the year, so I arranged to spend six months in another city as he was building his relationship with his new girlfriend, so I could keep out of their hair and explore my own autonomy as they were building trust.
He continued to be rock-solid emotionally available for me if I needed him, which happens less and less often these days, organically. We were in touch maybe eight times over that six months. Mostly just for fun, saying hi; a couple of times it was because I or he had a connection need and we comforted and supported one another in the way we always have. I get to be the best friend who gives him relationship advice, and he gets to model for me – not tell me in words, but actually embody – how I deserve to be treated by future men I date. He’s still utterly, utterly reliable.
At this point I get comforted just by reaching out to him in email even before he writes back. Because I know as soon as he gets the message he’ll call me up, with kindness and empathy, and will meet healthy needs for nurturance in a healthy way: quickly, kindly, in person, and with goodwill.
His new girlfriend gets a guy who is deeply emotionally mature, and who will always be capable of working things out without running or cutting ties. In this world full of children in grown-up men’s bodies, who start families and then take off, or who live as though they have no ties, or who become cruel when they are no longer excited about you, a man who can see their ex through to safety like that is a huge fucking catch.
This is how autonomy works.
Jordan and I can now stretch the tether effortlessly for a week, a month, six months, longer. The bond can co-exist with other intimate relationships, even if neither of us is (or wants to be) poly. I can comfort myself easily with this knowledge of his welcome and availability, and so our autonomy works effortlessly for weeks and months at a time.
And Jordan has the special knowledge that he has gained and kept my trust so successfully that I feel safe in just a few minutes being around him or hearing his voice. This emotional reliability – attunement, accessibility, responsiveness – and the trust it creates is the core, the absolute core, of being a safe man.
This is what we mean when we say ‘don’t be rapey’ does not get you a cookie. ‘Don’t be rapey’ does not make you a fucking feminist. That is kindergarten. That is subzero, below the start line. It is negativeland.
Shit is so bad we are trying to get a lot of men into kindergarten. Trying to get them to the starting line.
But that doesn’t mean ‘don’t be rapey’ is the bar.
So ok, lots of men are getting good at kindergarten. Yippee.
Being a safe male presence in the lives of women you get close to – attuned, accessible, and responsive – is the bar.
If you tell people you date that you are a feminist, or if you even quietly ‘allow’ your community to laud your nurturing appearance, and if this might lead women to trust you extra-quickly, and if this lets you get in their pants, then this is for you.
Because many of us have lived through a lifetime of harm, your job if you advertise yourself as a feminist man is not only to not harm us again, it is to help us heal from the harm caused by others. As we have been doing for everyone, for a long, long time. In a broken world, what we are doing when we hold one another is putting each other’s pieces back together, creating safety so those who survive harm can heal. In a misogynist culture, active healing is what is expected. It is the minimum, minimum requirement expected for men who get into women’s trust by talking up feminist commitments.
If “don’t be rapey” is kindergarten, then “attuned, accessible, and responsive” is sixth grade. Somebody’s gotta set the bar.
And some of all y’all need a little remedial.
If you are thinking right now: holy crow, that is me, what do I do? One of my early readers asked for a second half to this piece, called What To Do If You Realize This is You Holy Fuck What Do I Do What Do I Do. So if you see yourself in this post and you want Actionable Actions You Can Put Into Practice Right Away: this next one’s for you: The Tricks of Shame and Hope.
Also feel free to join the Nurturance Culture and Masculinity Discussion Space
If you would like some resources that you can share with others to help you along this path to autonomy and interdependence, these are ones I’ve found helpful in making sense of limbic reality:
How to Feel Safe and Secure With Your Partner – Stan Tatkin
The Cost of Stress in Your Intimate Relationships – Gabor Mate interview
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17601.The_Will_to_Change, Bell Hooks
Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin
Hold me Tight, Sue Johnson
A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller
Like this blog post that says the exact same thing in a lovely and hilarious way: Ask Polly: My Boyfriend Thinks I’m Clingy And That Terrifies Me:
“You can’t resolve not to be clingy. You have to feel understood and supported, and then you’ll — quite naturally — be less emotionally needy, because you’ll trust that the guy you’re with is there for you, and can accept every part of you, come hell or high water.”
