Breaking the Mold of Femininity and Experimenting with Equal Partnership
[My Feminism] Eight Years of Living Together as an Unmarried Heterosexual Couple
The sink is mangy with dishes that have been piled up in there since yesterday. The time for my canine companions’ bath is already past. I want to write. But my body won’t listen to me. I think I have to catch up on housework first before doing what I want to do.
Though I am 37 years old, I still have difficulty deciding what to do first between things I want to do and those I have to do. The worst among the things I have to do is housework. But again, I’ve wasted a few hours just agonizing over it today. Unlike me, my partner is enjoying a peaceful nap. I hate him.
It has been almost eight years since I started living with my partner. We live together as an unmarried heterosexual couple. I do not agree with wedding ceremony rituals of doubtful origin or the marriage custom in which women are subordinate to their husband’s family. I also have concerns about a marriage institution that allows only heterosexual couples and gives many legal benefits to married couples. We do not care about what people frequently ask us: “When will you guys get married?” Marriage is a matter of choice and what they consider a “normal life” does not seem happy to us.
We are often told that we are a perfect match. While I look very feminine, my partner looks masculine. That is why people see us as a typical heterosexual couple. But our real relationship is far from what it looks like.
The Days When I Tried to Be Feminine
Many people say that I am “feminine.” I have been developing my “femininity” since puberty. However, you may think that the feminine ideal, which I used to act out in order to be loved and recognized by others, and the femininity which I now choose on my own, are similar concepts, but their impacts will probably head in different directions.
For a young girl, it was easy and fun to play the part of what people regarded as the “feminine ideal,” which had simple and clear behavioral patterns. I practiced smiling and spoke in a gentle tone. I wore my hair long and never failed to put on makeup. Though I was taller than average, I stuck to high heels. Since my innately small ribs pressed on my organs, I suffered from chronic indigestion. But this was an advantage for me, because I could not eat much—not out of coyness—so I had a slim waist. I was able to look like a “desirable” woman, as long as I did not reveal what I was really thinking and listened attentively to others.
I, as a young and feminine woman, received several types of preferential treatment. Men carried my bag voluntarily, bought me food, helped me with my homework and spared me from hard work—favors that unfeminine women could never get. I also had some incidents where a strange man declared his love for me or paid for my meal or drink. I did not have trouble finding part-time jobs as a private tutor or a clothing store clerk. Even though I was not that pretty, my “feminine” physical features and character appealed to men, as well as the older generation, and saved me from social difficulties.
But this kind of recognition apparently did not mean that they recognized me as who I was. I was an active, energetic, adventurous and critically-engaged person, full of drive, who liked to plan everything. People, however, refused to recognize some aspects of me that were “un-feminine”, instead asking me, “Why are you being like that?”
Society wanted women who were passive like a doll. It was frustrating. The biggest problem was that I began to forget what I had thought, dreamed and pursued. But since acting like a feminine woman brought me more benefits, I devoted myself to the acting. When I realized that I was increasingly trapped in the role of “a desirable woman,” I found myself the stereotypical woman who had been brainwashed into only caring about love.
When I was dumped by a boyfriend for the first time, the pain was enormous. But even while I felt like breaking down, I found myself playing the role of a tragic heroine. I felt pity for myself. I became aware that the real me was gone and only my acting was left. Also I realized that I was craving love from others because I could not love myself. I decided to build inner strength so that I could recognize and love myself. And I wanted to have an equal and honest true relationship, not a calculated one based on acting to please each other.
Confronting my Fear and Experimenting with an Honest Relationship
After reflecting on the things I had considered desirable, I realized that they were all vague, simplified and divided into the two categories of good and bad, or right and wrong. I also realized that the price for the preferential treatment I had enjoyed was suppression, and that consideration and discrimination were two sides of the same coin. And around the time when I began to awaken to those things, I met my current partner.
He was odd. We met each other, along with others, for the first time at an offline meeting hosted by an online community I was running. He casually took my arm and chatted about himself like a girl. He was honest about his own feelings. He was kind of picky and had high standards. He was more interested in personal grooming than I was. He looked rather more “feminine” than “masculine.” Although he was much older than me, I didn’t have to call him oppa. (Oppa literally means “older brother” but now it is used by Korean females to address males older than them who they are close to. It is often used in a romantic relationship when a girl refers to her boyfriend who is older/same age as her.) It was novel and strange.
There is a saying that love is all about timing. At that time, I had decided to study art so I gave myself privilege to live freely as an artist. When I met him, I was deliberating on the mold that constrained my freedom. So whenever I felt that there was something about him I found odd or I disliked, I immediately began to question that judgment. And I thought over why I didn’t like that thing.
In previous relationships, every time I had found something about my boyfriend that I disliked, I had not let my feelings show and had pushed him away just in my mind. If someone else showed interest in me when those unpleasant things about him built up enough, I simply said goodbye to the boyfriend and went on to the next relationship, as if I was crossing a stream on stepping-stones. There was no reason for me to go through a hard time to maintain the relationship. I had suffered enough maintaining my economic independence from a young age. For me, romantic relationships were a kind of reward and I had no energy to waste on fighting.
