Gender trust and mistrust

We saw Duplicity last week. I was struck by the fact that, although it was ostensibly about two ex-spies who have trouble trusting each other in their love affair, it was really about partnering in a divorce culture. At each plot twist, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts circle around each other, unsure if they are actually on the same side as they keep telling each other, or if one of them is gaming the other. Who will be caught playing the fool, left behind because they actually made the mistake of keeping the faith? Clearly, under these pitched-battle circumstances, it is better, wiser, more rational, to focus on protecting yourself, and to avoid vulnerability.

Even at the climax, the effort to reach across this divide seems too great to sustain. Sample dialogue: Julia: If I told you I loved you, would it make any difference? Clive: “If you told me? Or if I believed you?

I think this sort of deep gender mistrust comes about because traditional implicit bargains between men and women about what they are supposed to do for each other have been upended, and this is a revolution that has yet to fully crest.   It is hard to figure out what we owe each other, hard to meet expectations that linger, unspoken, beneath the surface, and harder still to commit when we’re not quite sure what the other person is bringing to the table.  It can feel like leaping into a pool of uncertain depth.

Is it even possible to make long term promises without risking our own vulnerability? How can we make mutual dependence safer?  Without reaching back for patriarchy, I hope for the day when we can embrace our interdependence, when most of us find we can depend upon each other more wholly than so many seem to be able to do now.

I gain some hope from research such as that from the Cowans showing that if couples work to avoid slipping into traditional gender roles they can fend off some of the problems – the dissatisfaction, the conflict – that a new baby brings to their relationship.  This work seems to suggest there are ways to meet in the middle, even under the stress and challenge of new parenthood — a moment of extreme dependence — and even if you are forging new kinds of partnering for which the rules are not yet written.

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