Profound thanks to the clutch of early readers who gave me excellent and honest (and at times amazingly vulnerable) feedback about how to make this piece most useful:
Abe Lateiner, David Gray-Donald, Dru Oja Jay, Martin Lukacs, Shaun Geer, Lily Schwartzbaum, Rebekah Hart, Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze, and Miri. 🙂
Please note: this post was written about and to dismissive-avoidant men and/or those high in narcissistic traits, who tend to have a distorted perception of how much nurturing they are doing and how much nurturing is ordinary and expected in a healthy loving friendship or romantic connection. It was not written about the folks who, objectively speaking, if you were to measure on the clock, spend all of their days nurturing and responding to others. These are two different styles, two different conversations. This piece has been most relevant to men who experience that potent mix of self-loathing and entitlement that results in them believing they are doing more nurturing than they actually are, or for those who act in unaccountable ways because they feel hatred for themselves and don’t know how to centre others or say sorry. That is who this is about and for. This piece is absolutely not about people (largely from what I’m hearing queer folks, women, and femmes, but also a fair number of guys) who actually spend the great majority of the hours in their day, objectively, nurturing others. In order to reach the men I wrote this to reach – which I have been told it very much has – I had to speak to the inside of their world, where they feel they are ‘giving too much’ when objectively speaking, they may in fact be treating their intimates like dirt and gaslighting them about that reality. I hope it helps to clarify whose world this piece speaks to, as well as who it is not about. I’m open to any and all feedback, but ask that readers please keep this in mind as they read.
More by the same author:
The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
Own, Apologize, Repair: Coming Back to Integrity
This blog has grown into a book!
Turn This World Inside Out: the Emergence of Nurturance Culture
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Re “men”: I want to be clear here that I am using this term, and all gendered terms, in a trans-inclusive way.
New interview with the author in Australian magazine The Vocal expands on the original Nurturance Culture piece: http://www.thevocal.com.au/violence-nurturance-turned-backwards-nurturance-culture-solution-toxic-masculinity/
See the original viral posts The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture and Dating Tips for the Feminist Man
Do you love speculative fiction and social justice? I am working on a speculative fiction project that deals with the transformations our planet is undergoing, and the undoing of cultures of domination. Cipher wants an agent and a publisher! Learn more about this project here.
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42 thoughts on “For Men Who Desperately Need Autonomy”
Reading this, I am happy.
I have said that I “feel comfortable around” my current boyfriend, despite us only knowing each other for a few weeks. Perhaps the above is why. 🙂
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I really love this article and its vivid description of this very beautiful dynamic you share with him. The only thing that saddens me about it is each time you explain his ability to treat you this way as stemming from his ideal childhood. What about the majority of us who never had that? Who strive to build and grow toward that everyday? It must be something that can be learned, not just limbic programs from before our first year of age.
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yes it can be. Check out the books 🙂 it absolutely can be learned. But many who have never had this normal connection do not know that it is normal and that is exists and is the full healthy shape of the picture. We only have parts of the picture and we tend to feel a lot of shame about those parts. The first step is to work on the shame, realize it is backwards, and heal it either with a partner or with yourself or both at the same time, and to realize how normal human connection is. 🙂 Also I think a good Imago or trauma-informed therapist is always a great idea.
This is a great article! It reminds me of many things that I studying right now, especially Martin Buber (“a person becomes an I through a You”) and certain theories in developmental psychology that teaches that we create a healthy independent self through attachment to our caregivers. I love the idea that “autonomy and connectedness are the same thing.” And I think it extends past just specific relationships to a way of being, something like openness to connection is the same as freedom. I have to admit that this way of thinking, namely that relation and connection are primary and freedom and autonomy are consequences of the former, was deeply challenging and upsetting. I felt deep fear and anger at the idea that I had to depend on others for my selfhood or be dependable or connected in a unconditional way. I wanted to make it on my own, to be perfectly complete on my own. I see now that way thinking was conditioned both by messages I received from this culture and by traumatizing empathic failures when I was a kid (both from peers and caregivers, even though my caregivers practiced attachment parenting and were overall very loving and supportive). I think our culture, in so many ways, fails to produce loving communities.
And that’s where my question to this author resides. After pondering these amazing ideas, I wonder: is it appropriate or skillful to rely primarily on one person (our romantic partner for instance) to provide unconditional love and support? Can this role be filled more collectively in a community? Can it include nature and non-human beings and God? I would certainly privilege human to human connection, but I also wonder if I/we can expand our circle of connection to all beings and thereby move toward a kind of ongoing connectedness that fosters a deep sense of autonomy, so that we really can achieve unconditional openness. I know I’m veering on the mystical here, but that where I tend to go 🙂 What do you think, Nora?
