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Sex + Relationships

The Emotional Violence of Heterosexual Relationships

In every monogamous relationship there are three distinct entities: the first individual, the second individual, and the relationship.

Original design by: Gabriela Jatene

Each of these entities has needs, wants, and responsibilities (henceforth referred to as NWR). In a healthy relationship, the task of tending to the NWR of the relationship should be equally shared between the two corresponding individuals. The task of tending to their separate NWR should be their own. The chart below exemplifies common NWR and how they should be organized within a relationship:

Original design by: Gabriela Jatene

This is not an “every man for himself” scenario: individuals in a relationship should acknowledge, validate, and support each other, and it may be the case that the extent of this support increases or lessens based on circumstance (e.g. ailing health or emotional disturbances). It is also true that everything that occurs within the jurisdiction of one individual in a relationship can impact the other. That being said, they remain distinct entities, and the brunt of the burden of fulfilling their individual NWR should be their own. Although this dynamic should be the goal for different types of relationships between two individuals, not just those of a romantic nature, for the purpose of this article I will be focusing exclusively on cis, heterosexual, monogamous relationships and their particularities. This is because, save for the relationship between guardians and children, few other dynamics are as deformed in their balance. Behold the horrors of heterosexual relationships:

Original design by: Gabriela Jatene

It is true that any relationship can be thrown off balance in a way that is burdensome to one of the parties regardless of the nature of the relationship and the gender of the individuals. However, I would like to argue that heterosexual relationships, as they exist today, are inherently skewed in ways that disproportionately and negatively impact women. These are three of the main ways in which these relationships are unbalanced:  

domestic labor

Even in the early stages of a relationship, I find that my female friends and I are constantly picking up after our male partners. Regardless of any progress made by women in the labor force, they are still perceived as “responsible” for the home and the children. Fictitious tales of “biological inclination” are thrown around left and right to justify confining women to the home, or worse still — forcing them to take on the majority of the domestic work while also maintaining a full-time job. To say that it is only women who need and want a couple’s shared home to be well-managed (whether that involves cooking, cleaning, organizing, or any other form of home maintenance) and to rear and to raise children is to engage in a misogynistic, gender-based rhetoric invented and upheld by patriarchal society to control women. 

Feminism preaches women’s right to choose, but for women — especially those of a lower social class — there is only the illusion of choice. In truth, domesticity is still tied to womanhood. There is an expectation, in both the man and the woman, that she will take on the brunt of the domestic work. Suddenly, a few months of breast-feeding, a task cis men admittedly cannot engage in, morphs into a lifetime of servitude on the basis of sex. There is no true reason why anything domestic, beyond the strictly biological, should be the primary responsibility of women. Still, women are raised into accepting the domestic responsibility expected of them without seeing it as a burden.

Emotional labor

While women are in constant search of self-actualization, practically from birth, men are taught that they are well just as they are. In a patriarchal society, femininity is equated to weakness and emotions are made to be effeminate. Men’s emotions are brushed aside as soon as they float to the surface, repressed, sentenced to marinate in the depths of their mind. They develop into trauma, poor coping mechanisms, a lack of emotional availability, an absence of empathy. Men are doomed from the very start and women are sentenced to a lifetime of tireless emotional labor because of this. Emotionally stunted from childhood, men are congratulated for the bare minimum in adulthood: “He helps her do the dishes!” or “He picks the kids up at school!” Their kids. Their dishes. The bar for men is set so low that there is never any true incentive for self-actualization. They will use their childhood as an excuse, blame their fathers and shame their mothers, and find comfort and validation in their like-minded men. They never seek to better themselves: the patriarchy rears and raises men to uphold it. And women pay the price. They are expected to single-handedly support men through their emotional struggles, and never burden them with their own. When he displays emotions in the relationship, he is sensitive. When she does, she is crazy. Jealousy and anger in men is primal, in women it is insanity. “Behind every man is a great woman” — they stand on our shoulders, and we support them as they build the systems that oppress us, and leave us to fight our oppression on our own. That is the tragedy of being a woman.

Miscellaneous Mommy issues

Patriarchal society raises inherently entitled men. They are rightfully entitled: society, as it is, was made for them. In love and impatient, women mother their male counterparts. They fold their clothes and pack their suitcases, schedule their haircuts, help them buy clothes. They remind them to schedule dentist appointments and check-ups, and plan vacations. “Why do it, then?” Because someone has to. And just as he expects her to do it, she expects it of herself. The same way that men are conditioned to be dependent, women are conditioned to be dependable.

I have spent the last seven years in heterosexual relationships. I am currently in a heterosexual relationship. It has been difficult to reconcile the love I feel for my partner with the things about him that are inherently male (in the sense that they are deeply embedded in socially constructed definitions of masculinity) and, therefore, inherently oppressive. I find myself exhausted by the same gaps in understanding and empathy that burdened me in previous interactions with men, and tasked with the difficult job of explaining that who he is is harmful to who I am. People grow defensive when their privilege is pointed out to them, and because there is no one more privileged than the cis, straight, white man, there is no one more defensive. Without their awareness and willing abdication, there can never be such a thing as a “healthy” relationship between men and women. 

Gabriela Jatene

Columbia Barnard '22

Gabriela Jatene is a dog mom and senior at Barnard College, studying History and English. Contact her about her articles or fear of crickets at gsj2106@barnard.edu
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