How Do I Stop Toxic Masculinity Poisoning My New Relationship?

I don’t want to be that guy.

by Sophie K Rosa

15 November 2023

a couple holding hands, with a red filter
Photo: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

This is the third instalment of Red Flags, Novara Media’s advice column for anti-capitalists (here’s the first and second). Inspired by our columnist Sophie K Rosa’s book, Radical Intimacy, Red Flags will explore how capitalism fucks up our intimate lives – not just our romantic relationships, but also our friendships, home lives, family ties, and experiences of death and dying – and what we can do about it.

From sex to housing, work crises to climate crises, Red Flags will offer guidance rooted in radical politics and informed by psychoanalytic theory. Its advice won’t be prescriptive or dogmatic, but will instead invite readers to consider the roots of the problems that plague us all. “I don’t believe in ‘right’ answers,” says Sophie. “I have no idea how to live either. But I do believe in creating spaces for dialogue and reflection – and I hope Red Flags can do just that.”

Need advice? Write to [email protected], or if you’d like more anonymity, fill in this form.

Dear Sophie,

I’ve recently started a new relationship – there’s great chemistry and we seem very compatible, it’s all pretty exciting and the butterflies in my stomach have been working overtime!

As a cishet [cisgender, heterosexual] man living as we do under patriarchy, I try to be mindful of how the way I’ve been socialised influences my feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Overall, I thought I had an alright grip on this stuff. However, I’ve found that with meeting someone and developing feelings for them, all these intense insecurities have surfaced in me – feelings of jealousy, fears that she’ll leave, the feeling of needing to “lock it down” as a “proper” relationship, idealising the future and fearing the loss of this idealised future – all of which is the stuff that can fuel the controlling and harmful behaviour of patriarchal masculinity.

I want to resist going down that road, and so I’ve been reading lots of relationship and dating advice. However, I feel like I could really do with a radical perspective. How might you advise someone trying to navigate these pitfalls?

– Smitten Comrade

Dear Smitten Comrade,

Your genuine concern for how patriarchal power relations could impact your blossoming relationship is rare among cishet men – which is to say, you’re already off to a good start. Awareness alone won’t inoculate you against misogynistic behaviour, though, so I’m glad you’re seeking advice. We all know men who are big on feminism in theory but not in practice.

At the same time, there’s more at play here than your identity as a cishet man. You are also a person with feelings – including “intense insecurities”. Though our emotions are inevitably mediated by culture, including how we are gendered, they are also bound up with our own particular life histories – and the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.

You’ve acknowledged that you feel jealous and fear abandonment and loss. Those are difficult feelings to hold; I hope you are showing yourself compassion. You seem quite aware of your feelings and where they could be coming from. But I notice how quickly you move on from describing your challenging emotional landscape to describing it as potential “fuel” for “the controlling and harmful behaviours of patriarchal masculinity”.

I’d like to suggest that your intention to resist sexism will be best served by doing the opposite with your feelings. Our emotional life – including its underbelly, the unconscious – is unlikely to map neatly onto our political values. We rarely feel how we want or think we are supposed to.

I think that separating your feelings (which just are) from the misogynistic behaviours you wish to avoid is important – both for your own emotional health and for your capacity to act in ways that align with your values. Rather than critiquing your thoughts and emotions, can you sit with them? The feelings we are most ashamed of can be instructive, but they don’t define us. You’ll need to give voice to them in some way, though – whether to yourself, a friend, your partner or a therapist – if you are to work through them.

I’d like to offer you a couple of mindfulness exercises that could help you explore your feelings. One is about exploring fear. Ask yourself what you are most afraid of, in embarking upon this relationship. For example, it might be her ending things. Now ask yourself: “And then what?” Express the next fear. For example, “And then, I will feel devastated.” Keep asking yourself “And then what?” until you feel you have encountered the root of your fear. The RAIN (recognise, allow, investigate, nurture) meditation could also support you.

I’m interested in the words for which you use scare quotes: “lock it down” and “proper” relationship. You are wary of your impulses towards these idea(l)s, maybe rightly so. “Locking” conjures cages, possession and entrapment. “Proper” suggests social conservatism.

What do the terms “lock it down” and “proper” relationships mean in our culture? To me, they suggest a socially legible, normative romantic relationship; monogamous; charting a predictable course along the relationship escalator. I wonder what kinds of relationship and dating advice you’ve been reading? There are plenty of nuanced perspectives out there, and just as much heteronormative, dogmatic, reductive “advice”. It can be difficult to tune into our experiences and desires when we are inundated with content claiming to have the answers.

What lies beneath the allure of “locking it down”’ and a “proper” relationship? These terms might tell you more about how you want to feel in this relationship than what form it needs to take.

It seems to me that you are anxious to feel a sense of security with your partner. We have been fed the idea that a normative romantic relationship is the only way to build security, so it makes sense that you feel drawn towards one. Contrary to received wisdom, though, relational security isn’t built through adherence to societal norms – getting married, having children, cohabiting – but through honest conversations, making and keeping agreements, learning how to love one another and to repair when things go awry. Can you talk to your partner about what building security could look like for you two?

Security built through dialogue rather than scripts might feel shakier at first, but I’d suggest it can be more enduring. As bell hooks writes in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, at best men might “practise enduring uncertainty while waiting for a new way of being to reveal previously unconsidered alternatives to controlling and abusive behaviour” and “perceive the value of a feminist practice for themselves, and … advocate it not because it’s politically correct, or because they want women to like them, or even because they want women to have equality, but because they understand that male privilege prevents them not only from becoming whole, authentic human beings but also from knowing the truth about the world.”

Finally, I’ll give you the most valuable dating advice anyone can: tell your partner how you feel, name your fears and crucially, ask how you can be a good partner. Listen to her response.

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist and the author of Radical Intimacy.

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