Once upon a time, men did the hunting and protecting, and made their wives cups of tea in the morning, and women did the cooking, the caring and the child rearing. One day, women realised that hunting wasn’t as difficult as it was cracked up to be, and that it meant they would be fit and strong and that their children would have more to eat.
Somehow, these resourceful women found the time between doing their own jobs to squeeze in some hunting. The men were happy to share the pressure for food, the children were happy they had more to eat, and the women were happy they were strong and able to contribute to the family in a quantifiable way.
Eventually, the women became so strong, they didn’t even need protecting any more – they could protect their children and themselves just fine. In fact, they didn’t need men for anything, except a morning cup of tea, and it felt great. Then one very normal day, a woman woke up and felt tired – tired of doing two jobs at the same time. She rolled over to her husband to ask him for her cup of tea, but he had gone hunting already. She sent him a message on his smartphone saying, “What’s the big idea, hubby?
I do everything – everything – and you can’t even make me a cup of tea in the morning?” She got a message back straightaway saying, “Babe, I haven’t made you a cup of tea in the morning for five years. And you never asked about it, or mentioned it, so I thought you didn’t want it any more.” But she did. She really, really did. More than anything else, on that morning she wanted a cup of tea made for her by her husband.
A modern day fairy tale – the wife got so strong and so self-sufficient that she stopped being a woman in the relationship. And the relationship died. The end. We’re not anti-feminist and we haven’t swallowed a Fifties’ ‘guide to being a perfect housewife’ manual, we are merely questioning whether, in our quest for independence and equality, we have cut off our feminine nose to spite our masculine face.
Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist at LightHouse Arabia, says she’s a strong woman and likes to be that way. She says this issue of women becoming so strong that they can’t accept help, love, or support is not to do with being too strong, but to do with perceptions of what ‘strong’ means. “We all have feminine and masculine energies,” she says. “Masculine energy is linked to independence, rational thinking and ambition.
Feminine energy is creative, nurturing, intuitive and emotional. Because masculine traits are more prized in the workforce, women have had to excercise those muscles more, leaving less time for their feminine energy.” When you add rocketing divorce rates and subsequent single-parent families, where parents – male or female – are forced to be ‘man of the house’, it’s easy to see how there has been a “tipping of energy”, as Dr Afridi puts it.
She isn’t the only expert to think this. Helen Williams, counsellor at LifeWorks Counselling and Development, and Shana Kad, master NLP life coach at Life Effective Coaching, both agree. Helen says, “These days, children are often over-functional or overly responsible for their age. This happens when there are issues at home, such as a dysfunctional family. A child grows up not crying, not showing her feelings. She marries her husband who loves and respects her for being so strong and capable, when actually she has a fear of helplessness.
This can create massive stress – often because we don’t delegate enough – we’re being over-responsible.” According to Helen, not only does this put massive pressure on the woman, but it also leaves the man feeling pretty inadequate, too. She says, “I have many male clients who come to me because they are having affairs and they say, ‘My wife is very busy and very cold.’ And I say, ‘Do you mean she is very capable? Is she so capable that she doesn’t need you any more?’
You see, women need to be cherished. If she gets that, she might feel safe enough to be a bit more vulnerable. But he reads her overachieving as coldness and feels shut out, and not needed. It goes in a circle.” Life coach Shana says she sees many women clients who put themselves under pressure to be masculine, but deep down want to be feminine.
She says, “Many women spend their whole lives trying to become self-sufficient and then say to me, ‘Why doesn’t he realise I need his support?’ And I say, ‘Because you do everything in your power to tell him otherwise. On the outside, you are anything but feminine and vulnerable, because you see femininity as a weakness.’”
Women have come a long way in the past few generations. We earn our own money, pay our own bills, buy our own birthday presents. We drive our own cars, change our own tyres (well we could if we had to), put up our own pictures and, thanks to Ikea, we’re nifty with a screwdriver. We travel around the world, conquer corporations and fight our own battles. We are rational, goal-orientated, ambitious machines – forces not to be reckoned with.
So how is this feminism? Surely all this ‘girl power’ stuff is actually just putting masculinity on a pedestal and saying, ‘Being like a man is the ultimate achievement.’ Surely that is undermining all the mighty feminine traits, and therefore undermining ourselves? Shana explains, “If you believe that feminine people are weak, being feminine is not going to work for you. You’ll think, ‘My very nature is going to hurt me and make me vulnerable.’ But a powerful woman is not a masculine woman.
A masculine woman is just manly. I don’t have to wear a suit to be heard. I can be intelligent in a dress. It’s about getting in touch with both sides of yourself and finding out how they serve you best. If your feminine side wants to wear heels, it doesn’t mean you want to be treated like a Barbie doll. You can be a strong woman in pink stilettos.”
Shana says women often react to difficult life experiences by responding to situations in a more masculine way, or being more assertive. Dr Afridi would say this was a woman who had beefed up her masculine muscle, while Helen would say she was over-capable. All would say that there is a cut-off point, where playing that masculine role, or working that masculine muscle, or being so super-capable stops working for her any more – a point where this strong, manly woman suddenly runs out of masculine steam.
