"The strongest natures, when they are influenced, submit the most unreservedly;
it is perhaps a sign of their strength." - Virginia Woolf
Setting aside the fact that I have not read the Fifty Shades series due to what has been described to me as the books' rather lackluster prose, sometime misogyny and excessively silly romantic situations, I would like to explore the idea that mature, confident, independent women do sometimes face the catch-22 of wanting to be strong in the world while wanting to be 'taken care of' -- and not just sexually -- in romantic relationships. That is, some women want to be completely respected for their capabilities and strength of character while also wanting to be led, supported and cared for emotionally, socially and yes, sometimes even economically when they are with a man. The stronger a woman is emotionally or professionally in her daily life, the more she may desire some aspect of this.
This phenomenon may not seem fair to men who seek a relationship founded on equal support, care, understanding and check-covering, which, admittedly, seems like a fair request. I'll admit my proposal may cause a huge inner conflict for some otherwise-liberated women who do not see themselves as 'takers,' 'traditionalists,' 'needy' or 'vulnerable.' But as Stephen Marche states in his recent article in The Atlantic, "Home Economics: The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Inequality," "Today, men and women are not facing off on a battleground so much as stuck together in a maze of contradictions."
Nevertheless, strong, confident women who advocate for themselves all day in the world often find that they want the men in their lives to be giving. They want the door held open for them, a shared umbrella, an invitation to a date planned and paid for by the man in their lives. Given the way women work today, It's not that hard to see why.
There are socio-political, socio-cultural and socio-emotional reasons that strong women seek caretaking behavior from men in relationships. I break each one down below:
The most obvious socio-political argument points to the inequity built into the patriarchal political systems in our society. Women around the world hold only 20% of powerful political positions, and while our country claims to be post-feminist, we have yet to see a female President, the national female corporate board-membership rate is 12% and on average, women are paid about 80 cents to the working man's dollar. Thus, the need for women to advocate for ourselves in the workplace belies the notion of true equality.
This issue can be interpreted in two ways relative to a dating situation: A man might say, "Well, then, wouldn't you want true equality in your relationships?" to which a woman might reply, "When I get paid as much as you do for doing the same job, and I don't have to trail-blaze or fight an uphill battle to make a name for myself in a man's working world, then we can talk about true equality."
I would tend to agree with the latter point of view. Seeing ourselves reflected in society as receiving less money, respect and opportunity than men might push women to be independent-minded in our professional lives, but these elements of inequality can cause even the feminists among us to feel that we deserve to be treated that much more nicely -- even specially -- by the men in our personal lives. It becomes a refreshing change of pace: When a man's kind treatment comes from a desire to give, we can relax, be ourselves and not have to push so hard.
Another key issue that unfortunately highlights the inherent inequality in our country and our world is personal safety. Nationally, 95% of domestic violence victims chronicled by visits to the ER are women and globally, one out of three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. When discussing heterosexual romantic relationships, this matter cannot be overlooked. Women want to feel safe, and we deserve to feel safe, especially in the presence of men.
How can we tell if we are going to be safe? Some clear signs include feeling that we are being listened to, supported, cared about, emotionally given-to, nurtured, thought about with affection and gentleness and treated with forethought and consideration. And what are some ways for men to show that they intend to make us feel secure, comfortable and cared about? In my opinion. the answer can be everything from simple chivalry (waiting with us for a train or taxi, calling to make sure we arrived home safely, walking or driving us home once that becomes appropriate) to thorough planning (suggesting that the first date be somewhere convenient for us, asking what we would prefer to do, picking a restaurant in or near our neighborhood once that information has been shared), to expressive communication (asking us appropriate questions about our lives and openly sharing relevant information about their lives).
It is logical for women to expect that thoughtful, considerate men will take these steps as a matter of course, enabling us to feel that much more assured of our own personal safety.
To me, the clearest socio-cultural justification for seeking to be taken care of in a relationship is the pressure placed on women -- even in our so-called modern society -- to keep men interested over time and to consistently present ourselves for men in a sexy, flirtatious, enticing, slim-and-shapely and continually-youthful way. American media and male expectation have seen to it that women attempt to live up to these pressures and standards and this burden can cause women to go to excessive lengths -- including spending time, money and in some cases, enduring emotional distress -- in order to 'prepare' ourselves for men (and to prepare ourselves to be seen by other women who are competing for the attention of men).
We wax our eyebrows, legs, underarms, bikini line and more; sit through endless manicures and pedicures; purchase countless makeup, perfume and hair styling products including 'blondifier' and 'un-grayifier'; and spend our earnings on pricey and often-uncomfortable lingerie, push-up bras and body shapers.
Because we primp, preen, prep and prime ourselves in these ways for the benefit and attention of men, (let's face it, few of us endure hot wax for our own enjoyment), it is nice to feel that we are being taken care of or even courted once we are on the date that we have spent numerous hours, dollars and grimaces prepping for. For some reason, men don't seem to take this element into consideration. (I'm sorry, gentlemen: The fact that you showered, shaved your beard, used deodorant and perhaps even moisturized just does not correlate on a financial, corporeal, temporal, emotional or socio-cultural level.)
Relatedly, the ways in which men often joke to, with and/or about women, even amiably, tend to point toward gender differences and pressures. And some of this good-natured ribbing is acceptable, or even in some cases graciously welcome, if appropriate elements of chivalry are employed in tandem with it. In other words... go ahead and tell us we're cute when we're mad, we have no sense of direction, we're overly emotional, we're obsessed with greeting cards, our apartments look like a bed-and-breakfast, that we're ridiculous to wear high heels and then complain about them... but then hold the door, share your umbrella, carry our bag, offer your jacket, buy us a drink, take us to dinner, write us a thank-you, email us with date plans, call us to say goodnight and tell us you're thinking of us. You can't have one without the other. I think that's only fair.
