What's reasonable to expect men to understand about women's experiences?
March 23, 2016 3:44 AM   Subscribe

Specifically if a man identifies as feminist, should he then understand why a woman would take stories of sexism against other women personally? An ongoing source of conflict with a man in my life is that we'll discuss something sexist happening in the world and when I want a moment of commiseration about it like "man, that sucks, what a shitty world, I'm sorry" he won't give it and doesn't understand why I take it personally unless it is something that personally happens to me.

So for example, he doesn't understand why I take stories of, say, female rape victims being called liars personally, even though I am not myself a female rape victim who has been called a liar.

This occurs on down thorugh various examples of decreasing personal experience, from sexist portrayals of Hillary Clinton to the experiences of Muslim women.

He points out that when I do experience sexism personally he is supportive, which is true.
posted by pocketfullofrye to Human Relations (50 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
So he doesn't understand the systemic problem? Perhaps something like "I could be that rape victim tomorrow, is the point" might get through?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:52 AM on March 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

isn't understanding the systemic problem central to "feminism"?
posted by andrewcooke at 3:54 AM on March 23, 2016 [39 favorites]

my best guess at this is not that he doesn't "get" feminism, but that there's a cultural difference in the degree to which you two feel it appropriate to be supportive of the other. this may be partly based on gender roles, but could also be, for example, geographical, or even economic (so he's accustomed to a "stiff upper lip" or whatever).

if that's right, then i suppose he feels that he is having to support / commiserate you "too much", and by restricting when he does so to when you are personally affected he gets the level back to "normal" (for him).

i'm trying not to judge here, because to some extent i can see the same thing in my own relationship with my partner. but frankly it doesn't sound that great a relationship.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:08 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

This doesn't sound like a feminism-specific issue. Would this person be willing to acknowledge and/or support bad feelings you might have about e.g. learning about child abuse?

On preview, I agree with andrewcooke. In my life I've found that some people just don't "get" empathy. They're not necessarily bad people but it's hard for me to maintain close relationships with them.
posted by telegraph at 4:09 AM on March 23, 2016 [14 favorites]

I have come across feminist men who are generally good allies, but for them it's one of many causes rather than something they feel deeply and personally connected to, and they don't quite get how much these kinds of news stories can hurt. Maybe that's the case with this man?

That said, I don't expect the men in my life to be affected by this stuff on the visceral level that I am, but I do expect them to understand why I feel that way and offer sympathy and support accordingly. When my friends/family/etc. are obviously upset about something I don't really understand I provide them with comfort because I care about them and their feelings, so I expect the same in return.
posted by daisysteiner at 4:43 AM on March 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

You can't expect other people to feel exactly the way you do on many things, no.
posted by Melismata at 4:57 AM on March 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

You're getting down about these stories because these events are happening to these women because they are women. As a feminist, you recognise this, and have empathy because your fellow women are being discriminated against or abused because of their gender.

I think a man who identifies as a feminist should understand where you are coming from - not just because, hey, you're a woman too, but because of empathy. As someone said above, you can't feel pain for an abused child because you're not an abused child? Absurd.
posted by NatalieWood at 5:08 AM on March 23, 2016 [24 favorites]

I feel like it's a very fine line between commiserating and taking things personally, and you may be misinterpreting things. Or he may be. Or you're splitting hairs.

Like, when my daughter gets a callback for an audition but then doesn't get the part, I'm sympathetic to her disappointment. I can say that sucks. But I don't take it personally even though the director's untalented niece got the part and nepotism sucks.

If my neighbors get robbed, I am sympathetic to their suffering but don't feel their pain personally. I know they are suffering and what happened to them is terrible because being invaded and robbed IS terrible, but no, I do not personally feel their suffering.

When I hear people say stupid sexist remarks about women, I am offended by their ignorance. But I don't take it personally.

In all of these examples, I'm unhappy or sympathetic about the systemic issues. You could say I take these personally, or that I don't.

But I feel like you may be splitting hairs here.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:33 AM on March 23, 2016 [14 favorites]

when I want a moment of commiseration ... he won't give it

This sucks. I'm not sure how much his feminism (or lack thereof) has to do with his unwillingness to give this response to a friend when he knows that's what's wanted of him. His apparent desire to, instead, argue about whether or not you really ought to feel what you feel is not very considerate or friend-like.

One does not need to understand exactly how someone else feels or agree with those feelings, or have those feelings, in order to give commiseration or sympathy or kindness.
posted by rtha at 5:44 AM on March 23, 2016 [17 favorites]

If you express similar feelings about, say, the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, do you get dismissed in the same manner? That should make it pretty clear whether the problem is that he's not actually much of a feminist or just utterly lacks empathy.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:46 AM on March 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

In my late teens and early twenties, I would have said I sympathized with feminism, but probably didn't understand much of anything.
In my late twenties, I began to change and did understand some things and brought some more mature empathy to the table.
yada, yada, yada
In my fifties now I believe I understand feminism and call myself a feminist.
I'm not saying I took a proper timeline, but there is this much I can say in retrospect. It is reasonable to expect people who are not in your shoes to empathize. That is displaying an essential part of humanity. Growing up, we are locked in our narrow world. It takes time to break out of that world. It takes time to understand another person's perspective.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:54 AM on March 23, 2016

When I hear people say stupid sexist remarks about women, I am offended by their ignorance. But I don't take it personally.

