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An Interview with Aaron Kipnis and Elizabeth Herron

Copyright © 1997 by J. Steven Svoboda. All rights reserved


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Aaron Kipnis and Elizabeth Herron are a husband and wife team of therapists who have done pioneering work in gender diplomacy. They co-wrote the inspiring and invaluable What Women and Men Really Want (1994), originally titled Gender War, Gender Peace: The Quest for Love and Justice Between Men and Women. They cofounded and codirect the Gender Relations Institute in Santa Barbara and are frequent guests on national radio and TV shows such as the Today Show, Donahue, and Sonya Live. They have been partners for ten years and are coparenting Elizabeth's teenage daughter.

Aaron also wrote one of the premier books about men, Knights Without Armor (1991), which focuses on men in recovery from substance addiction but engages with broader men's issues as well. Aaron has lectured on male psychology and gender erlations at various institutes and universities, including Harvard Medical School, and is an advisor to many business and government organizations. In the spring of 1997, Aaron will be teaching a course in the sociology department at the University of California at Berkeley on the Sociology of Men.

Elizabeth is a trainer, consultant and educator with over fifteen years experience in women's empowerment and gender reconciliation. She has taught gender diplomacy for universities, training institutes, business and government. She is the author of numerous articles on gender justice and has contributed to several anthologies.

Interviewer J. Steven Svoboda is a 36-year-old attorney who has reorganized his work life to allow him to devote the majority of his time to doing men's work. He is writing a book as well as regular articles and letters about men's issues, writing and performing solo theater pieces regarding men's issues, doing legal and human rights work on behalf of men, and helping to organize the work of the new Northern California chapter of the National Coalition of Free Men.

Steven spoke with Elizabeth and Aaron at their home in Santa Barbara on October 24, 1996.
 

Steven: I've noticed that many men and women often have a hard time talking calmly and rationally about men's issues, even in the case of very clear inequities such as men dying eight years younger than women, or the men-only draft. Why do we have such a hard time looking at men's pain and men's suffering?

Aaron: The psychology around it is very complex. But in brief, it's consistent with the female role model in our culture for women to ask for help and for women to express their feelings about the difficulties that they have in life. And as you said, men in different arenas have similarly grievous inequities. But it's not consistent with the male sex role model for men to express their pain. We are told from childhood to be tough, take it like a man, don't cry, keep a stiff upper lip, be a big boy. So the consequence of that is we're not hearing from men. So over the last thirty years of gender shifts in the culture, a myth has grown up that men don't have issues.

Elizabeth: I think you have to be careful what population of women you're talking about. Feminists, and in particular radical feminists, take issue with men having issues. Because they have a lot of fear that it's going to somehow take away from women's victimization or the attention they would like to see placed on women's issues and women's plight.

There are a great deal of other women, though, whom we find as we go around the country and hold councils and dialogues between men and women. Many of the women that we're meeting are very relieved to hear men talk honestly about what's going on. And they are not as vituperative and angry. They embrace it when they hear men leading with their vulnerability and they hear the complexity and the depths of men's struggles with their gender roles. They actually feel a sense of compassion.

Then there's another traditional population of women who have depended on men to take care of them and bring home the paycheck. Those women are threatened by men falling apart. So that's yet a third type of women who isn't going to be receptive at all towards men questioning their work or whether they have ignored their dream of becoming an artist.

Steven: Do you think that, corresponding to these different types of women, there are going to be differences among the men in their willingness to look into their own pain?

Aaron: I think all classes of men are inhibited. And a lot of that inhibition is internal. And a lot of that inhibition is also external. For instance, on college campuses, young men are terrified to speak out in the classroom. We have 15,000 women's studies courses nationwide and only seventy or eighty men's studies courses.

So what that says is that it's not even valid to explore the dimensions of, the special circumstances of, the challenges, the inequities, the privileges and the pain of men and masculinity. It's not even a fit topic for study in America's universities, although every single aspect of women's lives and women's issues is a topic of study in psychology and sociology and women's studies and education. That has a real inhibiting effect on men.

They also see lots of male-bashing in the media from cartoons to advertising that depict men in very stereotypical and demeaning ways. And so there are a lot of social forces. In the early years of the men's movement, we did begin saying that men are also suffering in this culture in many ways. They're 70% of all the assault victims, 80% of the homicide victims, 85% of the homeless, 90% of all people who are HIV-positive, 95% of our prisoners, 95% of people being killed, injured and disabled on the job. These are serious inequities that men face around their gender. Plus the draft registration.

Yet when men begin to speak out about this, there's tremendous ridicule in the print media, on television, from Murphy Brown to Esquire magazine. On the one hand it's our stoic role model, but on the other hand it's a culture that says we really depend on men as protectors and providers. If men start thinking about changing that role it's going to be threatening to the whole arrangement that we've made in this culture. Just as seriously and as dynamically as women changing their roles of being stuck in the home was to our culture.