I love this. Thank you.
Read your blog. It is touching. Very personal. I doubt the gender difference is strong. I think the importance of creating safety is more general to any relationship indifferent to gender.
But maybe my society (Netherlands) is more equal. Less gender polarity.
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thank you Merlin (nice thing, when your ex who was equally good to you 20 years ago reads a blog about your exes. 🙂
And maybe Dutch society is less gender distinct. It’s hard to say, but I’d be curious. When I was 19 you definitely explained how come you felt so safe to me as being partly to do with your upbringing.
Reblogged this on syrens and commented:
Reblogging, in part so I can find it again. Not finished reading it yet, but so far it is MASSIVELY RELEVANT to my interests. Written from a monogamous, heterosexual perspective, but useful to all.
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“You can begin to build autonomy at any time, by beginning to act attuned, accessible, and responsive. You can realistically expect, however, that rebuilding trust after you damage it is a lot more work and takes a lot more time – logarithmically more work and time – than just keeping it in the first place. Imagine repairing an eyeball.”
This is brilliant (as with your other articles, thank you!)
I wonder, how does one begin to “act attuned, accessible, and responsive” if such things were learned from early (often pre-verbal) engagements? How does one discern what this looks and feels like compared to the past, if there was little in the form of examples? Can it only be learned from people with a secure attachment style? Do we need to attach to secure people in order to get it at the deep level that is required to truly learn it? (such as your experience with Jordan in your story)
And if the person we attempt to engage and attach to has their own insecure attachment style, how can anyone calibrate for themselves what healthy attunement, accessibility and responsiveness is supposed to look like?
Your article is clear about how Jordan showed you healthy attachment by being attuned, accessible, and responsive, but as much as you tried to explain how that felt inn your story, it did not truly explain the deep experience of what attunement, accessibility, and responsiveness are like at a limbic level, such that even the most well-intentioned insecure person would be hard pressed to act like.
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thanks and yes I know what you mean. the books help, and imago therapy has helped (I remember the first time the psychologist and jordan both told me that ‘we can tend one another’s attachment needs,’ and I stared dumbfounded, and asked ‘I am allowed to have attachment needs? I always thought they were not allowed because you should never ever ask to connect if someone does not want to connect, it is horrible and monstrous,’ and they both looked at me and jordan just gave me the gentle smile that comes when we touch a distorted belief of mine, and they both just looked at me and I felt the tumblers fall into place of a deep change inside my sense of reality. this was about how if we fight and he takes space for a bit during an argument he would check in in a pre-agreed amount of time to reconnect and let me know he’d be back for dinner or whatever. they called it ‘tending emotional safety’ or ‘protecting relationship while taking a time out,’ or ‘tending attachment needs,’ and the very idea that I was allowed to hear ‘I need a time out but I love you see you at 6,’ in the moment when he storms off – that very idea that it could be ok to tend my emotional safety was so utterly foreign to me and was so completely normal to both of them. it is moments like this that give us a map of what those raised in it can understand automatically.
as it happens I have begun doing this for my sister, who I often have avoidant responses to – I used to hang up and not talk to her for a week if we fought, because I was overwhelmed. now if I have that reaction in a fight and I hang up, I email her to say ‘I love you, I’m not going anywhere, I will talk to you tomorrow, I just couldn’t handle that right then.’ understanding my own intimacy needs has let me be less of a jerk to my other intimates as well 😉
So love your response! Thank you!
I’m still curious about this bit I wrote:
“And if the person we attempt to engage and attach to has their own insecure attachment style [and we are insecurely attached to], how can either calibrate for themselves what healthy attunement, accessibility and responsiveness is supposed to look like?”
it is hard. and this experience is so common. I’d read the books, and get the help of an imago or attachment-informed therapist, and get a sense together of what ‘typical’ or optimal attachment looks like that way, and by really observing your securely attached friends if you can identify them. being in a secure family can have this wonderful calm warm feeling that is hard to describe but you know it when you feel it. The kids feel really seen, and the parents have one another’s back and know how to help each other feel capable and strong and their best selves, or how to carry each other in the times when it is needed. I am close with three families who have built this bond and it is beautiful to be around. I learn a lot by observing and noticing and asking the kids how they feel. To watch kids who really trust their parents completely… it is healing. for us as adults if we did not quite get that experience, it takes the avoidant one recognizing their distorted beleifs and coming close to connect, first and foremost – they have a lot of the power in the dynamic. and it takes, when that has begun, the anxious one knowing their needs are ok and allowed, and getting secure enough they can also build more inner calming. I actually think one of those families I know began as an anxious-avoidant pair and over the years of acting responsive together they have mellowed one another out. from what I hear it can be done.