FWIW I do take it personally to a degree. I am not sure if it's right or wrong, but I do feel personally hurt when other women are targeted because of their gender.

If this man respects your capacity for rational thinking, then he should accept the fact that nature has decided that this is a subject in which you have much more insight than him, and that your feelings and emotions are valid and make sense. Just like you would never sit a man down to explain to him what the experience of being a man is like, as feminist as he might be, he will never, ever have the complete picture, and he should then defer to you, because you do have the more complete picture on what it is like to be a woman in this world.

Not validating your feelings or stating that certain issue does not involve you is like telling a refugee that their anguish and sadness about a war back home are not relevant because they are no longer at risk.

It's like telling a middle class black person that they should not take the suffering of poor black people personally.

People taking things personally is what makes this world move forward. Gandhi, Salvador Allende, MLK, all these people took it personally, got angry, cried for others. If he doesn't understand that then he is completely clueless in his privilege and a phony who likes to call himself a feminist.
posted by Tarumba at 6:00 AM on March 23, 2016 [17 favorites]

I'm not sure if I'm reading this correctly. Is it the case that all you want is agreement that these things suck? As in, you want to hear from him things like, "Yeah, that is really vile that so-and-so called that rape victim a liar, how horrible that such accusations are given credence"? And instead he's just saying "Well, you're not being called a liar so you don't need to be bothered"?

If so, then yes - something like "I know this upsets you and I agree that it's a shitty situation" is a reasonable sentiment to expect from your partner. From your question I don't think you're expecting him to feel exactly the same way you do - as in, I don't think you're asking that he take things as personally as you do - but if you are, that is probably beyond the bounds of reasonable expectation.

Again, though, if all you want is for your partner to recognize that you're upset and agree with you that shitty sexist situations are indeed shitty - and not try to explain to you why you shouldn't be upset (or refuse to acknowledge your feelings) - I think that's definitely reasonable to expect.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:21 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

It sounds like your friend intellectually understands feminism but does not grok it. He is (barring an inability to express empathy for other situations as suggested above) failing to recognize that hearing about what a shitty world it is for women hurts you emotionally as a woman. It's both empathy for the victim in the story you're talking about as well as empathy for you because you, as a woman, have to live in a world where women are victimized, attacked, discriminated against.

It's the difference between reading an article about, per your example, a female rape victim being called a liar and thinking, "That's bad. People shouldn't do that" and "That's bad. That has happened to [friend/family member/classmate/coworker]. That could happen to me."
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:35 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it's entirely reasonable to get your partner to this from the outside. Maybe he doesn't have the intrinsic empathy, but it's perfectly possible to think your way to acting empathetic.

"Partner, I need you to understand intellectually that I identify with other women when they are injured, and I also worry about myself, my women friends and my women family members. When I talk about this stuff, I need you to know intellectually that this is how I'm feeling and I need you to acknowledge that rather than acting puzzled by it or pushing it aside. It may not be something that you feel, but I need you to trust and respect me by believing me and acting accordingly."

I'm kind of an unfeeling weirdo in some ways because of how I grew up. As a result, I don't see anything wrong with just getting in the habit of thinking "huh, I'm not sure how to respond to this and my feelings aren't guiding me; what can I deduce about how the other person might feel and what they might need?" That's an act of care, too, even if it doesn't come from a feelings-overflowing heart.
posted by Frowner at 6:43 AM on March 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

He can call himself what he wants and identify as he likes, but if he cannot evolve his world view to one where he understands that the things you are upset about effect all women due to pervasive, systemic and institutionalized oppression, or even that the commonplace occurance of rape and the routine lack of justice around it is itself oppressive in a way that impact your day to day life as a women, then he is not a good ally.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:29 AM on March 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

I think in a lot of ways you're kind of seeing the patriarchy in action - feeling a direct emotional empathetic response to the circumstances of people we're not directly connected to is a form of emotional labor that is (generally) taught to and encouraged in women and (generally) discouraged and ignored in men.

(Think of how many movies basically boil down to "This Time It's PERSONAL!!", where Hero Dude's motivation is that something happens to someone he personally knows; or how many male politicians have changed their position on something or gotten concerned about something only after it affects someone they know personally. And it doesn't just apply to negative emotions - I bet you know more women than men who would get a little joyfully verklempt over pics and videos of a bunch of puppies or a kid's birthday party, while probably more men would be all vaguely, "That's nice. . . . " until and unless they were actually seeing or playing with the puppies or the kids in person.)

So, yeah, he's comfortable supporting you, personally, but understands and empathizes with the problems of HRC or Muslim women on a more abstract, intellectual, less-emotional level, because that's how he was raised in our patriarchal society.

Should you expect him to have the same emotional reaction or to automatically understand your reactions 'Because Feminism'? No, I don't think so - you could say in some important ways you and he have been raised in and live in different worlds, and him understanding and agreeing with the tenets of feminism won't automatically instill in him an emotional reaction that he's unfamiliar and inexperienced with.

Coupla thoughts about addressing this:

1) In some ways this is a variation on the old familiar story of "women want validation and emotional support, men think they need to problem-solve", and often the first step, unfair as it may be (ref. about one hundred thousand previous AskMes), is for you to address this fairly directly. Tell him in so many words that sometimes in these discussions you just need him to acknowledge that the situation other people are dealing with is really awful and that you're feeling strong emotions about this, and having him be all, "Storm the Bastille! Economic sanctions for everyone!!" (or whatever it is he's doing) is not actually helpful in the moment.