We did the same thing to the women's movement. We tried to ridicule them and marginalize them as bra burners and strident animus-possessed women. And now we're doing the same thing to men.

Steven: What I've noticed is that in talking about men's issues, even the ones that to me seem clearest, that there are ways that have developed to cut off the dialog before it even starts. You talk about the sexist draft and you might get a response that men start all the wars anyway. Divorce and custody--men abandon their children and don't want to parent anyway. Men die younger- -it's their fault for keeping their feelings bottled up. Circumcision--what about female genital mutilation, which is much worse.

Elizabeth: So for every issue there's a matching issue. Aaron and I spent years in our relationship going back and forth about who had it worse. That kind of dialog is sort of a dead-end street.

Steven: How did that end up resolving itself in your relationship?

Elizabeth: We ended up deciding there could be no winner to that conversation. We could never prove to our satisfaction or to any of our friends' satisfaction who had it worse. The whole issue of blame really gets in the way of gender reconciliation. It's the biggest thing that we have to work against when we try to build bridges between men and women.

We have taken the position--and it's politically incorrect in a lot of different arenas--that there is no such thing as the patriarchy or the matriarchy. There are certain pockets of our culture that are dominated by men and certain other pockets that are dominated by women. Both genders suffer by virtue of the stereotypical gender roles and a certain overlay of biological programming.

It's really best to put the whole issue of blame aside and look at how we co-create the conflict that we find between men and women in our culture. Both sexes need to be willing to take responsibility for how it is we have participated. From that place we can begin to work on some solutions.

Aaron: This whole dialog around victimhood is skewed. It's not a noble endeavor to vie with one another to see who's the biggest victim. But somehow we can't resist doing it. If men join the victim camp in which women and minorities and other groups have pitched their tent then all of a sudden we're all living in the valley of the victim and then there is no separate territory.

Ideally what happens when we expose our wounds to each other is it breeds some compassion and solidarity. When we look at suicide statistics among young men that are five times higher than girls and see how men are dying of all fifteen major diseases earlier than women, this whole notion of women as a more victimized class than men begins to break down.

Once it's broken down, then something interesting can happen. Then we can talk about how to forge alliances with one another, how to empower one another as women and men, how to create stronger communities, stronger partnerships with one another and how to create a sense of compassion. Men need compassion for the suffering that women have endured and women need compassion for the suffering that men have. That's what comes out of our gender reconciliation dialogs.

It's hard for me to genuinely care about women's wage inequities at work if those women don't care that men have lower safety and health standards at work and are getting killed and disabled more often than the women. If the women care about the men and their safety, what we find is men are also a lot more likely to care about their wage inequity. When there's disdain from one group to another, it doesn't raise men's consciousness, but rather hardens their heart and closes their ears.

But in these gender dialogues, when a woman speaks from her heart and says, "It's really hard for me to be a woman because I'm afraid to walk on the streets at night," men want to do something about it. It's very different from hearing, "You men are all potential rapists," which tends to close them down. Elizabeth: What we're talking about also is how to change people's consciousness. How can men change women's consciousness about male victimization? The war of the words doesn't seem to go anywhere. What Aaron and I used to do in our talks was give our audiences the facts and try to convince them that we were equally disempowered and equally had power to create change. We would try to change the paradigm.

We made some progress but what we really found to be more successful is when men talk to women from their hearts and tell them about the grief that they've experienced when they lost their children in a custody battle and they no longer got to see their children, or how difficult it was to grow up in a home where they were shamed or battered by their mother.

When women are confronted by men speaking from that level of raw vulnerability about the ways that they have suffered by being in relationship to women, women actually will hear it. Those rigid thought forms crumble and women soften and are much more receptive.

Steven: Sometimes in our daily life we get into conversations with women or men who aren't going to go off into nature or participate in a gender dialog. Are there any other ways to sort of break through these reflex verbal responses?

Aaron: In retrospect, I think it's somewhat unfortunate that we wrote our book about a group of men and women who went into the woods for a week. Because we've only done that once. What we have done hundreds of times is have little councils in government agencies, in corporations, in universities, with couples and families, in churches, in just about every circumstance you can imagine, where we just sit men on one side of the room and women on the other and we have a dialog for ninety minutes.

We did it last night with a whole group of young male youth offenders incarcerated as adolescents. We had mental patients and a broad assortment of people from our community in that lecture. We did our dialog process for an hour and a half. We outline a dialog process in our book What Women and Men Really Want that goes on for seven days.

But those same questions and those same steps of what we call gender diplomacy, which is about breeding empathy, communication and understanding between women and men, can be done in a few hours. We talk about how to prepare the setting so that it's safe and doesn't blow up. The key thing is that women and men have an equal opportunity to speak and that when one side is speaking the other side is just listening.

