I wrote about a dozen articles for Patch prior to last week’s article on “,” and never had more than a comment or two in response (including my own response to a respondent). Last week’s post, on the other hand, triggered a comparative avalanche. I want to pause from my initial plan (“Male Compassion” has therefore been postponed until next week) and try to understand what happened: both the quantity and the content of the responses to last week’s post.
I anticipated getting more responses because I think there is a lot of energy around the whole question of men and women in relationship. It’s been called a lot of things over the years, such as “the battle of the sexes.” Often times it is a battle, though I prefer to think of it as a creative tension that occurs when two different entities try to meet. Yes, sparks fly, but we also grow and develop, we make babies and build families and communities, and we learn, through our struggles, how to love someone or some thing which doesn’t look or sound like us. It is not easy, and that’s why I have spent so much time focusing on the struggle aspect, because love songs and movies portray the easier parts quite nicely. I believe all of us are made better by the struggle, even those of us who think we’ve failed.
Then there’s the content from last week’s response thread. If we’re going to be honest, the more fringe comments appeared to come from men. The easy reaction would be to say “these Neanderthals are just proving the point of men’s problems in relating.”
I would like to challenge us all to think a little more deeply about it.
The first thing I want to say is that we all share those same aggressive impulses which were evident in some of the postings. There is no honest way to say “I’m not like that.” Psychologist Carl Jung cautioned us not to focus only on our light but also to recognize the shadow side of our personalities, the dark impulses we don’t like to let out into the light. If we don’t acknowledge that these exist within us, the darkness we deny in ourselves erupts onto other people or we bring it into our lives in other ways.
I believe what makes online forums so potentially dangerous is their combination of ease and anonymity. The ease is an artifact of electronic communication: the speed with which we can hit “send” or “post” and have it appear moments later on a screen for all to see. There is little time or need for reflection and our darker impulses can find easy outlet.
I am certain there were angry letters to the editor when snail mail was the only way to communicate, but I bet there were fewer of them because it required putting a piece of paper in a typewriter or writing it out by hand, finding an envelope, locating the address, putting a stamp on it, and putting it in the mailbox. All of those hurdles slowed down the initial aggressive impulse, and only the more determined angry person would follow all the way through. There also was built-in gate keeping because an editor simply had to see it before it could be put into print. For (largely) better and (somewhat) worse, this is no longer the case with online publishing.
The anonymity is the more relevant issue here, in the sense that it touches more directly on the question of relationships. By definition, anonymity means you and I don’t know each other. There is no mutuality, no reciprocity, no overt repercussions for how we behave toward each other. This is similar to the situations in large cities and on the freeways, with their accompanying alienation and road rage.
So to my brothers who responded last week with more aggression and less thought for how it landed on the other side, I would ask you this: how does it feel to you when you engage in this way? Does it feel the same way as when you hold your child in your lap, when you confide in your best friend, when someone does you a favor? It’s really the same relational message I was trying to convey last week. If you learn to pay attention to how your behavior makes others and you feel, you will be getting a valuable feedback mechanism for how to live your life more successfully, whether it be with your wives, your bosses, your children, or your neighbors. You can blow this off if you like, but communal reality is stronger than individual stubborn opinions. Dr. Phil does have one line I love: “How’s that working for you?”
What I have to say in closing might not be politic and might make some more reactive. I want to suggest this: for some of you the degree to which you are reactive and angry and don’t care about how others feel is the degree to which you have been wounded in relationship. Someplace along the way some of you learned it is not safe to let someone get close to you or for you to get close to someone else. Frankly, I was once very much this way myself and I still have my moments. So I have some compassion for those who act this way. But it still doesn’t free you from the responsibility of looking at your impact on the world around you. If you really want to push people away or have them avoid you, why venture forth at all?
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.