Re-framing the Battle of the Sexes


When we speak of the 'battle of the sexes,' there is a collective understanding about what is being referred to. It points to a condition, a dynamic, which we all contend with, to some degree. The one that often occurs in relationship, at a personal level, but particularly in the conversation which occurs between, about and around them – as witnessed in the broader sphere, online, through social media and traditional media channels.

The flavour of this dynamic, and the language used to refer to it is uncontestedly, entrenched in the language of warfare, and the battlefield.


The language of conflict 

In this sphere, men and women are pitted against each other, in combat. We are enemies, fighting against one another, for victory. It goes without saying, that there can be only one winner. In some cases a party may surrender, but it is likely to leave them embittered, nursing the wounds of defeat. A truce may sometimes be called, but there is an assumption that there will inevitably be a resumption of hostilities. If we have any allies in this fight, it is only with our brothers or sisters – who understand our cause, our frustrations. We rally support, seek endorsement for our cause, justification for our anger and resentment, and offer or seek supportive examples of bad behaviour or untrustworthiness of the 'other.' 

If we accept that this is often the context in which conversation occurs, there is an expectation, an assumption, that there will be conflict. Men and women will occur to each other as enemies, by default. In this context, there is no middle ground to be reached. No consensus, little understanding, and certainly no possibility of agreement, let alone any partnership. In this context, it is not surprising that we take on the role of combatants, and play out such battles in real life.

The online battlefield

 In an interview conducted by David Fuller of Rebel Wisdom with evolutionary biologist Heather Heying, there is a discussion about the online environment, in which the battle of the sexes often plays out. At one point, David says: 

'The other sex is seen as the enemy. In both there is an implicit, and sometimes explicit assumption that men and women are pitted against each other – our interests are not aligned. They are essentially so different, that they can't even exist together.' 

As Heather Heying observes: 'On both sides, there's no good faith left.' 

It may seem disingenuous to use the online sphere to illustrate the battlefield dynamic. This is a realm not exactly renowned for balanced, responsible discourse. The conversation which takes place is often polarised, inflamed, and combative, especially at the far ends of the spectrum. The loudest, most strident voices come from diametrically opposed poles - eg the strident feminist vs the embattled man. There is no sense of dialogue at all, certainly no desire to hear or understand each other, or 'the other' in general. 

On social media, this is particularly pronounced. On Youtube, Twitter, and in countless comments feeds, proclamations of protest against the opposite sex invariably tar all women or all men with the same brush, or take examples of bad behaviour by some men/women as indicative of bad behaviour by all men/women, or worse still, seen as inherent traits of that sex. 

Currently, the feeling of 'battle' and conflict pervades the culture at large – with anti– man or female rhetoric seeping (nay, pouring) into mainstream media discussion and commentary (see Kathy Newman's C4 interview with Jordan Peterson as a case in point), particularly in the wake of the #metoo campaign, and witnessed recently in the furore which erupted after the recent ‘toxic masculinity’ challenging Gillette advert was aired. 

Crucially, though this conversation may not wholly reflect the interaction which occurs at a personal level between the sexes, there can be little doubt that it is has an impact on a wider sphere. It's not much of a leap to suggest that this conversation could be seen as a reflection of our relationship with the opposite sex at a personal level, as individuals. It is also likely that it has a direct or indirect impact on our intimate relationships.


Establishing Context

Supposing conflict is what is anticipate when we enter into a conversation, can we really expect to have any other experience? Are we not in some part, responsible for creating the conflict we experience?

When invited to comment on the prevailing dynamic in a filmed interview with Rebel Wisdom's David Fuller, renowned feminist, Mens work facilitator and relationship counsellor Warren Farrell had no hesitation in concluding:

'We are definitely caught up in a dysfunctional relationship.'

In the interview Farrell goes on to describe the dynamic in a therapeutic context – pointing out the ways the communication itself is dysfunctional, and the absence of any real opportunity for satisfying dialogue. With both protagonists arguing from a fixed position, with no real listening of the other or willingness to understand their respective grievances, it is no surprise the conversation occurs as a 'battle.'

Lets suppose for a minute we could bring the two protagonists into a counselling session, with a mediator. In this space, it would be likely that certain questions would be asked, to each party:

What are you wanting to get out of this conversation?
Would you like to reach a point of understanding?
What do you want, for yourself?
Are you listening to the other person, and hearing what they have to say?
What do you expect, when you enter into a conversation?

Any self-respecting counsellor would then make concerted attempts to unearth the root causes of the dysfunction, in order to shed light on, and (potentially) to transform the dynamic.

The question is, how have we ended up here?

The roots of dysfunction

It may feel like stating the obvious, but our models for men and women, and our templates for the relationships that exist between them, are shaped first and foremost by our personal experiences of family life, from childhood. Not only through direct experience, but by the stories that are told within our family.

In our family life, we witness relationships and interactions between men and women. We register these experiences on a conscious level, but also, significantly, they impact us subconsciously too. As children, we experience family dynamics in primal ways. They form imprints on our subconscious, which become embedded, and influence our attitudes about men and women. For example, we may witness an argument over finances that occurs between our parents, which at face value reads as 'Dad is upset at Mum for spending money' – but can potentially imprint stories such as 'Women are irresponsible with money.'

We often recount such incidents in our past neutrally as objective ‘reportage’, but with very little understanding of the deeper impact these stories have on us, and how they influence our attitudes and behaviours in later life, as adults (or more accurately, as ‘adult children’).