It's also very important for men to speak out and to learn from the women's movement. And when you see something that's offensive as a man, if you walk into a card shop and see a Hallmark card that says, "Men are all scum" and then you open it and it says, "Excuse me, I was feeling generous today," it's important that you say something to the manager of the store, that you write to Hallmark and say that offends you as a man. Women have identified a number of arenas in which they are not treated justly and no one can deny the truth of that. Men need to meet in small groups and talk about the real truth of the quality of their lives so as to empower one another to speak out and approach the inequities that they face so that we can have real balance.

Elizabeth: We find that women often are surprised at what they hear from men. They really don't know what's going on with men. There was a woman last night who said, "I had no idea that men cared that much about their children." That frequently happens. Women don't know how much men struggle with the pressures of work and the burden of being scapegoated in this culture. Men feel very frustrated that whenever they meet a woman they have to somehow prove to her that they are not a bad guy.

Aaron: They're carrying this legacy of all the evil that has been dumped on men. Several decades of male-bashing have taken their toll psychologically among men in all age groups and all segments of the culture, even though they might not admit it in a cocktail party. In the right setting, though, they really have a lot to say about it.

Steven: Aaron, how realistic or possible do you think it is to communicate to average men who haven't had any particular interest in men's issues the difficulties that men are confronting? Do you think men can learn to understand these things?

Aaron: Very much so. I talk to average men all the time. Most of the gatherings at which I speak have average working guys. They get really excited when someone can give language to their experience. They know that they're not privileged. A recent survey showed that 80% of men working in the country aren't happy with their jobs.

So we see a lot of despair. And the reason we know that it's there is by the kind of statistics that come up, the high suicide rates, the high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction compared to women. On quality of life surveys that ask you about satisfaction with life, women score higher in every age category except 65-70. So the first years of retirement is the only time that men score higher on satisfaction with life than women do. So we know that the suffering is real but we are in a state of denial. The women's movement has raised our consciousness about the ways in which girls are abused. And what we're finding more and more is that a very high percentage of boys are also sexually and physically abused, in numbers close to those of girls. About a third of the boys are sexually and physically abused by women.

And yet if you report that, you're a sissy, you're a wimp, you're too sensitive. It wasn't until 1993 in California that statutory rape of minor boys by adult women was even made illegal. So this inhibitory force is very deep.

But if you put men in a context where one man will tell the truth about his life, he'll say, "Yeah, I've got a good job and I'm making a lot of money but my heart's not good or I don't know how to communicate with my kids or my wife is angry at me or I had these dreams in my youth but I never fulfilled them. I sacrificed them all to work and for my family."

You give men an opportunity to talk about their grief and their struggle and then it's hard to shut them up. I don't find that men are not in touch with their feelings. I just feel that men are rarely given the opportunity and the permission to safely speak about their feelings without being told to stuff them back in the box they just came out of.

Elizabeth: I think that one of the most powerful things that will really pave the way for men to look at their position is the alliance of women. We have a fatherhood coalition here in Santa Barbara that has become a very active force in the community educating lots of different people in the community, health providers and social service agencies and various different types of organizations around the issues of men and fathers. Both women and men are involved and it's been a very strong alliance that has opened the way for a dialog about masculinity. The assistance of women does help. It's a powerful thing when women and men can come together and support each other in this work.

Steven: Can you each tell me a little bit about your backgrounds, how you first became involved in this work?

Aaron: I first became interested in men's issues in the early 70's when I was doing my undergraduate work in psychology. I was working primarily with adolescent males who were from juvenile detention centers and were incarcerated in residential treatment centers.

And yet all the training I was getting was about developing sensitivity to female clients. It was very important to my training to learn that women are a separate population and if I was going to work with them I needed to develop special skills and special sensitivities.

But nobody was talking about boys and men. Boys are also very different. The things that worked with the female clients weren't necessarily as effective with the male clients. So I began to develop ideas about male psychology. And as I went through my training, I never received even one hour of training on the gender-specific needs of men or boys in psychotherapy.

I grew more and more frustrated about that because then I started working with adult male populations. My first book, Knights Without Armor, was about men in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. I'd look at parenting studies; 98% of them were about the mother-child bond. I'd study Jungian psychology. There was no father. It was as if the father does not exist.

I became more and more interested in learning how to work with men, and very frustrated that the training institutions that were supposed to be training me to be a good clinician were not teaching me anything about working with men. Somehow the assumption was we already knew that but in fact we never even asked the question.

Psychology started out gender-blind and then it took a lot of forward-thinking women to turn our attention toward the special needs of women. It's been my job and that of a few other thinkers in the field to say that now we need to learn something about the inner lives of men. We know a lot about their outer lives, male behavior and male biography, but we know very little about male interiority, about the secret life that men have, about what really goes on inside and what men talk about behind closed doors. So this is the kind of information that I try to bring out both in the clinical training and in my work with Liz.

Elizabeth: Aaron and I both wear two hats. We do this gender work, and then also he works with men and I work with women. Our basic premise is that if you're going to build a bridge between the sexes you've got to have something to put down your posts into on either side. There's still a great deal of inner work that women haven't done. The feminist movement has really attended to the external issues of position and opportunity in society but there's a lot of inner work, inner grieving, and inner reclaiming that women really haven't done. I do a lot of that with women.

