Recently I found myself brooding about a man I know who has never been able to give his heart to a woman. I have always been suspicious of single fellows who bulldoze blindly through love affairs, crushing hearts and smashing dreams as they go. My life has been overturned by more than one of these bounders. Yet as I continued to ponder this man’s predicament, I felt a huge pang of empathy for him. Why was I softening? Was I off my meds?
Not at all. I was realizing a truth that is probably obvious to most people but had eluded me through decades of unrequited passion. Men who love and leave are not powerful and in charge. They are, au contraire, incredibly sad, especially at midlife. Years of pushing away affection leave them graying at the temples without wives or children, as lost and lonely as any of the women they spurned.
My Lothario was looking like a loser.
It had never occurred to me that men might have as many problems as women making relationships work. I subscribed to the myth of the dominant male oppressor, never quite bought into the New Sensitive Male. I was a child of the 70s, a feminist by osmosis and a bit of a sexist.
Thanks to years of therapy, piles of self-help books, and obsessive navel-gazing, I was very familiar with all the ways that women like myself sabotaged relationships: drama, neurosis, nagging, scolding, meanness, passive aggression. I was equally intimate with all the ways we experienced hurt at the hands of men: abuse, abandonment, unfaithfulness, possessiveness, disrespect, indifference, neglect.
What I hadn’t considered was that the men inflicting the hurt weren’t doing so well themselves. Maybe they weren’t triumphant or dominant at all. Maybe men had their own list of sabotaging behaviors that crippled them in the quest for love and family: fear of commitment, emotional distance, aggression and rage, inadequate social skills, fear of intimacy, sexual insecurity, fear of women.
Then, the epiphany: if I could feel compassion for my departed suitors, perhaps I would no longer feel victimized by them.
Compassion is essential to getting over broken relationships. You cannot simultaneously feel like a victim and feel empathy for the criminal. Compassion demands emotional distance, a cool head protecting a warm heart. To feel empathy also involves a healing paradigm shift. You cannot view the object of your sympathies as a powerful oppressor.
To feel compassion is to regain your own dignity and strength. If the men I thought had triumphed over me were actually as confused and hurt as I was, they had no more magic, no more power, than I did.
We were equals.
Sometimes it is difficult to get enough distance and perspective to reach a state of compassion. Here is a technique I use. It will sound peculiar but it actually helps. When I need to get perspective on any troubling aspect of my love life, I sit down in front of my television and I watch the nature shows.
In today’s rougher and more risque nature programming, you see it all from the grisliest carnage to the most peculiar lovemaking on the planet. Moreover, you discover that in the animal kingdom it is neither a man’s nor a woman’s world. The mating game offers triumph and tribulation for both sexes, and the hermaphrodites as well.
Here is an example of how I learned compassion for men from the Nature Channel. I was feeling my usual store of resentments, hurts and slights from a typical week in my typically lousy love life, when I clicked on a program about the mating habits of tarantulas and my heart swelled with empathy for men everywhere.
According to the show, when it’s mating time in the tarantula world, the females burrow into underground hideaways where the males must seek them out and attempt to mate with them. The narrator followed one sorry bachelor spider as he scrabbled from bunker to bunker trolling for a date. Finally he picked up a promising scent and crawled into a hole. No sooner had he disappeared into the dirt than there was a violent scuffle and he was tossed out violently. As he hobbled off in search of better prospects my eyes filled with tears of empathy. Being a guy bites.