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