Does reciprocity exist between men and women?

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Does reciprocity exist between men and women?  

Arrotown, 29 December 2014

Historically speaking, deep ruptures and inequalities have marked gender relations and whole centuries have passed where chauvinism and the patriarchal model dominated the history of male-female relations. Sadly, the chauvinist model has still not been completely eradicated in many distinct cultures and countries.

The feminist movement re-vindicated equality between men and women and eventually gained the vote for women, but it also won a greater right to education and a new participation in public office. These results produced a huge change in relations between the sexes.

Nevertheless, even though the west has advanced greatly and has achieved significant improvement in sexual equality, new challenges for both sexes have appeared which we must now address:

On one side we can see that this advance has resulted in women now participating more actively in society and not just in the domestic environment. Today many women may not be in a position of inferiority, but is it possible that this newfound confidence may have actually disorientated men’s sense of their own identity? Before, many men discovered a profound sense of social identity as providers, heads of families, and even leaders of community. As more men began to share these roles with women, could they have lost their own sense of masculine identity? Must men now search for something deeper than just their formerly pre-defined social roles?

On the other side, this new equality, where men and women are valued in the same way and occupy similar leadership positions in the community, may also produce a destructive form of competition within the family and in the work and social environment.

Finally is it possible that women, having re-vindicated their sense of value, could possibly fall into the temptation of thinking that that they have nothing to learn from men?

And it is here that I consider it important to offer a proposal, a relationship model that can rise above chauvinism, ultra-feminism or even some form of “equality” that does not provide the necessary tools to deal with the differences that we find in all relations.

Traditionally the Catholic Church, searching for a perspective on the male–female union, used the complementarian model. This model has philosophical limitations; it declares that the value of a person, the satisfactory acquisition of a sense of self, is only defined by the “need” for the other half. Complementarity is a word, which on the one hand accents the sexual differences between men and women, while at the same time it paradoxically proposes our state of being as only existing within a relationship with the opposite sex. This sense of being does not actually account for the fact that to be in any relationship, one must first begin as an individual. For example, complementarity gives no justice to the many, who from personal decision or life circumstances, live alone. For these people the concept of complementarity is certainly lacking.

We are all conscious that words have limitations, should we therefore give up searching and trying to use them to make sense of our reality, in this case the male-female relationship? We say no, and therefore we will now consider an interesting word, one of many to describe relationship: that word is reciprocity.

What is reciprocity?

The word reciprocity derives from the Latin reciprocus which signifies a back and forth movement. Today the most common English usage of the word suggests a mercantile or utilitarian vision, i.e., if I give you something, I should then receive something back in repayment, or conversely, if I receive something then I should pay you something back.

It is very important that you realise in this essay that we are not talking about any commercial or economic exchange. On the contrary, here we will be discussing a relationship based on love where we do not concentrate on a perfect, equal exchange from one person to another. Such a perfect exchange is actually impossible in a human relationship. Rather, we are talking about people, and people cannot be represented by facts alone; they are beyond the concept of a factual ordering.

Who are these people that enter into relationship? They are different women and men, yet they are of an equal dignity and created to love each other in a mutual way. They are individuals that only come to full realization by giving and receiving love; human beings that are not angels and therefore also require love.

This model that we want to propose considers that any healthy love directed to the interior of a partner leads to a flowering of love from the other. This avoids the possibility of entering into any form of perverted love; it avoids abusive situations and excesses or pathologies that create injustice. Love has always been guided by the dialectic between love and justice or fairness. This permeates all our relationships. I give because I have been given to may only be a simple beginning based on the inherent gratitude present in all of us in response to the gift of life, but this is an important part of love towards another being. After having walked along the roads of justice we can then take flight with the wings of love, but both virtues must always go hand in hand.

At the same time we look at love as an expression of a social need. Women and men are not islands we are are images of the essence of a God that is pure love. For that reason it should be impossible for those in a loving relationship to not search for their own happiness, even while above all they look to make the other happy. To give and receive is rather a dynamic of our own, un-equivalent love; a love that is free to exceed through gratitude and natural over abundance. Thus, reciprocity cannot explain the aim of a relationship since it does not need to give to receive, but rather it wants to express the dynamic of love where human beings in relation are happiest when they live within a world of mutual donation.