We're doing a lot of our gender work in corporations now, where there's a huge mandate to figure out how to do the dance between women and men. The pressure is on to have teams of women and men work well together. There's an almost forced integration between male and female culture and not a lot of information and tools about how do we do this.

We are working on a book right now for the workplace. We're excited about looking at the deeper issues of how can we really be creative together. How can we embrace difference and use it to change our institutions? That's the cutting edge of our gender work.

Steven: Elizabeth, how do you feel about the state of women today in the US?

Elizabeth: Women have made huge progress in terms of their access to different arenas. One of the most tragic things in our culture for women and men alike--and feminism has contributed to this--is that we still devalue the traditional role that women have had in this culture. When women are mothers and they stay home with their children they often feel that they are not doing something important. We need to make that as important as making money.

That doesn't mean that we need to go back to the kitchen. But we need to hold that as important in our values. I think there's still work for women to do to learn to really value themselves. One thing that women have fallen into in their efforts to be successful in economic and political arenas is looking at male role models for information about how to be successful. They have been trying to measure up to men. That has not been a real successful road for women to take.

What I think is more interesting and ultimately more empowering for women is to discover how it is we can be rooted in our female bodies and still be powerful. That's a conversation that's beginning among women in the workplace. Some of our work is to learn how to have access to the male fraternity of work.

Men don't select women for promotion because they don't feel like women are familiar to them. Women continue to be somewhat alien and frightening to men. Women need to start making alliances with men and figuring out how to respect the men they work with and enjoy the men. That will create a community of women and men supporting each other.

Steven: Feminism's privileging of work outside the home over raising kids seems to be a parallel process to the privileging of one gender over the other. Is there a way out of all this crazy making of hierarchies?

Aaron: I think there are lots of ways out. An evolutionary process is going on. A lot of our gender role assignments come out of a certain biological necessity. Men hunted and women gathered. Men protected the perimeter and women protected the hearth. Women cared for small children while men wandered out after big game. These are old tunes in our DNA that we're still dancing to.

Part of that was to survive as a species. Well, we've done that. Quite well. Too well. We've overpopulated the planet. And now the very gender role selections that assured our survival as a species are now working at counterpurposes. Women in western culture have been like the canaries in the miners' cage that said things have got to change. Now men are just starting to get up to speed.

Women alone or men alone can make certain changes. But to really shift the paradigm both genders need to work together. We're finding more and more women who are saying, "We think we've gone as far as we can as women alone against men."

Men are feeling the same way when they move into arenas that were formerly held by women. We meet more and more men who are saying, "You're welcome to the workplace. I want to spend more time with my kids and caring for myself. I've climbed the ladder of success and I found I put my ladder up against the wrong wall. At the top of that wall I've got some bags of money but I left behind my children, a woman whom I once loved, and my physical and mental health. That's a terrible price to pay for success."

A lot of women are wising up and saying we're not sure we want to take on this male armor to succeed because it's killing us too. Women's smoking, alcoholism, divorce, and isolation is increasing in the workplace as women advance through those male ranks. We need to form alliances with one another, put our heads and our hearts together and have councils and say, "How can we make our institution beneficial for both women and men?"

Gender equity in the schools is just a euphemism for special attention for girls. Gender equity in the schools should also be concerned about the fact that boys aren't doing well in reading and writing, they're dropping out more than girls are, and they're a steadily declining minority of new college students. There's enormous power in these common alliances.

We also need to look at the forces that are dividing us. Who benefits from women and men being at war with each other? Advertisers make a lot of money selling products by making people feel bad about themselves. They make women feel they're not beautiful enough; there is a multibillion dollar industry to enhance women's beauty. All of these ads are saying you're not attractive enough for a man.

Men are getting the same messages in a different arena. They're being told you're not successful enough to attract a woman. You've got to have that Lexus if you want to go with the beautiful girls. So as women and men together, if we can be aware of the self-defeating, self-esteem-eroding, crazy-making messages that we get from the mass media, then we become allies in our mutual empowerment.

The only way we can move forward as a culture and get out of this trap of victimhood is to fiercely ally with one another in our mutual healing and our mutual empowerment. Men are wiling to relinquish power in areas where they've held it if they feel they're also going to gain more freedom and more opportunity in arenas that they've been locked out of like self-care and the more nurturing aspects of life.

To the same degree women feel a glass ceiling in the workplace, men feel barriers put in their place when they want to become more involved with their children. When we hear about the mommy track at work, we would like to have a daddy track. We would like things like flextime and job sharing and parental leave to be equally available to men and women.

The new law around parental leave is supposed to apply to women and men but only women take it. Because if men take it, even if they're legally entitled to take it, they know that their career will suffer dramatically because the expectation of the culture is that they shouldn't.

