A young woman had been through a series of abusive, manipulative relationships in which she was consistently shamed and controlled. Finally, she met a man who was kind, generous, and compassionate. They began a committed relationship and loved each other deeply. The young woman knew the man wanted to marry her, but she wasn’t ready yet.
The shadow of the previous abusive relationships hung over this new experience. On a few occasions, when the woman was running late for something they had planned together, she sensed some frustration in her boyfriend. He made comments once or twice that he would prefer if she called when running late. This brought to mind the controlling behavior of her previous boyfriends, and she felt afraid.
Sometimes, when the woman was feeling stressed or anxious, her boyfriend put an arm around her to comfort her—but it reminded her of the manipulating or threatening touches she had experienced in the past, and she stiffened instinctively.
The boyfriend, sensing the emotional distance between them, expressed his love for her and tried to understand why she could not trust him. The young woman wasn’t sure what to say. She knew her boyfriend was different than the previous men, but she still felt fear, shame, and sadness sometimes when she was with him.
The young woman spoke with her best friend about the trouble in her relationship. She explained how she felt when her boyfriend asked her to call if she was running late, and when he put his arm around her when she was stressed, and how she had felt a few times when they argued and he made unkind or critical comments.
“Has he apologized?” the friend asked her.
“He apologized for critical or unkind comments after we argued. But I haven’t told him how I feel when he wants me to call if I’m running late, or when he puts his arm around me when I’m stressed.”
“Well, he’s a man,” the friend said. “He doesn’t understand how women feel about these things. You should tell him.”
So the young woman told her boyfriend how she felt in those moments. He was deeply concerned and saddened to hear about her previous relationships and how painful they had been. When she explained how she felt about being asked to call if she was running late, he said, “Oh no—I never meant to make you feel controlled! I hate that it came across that way. I just asked because I tend to worry about you if it’s significantly past the time we planned to meet and you’re not there. Please understand I would never be like those men.”
When she told him how she felt when he put his arm around her while she was stressed, her boyfriend was shocked. “I had no idea!” he said. “That must be so hard to still feel that way. I’m just trying to comfort you with a hug, but please let me know when you’re feeling uncomfortable, and I can definitely give you space. I’d like to talk about it in those moments, though. I want to be able to reassure you that I love you and I’m not like those other men who hurt you.”
The young woman felt a little better after these conversations, but despite her boyfriend’s reassurance, she still struggled with her gut reactions to him in certain situations. Talking with him didn’t always help her feel safer.
So she spoke with her best friend again and explained her boyfriend’s responses.
“He didn’t apologize?” the friend said.
“Well…no, I don’t think so,” said the young woman. “He just told me that he loved me, and he explained how he meant for those things to come across.”
“He owes you an apology,” said the friend. “It doesn’t matter what he intended—it matters how he made you feel. Besides, he might say he doesn’t mean it that way, but how does he even know? Men are all misogynists. It’s not necessarily their fault; it’s just how they’re socialized with toxic masculinity. As long as he can admit he’s a misogynist and pledge to fight misogyny, you can tell he’s different than the other men.”
The young woman was somewhat taken aback by this, but it seemed to make sense in a way. Certainly, society was far too accepting of “locker room talk,” and several of her previous boyfriends had told her things like, “All men do this. If you don’t like it, no man will want to date you.” It seemed reasonable to assume that this culture affected all men, including her current boyfriend.
So the young woman confronted her boyfriend and told him that she noticed he hadn’t apologized for how his actions had affected her.
“I don’t understand,” her boyfriend said. “I didn’t mean any harm. A lot of people ask for a call when someone is running late—it’s courteous and helps people not worry. And it seems bizarre to apologize that I was putting my arm around you to comfort you, when I didn’t even realize it was uncomfortable for you. Now that I know how you’re struggling, you know I’m treating those situations differently and checking in with you about how you feel.”
The young woman felt confused and wondered if she was being manipulated. Her boyfriend’s words sounded reasonable, but they didn’t line up with her friend’s advice. The next time she spoke with her friend, she explained what her boyfriend had said.
“He’s getting defensive,” the friend said. “That just proves he’s really a misogynist, like all the other men. He needs to prove he’s a safe boyfriend by owning up to the harm his actions caused and apologizing. That’s not enough, though—he should also start advocating against misogyny.”
The young woman agreed that this would help prove to her that he was willing to change so he wouldn’t be like the other men.
She addressed these concerns with her boyfriend, but she was disheartened by his reply.
“I’m not a misogynist,” he protested. “I’ve been raised to treat women with dignity and kindness. When I hear ‘locker room talk’ from other men, I call them out. I know women and men have equal value. Haven’t I been doing my best to show you that I love you and I’m not like those abusive boyfriends who hurt you? I know I’ve said some hurtful things in the past when we’ve argued—I’m not perfect—but I always apologize sincerely when I’ve said anything critical or unkind. Do I really need to advocate against misogyny to prove I’m a decent man?”
The young woman left this conversation feeling even more confused, sad, and worried. She told her friend what had happened, and the friend shook her head.
“I can’t say I’m surprised, though,” the friend said. “Men are like that. They’ve been raised to be egotistical, so of course they get defensive and they argue.”
“What should I do now?” the young woman said, feeling depressed.
“You can try talking to him again. Try to help him understand how much this means to you, and how hurtful it is when he argues that he’s not misogynist.”
The young woman went back to her boyfriend and tried again, but once again he denied that he was a misogynist.
“You know I love you,” he said. “I wish you could understand that I don’t think women are worth any less than men. How could you think that of me?”
Even more confused and discouraged, the young woman reported this to her friend.
“That’s not what ‘misogyny’ means,” the friend said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean consciously thinking men are better than women. It’s the inevitable product of men being socialized into toxic masculinity. And it doesn’t matter what he thinks; what matters is that you experienced his actions as hurtful.”
The young woman thought about this, and it seemed to make sense. She returned to her boyfriend and explained how he was misunderstanding the word.
“Why does it matter so much to you for me to admit I’ve been socialized into ‘toxic masculinity’?” Her boyfriend said. He sounded exasperated. “I’ve been treating you with respect and dignity all along. I’ve apologized for anything I’ve ever said that was unkind out of frustration during arguments—all couples argue sometimes. In fact, nothing I’ve said in an argument has anything to do with you being a woman. You’ve said unkind things to me as well. That’s just what happens in a normal relationship sometimes!”
“It doesn’t matter whether you meant to hurt me or not,” the young woman said. “What matters is that I felt unsafe!”
“Isn’t that because of how other men treated you, not because of me?” the boyfriend asked with a sigh.
The young woman didn’t know what to say. She wondered if she was being gaslighted. The next time she talked with her friend, the friend expressed anger at the boyfriend.
“He’s deflecting,” the friend said. “He isn’t taking you seriously. That must hurt.”
“It does,” said the young woman. “Sometimes I feel like he must be manipulating me, just like those other men.”
“Girl,” said the friend, “If you feel that way—I hate to say it—but you should listen to your gut. Maybe he doesn’t care enough about you to change.”
The young woman felt crushed, but the friend’s words lined up with how she had been feeling ever since her boyfriend denied being a misogynist. He was, after all, just like all those other men who had hurt her. It was time to break up. She was devastated, but not surprised. Men were like that. You couldn’t trust them, even if they seemed nice.
She wondered if she would ever find a truly decent man.
*Photo Credit: Pixabay
Elle Hamilton is a practicing mental health professional. She is presenting this article under a pseudonym due to the sensitive implications of a clinical counselor writing public commentary on certain sensitive issues.