I recently had an on-air exchange that was an insight for me into how some men feel about feminism, equality between the sexes and egalitarian relationships. It struck a chord with me because, for the past 14 years, I’ve been in a wonderful egalitarian relationship with a woman I consider my equal in every way, and I found myself a little bemused at my opponent’s outright denial of the reality I live every day!

It started because I was discussing A.O. Scott’s excellent piece in the New York Times magazine on the “death of adulthood” in American culture. Scott observes that society loves strong men – patriarchs like Don Draper, Tony Soprano and even Walter White – even as we despise their actions. “The monstrousness of these men was inseparable from their charisma, and sometimes it was hard to tell if we were supposed to be rooting for them or recoiling in horror,” he says.

He goes on to say that “adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable,” a point which gave me pause for its way of (over-?) stating what is actually kind of obvious when you think about it: our hoodie-wearing generation of thirty-something men are way less inclined to act like their fathers and father’s fathers. (And their father’s father’s fathers. And their father’s father’s father’s fathers.)

Which brings me back to relationships. Is equality in relationships impossible? Do all men secretly want to be Don Draper? Here are three ways I’ve heard people get it wrong about my relationship (after all, I can only speak for myself) and the dynamics at work in it.


(1) True equality in relationships is impossible

When men look around, they often see only two types of relationships:

(a) those driven by strong, dominant men who are in control, successful or aiming at it, with relatively deferential women following them, supporting them, sustaining them; and

(b) those with weak men who ‘allow’ their women to ‘wear the pants’, to boss them around, to use sex (and the lack thereof) as a weapon, to set the agenda and deprive him of agency† over his own affairs.

Men in the latter category are referred to as ‘pussywhipped’; those in the former are ‘real men’. Yet egalitarian relationships go almost unnoticed entirely: those where both partners have an equal voice, live their own lives and get things done collaboratively. Neither partner gets everything they want because relationships are about compromise, but both partners are committed to the happiness and fulfilment of the other. Those relationships exist. I know, because I’m in one.

When I tell this to the people who seem not to believe it, they emphasize the difficulty of achieving it, or cite the inevitability of the power shifting to one side (mostly the woman’s). All I can tell you is it isn’t difficult for us. Never has been. I’m sure mileage varies on this, but my main point is to rebut the idea that the two relationship types above are the only ones available.

(2) It’s gotta be torture!

Only people in unequal relationships can be happy, right? Somehow that’s a better basis for a relationship! Again, I can only speak for myself: I’m extremely happy in my relationship, and have been for 14 years. We both support each other, which means that when I need to do something for myself, or pursue a project or interest, or see a band or movie I like, or take a vacation, or buy a car I’ve wanted, or do something else that makes me happy, my wife is not mad at me or down on it or rolling her eyes or showing limited tolerance of it; she’s usually trying to help me make it happen! Why would she do that? Because I’m doing the same for her, that’s why. We’re not standing in each others’ way; we’re standing at each others’ back. We’re not locked in opposing determination; we’re enabling each others’ aspirations. Torture? No. Torture would be an unhappy relationship, and that could only come from disturbing this organic power balance.

I think this level of independence of mind implies a few other things about egalitarian relationships:

(a) they work best when people are the least possessive of each other (after all, if you want all your partner’s free time to yourself or you feel jealous all the time of all the other people they’re with or things they’re doing, you won’t be able to support their desires very well);

(b) they operate with a different understanding of what the relationship is (forget about ‘two become one’ or being ‘captured’, these are two complete human beings coming together but not giving up their own identities, operating interdependently);

(c) they forge a ton of mutual respect in a way that subjugation or submission could never allow;

(d) contrary to the idea that romance and sexiness evaporate with equality, the partners preserve all the individuality that their partners fell in love with in the first place so, in my experience at least, there isn’t a problem there.

(3) Men who say they want equality are just being politically correct

I’m accused of political correctness all the time, as though I’m saying what I’m saying just to be cool or just to give the opportune answer. This is a projection of the person making the accusation: they’re the ones without an ethical compass, they’re the ones who are trying to be cool in another way (the kind celebrated in the narratives mentioned by Scott), who are trying to align with a competing, Don Draper vision of manliness. They just can’t imagine that someone would want equality for its own sake, or that equality may come more naturally to some people, or that life could just be better that way (novel concept I know).

Political correctness has never motivated me, and I don’t understand those motivated by it. A proposition is either true or it isn’t, and when I say I want an equal partner, I’m saying it because it’s true.

† A word about agency: people don’t often pick up on the many ways we’re exhibiting sexist behavior. Men who hold open doors exclusively for women, rush around the car to open the door for her before she does and insist on paying for everything are routinely seen as romantic, but what they’re really doing is depriving women of their agency. Men are the active, women the passive. Men are the agents, women the grateful recipients of their generosity and hard work. In egalitarian relationships there’s little such nonsense, because both the man and the woman are in direct agency of their own lives, but – importantly – they’re supporting each other so that they can complement each others’ strengths and weaknesses (which may or may not fall within stereotypical gender roles, and whether they do or don’t is seen as completely irrelevant).