Elizabeth: I generally don't agree with Naomi Wolf but she really did great with something she wrote that if women and men could form alliances that it would be more threatening to the status quo than anything that's ever happened.

We challenge people to explore their beliefs around the nature of true power. People have a tendency to have a very simplistic notion of power as access to money or public position. And that leaves out the possibility that power may have something to do with your capacity to actualize yourself in your own life, to live out your dreams, to have a life that's fulfilling on every level, not just how much money you make.

Women get stuck in this. "Well, men have more power than women." And I say yes, they may have more economic and political power, but look at the power that women have to create communities, to create alliances of support systems. And the power of nurturance, the power of influence on children is enormous.

Steven: Elizabeth, have you gotten much of a reaction from the women's movement to the work that you've been doing?

Elizabeth: I've certainly run into it. I've been excluded from a lot of different arenas. It's been a difficult road, to speak up in defense of men and to try to raise women's awareness around what I would consider to be an addiction to victimization, which is not empowering.

Aaron and I gave a keynote speech at the California Association of American Family Therapists meeting a couple of years ago where I challenged the whole idea of the patriarchy and whether it truly ever existed and why it was that we were so invested in this idea that men had done something to us as women and how detrimental it was that we were teaching young girls that they were victims and that we were creating a culture of victimization.

I have spoken out a lot and been criticized for it. Aaron and I have been surprised at the lack of criticism of our work by feminists. The people who come to our workshops are self- selecting; they come because they're interested in building bridges. We don't get a lot of people who try to obstruct the work.

Our most difficult arena to work in is academia. Academic feminists are the most vituperative, the most opinionated, the most fixated and rigidified in their thinking. We've found it very difficult to get them to open up and try on some new ways of thinking.

Aaron: A recent survey showed that in women's studies courses around the country, diversity of opinion is less tolerated than in any other courses on campus. At one major university a few months ago, women told us that our work was dangerous and there was no place for it on campus. And I said, "Let me get this straight. There is no place on campus for there to be a dialog on these issues?" And they said, "That's exactly right. There is no a place for a dialog. There are all these ideas that are hostile to women that we have to overcome and allowing men a voice in this process now or having men's studies courses is dangerous for the advancement of women in our culture and so we see you as an enemy."

This shocked me deeply, because I would think the university, of all places, should be a place where we welcome debate and then out of that dialectic new ideas are forged. Our universities were never designed to be places of unilateral programming. I think that's tragic. These gender studies programs are turning out people that are going into the workplace and our political institutions who have a very skewed idea of what men and masculinity are really like.

On the other hand, women who work with men, women therapists who have male clients, women who are married to men, women who have sons, respond with enormous positivity to our work. And we find wherever we go in the country that actually the majority of women are responding with a tremendous sense of relief and gratitude that this dialog is moving forward.

Elizabeth: Gender feminists, the really radical feminists, are actually very much a minority. Even though many women may agree with feminist aspirations in terms of freedom of choice and equal opportunity, they don't subscribe to most of their polarizing ways of thinking. They really want to make their relationships with men work. They are relating to men every day.

Steven: Is homophobia related to sexism against men or women, and if so, how?

Elizabeth: I would say we're talking about two different animals here. Sexism between women and men is basically rooted in fear of one another's power and a need to control that which we don't understand. The fear is deep and old and it's in our bones and it takes a lot to change it. The first step to changing is it to acknowledge that we are afraid.

I'm afraid of Aaron even though I've known him for a long time and I'm married to him and I love him. As a man, he's a mystery to me. He's unknown. He's unpredictable. And that's frightening. And out of that will come my desire to control him somewhat. And I think he probably experiences the same thing about me. Homophobia is a whole different psychology.

Aaron: Homophobia is very inhibiting. Homophobia is a force that prevents men from being vulnerable with one another. My fear as a heterosexual man is that if I am tender, open, and friendly with other men, that that will be misunderstood as my availability for sexual relationships with them.

In the men's work I've done, even with thousands of men opening their hearts to one another and doing a lot of touching and hugging with one another, it's not as great an impediment as one might think. We have a long history as men of being close with one another, of fighting battles in close quarters or hunting together or going out to sea for three years in a tight little boat. That closeness in the male body is a very old thing that's in our bones and it's easily activated. We just need to be conscious about those fears.

I think the reason we have the fears is because men get terribly shamed if we deviate from the hero role model. More than homophobia it's actually alternate role phobia. We're afraid to break out of the rigid, narrow stereotype of masculinity in any way, to have a wide range of feelings and expressiveness as men.

Men have a lot of jealousy about women's access to emotions, that they can wear color, that they can dance, that they can laugh out loud, that they can weep when they're moved by something and that they're not going to be condemned for that.

Steven: Why are there so many rules about how to be a man? It seems like today you have to be sensitive but not too sensitive. There's almost no space left. Why is that?