We inherit stories about our family members, and hold them as certain truths. 'My grandfather was hopeless.' My father couldn't provide for us.' 'My mother was depressed and needy.' They become templates for how we perceive men and women, and begin to shape our experiences of relationships in our own life, and what we come to expect in relationship with the opposite sex.

Patterns of communication

It's not just the stories that are told that shape our perspectives. We are also provided with models of interaction, in the way our family members communicate with each other. We pick up not just on what is said, but how it is being said. Patterns of communication, behaviour and language we observe are inherited, and become templates for how we interact with the opposite sex, as adults.

Such conditioning can lead us to enter into communication in a way which is very unlikely to deliver positive outcomes. Instead, we become like the person who has lost his keys, but continues to look for them under a streetlight some distance away from where they were lost, because the light is better for searching.

There are various practices that help to shed light on destructive patterns of communication, and offer support to transform them. Among these is the practice of Non Violent Communication (NVC); a form of training which is designed to 'unlearn' combative modes of communication, in order to access a much more loving, compassionate approach to dialogue.

"NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves, and hear others. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention."
– Marshall Rosenberg, 'Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life'

Although NVC is referred to as a 'process of communication,' on a deeper level it supports a reframing of the context of a conversation, allowing the possibility of a different outcome, one which is more reflective of what we actually desire. It establishes a context of compassion, flow and desire for understanding between ourselves and others.


A Personal enquiry

When we reflect on the 'battle of the sexes' dynamic, it's worth questioning our own experience of this relationship, our patterns of communication, and the context in which we engage with the opposite sex.

For me, this has been an imperative. It is an area I have explored extensively, through personal self-exploration, research, in counselling sessions and course rooms, and in relationship with the women in my life.

My motivation for this is twofold. Firstly, my intention is to develop relationships with the opposite sex (particularly intimate ones), which are mutually fulfilling, loving and supportive – contrary to some of the models I have been presented with in my own life. Secondly, I want to take accountability for my own experience of relationship, and the part I play in creating it. I freely admit that throughout my life, I have, at times, been an unhappy, unwilling, yet helpless subscriber to the 'battlefield' model of interaction with the opposite sex. My intention has been to shed some light on how this has evolved, and take steps towards transforming it.


Changing our point of entry

To illustrate what can be possible when we pay attention to how we enter into a conversation, conscious of where we speak from, and with a listening for the other person, I will recount what occurred during and after a conversation which took place recently between myself and my partner.

In this instance, I entered into the conversation consciously, offering exactly what my partner had asked for – to have all the space she needed to express herself fully, without any response or interruption, until she had said all she needed to say.

This type of request can be challenging, accustomed as I am to seeking 'equity' in conversation, an equal exchange, while grappling with my interpretation of the battlefield (based on family and cultural conditioning and supported by subsequent personal experiences) that 'there is no space for me to be heard.'

A symptom of this condition is that I can enter into a conversation prepared for battle, literally fighting for space to speak. Desperate to be heard, but with a prevailing sense that this will be futile. It is a condition that inevitably leads to frustration, disappointment and usually, conflict. Furthermore, the other person would invariably be to blame, 'responsible' for denying me this space.

So, in this particular exchange where I abandoned my usual position, I was able to break free from the anticipated outcomes of frustration and conflict. Subsequently, the conversation that occurred was dramatically different. There was freedom for my partner to express herself fully, and to genuinely feel heard. Consequently, and quite naturally, the space also emerged for me to express myself, and to experience this feeling of being heard. The conversation itself occurred in an atmosphere of compassion and understanding, and brought us closer together. Everyone's a winner.


Leaving the battlefield

As challenging as it is to witness the dysfunctional 'battlefield' dynamic playing out between men and women, it also offers a huge opportunity – to reflect on the nature of our interactions, and to create another dynamic, which comes from somewhere else other than the battlefield. Perhaps we can enter a new domain, where the intention is to connect and engage authentically with each other, from the heart. To experience the other sex not as an enemy, but as an ally and potential partner.

This is certainly possible, but the onus falls on all of us, to enquire into how we would like our relationships to occur, and to shine some light onto what may be hidden from view in our own patterns and behaviours around relationships and communication. The first step is to ask some searching questions about how and why we end up in battles – and be accountable as individuals, men and women both, for the parts we play in the dysfunctional dynamic.

This is no easy course – and there are no shortcuts. It requires a spirit of enquiry, commitment and compassion, for oneself and each other. And yet, a willingness to be accountable, to enquire into where we stand, where we engage from, offers significant rewards. To leave the battlefield behind, and enter a landscape of brother and sisterhood, united in purpose and commitment, mutual appreciation, compassion and understanding. Love, even. In short, the relationship I imagine we all desire.*

*Disclaimer: Of course, none of this guarantees that men and women will necessarily always understand or agree with each other in conversation — but it would allow for differences between the sexes to be held with much more compassion and understanding, as they would if we occurred as allies rather than enemies.


Further enquiry:

If you have any interest in exploring your own patterns and behaviours around relationship and communication with the opposite sex, I invite you to ask yourself the following questions:

What stories have you inherited from your family, about Men and Women? 
How do Men and Women occur to you, based on these stories?

What is your model of communication between the sexes, based on interactions between your mother and father, your relatives, and your siblings?

What is your expectation of conversations with the opposite sex?
Do you enter into them, expecting to have a battle? If so, can you consider entering into conversations consciously, from another place?