Monday, November 27, 2017

Loving the Man Who Needs Space

Originally published on The Good Man Project.

What happens when partners have different attachment styles? Paget Norton applies the research to her own relationship.

“Space. I need space.” My husband looked like he was suffocating. We were in the midst of a disagreement about dishes (always dishes!), and it wasn’t going well. I wanted to move in closer, connect, figure it out. He wanted to run. Everything about his body said flight. Ten years ago, I would have moved to close the gap in lightning speed. He would have been halfway out of the room. But now we knew better. I knew I could stay at the distance we were at without reaching out. He knew he could have some distance without running. He edges on the avoidant. I edge on the anxious. These are our attachment styles.

Attachment Styles

What are they? According to Sharon Martin, LCSW, in “What’s My Attachment Style and Why Does It Matter?” our relationships with our first caregivers – usually our parents, but not always – are foundational for the relationships we’ll have in the future. Caregivers should make children feel safe and secure. From them, children learn that how to trust and bond. If their caregivers are there for them, children feel they can go out into the world with confidence, knowing their caregivers will provide a sense of safety and security. When caregivers are not responsive, the child grows up to have an insecure attachment style.

The Gottman Institute details different attachment styles in “Your Attachment Style Influences the Success”:

  • Anxious Attachment – develops when a caregiver has been inconsistent in their responsiveness and availability, confusing the child about what to expect. As an adult, this person acts clingy at times and finds it difficult to trust their partner.
  • Avoidant Attachment – develops when a caregiver is neglectful. These are the children that play by themselves and develop the belief that no one is there to meet their needs. As adults, they typically label themselves as very independent.
  • Disorganized Attachment – develops from abuse, trauma, or chaos in the home. A child learns to fear the caregiver and has no real “secure base.” (Only 3% of people are this one.)

If you’d like to find out more about your attachment style, there are quizzes in the books Attached and Wired For Love. There is also a longer online assessmentthrough Dr. Chris Fraley. You can track your results over time and see if there are any changes.
Also important to note that some researchers refer to attachment styles as “traits” or “states.” This means they are not fixed and immutable. They can change depending on the situation or relationship.
In my marriage, realizing that my husband is avoidant bordering on secure, and I am mostly secure with some anxious, has been super helpful in understanding our dynamic. While we both used to be more insecure in our attachment styles, over time this has been slowly changing (very slowly!) to something that has become more secure.

Securely Attached People

In “Portrait of Marriage. (Yes, It’s Mine.)”, Carmen Spagnola describes what a securely attached person would be able to do. This person would be connected to their body, feelings, needs. They would confident about speaking their needs, engage interdependence without fear, integrate love and sexuality, and many more.
For an avoidant person, this can be incredibly scary. On the one hand, an avoidant desires—craves—intimacy and connection. On the other hand, she or he has learned to build a wall between themselves and others, creating protection against further trauma.

Avoidant Men and Toxic Masculinity

Here is the avoidant man: the strong silent type coupled with intense work drive, resolutely independent, steady and unemotional, has strong specifics about what he likes, is mysterious or aloof. Spagnola says, “[I]f the avoidant partner is male, he is venerated as a man of strength, dignity, and a commendable stoicism.” Sound familiar? This paints a partial picture of toxic masculinity where the man has been iconized by these seemingly “good” traits, but in reality, never gets the intimacy he truly desires.

Deactivating Strategies

When I first read the book Attached, I was blown away. While some of the following strategies don’t apply to my husband, some definitely did. Deactivating strategies, as described in Attached, are things avoidants do – usually unconsciously – to take them out of a relationship and put some distance there.
If you are avoidant, you might recognize some of these:
  • Saying (or thinking) “I’m not ready to commit”—but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years.
  • Focusing on small imperfections in your partner: the way s/he talks, dresses, eats, or (fill in the blank) and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
  • Pining after an ex-girlfriend/ boyfriend.
  • Flirting with others—a hurtful way to introduce insecurity into the relationship.
  • Not saying, “I love you”—while implying that you do have feelings towards the other person.
  • Pulling away when things are going well (e.g., not calling for several days after an intimate date).
  • Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married.
  • “Checking out mentally” when your partner talks to you.
  • Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy—to maintain your feelings of independence.
  • Avoiding physical closeness—e.g. not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead of your partner.
The other side of this is that relationships and intimacy—while truly desired—can be very intense for avoidants. They have disconnected themselves from their feelings and needs, so when they are face to face with feelings and needs, they can get overwhelmed. The intimacy can be really scary.

