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Lopsided relationships

22 Sep

(Or: How I learned to love micro-power dynamics)

Ever noticed in human relationships how often one person or group of people have more power than the other?

It’s true on a macro level – in the US, whites have more power than others as a whole. Men have more power than women. Adults have more power than children. The rich have more power than the poor. The Global North (first-world nations primarily located in the Northern Hemisphere) has far more power than the Global South (developing nations primarily located in the Southern Hemisphere). And so on.

But it’s also true on a micro level – one neighborhood’s residents have more power than another’s, a manager has more power than an employee, etc. The power dynamics populate on down to the supermicro level – in one-on-one human relationships. You all know what I’m talking about. The relationship power struggle can be romantic – she changes her tastes to suit his or he swaps his social group for hers – or platonic, where one friend makes the decisions about where to go and what to do, while the other simply tags along.

Among friends, who often keep up a pretense of not “keeping score,” it can be seen in who extends the most invitations. Who goes to whose house? Who is put out the most the majority of the time? Who crosses bridges and rivers to visit the other? Who chooses the movie, the bar, the restaurant? Who leads the conversation? Who do the two of you talk about the most? The power dynamics often fall along class lines – when there is a class division in a relationship, whether it be romantic or otherwise, the member with the higher class gets the power. Usually without much of a struggle.

You can read some of this
highly worthwhile book
at the New York Times.

I first learned of this phenomenon when I bought a book called “Class Matters.” There was a whole chapter on marriages formed of two people from different classes and the power dynamics of their relationships – those of the upper echelons controlled the couples’ finances, among other things. It’s interesting, once you know about this, to observe how your own friends’ and acquaintances’ backgrounds affect their personal dynamics. An inherently outgoing friend may become shy around certain others because of his or her perceived inferiority, or a naturally quiet type may become bossy and outgoing around friends whose perceived socioeconomic status is lower.

Fascinating, I tell you. Sick, but fascinating. Have you ever noticed this in your own life? At work or in a romantic relationship or a friendship? What do you think would happen if you tried to bring it up in conversation? And, to my sociologically-inclined readers, is there an official word or phrase for this phenomenon?

Mean friends: Vignettes d’troi

7 Jun

Sophomore year of college. Upstairs apartment. Blue carpet. Slatted blinds. Beanbag chairs and grandstanding:

“Oh my god that is totally such an unexpected thing for you to say. I mean, it’s just a really good insight. You know, smart-sounding. You sound smart. And profound. And it just took me by surprise, you know? Because you just don’t come off as that kind of person. I mean, you’re just normally not that way. Smart I mean.”

Last summer, over lunch and $12 cocktails. Outdoor seating. Heat and heavy traffic:

“Ohmigod I love your sunglasses! They’re so cute and pink. I totally have a pair just like them. Except mine are Ray-Bans. I mean, those are cute and all too. No yeah they’re cute. I mean I think they’re a little crooked though. Oh wait no I think that’s your face! Ha! Anyway, where did you get them? Target or something? Oh I hate going there. I mean, everything is just so… sweatshoppy and cheap. Actually I’ve never been there. It’s kind of like, this moral stand I’m taking. Anyway those are super-cute from far away. I mean up-close they’re scratched but for Target sunglasses they’re totes adorbs.”

Senior year of college, standing on my front porch overlooking the city. Late-night fluorescence:

“It’s totally weird how you study. I mean, I just don’t understand it. Like, when I was in college I did mountains of cocaine. I know, I know. But I still graduated at the top of my class! It just was never that hard for me. Like it is for you. No. Yeah. No. No, I just mean… You know what I mean, right? Hahahaha! I totally just don’t get it.”

… this post inspired by the book “The Underminer: The Best Friend that Casually Destroys Your Life.”

Feminist Friends

10 Feb

Feminism, and a whole lot of other -isms which are very much related, is such a huge part of the fabric of my life that I am shocked whenever I discover that my meatworld friends aren’t feminists. Or, worse haven’t ever thought about feminism in any real way.