Indeed, I can relate in our anxious-avoidant pair. It took a long time to make it happen, with parenthood throwing a wrench into the whole thing, but we’ve been recognizing the emotional balance we can continue creating with each other, especially when we slow down (which is especially hard when life is full and parenting is taking so much out of us). In some ways, our son (now 5) as much as his presence shook everything to its core, has also gotten me to look more deeply at attachment which led me to where we are now.
In fact, it’s the concept of *balance* which has been helping us see that some things throws our ability to stay in balance as we dance emotionally with each other — like the standard ones like lack of sleep, lack of food, lack of water, lack of space (for me), lack of connection (for her), and so many more — and the things that support our ability to create it — exercise, meditation, touch, secure friends/family (as in your example), secure support/mentor figures (like a therapist).
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SO speaking as an emotional Kindergartner here. This has profoundly affected me. Any advice for someone taking their first steps toward HS?
I am currently just seeing how damaged I have been to the love of my life that left me a week ago and I no longer want to be that person.
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Apparently I read your next article that is a follow up.
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😀 you begin to do the work, and own that it is yours to do, and no one else’s. that is the first step.
My girlfriend of seven years shared this with me. I read and kept saying, “Wow, this is me and this is her as well.” I did not know how to articulate what it is that I do, but was raised by a single mother with whom I was very close to and she modeled good behavior and I came to know how to treat a woman. And, the Pooh Bear cartoon you had at the end was actually what my mom gave me years ago and when I saw it I froze in my tracks and reveled in the warm memories I have of her. Now, my girlfriend who happens to be a Pisces, like my mom, and I have a great foundation of trust. She calls me and when I am at work, I answer her call 99% of the time even if just to say hello, but let her know I cannot talk when that is the case. She is truly the most wonderful partner I could have ever found and meets all of my needs and she can actually talk with me. We recognize how fortunate we are to have found a balanced relationship. When I was married for 17 years, my wife would never talk about issues. It was very painful which led to my filing for divorce. Now, I am in heaven and have a great and true partner whom I cherish and I see how we have this trust and she gives me the autonomy I need when I need it. Yet, I am always accessible to her. Amazing. Thank you for this piece and shedding light onto this phenomena. It makes total sense.
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beautiful story and thank you!
I very much value the work you have put into writing these articles. I have felt that I have the qualities of caring for people and do my best to create autonomy in the relationships I build.
Though, there have been some rough patches in my life with the ones I love. I am wondering how traumatic events change the limbic portion of the brain.
For me, I had a girlfriend who I adored and supported. Things began to become lackluster for us due to a stagnation and distance in our relationship. I wanted to grow with her in friendship and talk to her about deep rooted issues within us; to be best friends. She denied me of that and said that title of best friend was reserved for someone else. With that being said, an insecurity welled up in me, and I started seeking something else. In turn, I began to find a deep friendship in another female. As emotions unfolded, I began to find romantic feelings for this new woman. Lost and confused(Due to monogamous ideals), I confided in both women that I had these feelings. What transpired after was that my current girlfriend claimed I cheated on her and proceeded to encourage the thought within me that I was scum. We tried to continue the relationship, for a while, but forgiveness never could happen, even after I changed. In turn, this had caused me to become more callous towards my emotions and in turn, made me avoidant of developing relationships and shut down when faced with emotional challenges in my future relationships.
I spent about 3 years suppressing emotions, staying “strong” and not relying on anyone to support me. I believe it has desensitized me to connecting with people, and in turn, left me with forms of avoidant attachments. I am in the process of healing, but it is not easy rewriting the brain.
Again, I want to thank you for showing me light into my own thoughts and bringing an example of a beautiful touching story of emotional awareness in a man. I will hold onto your story for guidance as I heal. Thank you!