Emotional Disconnect

One key point in all of this is how my husband’s relationship to emotions has transformed over the years. Because I tend towards being anxious, I also tend to need more reassurance around our relationship (motherhood has transformed much of this for me, but that’s another article). In the beginning, we would have an argument and literally 2-3 months later, intense emotions would surface for him. It drove me nuts. I initially coded it as withholding, dishonesty, etc. Nothing positive. I couldn’t understand why and how I could feel something so immediately and directly whereas it took him weeks to feel the same.
Over time, I began to trust that my husband wasn’t lying. After all, we enjoyed each other’s company, and he made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere even if he did have a need for space. And you know what? The more I created that space of trust, the more quickly he was able to feel his emotions and share them with me. That meant, I was no longer with a stoic man, I was with a real man.

Needs vs. Neediness

After our son was born, my husband was overwhelmed with the incredible volume of needs our son had. On the one hand, intellectually, he understood it was completely natural and normal. On the other hand, it also occurred to him as unrealistic and frankly, we just seemed needy to him. After reading an articleonline, he had a sudden revelation: needs were natural and normal. It might seem obvious, but internally, he was coding not only our needs, but his own needs as being needy. It was huge. Can you imagine how he received the both of us when we needed something? It had shifted.

Now, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get overwhelmed when the two of us need something. But it does mean he has a new context for it. The second part is that he has revamped his own relationship to his needs. They still sometimes occur as scary and overwhelming, but more and more he is able to notice his needs, recognize that articulating them before he explodes is valuable, and actually ask for what he wants. Huzzah!

Physical Proximity

It would be inauthentic to say that my husband never wants to run to the next room (or next country), but in a recent disagreement, I noticed a profound difference or years past when he would have disappeared. I sensed the tension in his body and the effort it took for him to stay. I didn’t move closer or try to touch him (for him, touch can be very intense when we are disagreeing). My work has been to resource myself without relying on him for all of that while his work has been to step closer and flex the muscle of feeling uncomfortable and not running. Whew! A lot of work, but the connection is beautiful.

Moving Towards Secure Attachment

Everyone wants to be secure, right? It is possible even with insecure attachment styles, whether that’s anxious or avoidant. It takes knowing your patterns and doing the work. For me, it was trusting myself and my husband to be there, acknowledging the stories I built in my mind weren’t actually true, and recognizing that my needs for closeness weren’t neediness. For my husband, it has been to connect with his emotions and needs, which sometimes means taking space to feel them. When he’s overwhelmed (which happens more easily to him than to me), he simply can’t feel himself. With some space (we’re talking hours now, not days or week or a foreign country), he can feel himself. He has a commitment to get back to me and share with me. The result: it’s not perfect, but it has enabled me to love him more, be less fearful, and know that his need for space isn’t about me. In short, we both get more of what we want as we co-create our relationship.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Red Hot: Men in Red Lipstick

Moving beyond the Man Box to authentic gender expression.

The 1940’s was a time when American advertisers and businesses could profit from others by collapsing gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Certainly, gender identity has often been defined via clothing, but separating out expression, identity, sex, and attraction can be liberating.I’m the mother who bought a tube of lipstick for her 6-year-old son. He asked. I was feeling generous. He chose his own color: pink. As far as I can tell, my only shortcoming was in not teaching him how to apply it correctly. Total fail on my part. When it comes to clothes, costumes, makeup, I’m wide open. As far as I’m concerned, if David Bowie could rock lipstick, so can my son. 

I want my child to be as self-expressed as possible, not boxed in in the way I see some men: so tightly bound they can barely breathe. So, I let him wear lipstick. Red, pink, it doesn’t matter.
Back in 1918, it did matter. Pink would have been the norm for boys. In fact, an article from Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department proclaimed:
The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.
It wasn’t until the 1940’s that manufacturers and retailers decided pink was a color for girls; blue was a color for boys.

The Genderbread Person

In the Genderbread person, Sam Killermann defines all of these attributes:
Gender identity is how you perceive your own gender in your mind. This could include woman, man, two-spirit, genderqueer, and non-binary, amongst others. I know a person, Joe, who feels he is thirty percent woman and seventy percent man. His gender expression, however, is different.
Gender expression
 is how you express your gender outwardly. This could be clothing, gestures, voice, etc. Killermann gives scales that include masculine, feminine, asexual, and gender neutral. Joe expresses himself in a very masculine way through his voice, clothes, and gestures. This differs from how he feels internally.
Biological sex is the physical sex characteristics you are born with: genitalia, voice, body hair, chromosomes, etc. It could include male, female, intersex, etc. Experts at medical centers say 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births produce a child who is atypical in terms of biological sex. That child doesn’t fit neatly into binary categories easily described by terms such as penis or vulva.
Sexual and romantic attraction are also pieces of the puzzle – from who you’re attracted to, to no one at all: asexual, demisexual (only attracted if there’s a strong emotional connection), pansexual, bisexual, gay, straight.
Now, why break all of this down? Because people have a tendency to simplify and merge all of them together. 
What you look like should somehow correlate with how you feel inside which should correlate with your genitalia as well as who you are attracted to. It doesn’t always work that way. By not collapsing these, a space is opened for men (really for everyone, but this is geared towards men) to know who they truly are. From there, they can create a gender expression that more authentically expresses identity, sex, attraction, and so on.

