Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Boys & Girls & Minefields

I recently reconnected with a longtime friend, but one with whom I'd lost touch. We were (or seemed, we're both now learning) more comfortable around one another than any other two people I know of opposite gender who find one another attractive. We were remarkably capable of interacting on, and moving fluidly through, a full spectrum of relationship levels without the usual stripping of mental/emotional gears, and subsequent stagnation at one level or another, that usually takes place in such inter-gender friendships. It has taken us a quarter-century to learn that neither of us was as nonchalant as we seemed to the other. That shouldn't be surprising. But the most remarkable thing about that, is that whatever trepidation we might either have felt at each beginning or shift in levels, the appearance of calm and comfort at the outset of each became reality with astonishing rapidity. That is, the successful concealment of gastrointestinal butterflies became their effectual banishment.

That learning though, that all was not as it initially appeared so long ago, has led us both to a better understanding of what our own children now face as they enter the frightening world of dating. From a mother's perspective, that realization reads like this:

Too often, perhaps we don't realize that the male partner in [a] relationship might be feeling a little insecure or completely intimidated as well. I have always, because of my own insecurities, assumed the complete comfort level of the guy. It is nice to realize now (through someone who should know how guys can feel) that my sons will be nervous, perhaps feel in over their heads, in deep water, etc. in their relationships sometimes. It sounds idiotic for me not to have been acutely aware of that, but they often seem so "overly-confident" now, that I forgot to realize that this may not be the case, and especially in matters of the heart.
It was that remark about sons seeming "so 'overly-confident'" that got me thinking about how the whole dynamic works. So, being a teacher, and firmly believing that the most effective instruction usually involves analogies (because it enables us to move from the old known to the new concept with more ease), my mind started making analogies as I read the message above. (That they are military analogies should come as no surprise to anyone. It is no accident that one of the best known cliches of all time firmly yokes love and war in relation to fairness.)

Here is the conclusion I reached: Relationships are like minefields, at least when we're young. No matter our sex, they are minefields pure and simple. Step wrongly, and you might not lose a leg from the knee down, but you'll sure lose your self-esteem. At the time, that seems even worse. So, we see them the same, whether we're a boy or a girl, but we react differently. That's where the hormones and hardwiring come in. (And that I can write a phrase like "hormones and hardwiring," in all seriousness and without reservation, hesitation, or guilt, goes a long way to explain why "politically correct" is a phrase seldom uttered in connection with my name.)

Women step carefully, gingerly, more slowly, but apparently methodically, because you're nervous and a little frightened about where to step next, but you believe it's probably worth the risk to get to the other side. Men watch that and mistake that deliberation for confidence and poise. It looks to us as though you know where to step next, know where you're going.

Men--because our dominant hormone is testosterone, and its dominant manifestation is action dammit!--run. We run, full tilt, across the minefield, with apparent abandon, because we're nervous and a little frightened and have little idea where to step next, but like you, believe it's probably worth the risk to get to the other side, and since we don't know where to step, one footfall is as risky as the next, and the faster we run, the more quickly it'll be over, dammit, whatever the result. Women watch that and mistake our speed for courage or confidence or both. It looks to you as though either the minefield doesn't concern us in the least (which leaves us open to accusations of insensitivity more often than courage), or else we know exactly where we're going and where to step in order to get there.

There are exceptions, of course. Any generalization invites exception. There are some confident men and women. And there are some men and women who recognize masculine bravado and feminine deliberateness for the charades they are. But I think, in general, the description above is useful in explaining both our sameness and our difference, on the very broad scale. Thus, like any generalization, it is useful only so long as you remember it is just that, a generalization.