Recently, my partner randomly told me how much he felt “transformed” by our relationship. I was curious but not really surprised by his reflection because in a way, I felt that way too.What followed was a long and vulnerable conversation about our evolving personal values and how feminism had shaped the way we did the relationship.
Feminism for me is ideological but it is also deeply personal. Growing up observing the social structures in Kenya, there was no doubt of how power was distributed. It was made obvious in the way men talked to, for, and about women. It was in the way they controlled both public and domestic spaces. It was in the kind of jobs they had (or were allowed to have), and the unbridled power that came with their masculinity. As a young girl, I saw it and I felt it. So as I started making sense of my own life I decided that I was not going to be a repeat version of my grandmother in my relationships. Beaten. Broken.
My partner’s connection to feminism, on the other hand, is very recent and incidental. But somewhere within that broad spectrum and the willingness to learn and unlearn our patterns, we find common values and an opportunity to rethink the role of feminism in intimate relationships and how it can function as a tool of transformation.
1. It makes you aware of the gendered nature of relationships
Our society is centred on the creation of ideal womanhood or manhood. It’s in this process that we’re taught how to be “good women” and men are taught how to be….well…men. A feminist relationship recognises the burden of these expectations and is deliberate about undoing them. It’s not an expectation in my relationship that I cook or clean well because my womanhood did not come with a cooking manual. Neither is it an expectation upon my partner to carry the financial burden of running the household, because… he is not an ATM.
2. It makes you aware how privilege shows in the relationship
My partner is male, white and middle class, which enables him to move through the world in a certain way. A way that is foreign to me. There are things that I experience on a daily basis as a woman of colour that are quite foreign to him too. It can be lonely to be in love with someone whose life experiences are so fundamentally different to yours, so it’s important to bridge this gap through empathy and compassion. I asked my partner for his reflection on privilege he said:
“I hadn’t even heard the term before I met you. Witnessing your experiences, made it obvious and visible. I think it’s easy to be ignorant of things when they are not personal. Seeing what I didn’t need to deal with on a daily basis made me realise how much advantage, ease and privilege my body carried.”
A feminist relationship enables an honest reflection on how our privilege can sometimes cushion us from some of society’s ills and the importance of listening and supporting partners whose life experiences may sometimes be punctuated with things we will never have to confront or experience.
3. It makes you learn about feminism in the most personal way
Feminism never felt “personal” for my partner. It is still something he grapples with. He wonders about the legitimacy of a man being a feminist without having any embodied experiences of misogyny, 2) the appropriateness of men occupying yet another space that women have created, and 3) getting credit for being feminists while still enjoying the benefits of male privilege.
A feminist relationship unpacks the intricacies of these complex nuances, through a safe and loving space, highlighting how feminism moves beyond “theory” into the personal, through the practicalities of negotiating an equal partnership in everyday life. And yes, feminism is very much a work in progress.
4. It makes you notice things
When I bought my apartment, a neighbour came in to say hello and to welcome us into the apartment block. Very kind, except she kept assuming that he was the owner. He interrupted her and said, “The apartment isn’t mine, its partner’s, she’s actually your neighbour”. She gave me one look, and turned the gaze back to him and continued welcoming him to the apartment. After she left, he looked at me and said “did you notice that?” and I said “Notice? Mate, I live it”.
A feminist relationship helps you connect the dots and the patterns of how the “personal is political”. When I asked him about that experience, he said, “This relationship has opened my eyes, and that awareness has impacted what I see, and how I interact with my world as a result.”
5. It makes you deliberate and intentional about self-love
More often than not, we enter relationships wondering “what has this person got to offer me?” Approaching the relationship from a transactional perspective can blind us from being conscious of how we project our personal baggage to our partners. Feminist relationships force us to dig through our own stuff.
A healthy relationship can become a tool through which we can start to really see ourselves, while also giving us an opportunity to manifest values of kindness, compassion, love and empathy towards ourselves and our partners. This process is deliberate because without practice, we are likely to fall back into our usual tropes which are often about seeking validation from our relationships.
6. Emotions are welcome
The “don’t cry like a girl” or “real men don’t cry” discourses roboticise real emotions in real people with real pain. Men are often expected to show less emotion and to numb their feelings as a show of their masculine strength. The irony here is that human beings cannot numb emotions selectively, if you numb sadness, you also numb joy, and we know now that suppressing emotions has severe implications on mental health and well-being and can lead to aggressive tendencies.
My partner cries whenever he experiences complex emotions that overwhelm him or when there is no room for containment. The vulnerability to express himself in a way that is not constrained by social and cultural molds is not only good for him as a human being, but it’s also an act of deep courage. A feminist partnership allows the whole expression of human emotions. It doesn’t mock or invalidate the ways in which those emotions are processed or expressed.
7. Everything becomes a negotiation
In a feminist relationship, nothing is assumed and nothing is an expectation. Learning a kind and compassionate way to negotiate money, sex and other responsibilities becomes quite central to a relationship’s success. Consent should always be sought and never assumed or expected. A feminist relationship doesn’t try to turn anyone’s “no” or “maybe” into a “yes.” It respects people’s position in that moment. They might change their minds afterwards, but they need to come to that place themselves without being backed into a corner.
8. It changes the way you fight or disagree
One of the biggest lessons that we learn while in relationships is how to disagree or how to fight fair. An argument is not an opportunity to strip your partner of their dignity or humanity. It is not an opportunity to compare your partner to an idealistic fantasy, or act out on your childhood traumas. That’s the work of a therapist.
A disagreement between partners is an opportunity to learn how to listen deeply. Listening without the intention to respond but to understand. A feminist relationship provides a safe place to confront these issues, without placing the unrealistic burden of playing “therapist” to your partner on any of you. Instead, It provides a gentle mirror with which we can start to separate what issues are ours, and what issues are the relationship's.
9. It helps undo toxic internalised biases
Feminism helps you to start rethinking your relationship with power and your belief systems, potentially changing the way you see things and your way of being in the world. It helps you to develop a critical consciousness with which you can start to challenge your own internalised belief systems developed overtime. When I asked my partner, what his reflection on this was, he said;
“I am a big fan of maintaining a constant process of washing out as many bits of my own biases and “isms” as I can find. I would feel stagnant and calcified if I didn’t. It’s the thing that helps me feel like I stay unstuck. And the beauty of it is that it is ever-changing work in progress.”
10. The relationship is grounded by a deep sense of respect
Respect is the underlying principle that grounds healthy relationships. Sometimes respect counts for more than love, because it is what breeds love, trust and connection. But there is no reason why these two should be mutually exclusive. Love is blissful and fulfilling only when it is tempered by respect.
In our relationship, we practise respect by prioritising kindness to each other, holding each other accountable without blaming or shaming, modelling vulnerability and openness, telling the truth-even when its hard and affirming each other’s needs. A feminist relationship is grounded by the humanity of our partners, which should never be compromised or belittled. It acknowledges that showing respect in our relationship is also a form of self-respect.
Kathomi Gatwiri is a freelance writer and lecturer at Southern Cross University.