Why Red Lipstick? A Brief History

Red lipstick is currently connected to the feminine, but it wasn’t always that way. Both men and women in ancient Sumeria 3500 BC wore red lipstick but the history and transformation of lipstick from that time to ours is dramatic. Imagine bugs, lead, crushed gemstones, flowers, and fish scales amongst the ingredients used to paint that pouter red. Often, upper-class people wore lipstick as a way to differentiate themselves from the lower classes, which is why men and women wore lipstick. Throughout the ages, lipstick eventually became associated with prostitutes (to differentiate themselves from real ladies), death (Elizabeth I – lead lipstick poisoning), and the suffragettes. By the 1930’s, Vogue declared lipstick to be the ultimate fashion accessory but inexorably linked to women.

Nowadays, the tide is turning with the availability of red lipstick. It is no 
longerlinked to prostitution or death though it is almost exclusively associated with the feminine. Perhaps there is space in history for red lipstick to be an outlet for authentic gender expression and identity beyond the binary.

Red Lipstick on Men

I’ve always loved the look of red lipstick on myself and on others. When men rock the red, it’s interesting to note how their style correlates to different aspects of the genderbread person. For this piece, I wanted to find men who have a wide range of outward expression: from masculine to feminine to androgynous. I wanted straight men, gay men, men with fluid sexuality. In short, I wanted to look at men who embody the genderbread spectrum and consider what is possible.

David Bowie immediately came to mind. Bowie wasn’t afraid to push the edge of fashion or music throughout his career, though, at the same time, he was also able to demonstrate class and style that ranged from drag, fully costumed to traditionally masculine, and androgynous. He self-described at times as bi-sexual and “try-sexual.” Photographer Diego Uchitel captured Bowie in red lipstick: classically masculine bowtie, piercing eyes, impenetrable.

Other men who have rocked the red lips are: 
Robert Smith of The Cure, sporting wild hair and red lipstick. Eddie Izzard, famous for cross-dressing, comedy, and activism, who recently came out as transgender (explaining that he has both girland boy modes). Fabulously rocking drag are James Franco for Candy Magazine, John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the infamous Ru PaulBringing up the androgynous end is Marilyn Manson, who has the ability to swing from the slightly more sedate to the wildly less sedate with his own style. Lastly (but certainly not least), Jacob Tobia (pictured above) identifies as non-binary, goes by the pronoun “they,” and chooses a mix of masculine and feminine in their dress.
There are certainly many more mn who rock the red lips. Some bring forth the feminine, others the masculine, others something that seems to defy any sort of gender definition. For some, gender identity is presented on the outside – as in Eddie Izzard. For others, it’s less clear. And still, it all works for them in their own unique ways. The key is having a range of possibility, so men don’t feel so trapped. They show who they want to be as opposed to who society tells them to be.

Beyond Red Lipstick: Redefining Gender Expression to Authentic Expression

I asked my son not only about pink lipstick but about wearing pink. I told him I didn’t care what color he wore. He rolled his eyes.
“Of course you’re supposed to say that. You’re my mom.” He sighed. “I’d wear pink, but there’s none there.”
“None where?”
“None in the boys’ section. They don’t have pink clothes in the boys’ section.” You see, my son doesn’t want to be a girl even though internally he feels half boy and half girl. He wants to express as a boy who wears pink. It wasn’t a matter of whether he’d wear it. It was a matter of where he’d get it.
In 2015, Target addressed some guest complaints by committing to de-genderize departments like Toys and Home. However, this does not extend to clothes, which might have “sizing issues.” It’s a start and certainly, others could follow.
The same goes for lipstick or any other accoutrement or clothing deemed “feminine.” Herein is the problem: how do you express yourself authentically if the tools you wish to use are stereotyped, boxed away, inaccessible, or just expensive? You want a pink shirt? You’ll have to shell out some dough for it. You want unisex clothing? Try a boutique. Not cheap.
For some, gender expression might be totally irrelevant. Showing who you are on the outside, what you think of yourself on the inside, what cards biology has dealt you—all of this might be private or obvious or simply a non-point. For others, the ability to add a subtle or not-too-subtle flourish that expresses who they truly are is a game-changer.
This means men and boys who witnessed artists like David Bowie going beyond the standard man box heaved a collective sigh of relief. Some felt they now had permission to express themselves as fully as possible along the spectrum. They could finally be true to themselves.
In Axe Men’s Grooming Product 2016 commercial called “Find Your Magic,” the opening image shows a man with a six-pack. The voice over explains, “Who needs a six-pack when you got the nose?” The images that follow go beyond the initial chiseled abs showing a wide range of what is possible: a man in a wheelchair, geeks in a record shop, a man sporting black heels and rocking them, etc. The possibility of what a man can be expands,  as I see it expand with a generation of young men in their teens and twenties, my own six-year-old son, and a path forged by men who were willing to take a chance and simply be themselves. They smashed the man box. Sometimes with a hammer, and other times with the bright slash of a red lipstick.