2) Depending on age and individual temperament, he may never really understand why you take it personally, or have a similar reaction himself, BUT . . . . . he does need to treat your emotional reaction respectfully and seriously. You haven't really described how he reacts to your emotional reactions, but there can be a definite difference between "confused" and "dismissive."
posted by soundguy99 at 7:29 AM on March 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

Best answer: With the caveat that I'm a woman who doesn't think men can be feminists, part of his reticence is probably due to the fact that men are used to considering themselves the standard bearers for humanity itself, rather than a member of an identifiable population. Even within more granular population classes like race and religion, men are the default and women are other. Men are invisible, women are visible. Women are the marked gender and there is no unmarked woman [PDF].

All of this speaks directly to the question of "if a man identifies as feminist, should he then understand why a woman would take stories of sexism against other women personally?" Since individual men are rarely treated as representatives of all men everywhere, they're rarely moved to take the treatment of other men personally unless they're feeling especially defensive or subconsciously identifying with the specific type of man under discussion. On the other hand, individual women are often treated as representatives of our entire sex, regardless of any other characteristic we might possess -- first female this, all-woman that, etc. -- which (imo) often leads us to empathize when other women are treated poorly.

Plainly, men don't really need to pay close attention when something happens to or is done by another man because men are just people, but women do, because women are always *women* and never just regular people. This experiential gap makes it difficult for many men to understand why and how women can identify so strongly with other members of the same 'marked' population, even if the rest of their lives are very different than our own (Hillary Clinton, et al).

What's reasonable to expect men to understand about women's experiences? I'm not sure, because I honestly don't expect them to understand anything.
posted by amnesia and magnets at 7:30 AM on March 23, 2016 [23 favorites]

It's hard to diagnose this guy as needing an empathy infusion without some more context.

Like, when you say that you "take things personally," how does that manifest? Do you mention [shitty thing] and explain how [shitty thing] makes you feel [shitty] just having to live in a world where that occurs? I ask because I'm similar to you in that I'm a lady who is also a rape victim who has been accused of being a liar and I wouldn't say that I take it personally when I hear about those situations, but I do acknowledge that they suck and make the world worse. I can also picture all kinds of over-the-top reactions that people might have that might just make me roll my eyes at them and write them off as drama mongers.

When he doesn't provide "moments of commiseration" or "doesn't understand" what is he doing instead? Is he being dismissive? Like "why is this even bothering you?" Or is he saying things that are maybe attempts to make you feel better like "wow, I'm glad you've never been put in that situation?"

It might be helpful to gauge his reaction to things that are more aligned with his particular interests. Like, how does he react to a story (or a visual) of a guy getting hit below the belt? Most guys I know tend to have an involuntary flinching type reaction to that, and can relate to how that hurts and go on and on about how that's not a fair move in a fight. Does he feel the same way? If so, he's capable of learning how violence against women can feel for women.

If he doesn't, then yeah, he's got some overarching issues with being able to put himself in other people's shoes, so it's not a flaw in his feminism so much as just a weird quirk about himself that hopefully he sees the importance of working on, eventually.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:39 AM on March 23, 2016

You can't expect other people to feel exactly the way you do on many things, no.

Yes, and yet it's reasonable to expect that someone close to you won't be dismissive when you express strong feelings about something that's particularly important to you yet is outside their frame of reference. Men don't need to pay close attention to womens' experiences, necessarily, but that doesn't inherently prevent them from treating your reactions with respect.

People who aren't all that good with the structural components of feminism or any other -ism may simply not understand that you're frustrated about something systemic and instead think that your fears are exclusively about the potential of something happening to you specifically. Someone who views your discussion of sexism, etc. in that way is likely to see you as a complainer or a worrier or a narcissist or just a standard-issue Negative Nancy and then act accordingly, rather than engage you in a discussion about big-picture societal issues.

The other thing that's worth recognizing here is whether you're dealing with someone whose first instinct is to find a solution rather than to explore a problem. The emotional labour involved in making your partner feel like they shouldn't be afraid of sexism is maybe greater than what it takes to respond with "[thing] is messed up, I can't believe women still have to deal with that." If your conversation partner thinks their job is to do the former rather than the latter, they may just nope the hell out because they feel like you're asking too much of them, even though you're not.

Frowner's suggestions on how to get your partner to communicate with you on this stuff are great, but honestly, it's a hard dynamic to stomach in a relationship. It's kind of silencing when someone close to you is likely to treat you like you're somehow a nuisance for expressing any sense of class consciousness. Lots of guys are better allies; maybe find a new one?
posted by blerghamot at 7:40 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Can you present him with other examples of empathy and understanding of systemic problems? Like, for example, I myself am not trans, but I find it really upsetting when transphobic legislation is passed and will scrap about it if someone I'm talking to disagrees. Because it's an affront to my morals to treat someone that way because of some inherent aspect of their suchness.

This reminds me of when people whine about "politics" and "talking politics," and the privilege that assumes. For many people, it's not politics at all. It's morality, and it's life and death and dignity. Maybe put it to him that way.
posted by witchen at 7:48 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have no patience for anyone who wants to litigate feelings in this way. As others have pointed out, you don't have to understand someone's emotions (or understand women, or whatever) to show empathy. Example unrelated to feminism: I spent an hour this weekend working myself into a frenzy about literally nothing (oh hormonal birth control, how I adore you!) and my boyfriend just sat with me and hugged me and said "I'm sorry you feel bad." That's the attitude I look for in someone I plan to share my feelings with (friends, romantic partners, whatever).