As an artist coming upon this useful article, I am curious why the artist used in the first few images is not cited and promoted if you are using their work to enhance your words. Here is her link
hello, thank you Kate, yes Puung is cited and linked to in every post that uses her work and she said as long as it is noncommercial use she is good with them being used in this way. I think you may just need to scroll down to see the link and info about Puung on each page that used her images. If you find one that has missed this please do let me know as I would like to correct it. which one are you looking at that does not have the link?
Thank you! Your attachment theory ideas and words remind me of the Gottmans’ words to mutually turn towards each others’ bids for connection as much as we can. I’ve found that to be precious and valuable for building connection and intimacy, and maybe that’s what safety actually is? Other theories promote the value of alone time, and being whole individuals, sourcing most of our self esteem and safety from within. I’ve found huge value in that paradigm as well, where we’re coming together as two already-whole people, with work to do, yet mostly already whole and secure. I don’t think those theories are mutually exclusive.
And NVC and other approaches speak to core needs that all human beings have. Yet even with core needs being common among all people, indiviuals might value and prioritize different core needs differently. Male or female, one person might value and prioritize safety more than autonomy, or vice versa. Neither prioritization is wrong. I don’t think one person’s need should trump the other person’s, and making one person’s need contingent on meeting the other person’s need first doesn’t reflect the relationship mutuality I’d wish for. So mutality itself is a common core need, and how we prioritize *that* can also be a factor in how people will address and resolve different neeeds. I’d wish that we can build mutual safety *while* we also support each other’s autonomy. We might need to fill our own gaps along the way. That can be scary, and yet I think that it’s valuable work to build and practice our whole-ness, and source more of our safety from within, while also being aware of red flags that might reflect that a relationship or partner might not be a good choice.
I don’t think always being available is reasonable or feasible, especially if either person has a job, kids, or more than one partner in non-heirarchal non-monogamy, where other relationships might come and go, so other commitments might also ebb and flow. Yet I can appreciate the value of turning towards each others’ bids for connection as much as possible, within the context of life and other priorities that also need our attention in life, and within context of being true to ourselves, including self care (which might include autonomy and time alone sometimes), and putting our own oxygen masks on first, and within the context that we each might prioritize common needs differently.
I struggle with the consistent and indefinite availability aspect. If i need ongoing reinforcement to feel safe, perhaps I need counseling? To me, when/if I ask for support, I have a responsibility on my end to also try not to need that extra support for long. Needing someone to push my metaphorical wheelchair indefinitely or forever might not be good for either of us in the long run….?
The strong focus about *men* needing to be consistently available is hard to read. To me, the very minimal words that it goes both ways didn’t offset the significant one-sided focus of the article. The disclaimer at the very end explains the reason for the one-sided-ness, yet I think that would be better to have as the intro, instead of an ending disclaimer, since the disclaimer also reflects valuable clarity about who the target audience is.
However, in reading the disclaimer, I think there can be many reasons why behavior may appear to be dissmissive-avoidant. For people who are “dismissive-avoidant men… who experience that potent mix of self-loathing and entitlement that results in them believing they are doing more nurturing than they actually are, or for those who act in unnaccountable ways because they feel hatred for themselves and don’t know how to centre others or say sorry…” For those people, I think behaviors to be consistently available to their partners might be a bandaid that can help a partner, yet it seems like counseling and/or intense internal work would be needed to *also* work through and resolve the self hatred, entitlement, and unaccountability aspects. Otherwise, those aspects will come up in the relationship in other ways and other places, even if the person works hard to be consistently available.
Yet in many cases, I think that someone feeling that a partner is behaving in dismissive-avoidant ways might really be a reflection of a partner who might prioritze some of our core human needs differently. So partner selection and partner screening for compatibility seem like key factors a well. Prioritizing common needs differently is not necessarily a reflection of being dismissive-avoidant. That might reflect some personal compatibility differences that might or might not enable a viable relationship.
I think it’s important to *ask* each other about our reasons, instead of assuming someone is being dismissive-avoidant. If we want to be seen for who we are, I hope we’d ask our partners who *they* are, and what’s coming up for them when they behave in ways that don’t fit us? My needs don’t (and shouldn’t) outrank theirs, and vice versa. Yet there will be times when we just might not be compatible, and even when we are compatible, there are times that each of us might need to meet our own needs first in order to be true to ourselves. If we’re not true to ourselves first, I’m not sure we have much to offer to a partner.
