Why equality in a relationship is for adults only


Yesterday I came across this fabulous speech on equality by The Avengers’ director Jess Whedon for Equality Now, which made me have a yessss! moment of elation.

Whedon makes a joke of the fact that in every single media interview he has ever given the one question that he invariably gets asked is why he writes “these strong female characters”, as if the combination of strength and female was totally extraordinary. He gives the audience several variations of the same answer and concludes: “equality is like gravity: we need it to stand on this earth as men and women.”

Below are parts of the speech that made me smile particularly widely. See what he says about his mother:

“She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman. And that’s the kind of woman I’ve always surrounded myself with. It’s my friends, particularly my wife, who is not only smarter and stronger than I am, but occasionally, actually taller too.”

Then his father and step father:

“My father and my step-father [..] prized wit and resolve in the women they were with, above all things, and they were among the rare men who understood that recognising somebody else’s power does not diminish your own.”

Men who understand that recognising a woman’s power does not diminish their own – yes, where are they? Not the wimps, not the control freaks. Where are the men who are so confident in their own skin they are attracted to women with strength and substance? Men who are not afraid of sharing control and power, intelligent men who love being in the company of sophisticated, witty and well-articulated women.

Equals and equals
When we say “equality”, we tend to think about women’s rights: equal pay, equal chances of promotion, equal division of responsibilities, etc. But there’s another type of equality that is key to the happiness of any couple: the equality of power and the equality of intellect.

When my husband and I separated, he admitted “we were never equals”, and that pretty much describes our married life.

Turning into a ‘Stepford wife’
In my marriage, my husband was the one who wanted to keep control of every small aspect of our lives, even the manner in which my books should be displayed on MY bookcase, just because the bookcase had been placed in the living room, which was HIS as well as mine, therefore he claimed he had the right to make demands.

By the time we were bickering about book display, our marriage was on its last legs. In yet another fit of temper, he was shouting at the top of his lungs while violently shaking the bookcase I loved, threatening to show me how it could collapse unless I displayed the books exactly the way he had told me to.

Already as a child, I was fiercely independent and strong-willed. I never took well to taking orders from others, not my parents, not my teachers, not my bosses; why should I let a man tell me what to do?

Friends who had known me as a single woman said they had noticed the sparkle in my eyes and the feistiness I had been known for had faded away after I got married, that when I turned up anywhere with my husband, I was uncharacteristically quiet and reserved. I guess I always knew he did not like being upstaged, so I automatically played myself down, gradually turning into the horrific mutation of a ‘Stepford wife‘.

The control freak and the uncontrollable
This is inequality of power. When one partner wants to always control and have the last word, but the other is not willing to be controlled, the relationship is headed for disaster.

My husband suffered from an acute lack of self-confidence as well as low self-esteem, and could not tolerate feeling challenged by anyone, let alone a woman. He had a desperate need to feel superior to others as a way of exercising control. Every time he opened his mouth one of two things happened. He either congratulated himself because a colleague or customer had told him how wonderful he had been, or he put someone down, politicians, neighbours, celebrities, colleagues, friends, family in an acerbic tone. Sarcasm was his trademark style. It is the preferred style of those who always need to make others feel bad in order for them to feel good.

I, on the other hand, am for the most part confident and self-assured, although I too go through temporary periods of self-loathing. I love men (and women) who will challenge me, question my way of looking at things, open my eyes to a world I knew nothing about. I have enough humility to be able to accept any new lessons with gratefulness, but NOT if they are being imposed on me in a top-down manner.

Cat or dog personality?
This does not mean I desire to be the controller in the relationship either. Nothing’s more unappealing to me than men who behave like puppies, following me/a woman wagging their tails, doing everything I tell them to do. A yes-man. A puppet. Say no often, disagree with me, persuade me of the validity of your views, don’t let me win every single argument, and I’ll respect you forever. Behave like a puppy and I’ll be bored stiff.

Speaking of puppies, perhaps it was telling that my husband was a dog person, and I a cat one. He liked dogs because of their loyalty and unconditional love. He loved his dog because it followed him everywhere, obeyed his every command. I loved cats because of their spirit of independence, because I knew I could not and should not control them. Because I have a cat personality myself.

