When Masculine Met Feminine

An Article by David Cornfield

My uncle motioned for me to come into his office. He had something he wanted to show me. It was one of those days when I was helping out at his printing shop, collating invoices, and pasting glue on the backs of memo pads. He grinned and held out a small booklet. The title, embossed in ornate gold letters on a burgundy background, read "What Sam Richardson has Learned about Women". Inside, there were some fifty pages, all of them blank.

I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time, but nobody had to explain the joke to me. It tapped into a cultural myth that I was already well aware of. The myth goes something like this. Men don’t have the first clue about women. Women are alien creatures from another planet. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of if you are a man and you’ve learned nothing about women, because there is no way to understand them. Giving up on understanding women is just being realistic.

In the sixties and seventies I read a lot of books by feminists and came away with quite the opposite idea - that aside from some obvious differences in plumbing, men and women are basically the same. It was an idea I liked, in part because it contradicted what I perceived as my uncle’s pessimism. I tried very hard to be non-sexist. I used words like fire fighter instead of fireman and alderperson instead of alderman. I read my daughter stories where the heroes were women who were pilots and motor mechanics. I stopped opening car doors.

When the time came to enrol my daughter in a daycare, my wife and I chose caregivers who promoted themselves as non-sexist, which meant that the other parents at the daycare supported the same non-sexist values as we did. But the kids hadn't read the brochure, and they weren’t having any of it. Regardless of our good intentions, there was an unmistakable testosterone difference. Despite all our best efforts to treat them equally, the boys were into war games and the girls wanted to play house.

The situation at the daycare confused me. My theories of gender equality didn’t fit with my observation that children in a supposedly non-sexist environment demonstrated undeniable differences between boys and girls. I suspected they had been tainted by the culture, but that didn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation since most of these parents prided themselves on shielding their kids from books or TV programs that were politically incorrect.

It was Jung who rescued me from my confusion by providing me with an understanding of the archetypal masculine and feminine, and the contrasexual self. Now, it is important to note that when Jung talks about the masculine and the feminine, he is not talking about men and women (gender) or about gay people and straight people (sexuality). He is talking about images in our psyches - about complexes of qualities and attributes that we label as masculine or feminine. He calls these images archetypal. By this he means that they arise out of a heritage of wisdom and experience that is common to all humans. He supports his thesis by pointing out that archetypal images are found in every culture and every tradition and these images, no matter where they are found or from what period they date, bear an astonishing resemblance to one another. He concludes that archetypal images are the same everywhere because the human psyche is the same everywhere. From this point of view, the cluster of qualities and attributes that form our idea of what is masculine and what is feminine is not something specific to our time and our culture. Masculine and feminine are fundamental and universal images, common to all humans.

Archetypal images tend to be situated at the extreme ends of the masculine/feminine spectrum. The emperor and the empress of the Tarot, the gods and goddesses of mythology, the princes and princesses of the fairy tales, the heroes and heroines in the animated cartoon stories kids watch on television - all these characters are presented as purely feminine or purely masculine in their physical and psychic make-up.

Real human beings are closer to the centre of the spectrum, developing a mix of masculine and feminine qualities. However, and this is extremely important, we muddle the issues if we assume that men are masculine and women are feminine, or that feminine men and masculine women are necessarily interested in same gender sex. It is neither uncommon nor unnatural for a man to carry a preponderance of feminine qualities or for a woman to embody more masculine than feminine. While our culture takes this for granted in the case of gays and lesbians, it often ignores the fact that there are feminine men and masculine women who are unswervingly heterosexual.

From a Jungian point of view, the issue of communication between men and women is best understood if you think in terms of the masculine and the feminine. If we look at the masculine/feminine mix in couples, we see that couples come in two basic flavours - pairs where the partners are similar (both primarily masculine, or both primarily feminine) and pairs based on the attraction between opposites (masculine-feminine). Try it out. Sit down with someone who knows the same couples as you do, and see if you agree or disagree about what kind of relationships they are (masculine-masculine, feminine-feminine, or masculine-feminine), and which partner carries which archetype.

Couples where both parties are similar in their makeup are what I call streetcar relationships. Why? Because, while streetcars may not be the most exciting vehicles to be travelling on, they are very efficient at taking you where you want to go. In a streetcar relationship, the two partners are not at all alien to each other. They are very similar. Because they have the same needs, the same values, the same goals, same way of thinking, it is relatively easy for them to communicate and to make decisions.

Difficulties in communicating are much more likely to arise in relationships where the chemistry comes from an attraction to the person who is the masculine to your feminine or the feminine to your masculine. Such relationships are not streetcars, they are roller coasters. Pairing the masculine and the feminine creates the greatest difficulties for mutual understanding and co-existence because the parties to the relationship are attempting to communicate with their polar opposite. It is the masculine-feminine configuration that gives rise to the feeling that one is in relationship with an alien creature. The question then becomes, how do you relate to and communicate with someone who is so different that at times he or she seems to be a creature from another planet.

One approach to this problem is to put the alien creatures under observation, create a general profile of their needs, sensitivities, values and habits and then attempt keep them happy by treating them the way they like to be treated. The hope and expectation, of course, is that a happy, well-fed alien will give you what you want. The recent best selling book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus takes this approach. While such books provide an understanding and acceptance of the differences between masculine and feminine, they have two major flaws.

In the first place, they assume that men are masculine and women are feminine. This is not only wrong, it excludes a lot of people who do not fit the conventional norms. In the second place, they are formulaic. They assume that the person who carries the masculine is truly alien to the person who carries the feminine and that the best that either party can hope for is to cater to a stereotype of what the other is like. The possibility that each member of the couple might actually be able to feel what their partner feels from the inside is not even considered. Unfortunately, if I don’t resonate with what my partner is feeling, I am not going to know when and how to apply the theory. The formulas tell us how to use our heads to manipulate but fail to tell us how to open our hearts so as to be in relationship.

