The eroticization of male dominance and female passivity in couple relations is a game in which there are no winners, a luring trap that blocks what makes human relationships human — an empathic connection — a hardwired drive to mutually know and compassionately understand one another that is rooted in our nature to matter as meaning-seeking relational beings.
This capacity remains dormant, however, unless developed. It is a learned ability that requires such skills as being open and vulnerable to one another, an essential aspect of growing the courage we need to love with our whole heart. (To love with our whole heart, in a nutshell, means to develop our capacity to remain empathically connected to self and other, in moments when core fears, such as inadequacy or rejection, get triggered.)
In a cultural context that relegates empathy, vulnerability and emotional closeness as weakness or “girly,” and emotions of pain, hurt or fear as signs of inferiority or defect, especially for men (to women who want to be “accepted” as “equals” in this milieu), is it any wonder why so many couples get tripped up in their attempts to create vibrant, mutually enriching relationships?
It has to do with the dehumanizing nature of these cultural norms.
For this and other reasons, looking more closely at the negative impact of these cultural stories opens up possibilities for men and women to see one another anew, and, rather than compete, to honor the intrinsic dignity and value of each in relation to the other, first and foremost, as human beings, with an amazing potential to work cooperatively as partners in forming a healthy relationship and an enriching context for one another to grow and self-actualize as uniquely contributing individuals.
Seeing the dehumanizing nature of dominance?
Cultural values that normalize addictive patterns of relating in couple relationships, and idealize interlocking dynamics of narcissism and codependency, cause a lot of emotional suffering for both men and women, and no doubt have far reaching effects on family, community and society at large.
Our human brains are wired to move toward pleasure and avoid pain. We learn and adopt behavioral patterns that release feel-good hormones such as dopamine or oxytocin. We are also wired to learn from pain, to seek to eliminate or avoid what produces pain and anxious sensations, such as the stress hormone cortisol. These processes are regulated by the mind of the body – the subconscious.
The body also releases feel-good hormones whenever we experience relief or lower anxiety through the specific ways we’ve learned to deal with stress, such as an angry outburst or an emotional shutdown.
Essentially, beliefs are perception filters that our body relies on to know when to activate its sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Our beliefs can, and do, for example, activate anger or fear to levels known to cripple our capacity to make wise choices. Nothing turns the otherwise amazing human mind into a prison than fear-based limiting beliefs.
Recent findings in neuroscience show the regions of the brain that regulate aggression and violence overlap with ones that regulate empathy, and that activation of neural patterns in one direction reduces activity in the other. Thus, encouraging aggression inhibits empathy, and similarly, growing empathy inhibits aggression.
The two hallmark traits of narcissism, a lack of empathy and taking pleasure in victimizing others, are key traits in antisocial personality disorder as well. In a recent post, psychologist Dr. Stanton Samenow points out these two personality disorders have a lot in common.
In his book, Dying to Be Men, Dr. Will Courtenay describes the cultural influences of “masculinity” that lead men to reject many healthy behaviors, and simultaneously to gravitate to numerous unhealthy behaviors instead, which put them at risk of death, injury and disease.
In the extreme, eroticized dominance in couple sexual relations, at least subconsciously, posits one or more of the following, that:
Not surprisingly, these eroticized ideals form some of the core issues men and women struggle with, and often only discover in couples therapy, as they address the pain, confusion and sexual addiction and dysfunction rooted in desperate, and futile, attempts of each to find a way to matter to the other.
“Emotional groomers” and the “emotionally groomed”?
In what was first a parent guide by Ron Herron and Kathleen Sorensen, and now updated and available as a leader’s guide by Kathleen Sorensen McGee and Laura Holmes Buddenberg, the book, Unmasking Sexual Con Games: Helping Teens Avoid Emotional Grooming and Sexual Con Games, is one of kind. It provides practical tools for teens, parents and teachers to use, in educational contexts, that support adolescent girls to avoid the traps of “emotional grooming” and date rape. (A teen guide is also available.)
The reason it’s one of a kind, however, is that the authors discuss the elephant in the room that most leaders and professionals have ignored for decades, more specifically, that emotional grooming and other sexual predatory behaviors are not only associated with behavior patterns of sexual predators and offenders, as they are often portrayed, though they may be used more aggressively in these cases. The authors note that:
Emotional grooming is primarily a specific use of language.
