(Muhammed Muheisen/AP)

It goes without saying that women and men need both respect and love. But mass media’s obsession with depicting a culture of female desperation and perpetuating unbalanced sexual imagery has a lot of us confused about what the “average” man or woman wants and needs. Echoing that sentiment, a man in his 20s once (annoyingly) said to me: “Men love to live; women live to love.”

Not all men see gender differences that way. There are undoubtedly countless progressive men out there who view relationships as a partnership between two people who carry equal weight. These are men who dismiss traditional gender roles as primitive and culturally irrelevant. They boast about the intellectual prowess of their partner, appreciate the other’s financial independence and don’t mind ideological disagreement.

In the age of the Obamas, women are encouraged to believe that men want a life partner rather than a mannequin, sex object or trophy. But so much of pop culture and public dialogue on relationships focuses on male ego preservation. Women, who are often accused of being in need of constant validation, have love dangled over their heads as men are affirmed in their ability to provide, protect and please. What’s hip-hop’s obsession with women, money and violence but an outcry for respect? Sadly, it’s the woman who is willing to endure the most who most often makes it to the marital finish line.

This image has been used in recent films directed by Tyler Perry, who often grounds a woman’s chances at marriage in her capacity to respect and ultimately fall in love with a working-class man. Actor Steve Harvey mirrored this depiction in “Think Like a Man” with the relationship between Taraji P. Henson and Michael Ealy’s characters. Taraji played the powerful executive who had to swallow her ego and find it within herself to be with a small-time cook.

This depiction is a double-edged sword that simultaneously feeds off of and resists female archetypes. While painting a stereotypical image of womanhood that breaks down male pride, the film also lifts up an uncommon one through female autonomy, as Taraji’s character “has her own.”

Similarly, there are many of us women who long to seize a man’s attention and be treated like precious cargo, but there are also many of us who hold our desire for love in balance with the respect we yearn for in our careers. We’re driven by a need to make a contribution to the world, and that may even be more important to us than our need for romance and sexual gratification.

I, personally, am incapable of separating my interest in a man from his capacity to encourage me to become the person I’m trying to be in this world. Does he help make me better at whatever it is I am trying to do? Will he hold me accountable when temptations come? Am I going to be inspired and challenged by the path he is on? If the answer to these questions is no, then all the love in the world cannot overshadow my constant yearning to be and do better -- to maintain self and communal respect.

Similarly, a large part of why it’s problematic to say that “women need love” is that it leaves little room for men to own up to their own desires for connection and attachment. While many men are as raw and sensitive as we are, their commitment to being an emotional “thug” (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard men jokingly use that phrase when speaking about matters of the heart) complicates communication and makes transparency nearly impossible.

This became most apparent to me in a past relationship in which my ex-boyfriend would often camouflage his pain with anger. If I said or did something that hurt him, he couldn’t vocalize that but would instead emphasize his “frustration.” I was lucky that he limited himself to voicing anger and didn’t act out on it. For many women, tragically, intimate violence is the price to be paid for a man’s inability to express emotion in a healthy manner.

But show me the way to a brotha who embraces vulnerability, and you’ve introduced me to a “free man”: a man who is comfortable in his own fragility and takes pride in his own humanity, a man who knows that he’s made strong in his weaknesses. He acknowledges that he won’t self-destruct by admitting that he doesn’t have all the answers; he’s okay not knowing and not controlling. I wish that we lived in a world that gave men the freedom to publicly embrace their emotions and (God forbid) their sensitivity.

Many of us in our human frailty often lie to ourselves, trying to convince the world that we’re something we’re not — afraid that the world would mock us if we came out from under our mask. We spend so much time preserving egos that it leaves little room for honest dialogue. And isn’t that one thing that we all can agree is needed -- transparency? If we just started there, then maybe everything else would fall into place.

Come on out Thursday, July 26, at 6 p.m. to the community room of The Washington Post building (1150 15th St, NW) as Panama Jackson of Very Smart Brothas and I in conjunction with The Root DC take this conversation live by hosting a discussion on how gender differences play out in matters of the heart. Are these perceptions rooted in fact or myth? Do men and women in fact operate differently within the confines of a relationship? If so, how so and what do they need to know to ensure greater relationship success?

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/ editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter: @RahielT.

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