If a partner is not willing or not able to turn towards me more often, it might be because they have other priorities, beliefs, or barriers that prevent that, so learning what those factors are enables us to both assess compatibility together.
yes, -and thank you for this deep engagement with the question. I want to be clear about two things: 1. responsiveness, which does need to be consistent if emotional safety is your goal, does not equal literal 24/7 ‘meeting the other person’s needs. i feel like the piece is pretty clear about this, so if you’re reading something different, could you help me put and clarify for me where the piece says literal 100% meeting of needs? I have worked really hard to clarify what i do and don’t mean and yet in limbic land everyone has existing inner working models that can replace hearing what i”m actually saying. a kind of cognitive dissonance arises and I’m just curious where it is grounded in the text.
2. it also doesn’t mean an either/or of ‘put your own mask on first’ OR act responsive to other people’s needs. the goal is to know the self and know the other and simultaneously meet both, adjusting to know your own boundaries and capacity so that you can healthily hear the other person’s needs and capacity in live time / when it really matters. this is what men who have that combo of self-loathing and entitlement typically do not think to do (not only them, this is a good goal for all, but if you can’t know yourself that is your (speaking generally here) work to do.
last thought: i think the relationship between building security within oneself and experiencing / building security outwardly is not either/or but one within the other. what we aim to do for each other (in any kind of intimacy, close friend, sibling, lover, partner, even in a group or a community or a healthy workplace (imagine!) would be to experience the container of human bonds as the foundation and because we are held securely in a human circle – seen, accepted, wanted, loved as our whole, true selves, we are then accountable to the group to grow our resilience and emotional maturity as well. knowing others are there to hold us, we can go inward and find strength in ourselves. that’s kind of the point of the whole piece…
hmm… good questions.
I understand the dynamic of turning towards each other’s bids for connection, and I see huge value in that, to the extent that it’s possible to do so and still honor our other commitments and our own need for space, both of which are *also* healthy for individuals and relationships. So i don’t see that it’s either/or, yet sometimes it might need to be. Yet there might be more than one flavor of autonomy, and perhaps that’s where I’m misunderstanding you…?
I don’t think that independence and autonomy are contingent on first being needed, relied on, and feeling safe via someone else – I think we can come to relationships with internally sourced safety that isn’t at risk when our partner needs space or autonomy.
Perhaps that’s a different aspect of autonomy though? Perhaps there’s individual autonomy *and* the autonomy paradox that we can build in relationships? Two different things, both important? I think both can co-exist though ~ I think we can have independence and autonomy on our own, AND we can also build connections in our relationships that result in feeling trust and safety about *that* person, and thus, supportive of each others’ space and autonomy. *That* part reflects the autonomy paradox. Yet if I already have internal safety, it seems like it will be easier to build relationship autonomy.
I realize that consistently being available is not a 24/7 thing, and yet the repetition about consistently being available, and the title words reflecting men desperately needing autonomy, yet they shouldn’t take it, they should make it, convey to me as if the guys’ needs for autonomy are secondary, contingent on first meeting their partners’ need for safety. And these words: “he needs to willingly and consistently meet his intimate’s needs for availability. Wired For Love suggests that this 24/7 security is the foundation of independence. As secure attachers do, he doesn’t determine for me when I need him; I decide that. He just responds…” And there seems to be sting implication that all the female’s needs are reasonable and meetable. To me, these things seem like a strong implication that men should prioritize being available whenever their partner wants them. (I can adjust and assume that might just be how I’m (mis?)hearing your words.)
The target audience seems to be a narrow scope of guys. Similarly, there may be a narrow scope of girls where their idea of normal, meetable needs are not actually normal and meetable. While I know it would be hard or impossible to convey what is and what isn’t normal and meetable needs, some people need much more than what is typical, reachable, and reasonable. Without mention of that possibility, there’s an implication that guys should be consistently available, without any caveats to mention that sometimes, expectations may actually be unreasoanble/unmeetable.
I think other factors also come into play relating to consistent availability: using a very generic paintbrush, introverts might want and need more autonomy of their time and space right from the start. That does not reflect that a person is afraid of being relied on, is not a safe partner, or is not an emotionally adult person. Yet someone with a high need for time and space to himself might not be a good fit for someone who is looking for safety by having a partner who is consistently available.
We also might have times where one person needs connection at the same time that the other person needs space. And/or even when needs are reasonable, some people might need much more consistent availability than the other person can offer, for any number of reasons. To me, those possible scenarios speak more to compatibility/incompatibility aspects to consider, more than guys being dismissive-avoidant.