Elizabeth: We're standing at a crossroads now where one wave of social programming is on its way out and there's a new wave coming in. We're struggling with a lot of the old social contracts that our parents and grandparents lived by. We have a lot of new ideas about how we'd like to do things differently. And most people are a very uneasy mixture between the two.

Women feel this too, this sense that not only do we have to be responsible for the home and the children but we have to bring in a paycheck too. That's where the whole superwoman thing comes in. We have to be so much more than we used to have to be.

Aaron: You need to be strong and fierce but still feminine and sexy.

Elizabeth: Both genders are really struggling with a huge amount of information about how we want things to be and we're still living out the old programs. It's going to take generations to change this. We really encourage women and men to have patience.

Aaron: And compassion.

Elizabeth: And compassion for the time it takes to make such huge changes and to begin to undo centuries of programming. It's not going to happen overnight.

Aaron: We're learning new steps to a new dance that isn't really clearly delineated. And so it's natural that we have a lot of clumsiness and we step on one another's toes.

Men feel like they get incredible double messages. We feel caught in a double bind because we're hearing on the one hand from women that they want us to be more in touch with our feelings and more vulnerable. Yet in every arena--young men or older working men, from executives down to high school boys-- males see that who the girls are really attracted to is not those men. They are going after the men who fit the old rule. And when we talk about this in our councils with women and men, women admit, "When I say I want you to share your feelings with me, I really want to hear that you love me. I don't want to hear that you don't feel like going to work today because you'd rather read Rumi."

Elizabeth: But by the same token, women feel double bound by the fact that what men seem to really want in relationship is a lot of the qualities of the mother, kind of a softness, an ampleness of body. They want to be cooked for and they want to have the home cared for.

And yet the women they're attracted to, the women that they look at in the street, are not the women who are going to do that for them. They're the women who are too busy putting on their makeup and going to the gym and working out for an hour and a half a day in order to be beautiful. But they're not the ones that have that softness that men are craving. So there's tons of this double binding that goes back and forth between women and men that's a part of this uneasy truce of the old and the new.

Aaron: I think our hope is in coming back to this idea of being allies and dismantling the structures that bind our souls mutually. Women helping men to take off their armor and men helping women to take off the straightjackets and the tightly laced corsets that have held them in check for so long. It gets very exciting when we start evidencing that care for one another and become allies in that process of liberation, kind of a coliberation. It becomes a very different thing than one group trying to advance their liberation over or against the other.

Steven: In a lot of relationships that work, the man and woman seem to have internalized a lot of the ideas that you talk about, maybe unconsciously. It seems to me that relationships that are really alive are two-person safe places away from the gender insanity outside in the world. Do you have any reaction to that?

Aaron: I want to make a distinction between successful relationships and long-lasting relationships. Because there are a lot of relationships that last a long time. We saw that a lot in our parents' generation, where there was a lot of denial and it was mutually agreed upon that they would be mutually unfulfilled in life and they would carry out their roles. There's a certain nobility in that. But they weren't necessarily fulfilled with one another. And they stayed together out of a sense of commitment and a sense of responsibility.

Now women and men want more from life. Our expectations have been raised. And that tends to undermine a lot of relationships and make them fall apart because we idealize women and then they don't live up to it and we idealize men and then we can never be that knight in shining armor. Those relationships that become successful that are not based on denial are based on a real mutual respect and acceptance and understanding for people just the way they are.

Liz has come to learn that I have good qualities and things to offer and that also I have limitations. There are certain arenas where I'm never going to show up. I'm never going to be what she imagined as a young girl that she was going to have in a spouse. They're not part of my makeup. And what she has really done is to look at the assets that I have, the good qualities that I do bring to the relationship, and to build on those.

If we dwell on the inadequacies then the relationship is doomed. We feel now that for every criticism there need to be five comments of praise or appreciation. Successful relationships have that. There's a lot of mutual appreciation, a lot of mutual respect, a lot of caring about what's working. Then the problem-solving around the things that don't work is not the mainstay of the relationship but something that is an ongoing process.

One reason divorce is so high right now is our expectations through the movies and romantic literature that somehow this other person is going to make us whole, is going to rescue us. Those kinds of romantic notions are just doomed.

John Gray says women and men are from different planets. I think there's some truth to that. That can be cause for celebration and delight and excitement and passion. The conflict around differences can be erotic and generate enormous creativity between women and men when we regard those differences as positive potential for the fire of transformation rather than detriments. Then we can meet each other as authentic people and understand that we're really different. We're members of different cultures. We're having a diplomatic exchange here.

We counsel people who say, "We never fight" but they're both having affairs with other people. There's no conflict in the relationship but there's also no passion, no juice. They're not alive and vital with one another. Women and men who get together who really love one another and are really honest with one another will also inevitably have a lot of conflict.

Elizabeth: We really encourage people to look at being in relationships as a spiritual discipline, so that they bring the mindset that they need to hold this as something that takes the commitment and the practice that a spiritual discipline does. Then you learn to accept someone who is different from you without having to change and control the other person, and also to surrender and let yourself be changed.