For what it's worth, I think there are also men who can do this, but have enough of a problem with feminism that the empathy dries up when it comes to stuff like what you're describing, and that is also a no-no in my book.

when I want a moment of commiseration...he won't give it

What is this? A hug and an "I'm sorry, this sucks" isn't, like, a million dollars. I can't stand it when people are this stingy and controlling with their emotions.

Sorry to be cranky. What I'm trying to say is, I think your expectations are totally reasonable.
posted by sunset in snow country at 7:55 AM on March 23, 2016 [18 favorites]

Man opining here. I have two thoughts.

First, look at this from the "degrees of separation" point of view. However you want to look at it, he is further separated from the original injury/insult than you. And yes, the gender divide is a significant degree of separation.

Second, look at the lines of emotional connection from the point of view of focus. Woman has connection to the original injury through sexual identity, and also has the internal tension of dealing with her own feelings. You start out by having him focus on the original, distant problem and want him to react to your feelings, and to do so on your schedule. He's still wondering if there is back-story that you don't know about, and you are complaining that he doesn't care.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:39 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Does he have low empathy?
posted by discopolo at 8:42 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Could you connect it closely to something that he has strong feelings about on a personal level?

Like (dumb example here), if he's a Manchester United fan and there were a news story of another ManU fan wandering into rival team territory and getting beaten by aggressive fans of the opposing team, would he take that assault personally? Obviously, it wasn't him getting unfairly beaten up, but it's still a person who is a member of a group with which he strongly identifies. (Substitute other forms of mistreatment or unfair treatment as necessary.)
posted by theorique at 8:44 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sometimes men can understand feminist issues more clearly if you compare them with something else - like racism or religious persecution. For instance, I am horrified by the shooting of unarmed Black men, but I know that what I feel is just not going to be as intense as the feelings of my friends who are Black. They know that the same thing can happen to them and their families just because of who they are - I understand that I can't truly know what that feels like and so I just try to be as emotionally supportive as I can. Similarly, my friends who are Sikhs had intense emotional reactions to a shooting in a Sikh temple. Again, I was horrified, but I know it's worse for them because they could be targets in a similar way. Would he invalidate their feelings because they didn't go to that particular temple or know those individuals? If so, there is a problem with him that isn't feminism.

But I also think there's another problem here in that he knows you want support and he is withholding it because he doesn't understand why you need it. Unless you are responding in a way that's extreme, e.g., crying hysterically for hours because a female rape victim in a distant city is called a liar (in which case, you should probably seek therapy for your own sake), I don't understand why he can't just accept that you need support and offer it. Your feelings should be enough justification. He doesn't get to decide how you should feel about anything.
posted by FencingGal at 9:51 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

A parallel that he might get might be the difference between being non-racist and anti-racist. . Saying you won't feel bad until something bad happens to someone you know is a real moral fallacy.
posted by goggie at 10:13 AM on March 23, 2016

Oh, jesus. He's a shitty feminist. Frankly, you should tell him so, in gentler terms if you'd like. But he's never going to not be an asshole about it until he understands the depth of his ignorance on the issue.

Has he read even a single book about feminism? I find there are a lot of men who say they're feminist but have spent exactly five minutes actually thinking about feminism critically. Though even men who aren't into reading books can be better than he is on this.

It should be obvious to him that it's frightening and disturbing to live in a world where unfair things happen to women every day and we have very little legal or social recourse for it. Partially, in fact, due to attitudes like his. I would love to tell you to dump him, but life isn't that simple, so strap yourself in for a few years of begging him for a shred of empathy, as is common to all hetero women.

(The "some people aren't empathetic" thing doesn't really fly for me... ask him how he'd feel if his mom or dad got shorted $100 by a shady bank teller. SUDDENLY, EMPATHY!)
posted by stoneandstar at 10:52 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Not sure if this is ok, but some people have asked for clarification. A typical interaction is this:

Me: Wow this event sure illustrates sexism
Him: Well but also [thing]
Me: Right, but also sexism, right?
Him: [Thing]
Me: but sexism!
Him: But Thing!

What I would like the interactions to be are:

Me: Wow this event sure illustrates sexism
Him: Yeah that really sucks, I'm sorry.
Me: Yeah I hate that the world is like this
Him: Well yeah, but also [thing]
Me: Yeah, I see that aspect of it

When I recently tried to suggest that we aim for the second type of dialog he said he didn't see why these situations should elicit a sympathetic response from him as they don't affect me personally.

He's quite empathetic in many other situations, toward me and toward other people.

What I hate about these particular conversations is that they elicit in me a fear of the dynamic several responses have described: me wanting something from him emotionally and him withholding it. I tried to raise that aspect of it in the heat of one of these arguments and it didn't get far, I let myself get sucked back into arguing the specifics of this situation.

Would appreciate any tips on how to bring up the second part again -- that to me this is about his willingness to do something for me because I want it rather than because he agrees with it. I'd also love to get a sense of what a range of acceptable responses to this conversation would look like. It's a real hot button for me. I feel like I'm equally liable to reject a "not-ideal-but-not-terrible-response" as I am to accept one that is fundamentally ungenerous.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 11:04 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Why don't you just ask him in the moment for what you want instead of expecting him to mindread?