Since your words are true that men are often shamed for offering emotional connection, *and* for not offering emotional connection well enough or often enough, they might be at a disadvantage for offering the consistent emotional availability. While emotional awareness and emotional availability are valuable skills to develop, I think the ball might initially be in females’ courts to take the lead on offering consistent availability to our mens’ bids for connection, being supportive of their emotional aspects so *we* can help them to feel safe in that way, and being supportive of time and space our partners might need. I’d think that in relationships, the autonomy paradox would work regardless of “direction” or who-goes-first….?
I love these words you shared: “Only in seeing a whole, healthy bond in action does one understand what half of us are hurting over, what the shape of the whole picture is that many of us spend our lives attempting to complete.” Yet when our culture has shamed men for being too emotional *and* for not being emotional enough, many men may be in a similar situation of hurting, and they might not have the skills (yet!) to offer us emotional availability safety, until/unless we might enable them to feel emotionally safe. Such loops we create in our culture!
So yes to your words: Co-holding in a human circle – seeing accepting, wanting, and loving our own true partners and our selves… “to be accountable to the group to grow our resilience and emotional maturity as well. Knowing others are there to hold us, we can go inward and find strength in ourselves.”
And we each have different strengths and obstacles, and different times where we might need to take the lead in building relationship safety, and other times where our partner might need to take that lead, and other times where we might mutually offer the support needed by each other, as we see how our autonomy paradox grows bigger along the way. ❤
yes, and thanks for this thoughtful and detailed reply. I use ‘sovereignty’ and ‘autonomy’ to distinguish these two things. I possess ultimate sovereignty over my body at all times and coercion impacts this soveriegnty. ie I possess the ultimate authority over who touches me, what I eat, etc. (or, thinking medically, over medical procedures or medication ingested, for example I strongly agree with the model that would say as much as humanly possible we each need to have control over whether or not we take medication. personally I rarely even use painkillers, rarely ingest caffeine, and I would feel really angry if someone *forcefed* coffee or advil into me, just as one silly minor example. Not because either of those would be so horrible for me but because I didn’t choose them and don’t want them, inherently my choice). Same with sex; I have sovereignty over my sexuality and it has been hard-won. what I choose to do with that sovereignty is how interdependence comes into play. I have sovereignty over if I choose to watch netflix till 1 am on a workday and the effect the next day is to be exhausted and work badly, and that impacts the humans or animals who depend on me. I can decide how I use my energy, but I can’t magic away hard physical realities like the body’s need for sleep. My sovereignty dos not extend to magically not requiring sleep, because my sovereignty does not magic away the physical realities of the world.
Limbic connection is one of the physical realities of the world. And it exists not only between lovers or partners but between all living beings, and even between us and the nonsentient/or semisentient world – when I walk in the forest I am experiencing a limbic relationship between myself and the woods that hold me and contain me and create a feeling of emotional safety for me. The more we can create containers in our bodies and in the earth that do not rely on attentive other human beings, the more inner security we have and the more autonomy becomes available, and at the same time, that is a fully developed adult capacity, and in order to gain it, we need containment in others until it emerges. If only about half the population received this ample containment during their development, there is no point in attachment-shaming the rest of us, the 50 percent of us who need containment going into adulthood because it has been lacking in our earlier development. In fact, what is unusual about the 50 percent of us who come into adulthood fairly secure is not that we no longer need containment in others but that we are well enough to recognize someone who will offer that healthy loving containment to us, and gravitate towards them, and healthy enough to steer clear of those who cannot offer kindness and loving connection because they are undeveloped themselves. it isn’t that we no longer need it – we need it all of our lives, from birth to death. So going further, I have sovereignty, and I can use it to either work in a healthy way within, or ignore and work against, the hard physiological realities of existing in a human body in an interdependent net of living beings including other humans, animals, plants, and ecosystems and potentially the earth and all living systems. We have lived as a culture ignorant of limbic connection just as if we lived like children unaware of the body’s need for sleep. “I can stay up all night and I don’t want to be tired the next day so I say I won’t be!” is a childish way to exist. If limbic realities are physical limits on mammallian existence, we become adult by comprehending them and exercising our sovereignty within them to create a healthy relational interdependence with our own bodies and those of others. If I choose to undermine my intimate’s feeling of emotional safety with me, by acting cold or indifferent when they turn to me, that impacts them and undermines emotional connection, just as staying up all night undermines my body’s need for sleep. the effect in one case is exhaustion the next day. Or over a long time, the slow breakdown of my body’s health. The effect in the other is intimates feeling disconnected and emotionally unsafe around me, unable to create a feeling that I’m there for them and that they can rely on me, because I choose to exercise my sovereignty like a child who refuses to accept that bodies need sleep and food to function. Growing up means accepting and sliding into the rhythms that create the most harmony, by choice, willingly, and then discovering and exercising our sovereignty in an optimal way within the responsibilities and interdependence that is our organism’s inheritance.
