Feminist Writing. Fourth Wave. For Women.

The Heterosexual Impasse

A relationship with a man doesn't demand my constant submission; only at impasses, which are inevitable.

The Heterosexual Impasse

Relationships are hard. The pair-bonded kind include power struggles that often reach a standoff. In my experience, there is only one way to resolve a heterosexual relationship impasse: for the female to submit to the male. That means she must “let go”, apologize, soothe, and appease her recalcitrant partner. Is it training, “female socialization,” or just instinct that determines this pattern, over and over again?

Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Males are overall 35% stronger and larger than females. The difference is more extreme in upper-body strength and punch-throwing. Men are significantly more aggressive and violent than women, probably due to testosterone, likely amplified by socialization.

Is it not simply rational for the weaker sex to submit to the stronger and more violent one?

The “female socialization” theory of gender, or “ritualized submission” as Lierre Keith calls it, is appealing but incomplete. Humans are social and cultural animals; we learn how to behave from watching others. If girls primarily see women modeling submission, that’s what they will learn. If women modeled strength and dignity, and men modeled submission, things would be different, would they not? If male and female behavioral differences are due to socialization, culture could theoretically overcome or invert biology. But cultural animals are still animals; in a power struggle, we know who’s bigger and stronger. And there will always be power struggles.

I have never been hit by a boyfriend. My decisions (which feel like programming) to submit at impasses have not been driven by fear of direct violence. I suppose my decisions were social: knowing my male partner would not budge without my submission; knowing I would gain no sympathy from others for standing my ground; having no models of a relationship lasting without female submission. That is why I no longer have relationships with men: I don’t enjoy that submission.

It’s not like a relationship with a man demands my constant submission; only at these impasses, which are inevitable.

Observing my heterosexual female friends, they too always submit at an impasse. I used to try to talk to them about it, but they’d get defensive. They are proud of their “compassion” and “understanding” and “kindness,” their maturity to “let things go” and “know what’s really important.” Maintaining the heterosexual relationship is important. Female dignity is not.

"A long marriage means a woman submits for a long time."

I did not face physical violence if I refused to submit; I merely faced the end of the relationship. Maybe that’s why so many of my relationships ended? Although I recall submitting like crazy and they ended anyway. Maybe if I were submitting correctly I wouldn’t experience it as submission, but as “love,” and I’d still be with a man.

I am talking about IMPASSES here, not the day-to-day dances of submission and dominance, deciding what movie to watch, or who will supply dinner. Daily give-and-take in a relationship is fun, or at least tolerable, and many a man experiences “submission” when he lets his partner choose Thai food over steak. No, I’m talking about deep power struggles where communication comes to a standstill: the man who “processes” all night and refuses to go to sleep until the woman gets him off, with refusal meaning this goes on until dawn and continues the next day; the man who doesn’t concede an argument, even when proven wrong to his face, who pouts for weeks until he gets some kind of concession. Pouting, withdrawal, arguments, silence, misery that doesn’t end until the woman apologizes when she’s not at fault, supplies the hand job, prioritizes his feelings over her own, pities and soothes, forgives him, because you know men are fragile, poor things, and look how he’s hurting.

You may be thinking, "those are just terrible abusive men, Nina. Not All Men!" But I struggle to imagine any man not behaving like this eventually, because in a relationship feelings get raw and real power struggles occur, and participants feel like they're fighting for their lives. When push comes to shove, I expect men to use any desperate tactics they can; same for me. I put up a good fight! And then I submit, because I want the relationship to continue, because I "love" them. (And on some animal level, I also know better than to fight long and hard enough for it to escalate, because if it gets physical I will surely lose.)

What I wonder is, why do I hate this submission so much? If it’s an inevitable fact of heterosexuality in a dimorphic species, wouldn’t I instinctively embrace, rather than reject, submission? It does look like some of my female friends embrace it. Their submission is approved of by larger society, as codified in religion and media, as well as majority behavior. “Love” is exalted, as are long marriages. A long marriage means a woman submits for a long time.

But many women also resent the demand to submit, even as we submit. Why do we resent it? Resentment does us no good if we continue the behavior. That is why there are books for Christian women, on embracing the submissive role in marriage. Honestly, if I were married, I’d benefit from these books. If I’m submitting to the man anyway, why add the poison of resentment on top of it, which will only increase my misery?

Is my resentment natural, the agony of a free spirit pressed into servitude? Or is it a consequence of “feminism,” the silly idea that I, the weaker sex, should enjoy the freedom and dignity of the stronger one? Maybe it’s both: natural, because no animal enjoys being dominated by another (except in the fantasies of numerous male human perverts), but especially galling to women who naively swallowed feminism’s ideals of mutuality. I suspect there’s lots of behavior in the natural world that animals don’t like, or are ambivalent about. Animals rape, kill the offspring of their rivals, and eat each other. Gazelles are weaker than lions; does a gazelle not resent being hunted and killed for food? Does the female bedbug, whose exoskeleton is literally pierced by the male at insemination, abhor mating? Too bad for her, Nature doesn’t care.

The good news, for me, is I don’t have to be in a heterosexual relationship. So I’m not.

I’m not “smashing the patriarchy” by not being with a man, or through any other lifestyle choice, because the patriarchy can’t be smashed. The stronger will never submit to the weaker where it counts. Performative submission can and does occur (think chivalry); it is a luxury afforded by abundance. But when resources are scarce, when push comes to shove, when there’s a real power struggle and a real impasse, the strong will prevail. “Smashing the patriarchy” is a joke.

But not getting into yet another relationship with a man? That I can do.

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