There's a lot of paradox in relationship. There's a whole part of relationship that is about letting yourself be changed by the other person and enter into an alchemical process where you're not the same as you were before. Out of that comes something that's different altogether, the combination of who the two people are, something that's altogether new and a great mystery and that's really exciting. So we call relationship a soul-making process and encourage people to look at it that way. It helps to get through the hard times to know that in that transformative fire something wonderful is being born.

Aaron: A third thing that's greater than either individual. And I think that's why we are different. Women will provoke us as men in ways that other men won't. And so we find undiscovered territories. I may feel like I'm really competent in my profession and then I come home and I feel my inadequacies in my relationship. And that gives me a whole new arena for growth. It can be seen either as diminishing me or here is someone who can mirror me in a way that the rest of the world doesn't, who can take me into a whole new uncharted land.

Making a soul comes out of differences. Carl Jung said that soulmaking was an operation which was contrary to nature, sort of like by coming up against a greater force we are tempered and strengthened in ways that we're not when we're not challenged. The whole dance between the masculine and feminine challenges us in many ways. We need to see it as a real opportunity for spiritual and psychological growth rather than as something that we have to tame and control and make small.

The greatest tragedy of the war between the sexes is women's and men's attempts to make each other smaller. Somehow if I can make you smaller then I can control you and you won't be threatening to me any more. Rather we should be trying to make each other greater, bigger, even more frightening, even more magnificent and mysterious. Masculinity and femininity are both equally great enigmas and will never be fully understood.

Steven: In your books, some men commented honestly, candidly, about their need for the women to be smaller so that they can be big. How do we get around something like that?

Aaron: Men need to accept that women are powerful. To the same degree we may have physical power, strength of bone and muscle over women, they have emotional bodies, psychic bodies that are bigger and stronger. Those may be nature's way of trying to balance the equation between the sexes.

If we're condescending towards women and we regard them as weaker, we're going to get beat up every time. That's really a naive way to treat women. Women have the emotional power to run us down like a freight train. Men commit suicide twice as often as women after divorce because they're so emotionally devastated. Women have greater emotional resources. That's why in every arena male suicide is higher.

What really helps us with that is close associations with other men. This is the importance of men's groups. If all my emotional needs for validation, intimacy, and a sense of closeness are put on one woman, then if she's having a bad day, or she's focusing on her career, or she needs to tend to our kids before me, or she's ill, or for some other reason she's not available to me, all of a sudden I'm missing all of that. We can reclaim our emotional strength as men by doing men's work with other men. It's important for women to see the value in that. And yet this is poignant for women. Because even though women want men to grow up and not be dependent on them, it's also a power that women have over men. And to the same degree that men may be reluctant to give up power to women in the economic and political arenas, women are sometimes reluctant to give up their emotional power over men. So it takes the support that come from other men. Then we can come to the relationship with the woman in a stronger way, as a more whole person. Then we don't have that need to control her and make her small because she's not our fix. She's not the only gateway to the emotional world. We have other resources that are available to us.

Steven: Aaron, you wrote about positive aspects of maleness, of fierceness, of wonderful characteristics like silliness, sensitivity, wildness, enthusiasm, a lot of characteristics that I also appreciate in men but that are often scorned in adult men. How do we hold on to these despite society's disapproval?

Aaron: Same answer as to the last question. Through the support and engagement of other men that we can be authentic with, where we drop our shuck and jive, blow-dried egos, where we take off our armor and we dance together with other men as we really are and find that we can be not only accepted but loved and appreciated for that. We need to wear our armor when we go into battle but then we need to learn how to take it off and for too many men it gets welded to the skin.

That's a process in which women can also be our allies. If we decide maybe we're not going to pick up that spear and kill the tiger, women need to learn a little spear-chucking of their own and learn how to take on some of that protector-defender- provider role. This is necessary if they do in fact want men to be more sensitive, to be better parents, to be better lovers, to be more engaged as husbands. None of these things can happen unilaterally. We can't just shift the roles from one gender. We need to do it bilaterally.

Elizabeth: These needs that we have for the other to be something are so interwoven, from biology up to culture. We have no hope to unwind it unless we do it together. The same-sex affiliation that Aaron is talking about for men is also important for women. Self-esteem building seems to happen most usefully with members of our own sex. I didn't first discover who I was as a woman and learn to feel good about myself as a woman until I got together with other women and saw who I was reflected in their eyes. I had been looking for that from men and had been upset and angry because I wasn't getting it from men. But really it wasn't men that could give it to me. It had to come from other women.

And the same thing is true for men. There's some essential wellspring of identity that comes from connecting with members of one's own sex that gives us the strength and the energy and the empowerment to then begin to deal with that which is different from ourselves.

