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:
This blog has grown into a book!
Turn This World Inside Out: the Emergence of Nurturance Culture
Order a copy
Other ways you can support this project?
Become a patron! Link to Nurturance Culture Patreon
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
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