“Acting a role is hard work and tiring,” Shana says. “Women juggle so much and are scared of dropping the ball in case people see something they don’t expect. They are also scared of seeing something – perhaps weakness, or vulnerability – in themselves. You can’t keep on like that without causing yourself some damage, internally or externally.”
Not only does it put your own mental, emotional and physical health at risk, but being an over-capable woman can put your marriage at risk, too, as not only do you become more manly, but you stop your husband from being able to feel like a man. Dr Afridi says, “If a woman never says ‘I need you to do this for me’, she emasculates him by never giving him the space to be that person.” When this happens, it can be very painful to see your husband being more caring and supportive of other women, such as friends and family members.
“You need to find the balance of masculine and feminine energies within yourself and within your relationship,” says Dr Afridi. “I’ve seen women balance the relationship dynamics by not doing everything, creating space for their husbands to stay engaged in family life. This women will be successful and driven in the office, but in the home will let her husband influence – and often drive – the major decisions.”
Shana has no problem in admitting she likes to be cared for by her husband, and at the same time boost her husband’s masculine ego. Having lived by herself for many years, she is more than capable of putting her own pictures up. And yet, when some DIY needs doing, she calls on her husband to do it. “I want him to be the man and hammer nails into the wall.
He likes it when I coo over him being manly. I know I could do it myself and he knows it too, but that’s how we do things in our marriage. When I say, ‘Honey will you do this for me?’ I’m saying, ‘I need you.’ We all want to be needed and we all want to be cared for and loved. There is a time to be strong and masculine and there is a time to be feminine.”
This is not meant to be a threat. We aren’t saying you should let your husband be the boss otherwise he’ll leave you for a girly, needy woman. We’re saying if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and wondering why your husband – who loves you dearly – isn’t helping you more, or isn’t taking some of the load, maybe it’s because he doesn’t know you want him to. Maybe it’s because you’ve done such a good job of coping until now – you’re so proud of your ability to deal with anything that comes your way – that he doesn’t want to insult you by trying to help you.
The fact is, you asking for a bit of help, or letting him take some of the strain, could do you both a lot of good. Imagine it the other way around – imagine if your husband never needed you, or asked you for anything. “It would be utter bliss!” we hear you cry. But would it? Would it really? How would it feel if your husband, your children, your family and friends had absolutely no need for you in their lives. What would you do to make that feeling go away?
In the same way that a dog rolls on to his back to expose his vulnerable, soft, organ-filled tummy in order to get a nice, soothing tummy-rub, if you want people to reach out and help you, to support you, to encourage and notice your efforts, perhaps you need to stop being so ‘strong’ and start being a little more realistic about what you can and can’t manage (or what you can manage, but don’t want to).
It’s not just about trying to be masculine, or letting yourself be feminine, it’s about trying to be a superhero, or letting yourself be human. “Be a ‘strong woman’, but when you are not OK, let your friends and family know,” Dr Afridi advises. “When you’re sad or grief-stricken, allow yourself to explore those depths. Being feminine is not just about wearing lipstick, but about engaging your feminine side. Spend time playing with your children, nurturing friends and family, cooking or decorating your home.
You can still be an alpha female and do all of these things. It’s like wearing your handbag on the other shoulder. It may feel strange, but you just have to make a conscious decision to do it.” According to Shana, allowing yourself to be vulnerable is actually a sign of strength. She says, “It’s incredibly liberating to be able to say, ‘I really messed up here.’ When you show you are vulnerable, people gravitate towards you. Nobody gravitates toward someone who is always right and who never makes a mistake. Showing your vulnerabilities and your weaknesses says to people, ‘I’m comfortable for you to see my truth.’”
Helen from LifeWorks agrees. “Learned helplessness is not a bad thing – for men or women. The psychiatrist Carl Jung said we should ‘embrace our shadows’, which means accepting all our sides. It’s part of the journey toward wholeness. We have so many negative emotions – grief, fear, loss, rejection – and we often push them underground and plough on, keeping ourselves busy with work, sport and socialising until an issue pops up as illness, addiction, rage or depression. It stops you and forces you to really feel that emotion.
We don’t teach our kids to be vulnerable and that’s where all of this starts – in childhood. If you’ve realised vulnerability is a missing ingredient in your personality, be honest with yourself about why that might be. A bit of microscopic truth never did anyone any harm.”
Counsellor Helen Williams gives us a crash course in how to be a woman (and let your man be a man)
Learn how to say, ‘No, I can’t do that.’
Learn how to delegate.
Stop taking on so much.
Become more self-focused – think about what you need and want, rather than just thinking about what your husband and children need and want.
Learn how to spell it out for him. Such as, “I’d love it if you took me out for a surprise dinner and we got all dressed up.” Or, “I’d really love a hug right now.”
Dr Saliha Afridi is a clinical psychologist and director at The LightHouse Arabia (04-3809298, www.lighthousearabia.com).
Shana Kad is a Master NLP life coach at Life Effective Coaching (050-6744793, www.lifeeffectivecoaching.ae).
Helen Williams is a counsellor and managing director at LifeWorks Counselling and Development (04-3942464, www.lifeworksdubai.com).