Why Women Struggle With Enforcing Rules of Engagement

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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HELMER: But this is disgraceful. Is this the way you neglect your most sacred duties?
NORA: What do you consider is my most sacred duty?
HELMER: Do I have to tell you that? Isn’t it your duty to your husband and children?
NORA: I have another duty, just as sacred.
HELMER: You can’t have. What duty do you mean?
NORA: My duty to myself.” ~ Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House

Obviously, the cultural landscape has changed since A Doll’s House premiered in 1879. Nevertheless, like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, women are still groomed to defer their needs so as to accommodate the needs of others. I see this evidenced in the successful, intelligent women I treat, who fear asserting conditions and standards, lest it result in rejection or stigma.

I certainly experienced that dilemma first hand in my own life. Although I had the mettle to make my way through academia and a career in mental health, I still abdicated my self-respect and wellbeing in romantic pursuits.

When it comes to emotional dependency needs, women struggle with asserting clearly defined rules of engagement and interpersonal conditions.

Perhaps women’s biological inheritance as procreators predisposes us to have more intense relational needs than men. I am all for celebrating our natural proclivities for affiliation, but not to the exclusion of our dignity and our need to actualize potentials. Yet, it seems to our detriment, we often make concessions in the name of love.

In hindsight, I shudder at the choices I made that were damaging to my self-esteem and held me back from having the quality relationships I desired and deserved.

Clearly, I am not alone.

In my twenties, I was desperate for love. The juxtaposition between my intellectual ambitions and my wanderlust was jarring. I morphed into a codependent pretzel with men. If it meant relinquishing essential parts of me to hold onto a man, then so be it.

True, my case was unique in the sense that I endured a family history of systemic abuse. My attachment template was shattered by my mother’s schizophrenia and my father’s malignant narcissism. Sex and love addiction fueled my compulsive insatiable need for connection. I had no blueprint for what a healthy relationship should look like, no sense of what it meant to protect myself from harm, and no capacity to stop my reckless delusional pursuit of what I erroneously believed was intimacy.

When I fell into the arms of a suave, young, Cuban guy who was very attractive and seemingly stable and serious about cultivating a relationship, all my life-affirming pursuits fell away. I stopped playing guitar, reading, going to the ballet, doing yoga. I refused, however, in spite of his provocation, to cease therapy. It was obvious that he was jealous of my relationship with my male therapist of many years. His ‘difficulties’ with my being in treatment should have been a huge red flag.

During an early episode of ‘pillow talk’, he asked me about my prior experiences with men. When I naively told him about all my reckless exploits, he slut-shamed me. Although my trust was shattered and I felt degraded, I accepted his apology. That was a mistake. What is now a dealbreaker was not a dealbreaker then. My rules of engagement and relational conditions were shoddy to non-existent with boyfriends.

Even so, when we lived together and an argument escalated to the point of his barely refraining from hitting me, I left. I knew enough to not bargain with that behavior. Maybe the horror of the domestic violence I grew up with registered as an irreparable violation. More so, it was probably because I maintained therapy sessions and was encouraged to re-engage with the life-affirming diversions that nourished me, that our relationship became increasingly more abusive. The more I held onto me, the more evident it became that this relationship would not allow that.

The lessons I gleaned from an extensive process of dismantling internalized misogyny and identifying the strength and beauty in the feminine, assists me now with guiding the women I treat to define principles and ethics which inform their unique relational choices.

Often, this means extricating from those who cannot accommodate equanimity and finding those who can. This doesn’t mean nullifying one’s generosity or desire to nurture. It means discerning if one’s inclinations to give elevates oneself and inspires growth. It also means requiring reciprocity.

Witnessing what women often put up with and how women frequently deny their basic need for mutuality suggests a cultural wound.

Contemporary romantic schemas encourage us to allow behavior which falls short of basic decency. Enabling first dates made through text messages, unexplained last-minute cancellations, and an overall lack of effort diminishes one’s worth and sense of power. The fear of losing a ‘valuable commodity’ in the form of a romantic partner, induces women to view emoticons and texts as legitimate substitutionary replacement for face to face human interactions requiring vulnerability and emotional nuance.

When women lower the bar on standards of interpersonal integrity, we deny our fundamental power.

Courtship, a codified means by which romantic love develops and progresses, is a blueprint for rules of engagement. Rooted in social norms and relational needs, courtship begins with rapport, and is designed to deepen disclosure and foster mutual dependency. Upholding the tenets of courtship allows a woman to own her relational dignity and make decisions rooted in what matches her values and standards. It allows her to honor her power and to invite in romantic prospects who are drawn to strong women.

Like Nora, we need to be willing to leave those, who like Helmer, are seeking a ‘silly girl’ devoid of a rich emotional life and personal aspirations. We need to trust there are those who welcome women of strength, women who are relationally powerful and self-aware. It is from this place that relationships of truth, equanimity, and love can flourish.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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