1. Me: Wow this event sure illustrates sexism
2. Him: Well but also [thing]
3. Me: Right, but
the sexism sucks and is really getting me down right at the moment.

From there it might go a couple different ways...
Happy Path:
4. Him: Yeah that really sucks. [no apology, because why would he apologize for something that he didn't do that doesn't involve you (even if it might affect you)??]

Less Happy Path
4. Him: But [Thing]!
5. Me: Hey! Like I already said, I get [Thing], but the sexism aspect can't be ignored and I could use some empathy right now.
6. Him (good ending): Oh geeze, that does really suck and I'm sorry for not seeing how that aspect affects you [note, it's reasonable for him to apologize here, because he was kind of an ass]
6. Him (bad ending): Get over yourself/why does it always have to be about sexism/not all men/etc, etc....

If you get to the bad ending then it makes sense to take this out of the realm of whatever feminist issue this happens to be and talk about it more in terms of your relationship. And if it gets to there, you're going to have to be willing to compromise too, because "this is about his willingness to do something for me because I want it rather than because he agrees with it" seems kind of controlling/abusive to me. Like, would it be ok if he was just "I'm sorry that you're upset?" or does he have to be all "I absolutely agree that your reactions to [whatever] are totally justified and there is nothing going on here besides the thing that is upsetting you, personally, right now"
posted by sparklemotion at 11:32 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Me: Wow this event sure illustrates sexism
Him: Yeah that really sucks, I'm sorry.

If I understand correctly, you're more looking for a sympathetic partner to commiserate with you in that this issue is important to you and that he gets that this is a generally sucky thing.

From his point of view, however, this wording can look like you are asking him to personally apologize for something happening to other people and beyond his control---you're making him responsible for the bad thing and then making him be sorry for it. He's saying "But Thing!" because he doesn't understand what you're asking for and what you want as a response. I get that that's not what you're trying to do, but that may be what he's hearing.

This is essentially the "Notallmen" problem, you see it as a generally statement of a issue you would like agreement and sympathy on, he (can) see it as a direct criticism of him and demand for an apology.
posted by bonehead at 11:46 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I was first married, my husband could never remember my birthday and I was all up in arms about that. Then, I realized he couldn't remember his own birthday. I quit feeling all wounded. He just doesn't remember those things.

So, based on your opening question, I would examine his pattern of behavior and see if it is some general thing that happens to hit a nerve for you, but isn't really dismissive of you per se. However, I would also look at the opposite case: If he feels strongly about something, are you expected to validate, commiserate, etc? If so, that is where I would argue this. When his pain point comes up, I would take that as an opportunity to point out his hypocrisy.

However, although your update isn't very clear to me, it suggests this may be a deeper problem. This isn't about you wanting emotional pats on the head and him failing to get it. This sounds actively dismissive of the sexism angle. His reaction may bother you because HIS concern about a sucky situation overrides YOUR concern. In male to female relationships, this is often a deeply rooted form of sexism.

So, in my marriage, I wanted to apply to college and live elsewhere and see each other on weekends. And he accused me of trying to destroy the marriage. When I pointed out that his career frequently took him away from the family, "that was different -- someone needs to pay the bills." And I could never get him to see that the only difference here was our gender: because he was male, following his dream career was a duty and an obligation and a personal burden and a man doing right by his family. My obligation was to him and our children and I could only pursue a career at all (never mind my dream career) if it could be fitted in around my family obligations, a restriction he did not have. Pursuing his career was his family obligation because he was a man, so his obligation was to pay the bills and mine was to cook and clean and raise kids, etc.

The essence of sexism and male privilege is that what a man thinks, feels, wants, etc fundamentally matters merely because it is him and a woman needs to justify her thoughts, feelings, needs, etc. And men often swear this is not true, but if you really examine their statements deeply -- the pattern over time -- it really boils down to that.

In my marriage, yes, someone needed to pay the bills. I actually did better in high school than him. Why could that someone not be me? Why could we not support my career goals on par with how we supported his? And the answer boils down to a) sexism and b) it undermines his male privilege. In fact, we are divorced in part because he finally did support my educational goals, which empowered me to earn money with a job and stop being a prisoner of my marriage. Once the unequal financial power was even moderately redressed, I had insufficient motive for putting up with his shit.

You might try validating his side "Yes, you are right, also Thing. But, I don't think that is any more important than sexism." Sometimes, validation begets validation. Sometimes, it just reinforces the power imbalance. If he responds to validation by upping his efforts to ignore your points and concerns and make everything about him, I would conclude this pattern is merely the tip of the iceberg for a deep and ugly pattern.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 12:17 PM on March 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

Hey so DISCLAIMER about gender stereotypes and all, but have you considered this:

Lots of men dislike hearing women, especially their romantic partners, complain about things they (men) cannot fix. It makes them feel useless and powerless because patriarchy tells men YOU MUST FIX. YOU MUST LOGIC. Just emotionally comforting someone without doing anything else to improve the situation can feel uncomfortable to a lot of guys because they never learned how to do it, that it helps, and that is does not mean they are failing.

Something to consider.
posted by quincunx at 12:20 PM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

Wow this thread is waaaaay over into some weird stuff about gender and empathy.

It's not "being like a woman" to respond to conversational cues or to understand that others have feelings, nor is it expecting something weird and keerazy to think a dude is capable of this. In fact, the pattern you describe, where you say that something is sexism and he does the "well-actually" routine, is not feminist at all. It's paradigmatic 'splaining, as engaged in by men to women, straight people to queer people, white people to POC, etc etc.

