Every conversation is a puzzle.
Two people come from different cultural backgrounds, different perspectives, even in the same country. Differences in region, religion, gender identity, political orientation, all make it difficult to complete the puzzle. To truly hear each other. To accurately interpret what is being said.
And then there is gender.
Boys and girls speak different languages from the beginning. What is deemed good or bad, sane or crazy, correct or incorrect, varies by gender. With typically no room for personal taste, self chosen gender identity, or individual experience.
Girls are expected to interact with boys on their own terms, from the beginning. The public domain is dominated by men and girls learn our place early in life. The more forms of marginalization you tack on to her side, the more forms of privilege you add to his, the more this is true.
She is responsible for ensuring successful conversations, successful interactions. She is responsible for making him feel heard and seen. She is responsible for hearing his words and nonverbal signals correctly. If there is a misunderstanding, or if he is triggered or upset or anxious, or if she hurts him even by mistake? All her fault.
He will punish her accordingly. Or an authority figure in their lives will. Or in a pinch, she will punish herself.
Girls learn to speak boy pretty quickly, most of us. We have to. So boys will view us as the right kind of girl. The kind who is on their side. The kind wiling to make up for their inadequacies with our strengths, but protect their egos by never saying so out loud.
Fast forward to dating.
By adulthood she carries around most of a full puzzle, all by herself. If she is disabled or a woman of color or in poverty this is true all the more. She might well be lugging three or four or five puzzles around over her shoulder. And every time she speaks with a man, he looks at her impatiently, thinking, why is it taking you so long to put this together?
In an equitable society, he would carry half the puzzle. He would take equal responsibility for putting it together. Instead, he stands there doing nothing, holding his five pieces awkwardly, while she produces the other 995 from her knapsack and does her best to make them fit.
If she gets it wrong, he is liable to throw the puzzle pieces to the ground and stomp off. Or mock her for “her” failing. Or complain about her to his friends call her “crazy,” which means a woman who is unable to complete the puzzle and get her meaning across to him. To complete the puzzle on her own, because he has already learned he will not be expected to do any work to complete it.
Men are perfectly competent puzzle-doers, by the way. Watch them with each other, at work or at university. They can adapt to one another, can understand men from other backgrounds easily. But when it comes to women, they know this labor is unnecessary. After all, women like doing the work. After all, that’s what we’re here for, right?
There is an endless list of books and programs to teach women how to talk to men, how to understand and connect with them. The reverse is men being taught being taught how to manipulate women into bed.
Men are not taught how to talk to women. Most are very, very bad at it. Filled with judgment and scorn and contempt any time a woman slips and talks “crazy” or “gets emotional” meaning, any time a woman forgets or gets tired and starts talking to him exactly the way she talks to her friends.
A woman who is passionate or particularly empathetic and does not back down in an argument with a man is committing an unpardonable social sin. A woman who even allows herself to argue with a man, in a real not a cute way, is breaking the rules.
And a relationship or romance in which the man has to share his thoughts and feelings out loud, in order to complete the puzzle? Most men would run like hell. For fear of being labeled incompetent, or because their egos were threatened. Or they felt anxious at being asked to shift their gender role.
But here’s the thing.
The puzzle is a story, really. And the story can only ever be complete if both partners take responsibility for telling it accurately. Otherwise the woman is relying on generalizations and universalizations and her own stereotypes about men to fill in the gaps. Men feel frustrated and misunderstood because she gets it wrong so often, well. She will always get it wrong, if they don’t supply their side of the puzzle, take on their side of the responsibility and the work.
Putting the puzzle together and getting it right is equally the job of everyone who has a stake in that puzzle being complete.
That was always true.
And the weight of carrying around all those pieces? Is weight women can let go of, anytime we choose.
Sometimes we set our own traps. Very rarely, but sometimes, we can be free in small personal meaningful ways. If we stop doing this kind of emotional labor, for even a second, every now and again. If we give up blaming ourselves every time a man feels misunderstood or misrepresented.
If we place responsibility where responsibility is due. If we make men responsible for how they show up in the world. Even just for a second. A few hours. An afternoon.