From a Jungian point of view, masculine and feminine are not alien to one another because we are not limited to one or the other end of a polarity. At the level of the Soul, there are no opposites. The deep self carries the potential for both sides of every polarity. We may develop an outer personality that manifests one end of a set of polarities, but we also have within us an underdeveloped counter personality that manifests the opposite end of that same set of polarities. For someone whose personality is mostly masculine, the counter personality is referred to as the anima. For an individual who manifests more feminine, the counter personality is their animus.

This counterpersonality or contrasexual self appears as a character in your dreams. In relationships that are masculine-feminine, the contrasexual self also appears in the form of your partner. In other words, if you are in a couple where the configuration is masculine-feminine, the person you live with is not truly an alien creature. He or she is an outer manifestation of an underdeveloped part of your own psyche, your animus or anima. You were attracted to this person because he or she embodies the qualities you feel are lacking in yourself, the person who seems to supply the missing part of your puzzle. To get a picture of the makeup of your animus or anima, just look at your partner. To get a sense of how you relate to your contrasexual self, look at your relationship with your partner.

Improving your relationship with your inner contrasexual self and with your life partner is a dual journey that takes place in tandem, reverberating back and forth between inner and outer levels. Let me offer my own story as a case study. My parent’s relationship was primarily masculine-masculine. My father had almost no feminine in him, and my mother had not much more. She had been a tomboy who resented that her brother was allowed to do things that she wasn’t. She saw her feminine mother as impractical and vain. and made up her mind very early on that if being feminine meant being like her mother, she did not want to be feminine. Her disdain of the feminine was summed up in an oft repeated story about my grandmother wearing shoes that were pretty but didn’t keep her feet warm. My mother prided herself on being practical and resourceful. She wore sensible shoes. She was very rational and logical, an intellectual who read a lot. When the radio was on, it was mostly CBC talk shows, almost never music. Indeed, there was almost no music in our house - no musical instruments, no records, no tapes. There weren’t even pictures on the walls, ostensibly because my father did not want to put nails in the plaster. Food was something to fill the belly and keep you healthy, but not to savour and enjoy. The only physical contact that I recall was being tucked into bed at night.

My family of origin did not value the feminine, and I absorbed that attitude without thinking much about it. Despite the fact that I was drawn to women who were feminine and considered myself to be a feminist, there was a profound fear of and disrespect for the feminine lurking in the dark unacknowledged shadows of my consciousness. Since my personality was heavily weighted on the masculine side, and since I prefer roller coasters to streetcars, it is not surprising that, despite my fear and disrespect, I was attracted to a very feminine woman. Neither is it surprising that this very feminine woman, who also preferred roller coasters, felt the same attraction to my masculine. However when the glamour phase was over, there we were, still feeling the chemistry but sitting across the table from someone who felt very much like an alien creature.

My disrespect for the feminine showed up very early in my relationship with my wife. My wife was and is very concerned with aesthetics, whether it be clothing, food, or decorating her house. In my mind, these concerns were an irritating waste of time and money, to be tolerated or indulged, but not to be enjoyed or appreciated. My wife was and is intuitive, spontaneous, and creative. When I was frustrated by our differences, she just seemed irrational, unreliable, and unpredictable.

My repression of my inner feminine was reflected on the outer plane by my desire to be in control. While my need for power permeated our relationship, it was most visible when my wife was driving our car. I really really had a hard time being a passenger. I desperately wanted to be the driver. As long as she was driving, I could feel my desire to tell her in minute detail not only how to drive but what route to take. I would try to bite my tongue, but it was such a hassle for both of us that my wife usually couldn’t be bothered taking the wheel.

Not a pretty picture. And not a picture I was able to see or acknowledge on my own. If my relationship to the feminine has changed, it is because I was forced to take a hard look at my behaviour. Therapy made me look. My wife made me look. What I saw was how impoverished my life would be without the gifts my wife brought from her feminine nature. I began to value the way in which those gifts enriched my life and I began to find those same gifts within myself. As I felt more connection with my inner feminine, I found myself less fearful. I listened to her more, gave her space for her anger, stopped picking on her as much, surrendered to her control. Intuition became a part of my own decision making. I became less rigid, more spontaneous. My wife for her part developed her masculine, becoming more penetrating, more logical and better organized.

This is not to say that our differences have been eradicated. I am still the masculine to my wife’s feminine and she the feminine to my masculine. But we have come to know and understand each other from the inside. In the process our relationship has been transformed from a roller coaster to a bicycle built for two. Sure, I still like to be in the front, but I am much more willing to put myself in her hands when she takes the lead. The relationship is not as tumultuous as it once was, but what it lost in drama is more than made up for by our sense of ourselves as a team, each a complement to the other, contributing what we do best and honouring what the other brings.

In many mystical traditions, divinity is seen as a unity that differentiates itself into the masculine/feminine polarity. The mystical experience of enlightenment is symbolized by the sacred marriage, the coming together of the masculine and the feminine to reclaim the unity which is divinity. The chemistry that draws masculine and feminine together can be seen as a spiritual yearning to return to divinity. The journey that re-unites the masculine and the feminine is one that takes place on both the inner and the outer planes. A change on the inner plane is very quickly reflected in your outer relationship and a change in the way you deal with your partner has its counterpart in your inner life. Embark on this dual journey, for at the end of the road lies not only a relationship that works, but also spiritual fulfillment.

David Cornfield

When Masculine Met Feminine was first published in Eye for the Future Magazine

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