The Gender Trap

How far we have, and haven't, come
in transcending traditional gender programming

One of the articles in Friends & Lovers (IC#10)
Originally published in Summer 1985 on page 30
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Herb Goldberg is a psychologist in private practice and professor of psychology at U.C.L.A. He is author of several books, including
The Hazards of Being Male (NY: Nash Publishing, 1976) and The New Male-Female Relationship (NY: William Morrow, 1983).

IT”S 1985, and we’ve all been touched by the sweep of the sexual liberation movements – including feminism and more recently male consciousness groups. Consequently, we should be fairly free of our old sexist pattern, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Beyond the rhetoric of the women’s and men’s liberation movements, and beyond the obvious, superficial changes that have been made, we are still, men and women both, left with the psychological undertow of traditional sexual conditioning. Our outsides have changed, but our insides haven’t. I call this deeply embedded polarization of the classic male and classic female personalities the "gender unconscious." In my practice as a psychotherapist I see otherwise intelligent, successful, advanced, "liberated" and "enlightened" men and women locked in agonizing relationships because of this lethal poison. They seem to be battling each other, but in reality they are both in a struggle with a common enemy.

Traditional masculinity and femininity are not "natural". They are both psychological disorders resulting from compartmentalizing the human psyche and assigning half to men and the opposite half to women. As I draw these two portraits bear in mind that I am referring to the extreme of polarity, and that the actual manifestations in any particular person may be muted, but nonetheless there.


Being a traditionally conditioned female requires the suppression of four areas of the woman’s psyche – aggression, assertion, autonomy and sexuality – and a resulting loss of objectivity. The traditional woman is "sweet," "doesn’t have an angry bone in her body" (repressed aggression); compliant, "whatever you want to do is fine with me" (repressed assertion); dependent (repressed autonomy); and sees sex as a male drive. The traditionally conditioned macho male is the polar opposite of this. His psyche exaggerates aggression, assertion, autonomy and sexuality, with a resulting loss of subjectivity. This cut-off from human feeling results in men living almost 10 years less than women, having a 300 percent higher suicide rate and suffering in childhood from psychological and physiological disorders at a higher rate than girls.

The macho male is the ACTOR, the initiator, and the traditional female is the REACTOR, the submissive one. The result of this actor/reactor imbalance is a woman who feels victimized and enraged, and a man who is confused, surprised and guilty ("I never knew she felt that way"). He can be the nicest, sweetest, most sensitive guy and she can be the most compliant, adoring and agreeable woman, but the more polarized they are as actor/reactor, the more inevitably she will come to feel "I have no identity, I am a nobody and I am being controlled" and the more he will come to feel responsible, guilty and oppressed by that responsibility. Is it any wonder that thousands of babies are being conceived by mothers through artificial insemination, born to women choosing to be single parents; that ever larger communities of men and women have gone gay, resisting all intimate bonding with the opposite sex; that millions of chronic "singles" are burning out from too many partners, too many fantasies gone sour and nothing left to hold on to, much less cherish; and that there are such high incidences of spouse violence, child abuse (redirected rage), divorce, sexual dysfunction and just plain unhappiness in relationships?

The accompanying chart summarizes these masculine/feminine polarities in their extreme cases.



actor – and guilty
aggression "macho psychotic"
assertion of ego
independent – no one tells me what to do
sexual and not sensual
anger expressed through:
     compulsive competitiveness
     cynicism & coldness
treats women as objects/possessions

attracted to appearances
"life is a jungle; people are not to be trusted"
he says to her, "Don’t be so naive"
resists touching
wants to be left alone
objective, rational, externalized

reactor – and enraged victim
repression of aggression – sweet
repression of assertion – compliant
repression of autonomy – dependent
sensual and not sexual
anger expressed through:
     tears, blaming, punishing
     depression and hypochondria

seeks romantic fusion with a man as a "rescue symbol" & "success object"
attracted to power
"people are ‘nice’ "
she says to him, "Don’t be so cynical"
craves touching
wants closeness
subjective, emotional, internalized


The desperate dilemma of both men and women seeking to rid themselves of the pain wrought by the "gender unconscious" is that while it is ultimately the source of male/female despair, it is initially the source of male/female excitement. In the traditional male/female relationship, the more polarized the couple, the greater the initial romantic euphoria. It’s all sex and no conflict in the beginning. However, the greater the polarization and thus romance, the greater the eventual resentment, bitterness and alienation. At the end it’s all fighting and no sex. And yet, both men and women continually strive for interactions that make a male feel like a "real man" and a female feel like a "real woman" and repeat the same frustrating pattern over and over again. Such romantic involvements at first produce tremendous thrill, triumph and relief, a sense of having been found or rescued by the other. But to sustain that, realities must be denied and the obvious must be continually overlooked. Heavy role playing is required to maintain the fiction until the relationship crumbles of its own unsupported weight. In "the old days" this process often took many years. Now, in Los Angeles for example, it only takes a weekend: Friday night it’s all excitement, Saturday is boredom, and by Sunday it’s anger and rage and they never see each other again.

Most of us haven’t played out this extreme form of romance since our teenage years, or since our first few destructive relationships. Yet, if we are honest, these underlying dynamics persist, even in our enlightened relationships of the mid 1980s. Why? Romance based on the "gender unconscious" is addictive. The unconscious and defensive nature of these relationships is a tip-off to the addictive and out-of-control qualities that make them no different than a drug habit or any other kind of addiction. One is aware that one is acting self-destructively, and yet there is the feeling of "I don’t care because I need this and it feels so good."