My husband spent most of his adolescence in what is dismissively referred to as the “friend zone.” He had many female friends, who all trusted him, to whom he was very attached, and with whom he was never intimate. He tells stories of friends who got drunk and passed out on his bed, and how it was annoying to sleep on the couch.
He was, and still is, mocked for this by guys who don’t get it. (And more than a few women who don’t, either.)
It took me a long time to realize what a valuable quality it is in him, that this is how he related to women.
I currently work a job that requires me to stay away from home half the nights out of any given week.
We are apart a lot. But I never for one second doubt that he is available to me, when and if I need him. It’s pretty obvious that he feels the same.
This is something that pretty much everyone I’ve talked to thinks is a bizarre situation. They think that either I or he is gearing up to dissolve the relationship, or that if we’re not, we will be soon, because of the time apart.
His mom cornered my employer and lectured him, admonishing him to “not break up [my] family.”
Which is hilarious, because my boss is a lot like my husband. The work we do builds close and empathetic relationships very quickly, if it’s done right. This is maybe the first relationship I’ve had which has illustrated to me trusting and platonic love. We hug and nudge each other as though we’ve been married for years, but it has never been sexual, nor will it.
My husband knows this, and is glad that I am not alone when I’m not with him, that I have emotional support to rely upon, from someone who, unlike him, has also held a dead baby in his arms, has cried with its mother, has held a suicide’s fiance back while the police document the scene. There are things I need support through which my husband can sympathize with, but only someone who’s experienced them can really know how to care for you through, in the moment. And rather than insist that I reject that care if it comes from anyone but him, he has bent over backwards to “allow” me to get that care elsewhere, without once making me feel guilty or ashamed.
My husband is the most gentle, generous, and supportive man I have ever met, which is why he’s my husband. And he continues to delight and surprise me with the depths of his secure, trusting, selfless love.
My boss is the first man in my life who has offered me anything close to that, and never once pushed for, or even expressed desire for, physical intimacy.
I spend my days surrounded by grief and pain, and yet I feel shielded and propped up by such boundless love, from both of the men in my life. They keep me sane and whole, and I like to think I return the favor.
I wish this weren’t such a unique situation. But I’m really glad that my daughters are growing up with this being modeled as normal.
The dismissive avoidant man and the anxious woman conveniently fit into gendered stereotypes but what about dismissive avoidant women like me? I am currently working through dealing with emotional neglect from my parents and the loss of my first boyfriend at age 30. My ex and I are both dismissive avoidant types and he left me to go back to a toxic relationship with his anxious, obsessive ex. It seems that since dismissive avoidant men generally fulfill male stereotypes, they manage to get into relationships with women who will throw themselves under the bus for them. As a woman like this, I’ve never had men bending over backwards to be with me or get me to open up or shower me with attention. If anything I feel penalized for failing to be warm and nurturing to others, which as a woman is something I’m apparently expected to be inherently good at although I haven’t received much nurturance myself. I feel like men have to one-up me in terms of being distant because they can’t be the ‘needy’ ones in a relationship, which just leads to a race to the bottom of who can be more detached. I’m above begging anyone to be with me. I’ve remained single (not by choice) throughout my tumultuous 20s and have a great life despite lacking emotional support from my family or a significant other. Since I am a dismissive avoidant, I should be drawn to anxious men and vice versa right? I consider myself a strong woman (I’ve had to be) and I’m really turned off by the idea of a needy, clingy man. I want an equal. By failing to fit into gender stereotypes I feel like I have to resolve all of my issues / be the best version of myself before men even consider me datable whereas I’ve observed plenty of lazy, crazy, shitty people in relationships all the time. What’s your take on dismissive avoidant women and anxious preoccupied men?