Not so long ago, my wife and I were talking to a recently-divorced friend of ours. She’s younger than we are, in her early thirties, and as far as she’s concerned, she’s never tying the knot again. Not because of an objection to the institution, but because she’s convinced that most men marry for one reason: they want to be taken care of emotionally.
“I got tired of thinking about someone else’s needs all the time,” our friend said. “I’m prepared to take care of a baby. But I don’t want my first-born to be my second child.” When she heard that, my wife turned to me and gave me a grin. She knows my history.
In three previous marriages and a handful of other long-term relationships (I haven’t been single for long since I was 16), I found myself—like so many men—taking on the parts of the “naughty boy” and the “helpless child.” Time and again, I turned wives and girlfriends into mother-figures, and the result was inevitably disastrous.
I know that I’m not the only man who found “courtship” easier than “relationship.” Over and over again, I devoted time and energy to “getting the girl,” and when I succeeded, soon felt vaguely let down and confused about my role. Like so many men, I was good at the chase, and lousy at maintaining the relationship I’d worked so hard to get started. After I’d been dating someone new for a few months, I invariably began to become increasingly childlike. I figured out that most of my partners were students of my emotions (it’s what we raise women to do), and most of them were eager to make the relationship work. So they were the ones who took over the “feeling work” of the relationship while I settled into amiable uxoriousness.
When I lived with wives and girlfriends past, I’d quickly cede control over our living arrangements. What went where, and what got done when were decisions I wanted my partner to make. I thought I was being accommodating, telling myself and her “You know, honey, you care more about this (the color of the sheets, what kind of plants to have outside, what we have for dinner) than I do; why don’t you decide?” And my wife or girlfriend would make a decision, and whether I liked the decision or not, I didn’t have much to say about it either way. When pressed for my opinion, my favorite response was “Whatever you want, darling.” Of course, I liked having everything done for me. My wife or girlfriend maintained the relationship, kept things running, and in the cases where we lived together, made the major decisions about the house. I said loving things, made money, bought flowers occasionally, and did my best to be faithful. That, I figured, was my part.
Now, as the son of a feminist mom, I was always very big on doing my share of the housework. I was a loyal washer of dishes, a frequent doer of laundry (I actually like doing laundry), and a good grocery shopper. But I thought of what I was doing as “doing chores,” in much the same way I did chores as a child. I did not take responsibility for making decisions about the household, even as I seemed to be—to the outside world—an equal partner in the running of the home.
In early 1995, on the downslope of a disastrous second marriage, I remember having what Twelve Steppers call a “moment of clarity.” My wife and her sister and I were having lunch, and I stepped into the kitchen and opened the fridge. I then poked my head back into the dining room and asked my spouse, “Honey, can I have a Sprite?”
The two women gaped at me; my sister-in-law laughed awkwardly. I realized in an instant how utterly pathetic the question sounded. I was 27 years old, already a college professor on my way to tenure. And yes, I’d married a world-class co-dependent woman who was so anxious about my addictive personality that she’d decided to try to control as much as she could of my behavior. But she could only control what I willingly ceded to her.
That marriage didn’t make it to a second anniversary.
One of my friends once told me: “Hugo, relationships are like stoplights at an intersection. In order for the traffic to flow, both sets of lights have to work. Sometimes the light for the east and west bound traffic has to be red; sometimes the north-south. There’s got to be partnership in setting limits; each set has to take responsibility for yellow, red, and green — or there’s chaos.” In my past, like a child, my basic approach to everything was “green.” In every area of my life, I waited for my partner to flash the yellow or the red light. She (whoever she was) was the one who would decide “how far we went” sexually, emotionally, financially, geographically. We would always both end up resenting the hell out of each other for the other’s role. I would always end up seeing my wives and girlfriends as controlling, mothering, and judgmental; they would always see me as irresponsible, dishonest, and childlike.
And I’d end up doing things like asking a wife’s permission for a Sprite, resenting the hell out of the fact that I felt I had to ask, and getting back at her (and restoring what I thought was my dignity) by cheating on her.
It took a lot of emotional, spiritual, and therapeutic work—and three divorces plus a fourth marriage—but I finally did get myself to the point where I could set good boundaries, self-soothe, and show up as an equal. I can flash yellow and red as well as green at my spouse. I’ve learned the importance of giving my wife the chance to be occasionally uncertain or even work, and relax into my certainty. That’s what it means to be a husband, not a son.
Though my case may be extreme (not many men are thrice divorced by 35), there are plenty of other straight guys out there who outsource their self-care and the boundary-setting to wives and girlfriends. Research shows that it’s women (not men) who are taking an increasingly dim view of marriage worldwide. And though there are many other reasons for declining marriage rates around the globe, one is surely what our single friend cited: women’s lack of interest in having their first-born be their second child.
This piece was originally published on The Good Men Project.
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