Like any other addiction, there are the predictable cycles of "coming down." Irrational and unmanageable fights ignite suddenly and escalate uncontrollably because two people who "love" each other experience themselves and the relationship in diametrically opposite ways. The "needs" each look to the other to fill are unfillable and cannot lead to anything but frustration. Both feel that the other is inadequate or intentionally withholding. He feels pressured by her demands for closeness and emotional expressiveness. She feels both controlled by his boundless ego and exploited and frustrated in her efforts to be loving and close since he is essentially disconnected. After separation or divorce, most such couples who were once "hopelessly in love" are hopelessly antagonistic and cannot even tolerate each other’s presence. The addictive relationship has the couple completely in its grip and the rancor of the ending is as much part of the pattern as the ecstasy in the beginning. They move from euphoria to rage and don’t know how they got there. It was beyond their control for they were the unwitting victims of their unconscious process. The entire course of their romantic involvement, experienced as "deep love," is as predictable and inevitably destructive as any narcotic.

This destructiveness is not limited to male/female romantic involvements. The macho male’s defenses cause him to misperceive the world and relate in distrustful, negative ways, endlessly protecting and defending himself. The feminine woman, meanwhile, tends to experience life the opposite way, with a child-like naivete and irrational sort of optimism. And thus, these distorted polarities are played out in ever larger arenas of life. In truth, if the gender defensive process is not interrupted, the human race will become so disconnected from reality that it will not be able to survive – nor should it. The nature of our culturally instilled gender unconscious, with all the compulsive patterns through which it is acted out, is that lethal.

But haven’t we already learned about and worked on this through the liberation movements of the last two decades? Yes . . . and no. While some external changes have happened, two major internal flaws have existed in the feminist movement. First, it was fueled by anger at men and thus was actually grounded in TRADITIONAL FEMALE PROCESS, including feelings of victimization, and raging blame. Much of the apparent growth was actually a defensive reaction in women against their own femininity, leaving them "female machos" and in truth further separated from any possibility of connection with men. The male liberation movement that grew out of feminist analysis was also traditional in that the keynote was guilt over their "sexism" and male chauvinism. Both sexes, then, had LIBERATION CONTENT BUT TRADITIONAL PROCESS, making real change close to impossible, and creating more intricately defensive patterns than before.

The second problem of the liberation periods we are now passing through has been to mistake superficial attitude change for real growth. A major illusion of contemporary "liberation" philosophies is the belief that a change in attitudes and an awareness about sexism will somehow create the best of both worlds – the excitement of the old superimposed on the enlightenment of the new. Liberated couples often suffer the most from this fantasy. Their deeper selves, being unconscious, have not really changed, while their conscious, liberated selves are filled with wonderful, attractive ideas about relating. The problem is that attitude change can happen overnight – real growth can’t. This kind of attitude change is initially exhilarating and ultimately entrapping while growth is initially scary and painful and ultimately liberating. The result is a form of double-binding more distressing and impossible to untangle than traditional relating.


Men and women both are up against the wall of their own sexual identity and terrified of relinquishing the ego self, the sense of who they are as a man or as a woman, their gender self image. And you just don’t unleash stuff you’ve blocked out all your life at will without resistance and panic; because it is terrifying. This is what we are challenged to grow through. And, while the polarities between men and women seem so deep that many are tempted to call them genetic, they are indeed conditioned and therefore amenable to change.

On the other side of this growth process is what I am calling the New Male/Female Relationship. The old addictive excitement will dissolve as the traditional male/female defenses dissolve and a brand new fluid, conscious experience between men and women will occur. I’ve selected four words to characterize the quality of interaction in this new relationship: playmates, friends, companions, and lovers.

Playmates: Men and women will feel about each other as they do about their best friends of the same sex. They will be playful, unselfconscious and laugh a lot at their shared perceptions of life. They will seek each other out for intrinsic reasons (how it feels to be together) not extrinsic reasons (what they can get from each other). The relationship will be based on want, not need.

Friends: Growth for one will be a plus for the other. They will be able to resolve conflict without guilt or blame by looking with good will at the dynamic between them that created the tension. They will be "for" each other.

Companions: There will be a balanced actor/reactor flow and an objective attraction to each other’s worlds. The tone will be "I like who you are, I like how you keep your home, I like your friends, I like your aesthetics and values, I am delighted by your choices and I just like to be with you."

Lovers: How this will actually look is unclear. Traditional sex is engaged in for non-sexual reasons (turn-ons based on cultural norms of physical attractiveness, symbols of power and manipulative interactions). In the new male/female relationship sex will be a reflection of the relationship itself and so may vary vastly from one day to the next and from one couple to the next.

Along with the emergence of the new male/female relationship will come a different "feel" about life that is less destructive to the environment as well as to each other and themselves. Once non-defensive, men will no longer compulsively disconnect and externalize and exploit nature for their own need to validate their masculinity. Women will no longer crave fusion and a dissolving of self in relationship with a powerful man, and will be able to act creatively and effectively on behalf of the world. Just as our "gender unconscious" relationships have the capacity to destroy the world, deeply transformed new male/female relationships have the capacity to heal it. Our relationships are not simply private affairs – the quality of our interactions as men and women permeates every level of life.

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