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...

1 comment:

Slacky B said...

I wonder whether part of the frustration is that the topic may not lend itself to serious academic analysis. If it's assumed that there's a phenomenon nagging, and that nagging is done almost exclusively by women, then (to me), it starts to sound like a folkway or something like that. The idea that there's a complex form of communication that's almost unique to women might sound bizarre to most scholars. I can imagine a sociologist recording dialogues between men and women and then trying to determine what statements are nagging and why. But I think the sociologist might be stuck with using subjective standards for pinpointing nagging -- again, a potential problem for academics..