Sep 21, 2011

Are Wives Really Nagging Shrews Or Do Husbands Just Think They Are?

This post was inspired by Lisa Hickey's recent piece, "Are Husbands Really Assholes? Or Do Wives Just Think They Are?" on the website The Good Men Project. There has also been a great deal of chatter on the interwebs about gender stereotypes in romantic, hetero relationships, most of which would make me tear out my hair by the fistful if I didn't spend so much money making it pretty .

When I see articles about the dynamics of male/female relationships, I initially find them provocative and insightful. When I delve deeper, however, I sometimes cringe at generalizations presented by authors as facts, rather than what they really are: opinions based on limited anecdotal evidence. They may be informed opinions by smart professionals who do some research, but what I've seen recently reveals that many "sample groups" are too small to be taken seriously. Ultimately, I object to the black and white approach inevitably taken by many of these arguments.

I understand why stereotypes take root; historically, the behavior of some in a group (a particular race, gender, or sexual orientation) has been mistakenly accepted as representative of all members of that group. I believe this is a function of ignorance and/or fear, but whether or not we admit it, we all have biases. Perhaps we were raised in an environment of bigotry and, as much as we would like to believe otherwise, those hateful words and images linger in our subconscious minds. Maybe life experiences lead some to form their own brand spanking new prejudices, and they are fine with that. Those are two extremes on a continuum—a large gray area of bias that we aren't generally comfortable talking about.

So how do we discuss gender stereotypes in romantic relationships in a way that is honest and helpful? First, I think we need to admit they exist. No matter how emotionally evolved we are we perpetuate certain narratives that make navigating relationships less scary. If we depend too frequently on these emotional crutches, however, we end up stuck in a place that may feel safe but actually leads us to believe that yes, all husbands are assholes and all wives are nagging shrews. Does this seem like a good strategy for making a relationship work?

Let's hear from the experts. From Lisa Hickey's piece:

The refrain heard over and over is some variation of "I want to have a good marriage. I love my wife. But sometimes, all I feel is resentment—from my wife, toward my wife, toward the marriage. I believe my wife thinks I am an asshole, and she treats me as such."

In Ms. Hickey's defense, she does her best to give a balanced portrayal of both men's and women's thoughts on the subject, but she doesn't have enough to work with. The above quote refers to a conversation that took place—in person, by phone, and via email—between a handful of contributers to The Good Men Project. Later in the article, Ms. Hickey presents a list of comments described as "a quick, non-scientific survey of self-appointed experts in the perception of husbands as assholes".

Most of the article follows a similar "he said, she said" vein, with Ms. Hickey trying to make sense of it all by drawing a few tentative conclusions. But then there's this:

It still bothers me that there’s no real dialogue around this issue. Men feel resentment, women appear oblivious, and conversation around the topic seems nil.

This is exactly the kind of sweeping generalization that causes a stabbing pain behind my left eye. Women are oblivious? I take exception to this, mostly because it's bullshit, but also because it makes all women sound like witless dolts who don't care about their husbands' feelings. Furthermore, my opinion (based on my own limited anecdotal evidence) is that most couples have plenty of conversations around this topic. They probably don't do it out in the open for everyone to see (I hope), but anyone seriously interested in making a relationship succeed realizes they occasionally need to talk about the relationship. These little chats may not be fun and they may not always be as productive as we'd like, but they do happen.

My biggest problem with this piece is that while dissecting and debunking the "Husbands Are Assholes" myth, Ms. Hickey implicitly perpetuates another stereotype, and this one's a doozy: husbands are hen-pecked into a life of quiet desperation by their nagging, shrewish wives. This sort of thinking makes me want to pick up the nearest object and hurl it at the wall. I'm sure many marriages do fit into this hellish category, and I'm sorry for both the husbands and wives who choose to live this way. But it is a choice, and I sure as hell wouldn't choose to be in a relationship where I'm some doormat's ball and chain.

If all stereotypes are a result of ignorance and/or fear, as I opine above, those involving gender are no exception. Maybe a good place to start a real conversation would be to ask: of what are men and women ignorant concerning real intimacy? What do men and women fear in relationships?

NOTE: See Hugo Schwyzer's follow-up article, "Poor, Poor, Pitiful Men: The Martyr Complex of the American Husband" for a radically different perspective.

An excerpt:

The Guy Code teaches men how to pursue women, how to court, and how to charm; it teaches us nothing about how to be in an actual relationship with a woman once we’ve succeeded in catching her. (If you’re getting an image of a dog who looks bewildered and helpless when he’s finally managed to catch the cat he’s been chasing, you’re not far off the mark.)

There's that stabbing pain again, although I have to admit I enjoyed most of this piece. While Hugo is also prone to generalizations, he never claims his contributions to The Good Men Project are anything but his own informed opinions, and he has academic credentials to back them up. Still, maybe I'll tackle this another day...

Sep 11, 2011

Why Remarry?

I am divorced, and I live with my boyfriend, also divorced. I have quite a few divorced friends, women and men. Some are happily remarried; a couple are planning to wed new partners; several are looking for love and, I assume, another shot at marriage; at least one is recently divorced and probably not ready to even think about dating; a handful are ambivalent about remarrying; and some insist they will never again take the matrimonial plunge.

According to a study published in the American Law and Economics Review, women initiate more than two-thirds of divorces. There is variation among states, and the numbers have changed over time, with over 70% of filings by women in some states just after no-fault divorce was introduced. Also, a new report from the U.S. census bureau shows that, for those 25 and older, 52% of men and 44% of women were remarried. Statistics indicate that 50% of all first marriages fail; the divorce rates of second marriages are estimated to be over 70%.