Monday, November 6, 2017

What I Learned When My Son Asked About Dying

Originally published on Perfection Pending.

“Mama, what happens if I’m at home, and you and Dada die?” My 6 year-son was sitting in the back seat of my car peppering me with questions. Recently, he had been talking a lot about death and what-ifs, so I was no stranger to this conversation.

My first thought was to be practical. I told him he could go to the neighbors. I named off the neighbors on either side of us. He knew their names. I told him he could knock on their doors and ring their doorbells at any hour.

“But what if they’re dead?”

I told him to walk down to the local cafe. Someone would be there. He could get help. They’d help a young boy who knew where he lived, and what his parents names were. I piped through very pragmatic information. I wanted to empower my kid with knowledge, for him to know he had options, that he wouldn’t be alone. People would help him.

“But what if they’re dead?”

Quickly it dawned on me that he was going to go through every single person I could possibly imagine.

I parked the car, and we got out. We crossed the street, and slowly I began to speak again.

“Do you mean, what if everyone is dead, and you’re the only one left?”

My son’s eyes filled with tears. He nodded vigorously. We sat down together on the front porch, and I pulled him into my lap.

“Well, if that happened to me, and I were the only one left . . . then, I would feel very sad and scared. It would be really hard.” My own eyes filled with tears. We sat together, crying, imagining such an empty scary world. This is what I imagined it would be like living in the Trenches of the ocean, the bottom of the bottom, where food is scarce and connection even more so.

The seconds ticked by. The sun continued to shine, and our warm bodies melted together. There was nothing to do; no pragmatism would reach deeper than this. Slowly, I dried our tears, and we stood up and went inside. He had stopped asking questions, and I had stopped giving answers. In the midst of such a horrific scenario, we had connected in a shared experience of imagined loneliness and heartache. That made all the difference.

From that point on, he has never asked about death in the same way. It seems that something resolved, and so it had.

Here were my takeaways from this conversation.

Unresolved fears. If your child is looping on difficult conversations then it’s likely because something is unresolved. Often it’s some kind of deep-seated fear. This is what I got to when I realized my son was not only asking about me dying, but about everyone dying. He was imagining the worst-case scenario of being completely and utterly alone in the world. There is no practical answer to this.

Empathize. Heavy topics like death, violence, and bullying (amongst others) are intense. Even if you aren’t triggered by them, your child might be. Make sure your child doesn’t feel alone with these feelings. You don’t have to feel or agree with your child’s emotional response, but listening and truly trying to get where he’s coming creates a world of connection.

Be patient and go slowly. Follow your child’s pace. In this busy world, it’s easy to want to resolve things as quickly as possible. In going quickly, we often gloss over the core of what’s going on, or simply don’t spend enough time on it. Take a breath and settle in. After all, if your child has been looping on it for awhile, it might take some investment to help her come out of it.

Give practical tips. But only if they’re open to it. If the practical tips aren’t landing, then it might be too soon. Go back to #2. If your child shows interest, continue. Better yet, brainstorm together. What could he do if he were lost? If he invests in the solution, he’s more likely to remember it.

Stay out of power struggles. This isn’t a time to be right (or wrong for that matter). This is a time for connection. Is it realistic to think everyone on earth will be decimated at the drop of a hat? Likely not. That’s not the point here. It’s not time to argue. It’s time to get on your child’s team and eliminate the power struggle (no right; no wrong). Then, you’ll be able to head into the heart of the matter.

This is what I have learned, at least until the next set of questions about the next hypothetical situation rolls in. Perhaps I will answer it in a constructive way, but I’m sure I will also consider what it means to connect my heart to his, listen to what those perfect beats have to say, and simply be with him while he navigates this world of unanswerable questions.

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