Connected to the idea of chivalry in the socio-cultural realm is the idea of not wanting each date to feel like a business negotiation, which can be stressful and cause awkward tension. When a man plans a fun excursion or suggests a new restaurant and pays for the couple, the date becomes both simpler and more romantic; thus, even women who are fully capable of planning an outing or footing a bill often prefer this mode, at least at the beginning of a relationship. (As time goes on, reciprocity occurs in terms of planning and paying, and thus the dates can continue to be more romantic than splitting everything in half.)
As for socio-emotional rationale, which I think is paramount, in American society (and yes this is a broad generalization), women are socialized to be giving, caring, cooperative, communicative 'connectors.' We are taught to seek and preserve intimacy and to take care of and be responsible for others, while men are given very little of this socialization if at all.
Women tend to babysit from a young age; we play and talk in deeply supportive groups from childhood through adulthood; we are often taught to cook with each other as a giving social activity (whether we've internalized those lessons or not is another story!). We often take on the responsibility of keeping calendars and schedules, whether they are for our families or our offices; we teach and nurse and counsel, making up the majority of most social service professions. We are giving and helping, loving and sharing; we support each other emotionally and we know how to take care of people.
In men, these skills are far less emphasized and valued (at least in the workforce), so it's only natural that we desire to see some evidence of them upfront in a dating situation, in the form of calling, planning, asking, sharing, helping, offering an arm or a jacket, walking us home, holding a car door... and even paying a check. A man's ability to demonstrate that he can be giving, emotionally and otherwise, is vital in the early stages of a relationship.
And why is it so important for us to see indications of a man's ability to care-take?
First, as strong, confident women we have enough self-esteem to know our intrinsic worth and to expect someone who respects us, who will continually be there for us and who will remain interested and dedicated enough to want to care for and about us for years to come. Those of us who are lucky have our parents, including caring and devoted fathers, to lovingly thank for that. As therapist Dr. Kelly Flanagan wrote in an open letter to his daughter:
Little One, your only task is to know deeply in your soul -- in that unshakeable place that isn't rattled by rejection and loss and ego -- that you are worthy of interest... If you can trust your worth in this way, you will be attractive in the most important sense of the word: you will attract a boy who is both capable of interest and who wants to spend his one life investing all of his interest in you... I don't care if he was raised in this religion or that religion or no religion -- as long as he was raised to value the sacred and to know every moment of life, and every moment of life with you, is deeply sacred.
The Emotional Biological Imperative
In addition to bringing peace of mind to a self-assured woman, this need to see a man's ability to be selfless and take care of others at the outset of a relationship comes (perhaps controversially, but nevertheless quite commonly) from a woman's desire to seek someone whom she can imagine taking care of her while she is pregnant, in labor, recovering from delivery, nursing, weaning and/or unfortunately, sometimes going through the emotional and physical pain of miscarriages or infertility issues. By our mid-30's, women have seen many of our friends go through these milestones and traumas and we have seen that it takes a real man (read: a caring, steadfast, supportive and giving man) to stand by their side and be there for them through the difficulties as well as the joys in life. This includes caring for them in countless emotional and practical ways including listening and giving guidance; showing concern, gentleness, attention, and affection; and performing acts of kindness and helpfulness.
Following this (admittedly traditional) line of thought, women also seek caregiving ability in a man who will be father to their children. Will he be there for them, support them and provide love and a sense of security? Again, this will include taking care of those children in innumerable emotional and practical ways.
Therefore, it becomes crucial, even in the beginning stages of a relationship, for a woman who is interested in these life path choices to see that a man has "staying power," that is, the desire to give, to provide steadfast support and to go out of his way to show his caring, as these behaviors are signs that he possesses mature emotional development, understands what a serious relationship potentially entails and intends to show up for it. The more a woman sees a man as a potential partner, the more seeing evidence of this type of behavior becomes significant.
A Note for Men:
Of course, a woman in a relationship should be willing to plan and treat for various meals and outings, offer practical help when needed and make her feelings clear so that her partner feels safe and loved. Some men have had unfortunate experiences with women who were consistently selfish either practically, emotionally and/or economically, and it is understandable that this may have caused them to become embittered and cynical. It is essential that those men hear and take to heart the following: Not all women are 'takers' -- spoiled, entitled, difficult and/or withholding. Most women are kind, reasonable, realistic people who want to make sure that their partner feels secure and loved. Most are not asking for fancy meals, fancy trips or fancy things; they know that the company is always the most important factor. They simply want to feel taken care of, and it is important not to confuse them with the women who have withheld love and support or prioritized money and status and thus caused hurt feelings.
The Bottom Line:
The bottom line for mature, independent, confident women is this: We've lived happily on our own for many years, and we'd rather be on our own and not be taken care of than be with someone and not feel taken care of. If we're going to be with somebody long-term, we want to find the man who loves our strength and wants to make us feel cared for in the ways I have discussed. And for the reasons I've discussed, we're not going to apologize for it.
Of course, this becomes a very tricky endeavor, because when we are dating, we either have to find a way of tactfully articulating our aforementioned paradox of strength and the need for care, or we have to find a man who intuits our needs -- who has the desire to care-take while fully respecting us; who is strong, sharing and supportive while acknowledging and enjoying our strength; who is wholeheartedly giving in the right ways at the right times. For the record, and with years of action research to my name, I can confirm: It is very a tricky pursuit indeed.