To a woman or teen, it can feel confusing, and is. It is a form of thought control known to jam up the otherwise amazing critical thinking capacities of human brains.
Why does emotional grooming work?
An emotional groomer would not be anywhere near as effective, however, were it not for complementary cultural conditioning that paves the way for women from girlhood to be at risk of falling into the mind traps. As a complement to the notion of rightful male dominance, the same cultural forces emotionally groom women from girlhood to believe one or more of the following:
These expectations naturally promote distance and a parent-child type of relationship that, from the start, has no chance of developing into healthy emotionally intimacy. Safe to say, this is also a training that indoctrinates women into codependency behaviors as norms.
Notably, that these cultural expectations are also either-or thinking patterns that, in addition to denying our human nature, portray both men and women’s nature in extremes. Women are described as either passive and moral, or wild and dangerously out of control, for example, incapable of being good mothers and spouses. Similarly, men are either respectable and dominant (over women, children and weak men), or spineless doormats or gay.
Subconsciously, men and women’s behaviors are controlled by emotion taboos that instill them with shame, guilt and fear associated with their value as human beings.
These cultural values amount to training for men and women to adopt addictive relating patterns overall in the directions of narcissism and codependency, respectively. These can be, and are, uniquely expressed in as many ways as there are couples, and with varying degrees of overlapping in the dynamics. They also foster parenting that is characterized by narcissism that puts children at risk for abuse.
The emotional groomer’s tools, language, and tactics?
According to the authors of Unmasking Sexual Con Games, a groomer employs the following three basic tools to remain in control of a perceived victim’s emotions.
1. A ‘caring protector’ – The groomer portrays himself as a caring protector, and lulls her into thinking he is the only one she can and must trust and depend on for her emotional and physical care. He professes his “love” to get sex, i.e., “it’s okay…I’ll always take good care of you.”
2. A ‘loyal oath to secrecy’ – The groomer gets her to agree to secrecy, to loyally protect his image from being tarnished in any way; thus, she’s responsible for keeping secret any abuse or acting out on his part. He persuades her that their relationship is ‘special,’ and that if she were to disclose any abuse, no one would understand, that this would hurt him and make him feel insecure, and that she would be blamed for not making him or others happy. (In more extreme cases, he may threaten to hurt her, others, himself if she discloses.)
3. A ‘victim’ – The groomer also portrays himself as her victim. Like all narcissists, he has a very fragile ego and cannot handle not getting his needs met. He persuades her that it’s her fault whenever he acts out physically or sexually, and not his, and that he wouldn’t act out if she would stop making him angry. If she would just do what she’s supposed to do, he scolds, he wouldn’t have hurt her. He blames her for his unhappiness, often reminding her that she is incapable of making him happy, that she always fails him, that he has been hurt in the past, that he needs her to make up for what others have done to him, i.e., in his childhood, or past relationships, etc.
A groomer goes beyond the typical “pick-up lines,” and uses language in a distinct way that is specifically geared to:
To achieve the above aims, an “emotional groomer” skillfully uses some or all of the following tactics:
These thought control tactics are part of the grooming process, designed to shape her beliefs so that they conform to promoting his personal aims for her to make him ‘feel’ that he is superior, entitled, and in possession of her emotional needs for his own. The beliefs he seeks to instill include, that:
Looking over these tactics, and the beliefs that drive them, it is evident that, to a great extent, they have been widely regarded, in varying degrees, among men in particular, as “normal” ways that men (or the ones with “status” or “power”) are expected to relate to women to get sex and to keep women “in their place.” This is especially true for men who consider themselves as having “traditional family” values.
Even men who wouldn’t consider these behaviors may secretly admire men whom they perceive as having the “power” to “keep woman in their place.” Many of these practices are so ingrained in our culture that even couples who set out wanting or thinking they have a healthy partnership, at some point, find their romance turns into a power struggle.
So, how did we get to where we are today?
How did sexual relations between men and women become more about performance and power-over games to prove superiority or to emotionally overpower the will of another?
The real culprit is a cultural belief system that associates human worth with external standards of performance, and defines ‘power’ as the ability of one human being to render another powerless (which at best is only an illusion). These beliefs cause harm as they teach us to judge ourselves and one another harshly, to distort who we are with enemy-images in our minds, in ways that cause us to feel disconnected from one another. Because we are relational beings, judgements are the root of our suffering.