I have had many men friends and some men partners over the years. On occasion they made light of things that were very serious to me and that was frustrating, but I would certainly never have expected a feminist guy to actually try to 'splain about sexism in this manner. It's not cool, it's not the default male state, and it's certainly not feminist.
posted by Frowner at 12:25 PM on March 23, 2016 [25 favorites]

It's reasonable for spouses to have a category or two where they can "request" certain behaviors from each other, without resistance and without judgment.

In this case, it reads like you're asking him to set aside his habitual tendency to analyze and pick apart the statements you've made, and instead just be emotionally supportive in that moment because you're feeling upset about something in the world.

As long as these scenarios are relatively constrained in scope, it isn't really a problem. But if you constantly have this kind of conflict about him responding in the "wrong" manner, or in many different areas, it could point to a deeper or more systemic difficulty in communication or in the relationship.
posted by theorique at 12:41 PM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

just be emotionally supportive in that moment because you're feeling upset about something in the world

Further to that, you may have to coach him in what you want and how to say it. He may very well not know at all. This is not a skill many men have been socialized to have. A couples councilor may help here.
posted by bonehead at 12:44 PM on March 23, 2016

I am noting some people bringing up the Not All Men thing and I want to expand on that. Because dudes who are saying Not All Men are LITERALLY (really literally, not metaphorically) taking a systemic thing personally. ("I don't do [bad thing] though! If you don't state every caveat and reassure me otherwise it sounds like you're saying all men do that!") So I only mention this because if your dude ever, ever says or implies Not All Men then he is completely capable of understanding what it's like to hear about a systemic thing and feel personally caught up in it. Even if for him it's on the potential perpetrator side and for you it's on the potential victim side. He may claim that he's just arguing logically but deep down there are uncomfortable emotions that trigger that kind of defensive response.

Men can get better at this, though. My boyfriend actually said the words Not All Men to me once in a similar context. We talked about it, and years later he's just as likely as I am to bring up a shitty sexist thing and say "Ugh! This sucks! Men (or the Patriarchy) suck!"

Honestly, it doesn't seem like you're asking him to bring you a cup of tea and cuddle on the couch (though it would be okay if you were), all you want is for him to acknowledge and affirm your assessment that a thing is sexist and it sucks. Not too much to ask for, in my opinion, certainly not for a self-identified feminist.
posted by misskaz at 12:45 PM on March 23, 2016 [12 favorites]

Me: Wow this event sure illustrates sexism
Him: Well but also [thing]
Me: Right, but also sexism, right?
Him: [Thing]
Me: but sexism!
Him: But Thing!

That behaviour seems worse than the problem you describe. If every (or nearly every) time you bring up a feminist issue, he argues about why you're wrong about it being sexism, he can't even vaguely claim to be a feminist. He's not failing to empathize with your personal feelings about these issues, he's failing to acknowledge that they even are issues.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:53 PM on March 23, 2016 [18 favorites]

I think you need to disengage in those moments, with a statement like "oh, I forgot, you're a dick about this stuff. Here's what I hear when you defend the patriarchy 'blah blah blah, but I'm so fragile I demand scientific proof blah blah blah.."

And then go do something else.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:59 PM on March 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

He may claim that he's just arguing logically but deep down there are uncomfortable emotions that trigger that kind of defensive response.

This is exactly the problem "Notallmen" kind of responses are about. He may well be defensive, and perhaps not even sure why he's defensive, and may not be able to really express that well.
posted by bonehead at 1:03 PM on March 23, 2016

I had exactly this problem with my last long-term partner and I don't like to be the one to tell you this but it was one of the major reasons we split. He was a good person in many excellent ways but I tried absolutely every one of these techniques and more, I explained it until I was blue in the face, and he just would or could not give me any empathy about these things. I eventually realized-- after the fact-- that he was disengaging with me about this stuff for two reasons: a.) because he is fundamentally uncomfortable with displays of emotion from anyone and considers them on a deeply ingrained level to be directed at him and therefore a threat; b.) he was also not actually a very good feminist, and wasn't really interested in understanding where I was coming from in any way that would make him feel uncomfortable with his own behavior.

It was a bad breakup. We're pretty okay friends now, but he's not a person I will ever be able to trust with the 'worst' (not really worst) parts of me-- my pain, my anger, my frustration, my fears, rational or otherwise.

So yeah. Anyway. Sometimes it just doesn't click between two people and that's okay and you should not feel like this is a minor thing or that you're crazy for asking for it. He may or may not be able to give it to you. What you do with that is up to you.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:56 PM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sit him down and ask him to read Two Things Men Need To Understand About Women by Caitlin Moran.
Here are the two big things that men truly don’t understand about women. The two things that, if you knew them – if you truly understood – would change the way you act, and raise your sons to act, overnight.
The first is: we’re scared of you.
Not all of you. Probably not most of you. We feel safe with our fathers – unless we have been unlucky; and our husbands – unless we have been unlucky; and our friends and brothers – unless, again, we have been unlucky.
But we are scared. Of what you can do.
Try to imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to live on a planet where half the people on it are just … bigger than you. We are smaller, and softer, and we cannot run as fast as men. We know you can grab us, and we would struggle to get away. We know if you hit us, we’ll go down. We know if you decide to kill us, there’s not much we can do.
Every time the murder of a woman is reported on the news, we hear the detail – “Traces of skin were found under her fingernails, denoting a struggle” – and we know … that’s all we can do. Scratch. We think about that more than we would ever admit to you. We don’t want to sound insecure, or morbid, around you. We just walk down any dark street with our keys between our fingers, going, “Please, not tonight. Let me get to my door tonight.”
In other words, every time we read about something bad happening to other women - whether something mildly unfair or utterly horrific, it adds to the relentless flood of information we get from the world that reminds us every. single. day. that it could happen to us too. And often all we have to prevent it is the blind faith and hope that the men we have around us will be good ones.

