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September 27, 2019

How to (compassionately) Call Out our Partner’s Bullsh*t.

Over the last month, power dynamics in relationships have been a hot topic for my clients.

In particular, women have been describing what I call “the command,” where a man instructs a woman about what she should be doing.

I know for myself, this immediately shuts down my body and my heart. And it is difficult to transition from these interactions into more sensual and sexual spaces.

So, what is going on here between men and women in romantic relationships?

Let’s talk about “The Command”

Often, the command is not so much about the words but the tone. “Could you move please?” is not a polite request, but instead has an insistent and aggressive tone. In my own relationship, I find this dynamic can come up around a physical task.

Recently, my beloved and I hired bicycles. As we started to mount up, I felt he was instructing me about what I should be doing, rather than sharing helpful information. He was definitely in his command tone.

Let’s talk about my reaction first. When these dynamics are in full-force, I can get triggered, and my instinctive reaction is to apologise. Somehow, I have gotten in his way without realising it or intending to.

Now pay careful attention here: my default is to think that I am in his way. My physical body becomes tense, my throat gets a bit of a catch in it, and I feel flustered in the moment. In essence, my reaction is some form of fear. I feel I am being reprimanded, I am in trouble. As a long-term meditator, I have built the capacity to notice these states without always automatically reacting to these feelings.

What is happening here?

Often we have these responses because parents, teachers, and other people in “authority” commanded us when we were young. This is why it can become a power struggle, and it feels difficult to voice our feelings, needs, and thoughts.

How do you react when a man raises his voice or drops it down until it feels like cold steel going into your ears? Or when the silence has the edges of emotional violence, when you can hear the pumping of emotions? You might have one or more of the following reactions:

>> Do you freeze?
>> Do you immediately and habitually apologise?
>> Do you heckle and feel your own anger waves rising?
>> Do you mock or tease him, or use sarcasm as a response?
>> Do you go “invisible” by trying to be the good girl.
>> Do you mother him, trying to calm him down, much as you would a two-year-old having a tantrum?

Now think about these reactions; where do you yield and why? Do you yield because it seems easier to submit than work with the backlog of feelings and despair and confront his behaviour?

If you look deeper at these patterns, when you feel a man is commanding you, there is a real loss of equality. You feel disrespected, but you also lose respect for him. And that is a critical tear in the fabric of loving relationships.

“Never make a man feel uncomfortable.”

As women, we have been trained from an early age to never make a man feel uncomfortable. So, we often have long-held patterns of trying to placate men—soothing or glossing over any discomfort.

These dynamics underpin a lot of romantic relationships and the ways in which women yield to try and keep things okay. We all try to hide from being difficult, high maintenance, too demanding, too much, too overbearing, too needy, or too insecure.

However, at social events, the rumblings can reveal themselves if we mock, tease, and joke about our partner’s poor behaviour. And everyone else feels the discomfort. Or worse, sadly, other women chime in about how bad their own partners are. And somehow, there is tacit agreement that this is what it is to be married or partnered with men.

What happens for him?

It’s important to know that when a man is using his voice, actions, and energy to command or dominate you, this is a habit. It has been learned. And it has probably been effective, either up until now with you or in his history of relationships. In some cases, he may not realise in the moment he has started issuing commands.

These patterns can be deep, long-held, and entrenched. But that is no reason for you to accept them in your relationship. This is not the purpose or price of romantic relationship and love. In fact, these very edges are the place where you and your partner can grow.

What you can do?

In my relationship with my beloved, power dynamics are everywhere, and a lot of our relationship processes are about navigating and, at times, mitigating the need for power grabs between us.

One of our earliest conflicts was actually in the kitchen cutting carrots. He started commenting on how I wasn’t doing it correctly or exactly following the recipe. And there was certainly an air of superiority; what I was doing was wrong, and what he thought was factual and right. I noticed myself feeling reprimanded.

I also had enough awareness to call it out immediately. I told him that this level of controlling behaviour would be the death of a relationship before we even got started. Harsh? Did he escalate and backlash? No, he was savvy in the moment too. He realised and said that some of these patterns had been exactly the type of behaviour that plagued his previous relationships, and he was committed to not “stuffing it up” again.

In the bicycle incident, I said his energy felt charged. I was experiencing him commanding me. And then I left it with him for a while. I didn’t try to soothe it or argue and escalate with him. I let him know that my body and heart felt shut down when I experienced his words as aggressive. I didn’t shame him or get righteous myself (well, at least that time!).

I said what I needed to say, and then I let go of expecting him to respond fully in the moment. When these incidents arise, I know that he will be available to talk it through, especially once he has had time to think about his own feelings and what has been going on for him.

Does that mean he never defaults back into the command habit? Does that mean we have perfect communication and no one ever gets righteous, hurt, or aggressive? No, not at all. What it does mean, however, is that for us, everything is on the table. We agree to talk about the difficult things and own up to our poor behaviour with each other. When we recognise these patterns, we aim to call it out and give each other time to come back to centre.

Healthy relationships

Intimacy is a dance, and none of us is perfect. In the face of triggers and fears, our reactive habits can take over. Every situation is different, so follow your own intuition. Here are some of my tips:

  1. Call it out and name it in the moment.
  2. Share what you are feeling—that you are feeling commanded, hurt, and shut down in your body and your heart.
  3. Leave it with him; let him process it in his own time. Don’t try and control his response to your truth.
  4. Leave the space open to talk about it when everyone has calmed down.
  5. Continue with the activities you were doing.

Your power, passion, and healthy boundaries are critical to your capacity to flourish in relationships. So we need to let go of never making a man feel uncomfortable. We need to sit with our own edginess and compulsion to make it all better.

A mature man will thank you for calling out his behaviour. He wants to treat you well and be accountable for his actions. And most of all, he wants to know what you are feeling and where it hurts.

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