It started at the beginning of Western culture when political leaders decided to structure a ‘social order’ based upon a ‘might makes right’ philosophy for their political gain.
A philosophy of ‘might makes right’ as a political tool?
According to Riane Eisler, in her seminal work, The Chalice and The Blade, the notion of dominance as a ‘natural social order’ has philosophical roots in the ‘might makes right’ ideology originated by the Sophists, a group of men who, with regard to morals and ethics, exemplified the thinking of political rulers throughout history from its beginnings in Ancient Greece.
Theirs was the first official lie-by-design-for-political-gain school of thought.
The power of the pen has been instrumental in promoting the notion that dominance was not only ‘natural’ but also ordained by God. The ruling elites, influenced by the philosophical teachings of Plato, crafted The Noble Lie to persuade the masses to think of their rulers as gods and being ruled over as a sacred benefit for their protection. Naturally, similar beliefs have been used to enslave groups throughout history.
The writings of one of the most most influential shapers of Western thought, Aristotle, for example, taught that only two classes of people exist, those “meant to rule” and those ‘meant to be ruled.’ He also decided women’s influence on men was a hindrance to their political aims for maintaining an oligarchic social order, that women were a contaminating influence on the masculine spirit. Thus, unlike his mentor Plato, he promoted the idea that men should be educated separately from women.
In his view, women’s education should be narrowly focused to teach women to accept their ‘place’ in society was: to bring pleasure and comfort to husbands and sons. Aristotle’s works were highly regarded handbooks by ruling elites and clergy for many centuries well into the Medieval period. Aristotle was even canonized by the church in Medieval times as a pagan saint.
As for his ideas regarding women’s education, they were upheld and reinforced by other Western philosophers well into the 20th century. In the words of 18th century philosopher, educationalist and essayist of Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
“A woman’s education must therefore be planned in relation to man. To be pleasing in his sight, to win his respect and love, to train him in childhood, to tend to him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time, and this is what should be taught while she is young. The further we depart from this principle, the further we shall be from our goal, and all our precepts will fail to secure her happiness for our own.” ~ JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU, Book 5 of Emile, 1762.
Taking the perspective that all of the tactics men and women use, in fact, reflect their best efforts of each to fulfill their emotional needs for both love and connection, on the one hand, and recognition and value for their unique contributions, we can see the futility both women and men face in our culture in contexts that place high value on male dominance and female passivity.
“To be happy in one’s home is better than to be a chief. ” ~ YORUBA PROVERB
Witting or unwittingly, the notions of rightful dominance have been reinforced by cultural institutions, such as family, school, church, military, among others, throughout history.
How can dominance be natural, if force, violence and trickery must be used? It’s an Orweillian contradiction, or doublethink. It’s like saying ‘war is peace’ or ‘ignorance is bliss’ or ‘slavery is freedom’ which totalitarian rulers do, by the way, to cripple the otherwise amazing abilities of our brain.
Also, how can dominance be natural, if it harms the body, physically and emotionally? Recent studies link social dominance behaviors in primates with health risks and high stress levels and parasites and infection.
One couple’s story – Sandy and Bob
Subconsciously, the particular ways we learn to cope with stress teach, or wire, our brain to know what and when to release those feel-good chemicals.
Early survival-love maps are enduring neural patterns, often highly resistant to change. We can change them, however, with determination, passion and strong reason to do so. The discovery that our brain is open to making changes, known as plasticity, throughout our life is good news.
Here’s Sandy and Bob’s story of hope (not actual names of clients):
Sandy and Bob were married for seven years when they came to see me. Bob’s demands for Sandy to perform uncomfortable sex had been out of control for several years, and, in the last few years, she often fantasized about leaving him. It was not until she discovered that Bob had a serious credit card debt, and he disclosed his addiction to phone sex and prostitutes, however, that they considered therapy. She had lost hope, and wanted to leave; he was hoping to save his marriage.
Sandy chose to move to her own place when they started therapy, to “clear her mind,” and only saw or talked to Bob in weekly sessions or to arrange for the care of their daughters. They came for individual therapy, and joint sessions weekly.
