In my work with couples, I frequently encounter a difference in meeting responsibility. The masculine tends toward organizing responsibility in the format of ‘missions,’ discrete bursts of goal directed behavior, while the feminine tends to implement responsibility through ‘tending,’ a more continuous attention to maintaining good and desirable conditions.
Elements of Mission Focus
- A Clear, Definable Objective
- A Definite Start Time This can a trigger by circumstances, or based on when the ‘team’ is ready, or set arbitrarily.
- A Stopping Rule This can be achieving the objective, ascertaining the impossibility of achieving the objective, reaching a pre-determined time limit, exhaustion, or loss of interest
- On/Off Nature
- A Team Who is in the mission and who is not is clear. Efforts by people not in the mission to participate are considered intrusive
- Set Responsibilities of Team Members If one person is lucky and has nothing to do, there is not only no obligation to help others, but without an explicit request for help, trying to help is considered intrusive
Elements of Tending Focus
- The Goal is Achieving A Feeling The feeling can be felt by those sensitive to it, but is hard to define.
- Continuous Duration This may be at low intensity at times, but monitoring is always going on. There can be ‘soft’ start and stop times for activity based on thresholds in environmental or interpersonal conditions.
- No Set Participants Great efforts will be made to include everybody
- No Set Roles. It is a point of honor to help others and tasks are considered joint responsibilities. Efficiency is a secondary consideration, and specialization is generally considered abhorrent.
This small model by no means summarizes the differences between the masculine and the feminine, it is just an aspect. However, it is an aspect at the core of much domestic discord.
Both foci are biological, they are at base complementary. Some weaknesses of the mission focus is that 1) conditions slowly deteriorate because there are not clear triggers to action–the oft cited example is the infant with a diaper saturated with urine because there was no point at which the situation became critical, 2) the mission format can make some wasteful and pointless objectives seem worthwhile.
Some weakness of the tending focus are 1) it is a closed system and a type of psychological starvation happens when nothing is brought into the situation, and 2) novelty, adventure, and major renovations get framed as disruptive and messy.
In our economic life, most jobs now involve to tending to large systems. Only the highest status workers get to ‘go on mission’. An exception to this is construction, where every job is a new mission. But most freedom of action is in the domestic arena where tending is again disproportionately called for. The result is that the masculine gets unjustly identified with uselessness and unresponsiveness. Situation comedies exagerate this. The solution is not more supression of the mission instinct. The solution is in more missions but ones in which the domestic situation is enriched and renewed.
Michael Samsel LMHC