However, I had fierce fights with my current partner. Of course, fighting requires a lot of energy. But the real reason why I had avoided fighting was fear: that my opinion would not be accepted, I would not be respected and, most of all, the relationship in which I was loved would end. I wore the mask of a pacifist as a way to ignore these fears. Since had I decided to stop acting and wearing a mask, I made up my mind to go ahead and have fights with him. Though really, there was no way for me to avoid fights, because he was great at expressing his feelings, even strong ones, and, above all, he noticed whenever I was acting.
Conflicts Amplified by Communicative Differences
After we started to live together, I was always busy with school and work for a few years. So my partner took care of almost all of the housework. I liked to do outside activities and hang out with people. I, ignorant about the work that should be done to keep a house clean and running properly, had no idea how much effort he was putting into housework.
As I was very happy with the pleasure and sense of accomplishment that I was learning and growing, I did not see my partner’s hard work that supported my happiness. He acknowledged what I was doing, whereas I did not acknowledge what he was doing. Still, I was tactful enough to thank him from time to time. But he finally noticed that I didn’t mean it, and, as a result, the conflict between us caused by his disappointment in me and my selfishishness became more frequent.
Petty quarrels were aggravated by communicative differences. While I, who was direct in my speech, wanted him to tell me his difficulties as he felt them, he wanted me to notice and acknowledge them before he said anything. I couldn’t understand his expressing his anger at me. That was because I grew up focusing on language and reason, so whenever I felt anger I tended to think about and explain the reason for it before I actually expressed it. Also it was not easy for me to even recognize my anger, because I had developed my emotions in an unbalanced way and repressed my negative feelings.
My partner is a sensitive person, but he had been taught to be a “man” to get social recognition. I had developed only positive emotions; on the contrary, he was not good at expressing positive feelings. He had a loud voice and his gestures were large. He never hesitated to insist that his own standards were absolute. He preferred speaking to listening, but doing so more about what he knew than about what he felt.
Since I grew up in a language-oriented family, the way he expressed his feelings—mostly emotionally and non-verbally—seemed too rough and violent to me. And I, who was sensitive to what other people thought of me, often felt hurt as I took his opinion as criticism of me. He, who was emotionally sensitive and whose mood swung back and forth, felt stifled with me as I was rational and logical. Discomfort increasingly outweighed affection. At the peak of the conflict, when I was considering breaking up with him, I encountered a book titled Nonviolent Communication.
Getting to the Bottom of Violence and Dominance
Violence is not just about yelling, beating, destruction or force. The mindset where you want your partner to do as you please or to live by your standards is also violence.
I realized that I was more violent than him in some ways. I wanted him to be nice to everyone because I was; I wanted him to work toward a goal because I did. Then I learned that my wish that he would conform to my ways could be violence and I finally began to understand little by little what a hard time he had gone through.
I also discovered that I, who had been always “exemplary,” had used the standards that dominate this society to justify all my behaviors and efforts. Despite this unquestioning acceptance of most of the values defined by the society, I had deluded myself that I was a “feminist” just because I had been opposed to the division of gender roles.
Before understanding the true meaning of violence, I had not been able to distinguish violence from masculinity. But thinking deeply about how relationships were established, I realized that the problem was not the distinction between femininity and masculinity, but the mentality where you tried to use that distinction as a tool to dominate your partner. I also learned that the mindset where you wanted to make your partner obedient to you and to hold a dominant position in the relationship was not different from social violence.
Desires to dominate the world and to establish standards to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” and divide things into “normal” and “abnormal” categories in order to dominate capital and people that just accept the standards instead of finding their own values… I wanted to look into my desires to beat other people, to become the only survivor, and to have everything my own way. Only then did I realize that feminism’s role was not just to let people know how gender roles were divided, but also to reveal the logic that dominates society and to embraces deviations from it.
How to Coordinate the Difference in Values and Language Between Two People
Now we have divided up housework in accordance with our standards, values and characteristics.
I, who put a great value on health and never skip meals, am in charge of preparing food. Also, I do the dishes and maintain the kitchen. My partner, who has high standards for cleanliness, cleans up the house. And whoever needs to wash clothes does the laundry. But he does it more often than I do, because he is stricter about grouping types of clothes for laundry. Grooming and bathing our four canine companions is my job; feeding them is his.
In fact, I feel that I do more housework than he does. But considering the unfairness that he endured in the past, I think I have to accept this situation.
After dividing up our roles clearly, we barely fight over housework. Now what we have to do is understand and coordinate the difference in values and communication styles between us.
I need to practice keeping my distance from the old me, who, as a woman, was sensitive to what other people thought of her, and also did not lend enough weight to her partner’s opinion. What’s more, I have to take a close look at my perception that housework does not have value (the reason for which is pretty obvious: as a model citizen who has accepted the values defined by this society, I have not considered housework a direct production activity by capitalist standards.)
I wonder how I will handle the contradiction and conflict between the values I had learned and those I want to pursue from now on. But since the contradiction and conflict are inevitable, for now it is more important to pay attention to and examine them.
Also, for me, who has learned that only diligence is valuable, one of the principal challenges is to have complete respect for my partner’s current choice—to do less housework - without feeling resentful. In this respect, “feminism” is a task to be undertaken. But it is a good thing that this task is something I feel like doing, not something I have no choice but to do. Now I should catch up on the dishes and think over this lifelong task.
Published: January 19, 2013
Translated by Hwang Meeyoung
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/6255
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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