In this week’s guest post, Hugo Schwyzer responds to Lisa Hickey’s article, “Are Husbands Really Assholes,” where he muses on the idea of what constitutes a “good” husband and what responsibilities men must shoulder in efforts to fulfill the role of a partner in a relationship.
Most men, as far as I can tell, do want to be good husbands. And most of them really don’t know what that entails. But that inability to figure out how to be the good husbands we dream of being is not our wives’ problem to solve. The source of our frustrated inability to connect with our spouses and long-term girlfriends isn’t their elevated expectations or some innate male biological trait that serves as an impediment to self-awareness. The problem is that most men are raised with what is often called the “Guy Code.”
The Guy Code, which boys learn from their male peers and older men, prizes action rather than words. It teaches boys, as the sociologists Deborah David and Robert Brannon pointed out decades ago, to be highly competitive “sturdy oaks” with little vocabulary for anything other than ambition or anger. 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.)
Once in a relationship (much less a marriage) with a real-honest-to-goodness human being who didn’t grow up with the Guy Code (and thus wasn’t shamed out of her ability to articulate her feelings, as most of us were as boys), we’re often in awe of what seem like her “naturally” superior emotional abilities. Women seem to have this extraordinary capacity to describe their feelings with precision; they seem to be so much better at remembering the nuances of conversations we’ve long since forgotten.
Many young—and not-so-young—men feel overwhelmed by what seem to be the superior verbal and emotional skills of female romantic partners. When a man has grown up learning not to display feelings, or to talk about them, he may end up feeling as if he’s a first-year French student suddenly plunged into a conversation with fluent native speakers. He hasn’t got—or he feels he hasn’t got—the vocabulary with which to keep up. This isn’t because of testosterone, of course, or some inherent aspect of the human brain; it’s the hangover from growing up with the “guy code.” And the guy code, followed rigidly, leads to a kind of learned emotional helplessness.
Make no mistake: I don’t think women are blameless. Women are acculturated to take charge of the emotional health of the marriage; women are taught to confuse being controlling with being nurturing. Women, as well as men, buy into the male myth, the one that says we are physiologically incapable of being as emotionally complex, intuitive, or articulate as our wives and girlfriends. According to Lisa Hickey, who wrote “Are Husbands Really Assholes?” some women take a certain satisfaction in the mistaken belief that they,“know their husbands better than they know themselves.” Women play at least a small part in the maintenance of the male myth.
But the majority of the men in Lisa Hickey’s piece don’t sound like men who are actively trying to resolve a problem with a partner whom they regard as an equal. They sound petulant and resentful; they sound defeated. Two guaranteed-to-fail tactics are all they have in their arsenals: “submarining” and pre-emptive self-deprecation.
Submarining is what it sounds like: diving deep to avoid a tempest that must eventually blow over. By viewing your wife’s rage as a temporary storm to be avoided, you will, like a sub, dive inward, remaining as impassive as possible, waiting patiently (or, more accurately, anxiously but with an outer veneer of tranquility) for the tempest to cease. This is passive-aggressive conflict avoidance; I did a lot of “submarining” in my first two marriages.
Other men will pull out the infamous pre-emptive apology strategy (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, whatever I did, I’m sorry. Please stop being mad.) Still others, of course, will retreat to self-deprecation, figuring that if they say truly awful things about themselves, they’ll force their lovers to cease the search for legitimate discussion and turn to the more traditionally feminine role of soothing male anxiety. (“I’m such a piece of shit, I don’t know why you stay with me.” Batterers use that line a lot in the remorse stage, following an episode of abuse.)
It often works, particularly on a younger woman who fancies herself capable of showing a man a side of himself he has never seen. And so a lot of women, torn between exasperation and compassion, give in at this point and say, “Oh Theodore, you’re not a bad person. I really do love and admire you.” She temporarily breaks off the attempt to push through to him and to create change; the status quo is preserved.
It’s tempting—oh, so tempting—to attribute our own comparative inarticulateness to our testosterone, or to our Y chromosome, to God’s plan for marriage, or anything that is sufficiently immutable so as to excuse us from having to engage with these heavily-armed wordsmiths as equals. Thanks to the Guy Code, we confuse what we weren’t given with what we can never learn. It’s an alluring mistake; if we buy into it, we can lapse into the grim satisfactions of martyrdom (I’m such a heroic knight, why can’t she appreciate me?) or we stray into emotional or physical affairs with women who seem so much more understanding (My secretary really gets me. She makes me feel like a man. Not like my shrew of a wife who cut my balls off and keeps them in her underwear drawer). And all the while, we submarine, self-deprecate, and endure.
When men are raised with little sense of how to “fight fair,” particularly with romantic partners, they often lack the discernment to determine a legitimate criticism that ought to be taken to heart from an unfair attack. Women aren’t the only ones who fall for the myth that wives, girlfriends, and sisters know the guys they love better than they know themselves; for different reasons, men and women alike are attached to that sexist conceit.
This assumption that men are a mystery to themselves can function, for some men, to legitimize anything a woman says in anger. And sometimes in anger, we—men and women alike—say unfair things to our romantic partners. We speak from a place of pain, frustration, and rage, and we say what we know will wound. Women do this, men do this. The difference is that many men, thanks to their “learned obtuseness,” are particularly unlikely to be able to differentiate between the legitimate criticism uttered in a healthy fight and the unjust accusation blurted out in a moment of wrath.
It’s not news to report that wives are gonna say some things that are hurtful and unfair. But they’re also gonna say some things that are hurtful but fair—and the real problem is that most men still need to do the hard work of learning how to discern between the two.
I won’t pretend that’s easy.
And I also won’t buy the lie that it’s impossible.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and a co-creator of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people’s attitudes around body image and fashion.
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