In their first years together, Sandy was “okay” with Bob’s pornography habit. In fact, she enjoyed pleasing him by acting as if she liked it. Bob told her that he often boasted to his friends about her — because “she wasn’t squeamish” about pornography like their wives, and she was open to trying “new” things. Sandy felt proud of her ‘status’ and competed with the women in their group of friends to maintain it. Bob also told her that, unlike his friends that cheated on their wives, he didn’t have to look outside of his marriage to fulfill his fantasies. For a long time, she hid her discomfort with his “new” demands. If she hinted at ‘no,’ it seemed, he pursued her even more. She always gave in. The more she wanted to lessen the frequency, the more frequently he wanted sex. She began to notice he only touched her when he wanted sex. She felt increasingly sickened, and could no longer hide it. This did not slow Bob down. Even when she complained, he quickly dismissed her, and acted as if he knew her better, “baby, you know you like this, you know you want this,” he would repeat. She kept her thoughts and feelings to herself. She put on 30 pounds, hated how she looked, dreaded sex, and felt guilty about her feelings of disgust for Bob.
Sandy played along to please Bob, believing it was her responsibility. She also feared that he would cheat on her if she did not comply. He had “emotionally groomed” her to make sure nothing she did upset or angered him. He became increasingly dismissive and irritable with her, and their two young daughters. She felt hurt, confused, and used. It was a familiar feeling, however. Her step-father had used her for sex from age 7 to 17, until the time she left home to get married. He too had “emotionally groomed” her to believe what they had was special, that he needed her to take care of him, that it was her job to keep their secret. If she told anyone, he warned, she would be guilty of hurting him and others.
It was not easy, yet Sandy ‘got’ that it was not healthy for her to own the responsibility for the success of her marriage, and that it was Bob’s responsibility to learn to calm his angry feelings, and not hers. They explored how pornography, as a set of beliefs that objectify women, and men, had had a dehumanizing effect on each of them. Bob had to face beliefs that prevented him from seeing Sandy as a separate and unique person, with feelings, wants, dreams of her own. It was not easy for Sandy to be empathically present to her own wants, and to learn to make clear requests. It was hard for Bob to be empathically present to Sandy’s needs and requests, and even more painful to allow himself to ‘see’ how much he had hurt and betrayed her, and to write and deliver a lengthy apology from his heart to hers. It was challenging for Bob to be present and vulnerable in their interactions, and to see this new ability to feel vulnerable as a strength. Together, they embraced new ways of rebuilding their emotional relational system, as individuals and a couple, from the ground up.
Both genders have been swimming in culturally endorsed values romanticizing dominance that distort human nature and the power of our stories. Men and women are, first and foremost, human beings with profound yearnings to meaningfully connect, to be recognized and valued for who they are as individuals, to contribute to life and others.
Essentially, the limitations placed on men and women frustrate the needs of both—and, ultimately, invite internalized or externalized resentment, mistrust and rage from which, depending on other variables, such as the extent to which partners have experienced trauma in childhood, blocks emotional intimacy and healthy sexual relations. Maintaining a healthy sense of self, while also nurturing a healthy relationship, in these contexts is a possibility only in fairy tales.
Speaking of tales, here are two very short yet enjoyable reads, written as fairy tales for adults; one that portrays the inner struggle of men with intimacy, and the other of women with finding their voice. (It’s useful for partners to read both, and not unusual for men and women to report finding their story in both.)
Yes, men and women are unique in many ways (yay!). In truth, as human beings, both share the same core relational needs to feel safe, valued and recognized as unique individuals. These are deeply profound, hard-wired instincts, the pursuit of which shapes most every human behavior. At deeper levels, both also share the same core fears, regarding whether they feel safe, valued, accepted and recognized for the person they are.
Hopefully, bringing these life distorting cultural stories into the open would allow us, as men and women, to have conversations together, about forging new stories together, new neural patterns in our brains, ones that release us from addictive relating patterns, to integrate new understandings, so that we may reclaim our intrinsic sense of worth in relation to one another, first and foremost, as human beings.
It’s only fair to ask that, as a society of leaders, we consciously seek to foster cultural contexts that, in the very least, make it less challenging for both sexes to heal and thrive as individuals and partners in mutually enriching relationships.
Beattie, Melody (1992). Co-Dependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Schaeffer, Brenda (2009). Is it Love or Is It Addiction? Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Schneider, Jennifer P. (2010). Sex, Lies, And Forgiveness: Couples Speaking Out on Healing From Sex Addiction., 3rd Edition.Tucson, AZ: Recovery Resources Press.
Weiss, Robert, Patrick Carnes & Stephanie Carnes (2009). Mending a Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.
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