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Krystyna Romanowska talks to Marcin Ilski, the author of the book "Benevolent Scepticism", partner to Agnieszka, father of Matylda

I grew up in a small city, in a family where nobody discussed what it meant to be a man or a woman. The house was tended to by my mother and my two-and-a-half-years-older sister. They cooked, cleaned, handled everything. I was supposed to study and get a profession. I felt good about it and I did not question this division. The father also did not get a message about what a relationship should be like, and his relationship with his father was difficult.

I don't blame my dad or grandparents for not teaching me how to make good relationships. Their fate was different from mine, knowledge was less available, and the atmosphere for choosing other paths was much more unfavourable. The strong women's movement gives me hope that, in a sense, it will force us guys to abandon certain matters and behaviours that destroy the lives of not only women, children, other men, but also ourselves.

What destroyed you the most?

Women don't realise how many stereotypes go around in men's heads. Stories about the cunningness, malice and cynicism of women, and at the same time about their shallowness, stupidity and nuisance, and above all about the pernicious female manipulations to ensnare men, were common in our generation. It's a miracle that there were still some successful relationships. I've always wanted to be with the woman I love until the end of my days, but male culture kept alarming me that it was dangerous or simply impossible.

Where did these male fears come from?

From too few stories about what a happy relationship is for a man. Usually, they were about having peace of mind combined with unconditional acceptance. Everything else was marked by warnings of what a hell life will become if you begin to listen to what the woman says to you. We were supposed to be independent and self-governing, but without giving this to our partners. They were meant to recognise us as the purpose and meaning of their lives, but not to overburden us with responsibility.

And so, in the 47 years of my life, I have experienced numerous privileges of being a man. And also a few cases of harassment related to the fact that I didn't fit the model of "true masculinity".

Meaning?

I have made too little use of what has been called the "normal male attitude". Simply put: if you don't follow the model of masculinity that is acceptable in a given group, then you are mocked or rejected from the "circle of trust". This is a bit like the English boarding school model. In the beginning, you are "too soft" and a "crybaby", so for your own sake you must be toughened up to wage the tough war with the opposite sex and all the misfits who try to draw you into "self-pity". Because a guy is either a leader or cannon fodder. Either way, he "must" get rid of delicacy, sensitivity and doubt.

But this is not a relationship between people who love each other. Not romantic, but everyday love in the best sense of the word. One in which you have to notice that you have missed something again, that you let it go, forgotten to make the partner's life a little easier, more beautiful.

It's not easy with my partner Agnieszka, a strong woman. I am convinced that many men experience tremendous dissonance and amazement: they have to make an effort to maintain their relationships, instead of lying on the couch watching a game.

What prevents men most from building a partnership relationship?

There are a few things. For example, a tendency to freeze. Men are convinced that once they got off the pedestal, threw out the rubbish, earned a living, vacuumed or took care of the baby – this is the moment when they should have a medal pinned and rewarded with plenty of free time, about two weeks. During this time, nothing should be expected of them. When I tell men I know that I take care of my daughter or clean, they look at me with suspicion. But my female friends express their admiration by saying, "What a great relationship!" These reactions show where we are – the things assigned to women for hundreds of years cause a stir when done by men. And this man does some women's tasks, publishes on Facebook, is invited to an interview for "Wysokie Obcasy". A real top student. A male carnival. And carnival is attractive, but not for long.

Let me ask you briefly: have you screwed up your relationships? Because you decided that women were "picking on" you?

I don't want to say 'we were stupid' because we weren't. Despite the lack of role models, we had a chance to create good relationships if we could transcend ourselves. But we couldn't.

I was surrounded by many women who worked on themselves, understood a lot – mainly women came to my workshops on personal development and communication. Agnieszka's generation worked on themselves, breaking through the walls of their weaknesses, deficits and fear. What were men doing then? They focused on earning money.

Or they entered the so-called male circles that arose in response to female circles. Their aim was to restore the myth of going into the forest, being a wild man, chopping wood, bathing in a cold river. It was also about shouting, crying or other forms of expressing emotions – all this, however, perpetuated the poetics of "a guy should build a house, plant a tree and beget a son", and was still against women. It was an attempt at defending ourselves from what women were doing.

In retrospect, I can say that my partners experienced unpleasantness because of my patriarchal behaviour. Back then, I thought that letting go stems from the fact that that's just what I am, not that as a man I was raised that way. In an attempt to blur the sense of guilt, we misuse the following phrases towards women: "you react too emotionally", "you don't know what you want from me".

Or maybe you just didn't know what women's lives really look like?

We heard that their lives are hard. But it's not because men aren't trying to help them, it's just the way it is: women are worse off by definition. We lived without reflection in a feudal system: men are supposed to provide subsistence, and women take over the house, giving sex and dinner in return.

