Poor Pitiful Men: The Martyr Complex of the American Husband

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.

Please follow Hugo on Twitter and join him on Facebook.

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12 Responses to “Poor Pitiful Men: The Martyr Complex of the American Husband”

  1. Avatar of Virginia
    Virginia July 10, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    It’s called rape culture, and its not an over-exaggeration.

  2. Avatar of Kris
    Kris April 18, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    You know those little sayings passed along on Facebook and emails, about being a great parent? They have fathers raising daughters, they have mothers raising daughters and even mothers raising sons. One thing I have never seen is one about fathers raising sons. It’s like everything is taken seriously until you get to them. It’s like a secret code and men are unwilling to get real and deep with their sons and discuss the meat of what needs to be addressed in raising a good man. Maybe its because they would be admitting that what they’ve been doing is wrong or who they are is wrong at the core of the “man code”. Is that it? Does all of this threaten men as a whole and what they are? Men seem to operate on this level of necessity. They need to be needed by women. They need to hold tools and fix something. I think they need to realize that the tools in one hand are the vocabulary which you speak of and the somethig is their relationship with everyone in their life male or female. It’s not their fault but change has to come and be more accepted.

  3. Avatar of JustSeeking
    JustSeeking April 11, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    I always appreciate it when men take the time to fill women on in what is going on with them. I have thought often about the social requirement that men hold up the world on their shoulders, but the underlying reasons for their part in poor communication are not something that people write about much. It’s been hard to understand the trouble and see if there are ways to work around it.

  4. Avatar of Chris
    Chris April 11, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    Well, I don’t know if it my own stupidity because of the evil “guy code” or my ignorance of a male member of society or maybe just a different perspective from linving in another country.
    But why exactly is it so hard to fight for more equality, for same rights and against discrimination without being just that: Discriminating. Does one really has to put down men in order to help women? Pitiful men? While the article cited here, at least is trying to see 2 sides of the medal, here it’s all the fault of men and their inferior “emotional skills”. While this is certainly true to parts of the men out there it ignores that problems nearly always have 2 sides. Many men are unable to communicate their feelings, no doubt about it. But it also is not emotionaly superior to be all emotional about everything as some women (no, NOT all) are. In a realtionship or a marriage communication is extremely important. But communication is also about trying to understand BOTH sides. Not being emotional about everything is not simply always about being unable the express feelings. It just sometimes is that way. The fact that many men express feelings differently and do have different feelings are not just the fault of some guy code. But it is part of the fact that even though we should all have the same rights we are not all the same…

    • Avatar of Julie
      Julie April 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

      Well the title was meant in a sarcastic tone. As in, since many people believe men cannot learn to communicate better, they should be pitied. But since they can communicate better, they don’t need the pity.

      “all emotional about everything” …
      Even if you’re not saying that all women are this way, that is still a big generalization. Does “all emotional” mean not being logical? Does it mean blowing things out of proportion? Does it mean crying easily? It’s hard to counter that without knowing specifically what you mean.

      But just to clarify, just because a woman is crying about something or offended by something does not mean she is just being “all emotional.” She may have a very clear reason for why she is upset. There can be very logical reasons about how something that was said or done can cause a certain emotional reaction. If you took the time to figure it out, it might seem much more rational than you originally supposed.
      That goes back to the point of this article; that you’re just taught to assume we’re just being “all emotional” and that there’s nothing going on that you can possibly understand, but if you wanted to, you could take the time to understand.

      • Avatar of Chris
        Chris April 16, 2012 at 6:17 am #

        I am sorry if I still was too general in some things I said, I tried not to be. I never said, or intended to say, that there are no reasons to be emotional, no reasons to cry or being stressed. Neither for women, nor for men.
        There is no reason to pity men in general, no doubt about that. What I was trying to say is, that I find it very sad that so many people can not stand up for one thing without having to put another thing down.
        I think I made it very clear that I do not think that women in general are “over-emotional”. And I do take time to try to understand all different reactions of poeple that are important to me, no matter if men or women, not matter if emotinal or not. It is just a fact for me, that I do not understand EVERY reaction. Because some just are “over the top”, fully unrational and so on. There are very good reasons to be emotional, to cry and to express feelings. But there are also women whp either “use” this against others or that just behave extremely over the top regarding emotions, and are being fully irrational. The same is the case with some men, they are unable to communicate any feelings, and behave also irrational, just to the other extreme. Both is true.
        All I want to say is this: It is not automatically the right thing to be emotional. And it is at the same time not automatically right the be not emotional. It all depends on the person and the situation. Neither men nor women are “superior” in their behaviour or free from faults and mistakes. This is sadly something that is often ignored in the discussion about equality…

      • Avatar of elfen_berzerker
        elfen_berzerker May 1, 2012 at 1:06 am #

        I’ve been working in the mental health field for a decade now and during that time I have been taught in classes or through hands on experience many things. One of the things I’ve had to take classes on and practice and on numerous occasions is crisis intervention.