Aaron: After this interview, when you drive back to Northern California and you go across the Golden Gate Bridge, you'll notice these two great towers anchored on either side of this great chasm. And when you're crossing the bridge, you might think about this talk we've just had about how important it is if we're going to build bridges between women and men for men to be anchored like a great tower in the sea on one side, on their gender ground, on their dancing ground, with their rituals and their gods and their ways of being and their language and customs and styles and rituals and smells and ways of seeing the world and for women to have their own delights and their dances and their mysteries and their ways of being and their sense of community and sisterhood.

Where we can feel real rooted in our same culture, then we can come out from that position of strength in feeling good about ourselves, in feeling good about our gender, and build bridges to one another. All too often, however, we have loathing for ourselves as women, as men. On that basis, we can't build a strong relationship with the other. It really has to start from a place of self-love. And so none of this gender reconciliation work should be interpreted by men as suggesting that they can somehow avoid doing the men's work. I don't think you can get to a place of having a really healthy relationship with women unless you first establish a really strong and vital ground within your own sense of gender identity.

Elizabeth: There's an expression in alchemy where they say "separati conjunctio." In order to make the philosopher's stone, you have to separate out the elements first so that they can have their own vitality. From that separation then we can create conjunctio together.

Steven: One problem that I see getting in the way of gender reconciliation sometimes is the fear of difference. In our culture when we talk about how men and women aren't exactly the same, a lot of fears come up that one gender will be put above the other, that a hierarchy will be set up. How do we talk about difference and gender reconciliation, without creating this fear?

Aaron: It's a legitimate question and it's also a very accurate insight and observation. In the past, that has happened. One of the reasons feminists don't like this dialog of difference and why there's been such a strong move towards androgyny from that camp is the imagination that somehow through sameness we'll get equality, because in the past difference has been used to discriminate. And that's one of the reasons we were told at the university, "What you're doing is dangerous."

I like what Carol Tavris says in her book, The Mismeasure of Woman, that we're never going to be androgynous beings. Biology really does affect our behavior. There's a wedding going on between the social influences and the biological influences. Carol Tavers says that instead of trying to eliminate difference, we should try to eliminate the unequal consequences that follow from difference. That's a more exciting idea. I think she's completely on the right track there. Let's talk about difference, let's understand it and celebrate and let's try to deal with discrimination, stereotyping, and the inequalities that result from our attempts to make someone better or worse because they're different.

And let's see how men have assets and liabilities. We have more upper body strength than women. Women have a bigger corpus callosum that links the right and left hemisphere that allows them to have feeling and thinking more aligned with one another. In many ways we're very much the same, men and women. We're certainly more the same than we are different. And within gender, there's enormous diversity. Our challenge is to overcome the prejudices and the stereotypes and the negative thinking that divide us as a community, that divide us as families, and to find our common goals within our different gender cultures.

Elizabeth: It's absolutely essential that we encourage difference. Yes, it's true difference has been misused in the past. All sorts of lame things have been said about women's brains being smaller and women don't have a soul and men have a soul. I think it's genuine and realistic that women would be afraid of that. So my first response is yes, it has been misused. But androgyny is also misuse and it has been responsible for creating tremendously low self-esteem in women and men. Men feel that in order to be effective parents they have to parent like women do. In order to be good in relationships they have to do relationships like women do. Men don't do relationships like women so they come up feeling inadequate all the time. Better that men discover their authentic parenting skills that are unique to masculinity and the ways that they do relationships that are unique to masculinity and bring those gifts to the table. And better that women learn to honor and recognize those gifts.

We want men to learn to recognize and honor who we are as women without having to imitate men. So I think the dance of difference is really where it's at. We do have to be aware of how deeply rooted hierarchical thinking is in all of us, women and men alike. That is something we need to attack as a community in order to unwind because it's in our bones. It's been happening for a long time. But we can move the mountain. And we will move it. And it's really a mistake to think that it's only men who practice hierarchical thinking. That's a huge fallacy.

Aaron: Women in the workplace continually tell us that their greatest issues of conflict are not with men but with other women. It's the other women at work who are really more competitive and that a lot of men have mentored them, and opened doors, and shared skills with them and so forth. That was really surprising for us to hear. The women say, "Well you know we have issues with men but God, it's the women that are really cut-throat."

Elizabeth: There's a huge fallacy. Deborah Tannen did a lot of research and came up with this whole idea that girl children play more equitably and fairly than boy children do. When you talk to women, it's not their experience. There's a huge pecking order within girls in elementary and high schools. There always was in mine and there is in my daughter's. So women are very competitive with each other. These are some of the stereotypes that are just as destructive as our old ways of thinking. This idea that men have all the bad qualities and women have all the good qualities is the new stereotype. And that's an example of how deep in our bones hierarchical thinking is because we have substituted one hierarchy for another.

Aaron: Eve is bad, Adam is good. Now Eve is the goddess and Adam is bad. We've just flipped the whole hierarchy.

Elizabeth: We want to move beyond that into a culture that reflects equal partnership in all its different aspects.

 


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