So, if you ask me if we screwed up our relationships, yes, but it mostly wasn't a conscious decision, rather a matter of not aligning our ideas with women who were changing rapidly.

What could help you then? Following women? Reading "Women who Run with the Wolves"?

I don't think it was about following women. We lacked the tools for communication, to recognise women's voices as real and not as an attempt to manipulate. Because that's one of the greatest male fears: mastered female entrapment tricks. Maybe there are some, but they are probably used to survive in a relationship. I don't know, I'm not a woman.

I'm not good at tricks, so I won't help you.

I was taught by other men that I shouldn't trust them, that I should "fix them up", otherwise "they will walk over me and I will cease to be a real man". Also, as men, we have very little knowledge of our sexuality and emotions. We only know that we have to be fit. And confident. Not submissive. That's all. Masculinity was contained in the slogan: "I don't know how to live, but no one will tell me how to live."

Did you look for a male role model that you liked? Maybe the witcher?

Yes I have, but I couldn't find one. Maybe this search was our mistake? When women stopped looking for role models, we still lacked someone to guide us through this difficult time, someone to follow.

We thought that we would definitely not follow women, because where would they lead us with their unstable emotions, affection, ignorance of the basic laws of economics and history. Which was very interesting, because statistically men learn less than women. They had known for at least 150 years that if they didn't study, their situation would be unenviable. A man who didn't study could always become a car mechanic, a lumberjack, and he would stay afloat anyway.

What is the biggest challenge in building a relationship with a strong woman?

Work that never ends. There are no medals and no respite. But there is good coffee drunk together in the kitchen in the morning. There is also a strong fear inside me that maybe what I'm doing is fake – I talk about a new masculinity, write books, train people, I have doubts, I think a lot, do homework with my daughter, go for walks with my dog, take out the rubbish. Or maybe I should be a firm businessman who says, "Dear wife, you will stay at home, I will provide everything, you don't have to worry about a thing."

I can also see that my friends perceive what I say as an attack on manhood. They are probably wondering if Marcin is a man who hates men? No. I feel great as a man, because being a man in Poland is still associated with privileges. I wish we, as men, began to communicate with each other differently. I have never felt good talking over beer about how hard life is with a partner and commenting on the appearance of the girls passing by. This poetics: it's bad, but, you know, we have children, I have to endure somehow and stay away from home as long as possible to take a break from it... The longer it took, the more embarrassed I felt.

You take care of your daughter and I say this not to give you a medal, but because you have experienced the toil of a woman's life. 

I realised what is the source of these male-hated female complaints. Men didn't experience the frustration of caring for a child and having to think about a million small necessities. My dad left the house before 6 a.m., and came back at 5 p.m. He refereed matches on Saturdays. The difficult process of raising children didn't concern him, and I have no complaints about it. He always seemed so fantastic to us, and mum – so annoying.

I don't mean switching roles, but rather establishing with each other how partnership relations should look like. If there is no money and no grandparents nearby, one person has to work less to look after the child. There's no other way.

In the first phase of the pandemic, I remember getting angry because I didn't have time to work. Agnieszka travelled around Poland, our daughter was at home, she demanded attention, I had to do homework with her. How was I supposed to deal with my thoughts? I wish guys would feel this frustration of taking care of things for which no one thanks or pays you. Then they will understand that we need to completely change our attitude towards care work. We live in a country that requires so many things from its citizens – mainly women – that sooner or later the level of frustration grows to such an extent that these relationships fall apart.

How should women talk to men so that they will listen?

I don't really want to talk about it, I would like men and women to just talk. But if you insist, they should just tell us how they feel. It will be difficult for guys because they will hear that their partners have a hard life with them. Let them find out why this life is so hard and learn to talk about not only goals but also what happens inside the relationship.

I, taught that a man cannot have a problem, want to run away when my partner asks: is something wrong? And I am not acting with bad intentions: sometimes a man doesn't want to burden his partner with problems. In the Danish series from a few years ago, "Borgen" ("The Government"), we see a situation in which a husband – a good professional worker – stays at home because his wife is the prime minister. And we have sexual and family problems resulting from this situation. We miss such real male heroes facing real problems.

Instead, we have superheroes or superheroes with psychosis. Or soldiers and generals. Women in Poland at least have Marie Curie. And the Polish Nobel Prize winners? They were the writers of their time, they didn't accomplish real breakthroughs. We lack examples of good rulers who actually took into account the voice of the weaker. This is missing in Polish male history.

What kind of partners do you think your daughter will have? The bad news is that psychotherapists say: young men today aren't looking for lovers and partners, but... babysitters.

The level of women's emancipation increases from generation to generation. I hope my daughter's generation won't be interested in men looking for babysitters. And that they will make it clear to them in such a way that they will have to change to enter into any relationship.

Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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