We are living through an incredibly upsetting time. There is plenty of pain to go around, but I want to focus on women’s pain. Particularly women’s rage. The Kavanaugh hearings have stirred old pain for many women, especially the 1 in 3 women who are themselves survivors of sexual violence. In fact, calls to sexual assault hotlines spiked by 201% during the Kavanaugh hearings.
Husbands and boyfriends, your female partner needs you to hold space for her. In this article, I will talk about what that means, how to do it, and why holding space is needed.
I want to start with an image I will never forget. The morning after the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas high school, I watched an interview with the mother and father of one of the girls who had been murdered. The mother raged into the camera. Her eyes were wild, and her hair flew from her pony tail as she screamed about the failure of those in power to protect their daughter from gun violence. As she spoke, I was fixated on this woman’s husband. He sat beside her, with his arm across the back of her chair. He watched her face. He stayed silent.
In that moment, he was an exemplar of holding space for someone you love. He was structure. She was expression. He was quiet presence. She was voice.
The best and bravest work you can do during this time of crisis is to provide steady, quiet, humble presence for the woman you love.
If you promise not to underestimate how powerful it is for you to do nothing more than hold space, then I promise not to underestimate how hard it is to do. I have been a couples therapist for 20 years, and I know how deeply stirred men are in the presence of their female partner’s strong emotions. I know how much you anchor yourself on how she’s doing. Our patriarchal system has given you the message that your worth is based on your ability to “fix” the suffering of those who matter to you. Her hurt feels like your failure. Her hurt hurts you. So your knee-jerk reaction may be to meet her rage with an effort to soothe her. I am challenging you to resist that urge and just hold space.
Her rage may frighten you, but, given that you grew up in a world that taught you to equate fear with weakness, you may not know how to put that fear into words. So, you may instead just want her strong feelings to go away. Again, your role is not to show her how to “fix” those feelings, but instead to hold space while she processes them.
Here’s what makes this moment so difficult for your partner. The rage she is feeling is individual and it’s collective at the very same time. It’s an ancestral rolling of sorts. Epigenetic theory teaches us that trauma gets passed down from generation to generation in our DNA. Your partner is feeling her own trauma, and she’s feeling the unhealed trauma of her foremothers. Although she may never have met these women, her cells carry their stories.
Sexual violence against women is endemic in our culture, and it has relied on silence and shame to persist. What has been unleashed by the #metoo movement is the possibility for a new story. Transformation is ugly and it’s messy. And it is being fueled by women’s rage as they shed shame and move into voice.
Your job is to hold space.
Holding space is about creating a relational “container” that helps your partner move strong emotions through her. You cannot do that for her but you can be with her. Holding space means de-centering your opinions, experiences, advice, and emotions. In order to hold space, you need to trust the healing power of just being there. Please trust that! You are enough. You don’t need to fix her, change her, advise her, or explain anything to her. Just be there with her. Listen to her. Follow her lead. Ask, “How can I support you right now?” If she doesn’t know, just keep breathing and staying present.
If you want hold space, you need to be grounded. Let go of any fear-loaded stories you may be carrying: “something is wrong with her,” “this is never going to stop,” “this is unfair,” “she’s overreacting.” Stay in the present moment. Develop a practice that helps you feel calm and open-hearted. Here’s how I ground myself: I take deep breaths and imagine cords extending from the bottom of my feet, attaching deeply in the earth. I also imagine a lot of space and white light surrounding my heart. Figure out what works for you.
Holding space is a profoundly masculine practice. My friend, Connor Beaton, describes the power of the masculine in this way:
The masculine is structure. It is the structure which builds the foundations and allows for the betterment of all… The masculine is strength not because it dominates, dictates or demands, but because it creates an order from a place of love which benefits all.
Here are a few other practices that can help you show up as an ally during this painful time.
- Explore your relationship with anger.
Men who are committed to their own self-awareness are the allies that women need to transform a culture of sexual violence. In the face of your partner’s anger, what is your knee-jerk reaction? Do you shut down? Do you get defensive? Do you get rational and want to explain stuff to her? Our knee-jerk reactions tend to be fueled by our own old and unhealed pain. They are both completely understandable and quite destructive. The more you withdraw or explain, the more she will feel alone and misunderstood. In that moment, you are both caught up in a cycle that drives a wedge between you. You can help break that cycle by exploring what is hard for you about her anger. What keeps you from being able to stay quiet, compassionate and present? Consider these questions:
- When you were growing up, how did your family “do” anger?
- How do you feel about your own anger?
- What is it about your partner’s anger that feels most upsetting or disturbing?
- If you had/have a mother, what is your relationship to her anger?
- Trust the process.
Be patient with the rise and fall of her emotions. Sometimes what gets in the way of being able to patiently hold space when a partner is angry is a fear-loaded story that the rage will never stop. Drop that story. It’s unhelpful. Just meet this moment exactly as it is. In therapy we say, “the way out is through.” Feelings move through us more effectively when they are seen, heard, and validated. The more you can hold space, the more she can move the rage through her. She will probably be hit again by another wave, but the more she can feel connected to you, the more she can remember that she is more than her rage. Remember that with her.
- Get support.
You may need some time and space to process your feelings and experiences. Seek community with other men who feel troubled and confused. Go to therapy. What this moment makes clear to many of us is that we need to take an honest look at our “shadow” right now. This means unpacking the effects of privilege in our lives and ways in which we have taken advantage of other people. Your willingness to do this work will go a long way toward demonstrating that she can feel safe with you.
We are all in this together. In my best moments, I am excited about what we are birthing right now. Feminism has never been women fighting against men. It is a desire for women and men to work together to dismantle a patriarchal system that hurts and limits all of us, and to build a new world that better serves everyone. As Ram Dass says, “We are all just walking each other home.”