Example: While milling around in the fluorescent aftermath of a party, my friend related to me a story of her boss, tearing up after a rough meeting. Her story concluded with this gem: “I don’t consider myself a feminist or anything but it kind of bothers me when women cry at work.”

Wait, what?

Let me explain. I have friends from all stripes of political, religious, and -ism beliefs, and I like it that way. So when a conservative Christian tells me she is not a feminist, I am not surprised. But, when the sort of college-educated secular humanist vegetarian sometime-lesbians that attend my parties drop “I’m not a feminist” bombs, I’m rendered temporarily speechless.

Let’s parse her sentence, shall we? “I don’t consider myself a feminist or anything but it kind of bothers me when women cry at work.” Firstly, she spat the word feminist out as if it were a bug she found in the evening’s sangria. Secondly, the two clauses, “I don’t consider myself a feminist,” and “it bothers me when women cry at work,” don’t really need the connector “but,” since, well, they’re not mutually exclusive. Wouldn’t it make sense that a non-feminist would dislike watching a woman cry? I suspect she meant her audience to take the desire for women to stop their sniveling already as a feminist trait.

That said, I take a lot of comfort in the idea that female friendship can be, in and of itself, a feminist act. Even though I am friends with many women who don’t share my views about reproductive rights or the insidiousness with which patriarchy is chipping away at the fabric of human life, they’re still there to support me when I need them, and vice versa. They don’t know it, but just by being strong women willing and able to provide loyalty and support at other womens’ times of need, they are furthering the feminist cause.

But is it enough? Do you often find yourselves in this situation, tender readers? Do you consider female friendship (of the truly supportive, not-seen-on-TV variety) a notch on the feminist spectrum, or not? And why?

Fraternizing With the Enemy

4 Apr

If you can believe the movies, men and women can’t ever just be friends. It’s required by unwritten social law that at least one member of a mixed-gender friendship be all full up with unrequited lust, if not outright L-U-V. Psychology Today said it best when it summed up the media’s role in perpetuating this filthy lie:

“A certain classic film starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal convinced a nation of moviegoers that sex always comes between men and women, making true friendship impossible.”

There is only one socially approved way around this rule: Straight ladies can be friends with gay boys. But beware, het ladies! Those gay boys may only be pretending to be gay in order to grease the path into your pants! The jury’s still out on whether straight boys can be friends with gay ladies, and I’m pretty sure no one’s allowed to be friends with bisexual people (unless that person is Rickie), since they can’t really be trusted with either gender.

Cinematic representations of friendship notwithstanding, the challenges of building strong platonic relationships in a culture that values romantic love above all else are real for everyone. Straight people, at least, have a guidebook for how to interact with their same-sex friends: Women gossip and shop, often commiserating about their boyfriends’ foibles; men watch sports, drink beer, and complain about their girlfriends.

But those with non-standard sexual identities are flying blind. With no guidebook, it’s hard to know with whom you’re supposed to seek kinship — those of your own gender, or those of your own orientation? And what if your gender or orientation is fluid?

Should we create rosters and categories? Choose from List A if you’re in the mood for stein-clinking and rugby-watching, from List B if you need a manicure and a trip to Bloomie’s. But what if you just want to have a potluck? What list do you invite then?

It’s hard enough to build long-lasting friendships in the adult world without all these stupid rules about cross-sex relationships and how they’re supposed to work. In a perfect world, people would just relate to each other as people, not as genders or sexual orientations or Democrats or Republicans or whatever.

Tell me, readers, who are your best friends, and what does your social circle look like? Are they homogeneous or heterogeneous  in their gender and sexual orientation? What about race, class, national origin? What are the challenges you see in relating to people that are unlike yourself?

Related posts: Boys of Facebook, Top 10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Be Friends With Me

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