These numbers are surprising considering the conventional wisdom that men are generally coerced into first marriages by women hell-bent on snagging a husband. Don't take my word for it; check out the number of books and websites devoted to coaching women on how to trick their man into committing. (I challenge you to find similar advice for men.) And much of the information out there is absurd. For example:

From Your Tango’s Top 10 Surprising Ways To Get A Guy To Commit: “2. Don't be exclusive until you're engaged. Once you've become exclusive and have your eye on marriage, a man can sense that you're thinking about the relationship, wondering where things are going, hoping he loves you as much as you love him—all of which are totally normal feelings, but they make men withdraw emotionally.”

Is this 1950? Keep that man on his toes until he puts a ring on your finger! And while you're at it, date a bunch of other guys who don't realize you "have your eye" on marrying someone else! Sorry, Your Tango, but engagement is not the carrot women should be chasing, and marriage is not a prize that guarantees commitment. Marriage is the result of commitment.

From Love is No Guarantee author Peter Hector: “It is men’s nature to delay anything that can cause drastic changes to their lives. And although men have always been aware of the changes that marriage brings, they accepted them as part of the territory; ‘when a man marries his troubles begin.’ But whether or not today’s men are aware of this old saying, one thing is certain. They are not ready to be plucked from their comfort zones and thrown into a life of responsibility, compromise and sacrifice. And by their own admissions this is the life they believe awaits them whenever they decide to take what they consider the final plunge.”

Barf. Thanks for this sweeping generalization that makes all men sound like pathetic assholes, Mr. Hector. I can't imagine who comprised your sample group, but perhaps you could publish a list of like-minded men so single women everywhere won't waste their time trying to pluck them from their comfort zones and plunge them into a lifetime of trouble.

I came across another revolting factoid around marital disharmony: rather than acknowledge they are unhappy and leave the marriage or, better yet, work on the underlying causes of their and/or their spouse’s unhappiness, many men cheat. (I believe this is referred to as Passive Aggressive Dick Behavior, or PADB.) So who knows if women are ending their marriages because they are unhappy or because hubby needed a little variety to make it through the “long haul” of married life?

My summary, based on the above: men resist marriage the first time around; women are more likely to leave their marriages; men are more likely to remarry (possibly their mistresses!); and second marriages are more likely to fail. In other words, divorced women, more often than men, get what they want and then decide they don’t want it anymore. Men, more often than women, get what they thought they didn’t want, lose it, then realize they want it again. And both men and women are unrealistically optimistic about the chances of a second—or third, or fourth—marriage lasting.

Statistics are numbers crunched to reflect trends. Just that—trends. While some people may have a genetic predisposition for violence, not all of them act on it. Similarly, not all single, married, divorced, or remarried men and women act in accordance with statistical probabilities. While I see some of these trends playing out in my friends’ relationships, the behavior of the majority of people I know does not fit so neatly into these molds. Good for them, I say, because these statistics are freakin’ depressing.

I believe marriages most often succeed or fail due to the reasons people decide to marry, and how committed they are to working their asses off for the rest of their lives to make the marriage work for both of them. So, I offer my unsolicited thoughts on good and bad reasons to remarry:

Top Five Reasons Not To Remarry:

1. It’s the logical next step. There are no logical next steps in any relationship.

2. Marriage will strengthen the relationship. I don’t think so. Being married makes it more logistically difficult to split up, but if your relationship is weak now, toughen it up before heading to the altar.

3. Marriage will decrease the chance of infidelity. Um, no. (See above.) If you and your partner are already committed, fidelity should not be an issue—yet. And if infidelity is a deal-breaker for you, make sure you address it before getting married, because there's a damn good chance you'll be addressing it later on.

4. My parents expect me to be married. Good for them. They probably also want you to give them grandkids (if you haven’t already), floss regularly, and take care of them in their old age. But you’re a grown up now, and it’s time to make major life decisions all on your own.

5. Marriage will provide financial stability. Hahahah! Remember that divorce? How stable were your finances, then? On the other hand, if you’ve made a conscious decision to marry for money rather than love, go get ‘em! But prepare for a life of insecurity once you sacrifice your independence.

Top Five Reasons To Remarry:

1. You and your partner are truly committed and equally enthusiastic about tying the knot. Enough said. Preface each reason below with this one.

2. You want to start a family (or add to the one you have). Fair enough. It’s fun to be married when you have kids. You get to argue over whose last name they’ll take.

3. Your religious beliefs encourage marriage over living in sin. While I obviously don’t subscribe to this, many people do. Go with God (or whoever).

4. You’ve recently come out of the closet, ended that icky hetero marriage, and now you’ve found someone special with whom you want to share your life. Congratulations! If you live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, hurry up and get hitched, because religious-fanatic-right-wingnut lunatics all over the country are fighting like rabid, feral cats to take away that hard-won right.

5. You simply can’t imagine growing old without your partner. Smart cookie, because when you're really, really old, you want her/him to have legal standing to make end-of-life medical decisions for you. Also, it just sounds so friggin’ sweet.

The other night, a friend remarked that she and her husband considered my boyfriend and me the "perfect couple". I burst out laughing, then explained I don't believe perfect couples exist. (She joked that they do on Facebook. True, that.) Every couple has their share of struggles, depending on their history, emotional maturity, and—most important—their commitment to each other. This left me wondering, however, what commitment really means. If two people claim to be committed to each other but their definitions of commitment differ significantly, does that commitment benefit the relationship? I don't have an answer, but I imagine that conversation would be an excellent place to start for any couple considering marriage.

What do you think?