The intellectual and the bimbo couple
The other inequality is the inequality of intellect. I bet you know at least a few couples that seem so poorly matched, they make you wonder in astonishment: “what on earth is he/she doing with ‘that’ woman/man?!”. Friends may not approve, but they tolerate their mate’s partner out of courteousness.

Time and again I have met couples where the man is intelligent, well-educated, cultured, well-spoken, with a decent job, but whose girlfriend turns out to be superficial, vulgar, and, to be blunt, bordering on plain stupid. She does not seem to have a personality, and follows him around as if she was his shadow. Everything he says she agrees with; if he ‘likes’ a post on Facebook, she’ll hurriedly ‘like’ it as well to make sure he thinks their views are aligned. She may be secretly addicted to her tabloid, but she will pretend to be a Guardian reader because her man reads it, and she wants him to think she’s an intellectual too. In reality she is far more concerned with what’s happening in the latest reality TV show. She may be terribly opinionated and ranty; all her views of the world are anti-something, but she is unable to articulate an argument without peppering it with coarse expletives for dramatic effect.

The thick girlfriend
I kid you not; one of my good publishing friends, who, thankfully, is now married to a decent, unobnoxious woman, went through a phase of going out with a girlfriend of a similar description. At his 30th birthday party, to which many of his work colleagues had been invited, his very tipsy girlfriend, a petite and pretty brunette, who nannied wealthy people’s children for a living, told me he was now responsible for sales in Eastern Europe but… “Where the f**k is Eastern Yoo-rop? I don’t even know. He is sooo clevah. I’m sooo proud of ‘im. I told’im I’d make an honest man out of him.” She then went on to sit on his lap, to make the point he was hers, not mine.

I nearly projectile vomited. I wanted to kick my friend’s backside. What on earth was he thinking?! Wasn’t he embarrassed to be associated with a dizzy lass like that? At least get a woman of your own stature!

The his complex + her complex couple
From what I have observed, these tend to be couples where both suffer from some kind of inferiority complex. The man is unaware of his worth and not confident enough to pair himself up with a woman of his own intellectual level in case she overshadows him, therefore he chooses to be with someone he can feel confidently superior to.

The woman knows he is out of her league but being with a ‘clever’ man helps cover up her flaws. She doesn’t mind not having an identity of her own, as long as she can bask in the glory of his. But she’s also afraid of losing her prize, so she will use every trick in her book to try to keep her man: sex, flattery, pretence that she likes all the same things as him, emotional blackmailing, ‘accidental’ pregnancies, you name it.

The “bimbo” role may be the man’s of course, and the woman could be the intellectual, but I see those combinations less frequently. Maybe this means intelligent women are generally more confident than men and will rarely settle for ‘just a pretty face’ with no brains.

Remember: all that glitters is not gold. Just because a man and a woman are in a relationship, it does not mean they are happy or that the relationship has any future. Where there isn’t balance and equality, cracks eventually show.

Ultimately a well-balanced relationship between equals comes down to maturity and self-respect. A man and a woman who respect themselves will seek a partner who mirrors their strengths (and weaknesses) without perceiving that as a threat. Being able to engage with someone as a true equal partner, means you can always share without fearing judgement, you learn from each other, you grow together.

To me it sounds blissful, the richest form of connection two lovers can achieve…

Sadly, people often consciously opt to hide behind the security of a bad relationship for many years, rather than face the uncertainty of a new beginning. They will continue role playing, one the dominant, the other the subjugated; the stupid one may play clever, or the clever one may dumb down to pretend that that’s their level really…

A man and a woman can choose to be strong or weak together. Equality can’t be achieved without honesty.

As the late Lou Reed concludes in his beautiful Perfect Day, “You’re going to reap just what you sow.


One thought on “Why equality in a relationship is for adults only

  1. Pingback: Venus in Furs: insights into relationships by the man who inspired S&M | Sehensucht, the yearning for the unknown

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