In that context, it makes a huge difference to have men around you who will simply acknowledge that you're living amid a level of constant ambient threat, and who act to validate, rather than dismiss, your concerns.
posted by penguin pie at 2:38 PM on March 23, 2016 [16 favorites]

Yikes, that excerpt is really disturbing. I'm pretty sure that women can shoot and stab and kill people too.... I don't want my significant other to be constantly ruminating about how soft and tiny and frightened of the world I am. In any case, I think this is an area where all women can't really be considered to have monolithic feelings and opinions, nor can all men.

It sounds to me like in order to make these more positive interactions, you need to make clear what's driving your feelings and why you want to hear the types of statements you say you want to hear. Might you inadvertently be putting him on the defensive in these discussions, which is preventing him from getting to the point where he can empathize? For example, if you say "this event really illustrates sexism" why is your expected response from him "sorry"? Doesn't that imply that he embodies sexism in some way? If I were him I'd be reluctant to be serving as some sort of proxy or representative for the sexists of our society, too. You're creating a dynamic where it's him versus you. I think it's absolutely reasonable to expect him to do some emotional labor when he sees you upset, to try to offer some support, but not to say he's personally sorry for sexism (and I also don't like the idea that he's expected to say "oh yeah, men suck." - how about sexism sucks!?). After all, sexism and the patriarchy hurt men too, right? He should be pissed off about this sexist thing that happened, too, because he's a human being - and yet if you heard him saying "wow, I noticed something really sexist today." I'm sure your response wouldn't be "oh, sorry, I bet that was hard."

I'm wondering whether rather than expressing empathy i.e. "that must be frustrating to you," which would be a response that a person would be expected to make about something that they have no personal stake in, that you change your expectation more to - as you phrased it - commiseration, i.e "I know! That's bullshit! Sexism is the worst." In a commiseration scenario, you're both agreeing that something is problematic and you're bonding over mutually shared opinions, rather than you having this role of the one who gets upset about something and him the consoling shoulder to cry on. The difference may be fairly subtle but I imagine you might both come away feeling quite different after the former interaction than the latter one.

Now, all this is predicated on the idea that he can actually recognize sexism and that he actually agrees with the tenets of feminism rather than just liking to say he identifies as feminist. Because if his statements are more like "no, that's not sexism, I bet I can think of some other explanation for it." Or "You think that's sexist? It doesn't sound like a problem to me." Then before you expect anything more of him, you probably need to engage him in each case about why he doesn't see this as sexist and how his opinion jibes with an actual feminist viewpoint. I think there are a bunch of good past threads here about books or websites to refer your partner to in order to gain perspective on feminism.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:36 PM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

At this point in my life, I tend to be pretty direct on these issues, so I would probably say something like this:

"Hey partner, as you know, my many experiences with sexism throughout my life have had a pretty profound effect on who I am, so when I talk about sexism, it's really important to me that you listen/understand/empathize without placing any qualifiers on what I'm saying. Because even if I'm talking about a really specific incident that's happened to another woman with which I have had no direct experience, the sexism behind the incident is universal and something that I have experienced directly. And when I see it happening to another woman, it has a pretty strong effect on me, because it brings to mind the very real pain of all the times I've also had to deal with sexism.

So when your response to me talking about these things that happen to other women is saying 'Oh yeah, but [other thing]' it honestly feels like you're being dismissive of my actual feelings and experiences. I know this isn't your intention at all, but I wanted to illustrate to you the connection between my personal feelings and a seemingly unrelated event, just to be clear on where I'm coming from. In the future, it would really mean a lot to me if when I talk about these things you could just listen and offer me empathy/soothing sounds/hugs/kisses. Does this seem like a reasonable request to you?"

Or whatever - something like that. I think this is an absolutely reasonable request and if he doesn't agree, then there might be a fundamental difference of opinion. But your feelings are important and it's okay to ask for what you need. At this point my personal position is that I'm not really into beating around the bush because not only am I no longer interested in having my feelings/needs go unmet, I also want to be fair to the guy and give him an honest chance to do something different (if he so chooses) by being as clear as I possibly can with what I want and need from him.

I've used this kind of direct approach (modified depending on situation) in lots of areas in my life and usually get a pretty good response. I take a no-blame approach with more of an aim of "this is how I feel, this is what is important to me, how can we work together so we both can be happy in this situation". That's the best you can do and then it's kind of on him to decide if it's something he's willing to try. Good luck.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:08 PM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

Feminism just means that you believe in EQUAL treatment, rights, etc for men and women; all humans really. That's it.

You can't expect or dictate how other people should feel or respond to situations or conversations. You're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

Be glad he believes we should all be treated as equals. That's what matters. In fact, I would say that you should expect any partner to consider women equal to men.

