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Apr 1, 2011

Don't You DARE Hurt Her!

Growing up, I was told to always be careful about a woman's emotions.

I was told not to ask questions like how much a woman weighs, what her age is, never to comment if I thought she may have gained a pound (or five or fifty). I was told to always respond positively -particularly if a woman asks how she looks. I was taught to outright lie if I didn't think she looked great. That I should tell her she's gorgeous even if the dress, skirt, shirt, shoes or whatever doesn't fit or look right to me.That I should love her no matter how she looks and therefore think she's beautiful regardless of the clothing and makeup (or lack thereof) she wears. Or at least to tell her that, because it's what she wants to hear. And because she'd be hurt and angry if I didn't. Her being hurt and angry, I learned, is a bad thing. A very bad thing. And if -heaven forbid! -it was because of something I did or said, I am a bad guy. A very bad guy.

I was taught to be honest, always. Except when it comes to being with a woman. Then all morality goes out the window. Whereas lying is bad in all other respects, telling the truth to a woman -if it should be hurtful -is bad, and therefore, somehow, morally wrong. I should change how I see things or lie about it. Why? Because of how she feels; all for her emotions. Particularly if I am dating the woman and especially in marriage.

When I was younger, I accepted it without question. I thought of it as a law determining how to get along with women, so put myself to task and I internalized it. Slowly a set of beliefs and attitudes developed, but from framing it as sensitivity -and of course sensitivity is a good thing -it turned into fear.Fear of how a woman will feel. Fear of how she will react to what I say. Fear of offending her. Fear of hurting her. Fear of her emotions. And the judgment -being bad. Being mean. Being a jerk. Being a terrible person. Being evil incarnate. 

Reinforced over and over by friends and family. By media and literature. By many, many, many Jewish mothers and their warnings. By fathers and brothers and friends whose words echo in my mind: "Don't you dare hurt her!"

I tried that. I tried being a good boy. Sensitive. Nice. Always nice. Afraid of her emotions. Tip-toeing around. Apologizing at the first sign of hurt, anger, or frustration. Always asking how I could make it better. What I could do. Always apologetic. It was always my fault. Of course it was my fault. I said something, I did something, and now she's hurt. Or angry. Or upset. She's not happy. And it must be something I did -because if I were just more sensitive, more careful, more apologetic. If only I were more tuned in!

But somehow, it was never enough. Never.

Somehow, being a "good boy" didn't translate into women liking me. Or finding me attractive. Yes, they often said they want a guy like me -exactly like me -but not me. I was bewildered, because she had said it! She laments not finding me attractive!  But she wants a guy just like me! Not me, but just like me.

What am I doing wrong?

I asked that question over and over again. I started to notice the guys that women find attractive, the men that they respond to. The guy would tease her. He would grab her phone away. And smile -that devilish little smile -and she'd be angry. Angry and laughing. She'd protest with a smile on her face.

Before, I just thought these guys are being a bunch of insensitive jerks. I told myself that they are mean. Don't they know that taking her phone will get her upset? Why would they do such a thing? These guys are bad, they are hurting her feelings. Why didn't he just give her phone back, and apologize? Wrong, wrong, wrong. And then she'd come to me -the "good boy" and tell me all about how she likes him. And eventually I got it into my thick head. The epiphany came from Kohelet (3:1)

There is a time for everything. A time to tease, and a time to comfort. A time to ignore and a time to listen. A time to be honest and a time to be reassuring. A time to be gentle and a time to be tough.  

What a revelation!

To a woman, emotions are paramount. I knew that already, because of the experience I had. I heard the pain of women who were hurt, and the responses of the men who experienced that pain against their will. The lament of women who needed reassurance, or comfort, or to be listened to, or a gentle touch and didn't get what they needed. That pain cries out -and I heard it loud and clear. The wrong way, to be sure. I was taught to be afraid. But how can I live with a woman -to listen and empathize with her emotions -if I am afraid of them? I should be sensitive, yes. Perhaps also more intuitive in showing her how much I really want to listen.

But being afraid of her emotions, or trying to avoid getting her upset is ridiculous. And degrading. Treating women and their feelings as fragile is not the way to "get along." Changing who I am or acting differently because I am afraid of her anger or her pain won't do either of us any favors. I believe a man should not be afraid of a woman's emotions. Her emotions should not dictate what he does, or force him to change himself. That will only separate the two. Emotional coddling prevents intimacy and growth that comes with communication and working through shared pain together.

I'd rather be with someone who I can be honest with, and build closeness and intimacy through honesty -and willing to hurt and be hurt in the process -then with someone who avoids it at all costs. Of course, there are tactful, gentle ways to be honest and cruel ways to be honest. I'm not advocating cruelty or disrespect, nor do I wish to hurt anyone. The fact that we all experience pain and are hurt -even within our relationships -is an immutable law of nature. (In all honesty, I would have it no other way, because it is the key to growth, greater intimacy and a stronger bond in the relationship.)

Sometimes she may just need a little reassurance. Sometimes she would like to hear that she is loved and wanted. We all feel that way sometimes, but I think reassurance does not have to come at the cost of honesty and most definitely should not come from a place of fear. Reassurance should come from a place of empathy and understanding, and the desire to be there for them.

I also think that, like myself, many of us are told so much to be careful with a woman's emotions, to the point of being afraid of them. But if we internalize that lesson, we do not learn the skill of listening to how she feels, to empathize and understand her emotions.

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