I once had a boyfriend who would say, “let’s agree to disagree” when he didn’t agree with me. Simple enough. He couldn’t understand why after that friendly statement I would become enraged.
Half the time, our argument would be a philosophical or petty one that had little to do with our actual relationship or who we were as human beings. He’d attempt to gracefully bow out when he realized that we were just seeing things differently, while I’d essentially Hulkette out.
My early childhood was spent watching the experience of my single mom. I found out pretty quickly that some men could be dangerous. As a kid, I learned that one way to avoid a potentially dangerous situation was to create a “shared reality” with the men in my life.
This meant that I constantly wanted to know what they were thinking or feeling so that I could begin promptly understanding their perspective, and then holding it as my own (this is before I learned about feminism). By finding a way to agree with them, I made things more predictable. They became characters in my story whose lines I could belt out before they even had a chance. Things felt safer this way.
Then, in high school, I learned about something called feminism. By this point, I’d also watched my mom start her own business (and kick ass at it). I’d seen her buy her own house (two houses by the time I finished high school). And, I’d seen her put quite a few men in their “proper” place.
It occurred to me that there was a different way to keep myself safe—instead of finding a way to constantly agree with the men in my life in an effort to maintain a safe, shared reality, I could find a way to get them to agree with me. And I could call this feminism. (I know, what a disservice I did to actual feminism. I’m sorry.)
So, like a sling-shot, I completely abandoned my plan to agree with men, and instead I demanded that men agree with me.
Under the guise of feminism, if my boyfriend didn’t have an elaborate enough opinion (didn’t agree with me emphatically), I’d accuse him of not caring as much as I did. Most of the time, I’d try to convince (manipulate) him into seeing things my way. If that didn’t work, as a last resort, I demanded that he somehow prove his points. To explain himself. I hoped he’d give me something that I could get on board with.
The main thing was, we needed to be a united front, on the same page. It seemed imperative that we agree. Yet, it seemed just as imperative that I express my truth, but somehow this morphed into an imperative that he agree with me.
In my other platonic and more detached relationships (mostly with women), I generally found it easy to disagree and remain amicable. But in my romantic relationships, I found it intolerable.
I wrongly assumed that the remedy for my issue was to simply find a guy more like me who “cared more about what I cared about” aka agreed with me as much as possible.
I spent more than 10 years on this track. During that time, I had a boyfriend who mentioned that I was always trying to “edit and revise” his emotions, reactions, expressions. He said he often felt like he was taking a test. And still, I clung to the belief that if we could just see things the same, we’d have a relationship worth sticking out.
And then one day, I fell in love with a man who, when I began a more subtle and refined version of my classic hulk out (because I’m clearly more evolved now 😉 ), simply told me that he did not owe me any certain kind of reaction. He did not owe me an expression that wasn’t truly his. He wasn’t going to agree with me. He wasn’t going to attempt to convince me of anything. That’s it. His demeanor told me that he wasn’t budging.
We happened to be discussing politics at the time of his remark. And as the words rolled out of his mouth, I noticed something in the pit of my stomach. At first, it felt like rage. But then I noticed that the rage was rooted in something bigger and darker.
It was my old fear.
And something inside of me clicked. I remembered when I’d learned to fear men as a child. Just like that, I had an entirely new understanding of why I’d been doing things the way I had, and how my distorted idea of feminism had supported my dark mission.
Ultimately, I realized that my desperation to find common ground with a partner was rooted completely in fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of someone writing something into my story that I wasn’t prepared for. Fear of being controlled. Fear of being hurt.
But mostly, my fear was because of the primal and deep way that I was scared of men. And men whose opinions I didn’t completely understand, whose feelings didn’t always match my own, were the most frightening—because they were unpredictable.
I’ve experienced a fair share of sexism, sexual harassment, and misogyny. I’ve been close to men who have themselves been abusive. I’ve loved women who have been abused. And somewhere in my subconscious, I’ve fervently noted how physiology favored men—in a physical altercation the woman is usually the underdog.
But, I’ve also seen men mistreated by women. And women mistreated by women. And men mistreated by men.
I myself have mistreated the men I loved most because of my own fear of mistreatment. I controlled to avoid being controlled. How ironic.
I was blinded by a fear that I didn’t even know I still had. I was completely unaware of how I had been perpetuating the cycle of mistreatment myself.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I imagine that many other serious feminists have had experiences that left them deeply fearing men in ways they don’t understand. When we don’t recognize our own fears, it’s easy to inadvertently act from that place yet believe that we are acting from a place of empowerment.
Now that I’m more aware of my own fear and where it came from, I’ve changed the way I operate in my current relationship.
There’s no need for us to agree. Or for either of us to prove anything to each other.
Fear doesn’t have a front row seat in my relationship (most days). Even though sometimes I still feel it, and maybe I always will.
I no longer use feminism, a movement whose goal is empowerment, as a shield to cower behind as I drown in my own unchecked (though I recognize not entirely unwarranted) fear of men.
The way I wielded feminism often prevented me from authentic connection with those people I loved most.
I did a disservice to the feminist movement and to men.
To the feminists of the world, the ones who encouraged me to speak up when I was being sexually harassed at work, the ones who said, eff it, you don’t have to wear a bra or mascara or shave your legs unless you want to. The ones who said, “Marriage? Who the hell cares. Do it when and if you want.” The ones who exclaimed, “Oh, hell yes, I will ask for the raise I deserve.” I want to apologize for hijacking your movement. I’m so sorry.
And to the men that I have cornered—or have been cornered by something called feminism, but actually is not. The innocent men that I have edited, revised and molded. Convinced. Manipulated. The men that I have demanded agree with me. Tested. Over and over again. I want to apologize. I was wrong. I feared being hurt by a man—and to avoid that, in my own ways, I hurt you. I’m sorry.
And to the love in my own heart that I abandoned when I chose to serve fear, I’m so sorry.
Author: Teela Hammell
Photo: The Thomas Crown Affair
Editor: Travis May