Other than that though, accept him for who he is. He accepts you and isn't asking you to respond or feel differently than you do. Give him the same courtesy.
posted by Georgia Is All Out Of Smokes at 2:33 AM on March 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Based on your update, I want to change my previous response.

Me: Wow this event sure illustrates sexism
Him: Well but also [thing]
Me: Right, but also sexism, right?
Him: [Thing]
Me: but sexism!
Him: But Thing!

I'd be pretty annoyed. He's totally negating your feelings. I was engaged to someone who did this and empathize with how frustrating it is, except mine went more like this:

Me: I really need the rent money.
Him: Well, you never got my mother a Christmas present.
Me: Okay, but I need to pay the rent. (And Christmas was 8 months ago why are you bringing this up now, you dick)
Him: You never got my mom a present.
Me: I need the fucking rent money, okay??

So kind of different but kind of the same. I used to call it flipping the script.

What's reasonable is for you to talk to him using any one of the great scripts you've gotten upthread. You need to discern if he's trying to be helpful and thoughtful by adding more concepts to a conversation or if he's just being a dickhead.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:42 AM on March 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Looping back to the recent discussions of emotional labor ... It seems like the main ask here is: "if I talk to you when I'm upset about something sexist in the world, please (1) give me a little emotional support about it (2) please don't debate me on 'technical details' of sexism right then, when I am making a bid for emotional support".

Which sounds pretty reasonable, once it's explicitly defined. (Assuming such definition is correct, which the thread does seems to have converged on.)

So, you're asking for a small amount of emotional labor from him - in terms of him

- RECOGNIZING (in real time - this is key) that he may get into technical details and debate (and also recognizing that this habit is counterproductive for your goals of a healthy relationship);

- INTERRUPTING that behavior, and

- SUBSTITUTING a different behavior of offering emotional support.

Essentially, this is habit change, and there are lots of books and resources available about the subject. (The recent Duhigg book is one that is quite good.) This, of course, would require action on his part - OP cannot directly change her spouse's behavior.
posted by theorique at 5:37 AM on March 24, 2016

When I recently tried to suggest that we aim for the second type of dialog he said he didn't see why these situations should elicit a sympathetic response from him as they don't affect me personally.

But they do. They are threatening. His failure to understand this is a fundamental failure. He needs to recognise and correct that.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:12 AM on March 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've known people like this before and I can't have them in my life. I think people block things out because they are deep down very sensitive and don't want to deal with the overwhelming feelings that come with empathy. I would expect a person in my life to have the awareness that it's a behaviour they are demonstrating and that they are doing it to protect themselves. My feeling is that someone in my life who has little empathy needs to have that level of consciousness where they actually say 'I'm sorry, I'm not able to handle this'. It makes it tolerable.

It's really up to you about whether or not you are happy to be around people who feel things a lot less than you do. It sounds as if this man not only feels nothing for them but has no interest in connecting with you on this level. Being around someone like that, personally, feels like I'm spending time with a Martian. Dating someone like this is really depressing.

I think a better question is 'what's reasonable to expect of a person I've chosen to let into my life and spend lots of time with?'
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 10:20 AM on March 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

when I want a moment of commiseration about it like "man, that sucks, what a shitty world, I'm sorry"

Personally I would find being told that the world is a shitty place in response to my saying something about sexism to be a very unsupportive response. (I'm a woman, if that matters) It's something that often goes along with sentiments like "life is tough all around" or "the world isn't fair", which are not things I would find supportive if I was upset about a sexist incident in the news.

Even if a close friend told me that they would feel supported to hear that the world is a shitty place when they are upset about certain things I think I might have trouble doing that. It would hurt me to say those words to a friend who was upset, it's not something I'd be able to bring myself to do because saying them would make me feel bad even if I knew it was helping my friend. There would be an emotional price for me in saying those things even if I knew it made the person happy, and ultimately I probably would not be in a close friendship or relationship with someone who really wanted me to tell them the world is shitty. It's OK for someone to want to hear that -- but it's not a dynamic I want to be a part of, they can go hear it from someone else.

Is it possible that he doesn't want to say that it's a "shitty world" because he finds talking that way has a negative effect on his own feelings about the world? I can get pretty depressed if I start thinking about all the ways the world is shitty. There's so many things that are bad in the world, and it can seem hopeless and not worth caring or voting or trying to improve anything if the only world we have is so awful.

Perhaps what are comforting words for you are very upsetting words for him. Maybe there is something else he could say that would make you feel supported without focusing on what a shitty world it is out there.

Me: Wow this event sure illustrates sexism
Him: Well but also [thing]
Me: Right, but also sexism, right?
Him: [Thing]
Me: but sexism!
Him: But Thing!

I think what's going on here depends on what sort of [Things] he's bringing up. For instance, if you brought up the situation of women in a specific country and all the problems women there are facing, and he agreed ("Right, but also..") and brought up ways the situation for women was improving in the country, or talked about people working to change things -- I don't see that as being inherently problematic for everyone. Personally I would find such a discussion comforting, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

I'd also love to get a sense of what a range of acceptable responses to this conversation would look like. It's a real hot button for me. I feel like I'm equally liable to reject a "not-ideal-but-not-terrible-response" as I am to accept one that is fundamentally ungenerous.

It seems like you feel that you have a very narrow range of what you are willing to hear, and that this bothers you. This might be a good thing to explore with a therapist.
posted by yohko at 1:39 PM on March 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

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