The concept of reciprocity that I propose here has another meaning, which was developed by Giulia di Nicola and Attilio Danese. What type of love exchange does it propose? Most importantly the reciprocity that we suggest is not symmetrical but actually asymmetrical, because every person is unique in what they can offer and receive. Love is characteristic of a free individual and is given freely, it cannot be demanded or obliged. The ebb and flood of the tide is a wonderful, metaphorical image for reciprocity. Its un-ceasing movement is never exact or perfect, just as we as people are different and unique. The standard meaning found in the English dictionary for reciprocity is “the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit” but we would like to convey a more personalistic definition than that.

We would like to adopt a reciprocity model that is based on equality and difference. Cardinal Ravasi suggests that by this we can “overcome a relation based on subordination and the complementarian model or some abstract concept of an absolute equality, for an indispensable reciprocity caused by an accepted difference based on a solid foundation of equality. This new model is called transformative in that it shares the concept of transformation and overcoming, as much as from the traditional complementarian model, as it does from the radical feminist model. The end result is reciprocal relationship based on equivalence”.

The word reciprocity speaks of the union of the unique and individual within each person, a respect for the difference in all beings. Within the family, between the couple, neither should be in a position of superiority over the other; better a sense of harmony, but harmony at a distance thus creating a mutual respect. On one side, while gender perspectives have been greatly fortified by the recognition of feminine values, today we need a relationship model that overcomes previous concepts grounded ostensibly in chauvinism and radical feminism.

The model of reciprocity is perfect for this age; it is a sum of all of the trials of human history before us. It is an acknowledgement, after millenniums of chauvinism and segregation, that the power of men and women is much greater together than apart.  This new understanding of the equality of man and woman acknowledges concepts of group thinking and even modern physics, which suggest that the communion between man and woman is much more than just a sum of the parts created within us. A successful marriage can therefore embrace both a feminine and masculine richness, where a woman can enrich a man with her character while a man can enrich a woman with his perspective.

Frequently, love in many relationships like fatherhood and motherhood is one sided and this is part of the natural development of children and their need for a more simple, non questioning, dedicated type of love. Within a mature love; however, as should exist in friendships and within couples, love requires an interpersonal dimension. Perhaps because of this the successful marriage relation is symbolically rich as a successful model of love.

At the same time the anthropology of reciprocity does not identify a chasm of difference between men and women. Rather, it sees this “chasm” as that which ironically unifies us and does not force us apart. It is important to recognise the traits that unify us with another: equality, uniqueness, dignity and shared humanity, but at the same time we are frequently surprised with the mystery of another human being, their un-explicable “otherness”. Virginia Satir defines this perspective of equality within difference with great precision:

“If humans never reach equality, they will never know themselves; if you never know your differences you cannot be real or develop a true and vital human relation with others”.

This idea of Virginia Satir is an interesting way to counter what we could call the “sameness” myth, i.e. that you have to be the same as me: “there is another myth that corrupts and destroys love, and that is that love signifies sameness. ‘You must think, feel and act as I do all the time. When I don’t do that, you don’t love me’. From this point of view any difference can represent a threat”. The anthropology of reciprocity wants to invite all of us to value differences and understand the richness that these differences bring into human relationships.

A marriage union is not like chemical fusion that loses the original individuality, neither is it parasitic or even symbiotic as in the biological world. Rather it is relation made from communion, in which by finding another, the self is more clearly revealed. The content of reciprocity is the mutual correspondence of a man and woman’s love, and as Giulia di Nicola and Attilio Danese, the promoters of the anthropology of reciprocity suggest, “it is not sufficient to live with another but to be for someone else” .

This model of reciprocity is not new; it has a strong historical precedent. It is based on the works of the French personalist philosophers like Mounier y Ricoeur, but it also shares the concepts of Italians like Rosmini and Sturzo, and the German, Buber.

Reciprocity is a translation of the biblical call to man and woman to provide reciprocal care or help, one for the other, with both donating mutually towards love. Effectively, it is a noble answer to the problem of human loneliness, an intention that resides within us for mutual communion and a benevolent intention to make the loved one happy. 

Affirming the equality that exists between a man and woman does not signify a negation of the need to contemplate our obvious differences, or the particularities of living that each of us has within our own vocation and identity. What makes a female particular? What makes a man particular? We believe it would be reductive to only attribute certain virtues to women and others to men. All men and women are called to live with love in their lives. They also receive the possibility of accessing their own different human virtues. Also it is certain that there are a great number of differences between individual men and women themselves i.e. between one man and another man, or one woman and another. It is impossible to negate the fact that men and women are diverse and if both sexes are called to share in human values each will voice those values with their own unique tone.

