Typically, when I talk with men about setting the tone and taking the lead, they hear: “Be controlling.”
The concept of “leading” is frightening, because most of the men with whom I work are Nice Guys who have spent their lives trying to be different from the controlling men they have heard women complain about. Initially, it is difficult to understand how setting the tone and taking the lead is not controlling or self-centered. Perhaps even more significantly, it’s difficult to understand why women like it.
Here is the one thing I claim to know for sure about women: by nature, they are Security-Seeking Creatures. Whenever I make this statement, I expect a bolt of pink lightening from the heavens to strike me down.
I grew up in the 60’s and heard all the feminist rhetoric about the “patriarchy” – the evils of men – and how “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” (The woman who said that later married a very wealthy man.)
In spite of all the ways women have gained equality and economic opportunity, in general, most still don’t feel safe walking the planet. Women have always been physically vulnerable. Frequently, they are dominated sexually. Childbirth puts them at risk, and raising children makes them dependent. Simply giving a woman equal pay for equal work doesn’t undo hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary programming.
Maureen Dowd, a feminist and columnist for the New York Times, put it this way: “Women are physically vulnerable and hormonally complex.”
Women feel best when they feel secure. Historically, women turned to the tribe for physical and emotional security. Most women can adequately take care of their basic needs in modern society, but because their primary evolutionary drive is to feel safe, they naturally turn to a man to be their primary emotional security system. Mother Nature programmed them this way.
When a man is anxious, avoidant, passive, unpredictable, dishonest, or pleasing, a woman feels unsafe.
When a woman feels insecure or unsafe with a man, she will usually do one of two things:
Try to get him to become more conscious of what he is doing that makes her feel so unsafe (in ways that are often perceived as nagging and criticism by the man).
Take control herself.
I often joke that I learned most of what I know about relationships from dog obedience school and salsa class. I truly believe that enrolling my Weimaraner in obedience classes, and taking salsa lessons myself for a few years, taught me more about how to create healthy relationships than did my Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy!
So what did I learn from dog obedience school and salsa classes that helped me understand what women want from a man in a relationship? Several things.
We humans aren’t much different than our canine relatives. We feel safest when hierarchies are clear and when our leaders lead with integrity and consistency. This is especially true in intimate relationships.
A security-seeking creature is going to feel safest when her “security system” consistently sets the tone and takes the lead with love and integrity. When she feels safe, she is happy. She’ll also have to test every now and then to make sure she can still depend on her security system.
From salsa classes, I learned to lead in a way that makes a woman look and feel good. To do this, I have to communicate clearly and consistently. I have to create a positive tension that challenges her but doesn’t push her beyond her limits.
I learned that, while dancing, a good lead has to think at least three steps ahead. One teacher would frequently interrupt the class to remind the guys that it was their job to keep it interesting for their partners. He would warn that if the guy waits until he finishes his last move to think about his next, he will just keep doing the same thing over and over. He would remind us that a woman gets bored quickly and will find another partner. Women call the tendency to play it safe on the dance floor “the white guy shuffle.”
I remember a couple of weeks into a beginning salsa class when the teacher told the follows to close their eyes while their leads led. She encouraged the leads to lead clearly so the follows would know where they were going. I remember watching the look of bliss on my partner’s face as I led her around the dance floor. The more clearly and firmly I led, the deeper her bliss.
To this day, a partner’s greatest compliment is that I’m a “firm lead.”
A few extra tidbits:
A woman can’t follow where a man doesn’t lead.
You are not controlling a woman when you lead; you are merely giving her a choice.
Women hate it when you ask, “What do you want to do tonight?”
Women get this stuff; it’s the guys who have a hard time with it.