        One of the first things they teach is that if an individual is in a heightened state such as crying or yelling and screaming you back off until they stop. You don’t speak unless it’s just to ask them to calm down so you can talk and find out what’s going on.

        Why are we taught this? Because it works. Trying to carry on a conversation with someone in a heightened state is a waste of time. Half of what you say won’t be heard and the other half will be ignored or won’t be heard properly. Either way it’s a waste of your time trying to talk before the other person calms down and in most cases it will only make matters worse.

        If I was ever at work and my boss saw me trying to carry on a conversation with someone who was obviously “all emotional” about something they would call me out of the room and ask me what the hell was wrong with me.

        Why is using a proven successful strategy for crisis resolution instead of a proven strategy for crisis escalation considered a bad thing?

    • Avatar of kilthemoonlight
      kilthemoonlight April 11, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

      I agree with what you are saying and I felt that same vibe that this article was putting men at too much at fault for poor communication.

      I also couldn’t agree more that we are all very different people. To me it is important to consider similar communication styles with someone I am interested in along with other factors. I personally cannot be with someone who poorly communicates their feelings and has difficulty disagreeing or saying something I may not like. Clear communication is very important to me and I’m not that type of person to want to be in a relationship where I have to teach someone how to communicate on my level.

      To other people this may not be of concern to them. Although it’s what I believe makes or breaks a relationship, but other people may have varying ways of communicating, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal. I always think it’s funny how there’s the saying “actions speak louder than words”, but when certain women who date a man who uses actions more than words to express themselves, they become frustrated.

      Lastly, we live in a world where there are various cultures and some may not agree or be comfortable with verbally expressing their feelings and emotions, so when in bi-racial relationships, that is something to consider.

  5. Avatar of cyjenkins
    cyjenkins April 11, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    This is one of the best articles about male emotional expression I’ve ever read! I can’t disagree with a single word. And this coming from a woman who also has a habit of practicing the “guy code” because I grew up seeing this dynamic in my family, and clearly the woman’s role was not what I wanted to emulate! LOL

    What I’d really like to see are some solutions to the well-articulated problem. What is my part as a woman in correcting this dynamic in my relationships, as well as in my role as a mom to a son? I do my best not to “carry the load” and allow men (and other women) to take responsibility for their own emotions. But sometimes I don’t know what that looks like, and more often than not, others do not want to cooperate and would rather find someone who will continue “the game” so they don’t have to change. Luckily I’ve learned to move on sooner rather than later with those folks. But I’m sure there is more room for improvement on my part.

    • Avatar of empathologicalism
      empathologicalism May 11, 2012 at 7:45 am #

      Your part as a woman is to realize whats WRONG about the article in the first place.
      Women are not well armed wordsmiths and superiors rhetoricians, not by a long shot. Having and expressing a cloud of unreconciled and irreconcilable emotions does not make women superior communicators. It makes them seem NEEDY.
      If you are going to do the “there are no gender traits we are all little unique snowflakes” then stop reading, its a waste of time, but if you are willing to see what is empirically proven and painfully obvious, that, to varying degrees we DO hold more or less to some general modes of communication, by gender, then maybe you can understand what Im saying. Do realize this, the rejection of gender generalizations in favor of snowflake theory, and based on the fact that YOU, or someone you know doesnt fit a generalization perfectly actually proves the generalization you are refuting!
      Anyway, regardless where an individual (snowflake) falls on the spectrum of emotion based communication, and clinical cold logic based communication, there are benefits to both, BIG benefits for each in certain situations. (by the way, women often misunderstand even the emotion vs logic comparison, ofetn saying “my husband is more emotional than me” or similar, while the emotion vs logic has ZERO to do with who feels emotions and who doesnt. Its about the internal -not obvious to others IOW, process of communication, of discourse, and on what is it based)
      The guy building a skyscraper has no need and no interest in feelings about how deep to drive the piling into the bedrock….cold clinical logic and reason is ALL the matters.
      In matters of relational dynamics, parenting, friends, extended family, maybe even managing people at work, this requires a ton of emotional basis, tempered with some side rails made of reason. Unchecked emotion (which seems to be celebrated in this article) is not a good thing.
      Find the times where the mans mode of communication is best, and do it that way, find the times when the emotion based communication is best, and do that, and find the ways to do mix of both. But make communication MEAN something. It isnt fair to say men…..you must become women….in order there be a relationship. Why must “relationship” be defined only in terms of what a woman wants?
      This article is a mess, its pure pandering and the writer likely gets lots of female comments saying how courageous he is to take this on. What drives a man to write this is the same thing that made high school boys tell girls in a steamy back seat that “Im not like those other guys, all they want is one thing”….then that resulted in him getting his one thing. Same system of reward, just approval and not sex as the reward now.


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