The reciprocity model proposed by Giulia di Nicola and Attilio Danese does not try to smooth over our differences but instead speaks of a relation that confirms and transforms these differences. All relationships are asymmetric. “There is an inerasable asymmetry between people, two unique and unrepeatable beings that are situated at different levels: there is an asymmetrical link to the family, to historical and cultural contexts and to lived experiences, that produce our own models to approximate reality”. As Di Nicola and Danese explain reciprocity gives birth to a realisation that each one of us may be rich (in experiences, culture, possessions and intelligence…) but sooner or later we may find ourselves in a condition of “poverty,” i.e. that alone we do not possess all the necessary abilities to achieve a goal, and this is exactly when we may need another person. At the personal level, we are complex individuals: on any given day we may be teachers or disciples; receptive to information or giving; full with so much to give yet also feeling empty.  Nobody can say I will always be active, superior, or indispensable, though there will be moments when one member is obliged to assume leadership temporarily, in fact it may be critical to do so. A good example of this would be when one member of the couple is very ill. However, to always assume leadership, can only lead to problems. Every man and women in the reciprocity of co-habitation must learn the humility of limitation, the necessity of recognising oneself in another being, of esteeming another and of being esteemed.

What does the reciprocity model imply for the male-female relation?

1. An improved relationship equilibrium.

Reciprocity is a dynamic movement where the unique and unrepeatable of each person is respected without believing that either of the two is better that the other.

The reciprocity of two creates an us. The resulting fruit is a relational outspreading of oneself, a giving of one’s own self-dominion that opens the “other” and leaves them also feeling self assured, in a way that the two exposed people recognise themselves in the other. However, this does not suggest an isolated I or a you. Accepting another actually creates a new unity. Guardini, a German philosopher, proposed that the I and the you in a relationship actually form a contrast called the us. The us is not the sum of any related individuals, rather it is the totality of that relation. The person is an entity, as the us is another entity. The us is actually a completely new entity.

2. Reciprocity only exists in real encounter.

This dynamic relation exists in an encounter of many types but always with a basic structure based on dialogue. Without this encounter, without the realisation of a dynamic relation based on dialogue, the person will not be revealed. The person wrapped inside a deep individualism, the mass consumer vainly searching for satisfaction within the material world, and those living within their private, modern moral systems are living profoundly limited experiences. Conversely, in the face-to-face contact of myself and you there is an actual true realization of the person .

3. Reciprocity moves back and forth.

It therefore implies a mutual correspondence in love. A true love between two people can only form within a subtle interlacing of love’s gaze. The strength of the union depends on the category and the depth of the love, but above all, on the depth of the people that stabilise it. However, the decisive thing is that the union is yearned for; it has to be a union that cares greatly for, or guards that shared intention. It can only be created in the reciprocity of love or that, which is equal. Reciprocal love is the only possible path for the union of two people. When a loved person does not respond to our love, we can never reach that yearned for goal. In some love categories, like in a friendship love, and above all in married love, the answer lies between two categorically equal loves, while in others, like paternal or filial love, this love occurs between two categorically different loves which are of an equal quality and intensity. 

4. Reciprocity and modern life.

To reach a reciprocity ethic, we must consider the typical paradigm between a relationship based on an opening towards the other and mutual relationship. This supposes a true revolution for all the spaces in which we live: family, teaching, business, and in social and cultural life where all respect the uniqueness and equality of others while contributing from their own perspective. The reciprocity model does not suppose it can pigeonhole a definition of male and female. In finding themselves, men and women must both take a brave and patient path that does not categorically define another person.

5. The transcendent dimension

In the Christian concept of reciprocity, male and female can only be understood through God, who reveals our inner truth to us not only as human beings, but also as men and women. The anthropology of reciprocity is therefore based on a higher dignity of the human being created as man and woman, equal in dignity yet diverse. This difference helps us comprehend all who require the masculine or feminine mystery to understand and live more fully within this complicated human existence.

Like some uncanny reverse of the tower of Babel, the theory of reciprocity demands translation into all of our global languages, so that it can at it once influence global relationships. Given such a freedom this model would metamorphose cultural roles; it would remove rigid absolutes. Differences between men and women would no longer be perceived as barriers to communion and relationship, but instead as pillars to strengthen and enrich society.