Originally published July 8, 2012.
She was bored. She loved, had a capacity to love, for love, to give and accept love. Only she tried twice and failed twice to find somebody not just strong enough to deserve it, earn it, match it, but even brave enough to accept it.
–William Faulkner, The Town
I have a friend who is about as tough as women come. I say this with both admiration and regret. I admire her for being able to plow through the world without giving up despite all its disappointments, but I also regret that she has never found a safe place to be vulnerable. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. She is married to one of the kindest men I know.
The problem is this: he isn’t brave.
And it is not an uncommon problem. At the risk of some serious e-mail flack in my inbox in the morning, I’m going to say that men, in general, are cowards. I’m not questioning their physical prowess, their ability to withstand the stress of armed combat, the ambition and drive they exercise in climbing everything from corporate ladders to Himalayan mountaintops. But modern men are lacking in courage in some areas that have women hopping mad.
And it’s not just my friend, who complains about the fact that her husband doesn’t stand up for her, will not take her side in heated conflict, but stands there mute, and, in some cases, even allows her to be insulted. She fights back. He remains silent. Is my friend suffering from some kind of fairytale idea of a Prince Charming who is going to ride in on his white horse and defend her honor?
I actually don’t think so. I think the guy is engaging in the classic male conundrum of “conflict avoidance.”
My former spouse used to chastise me not infrequently for being a bit too vocal at times with my often controversial opinions. “You know I’m the one who is going to end up defending you with my fists one day,” he would say. I knew there was never any danger of that, first of all, because my husband, like most men, would, when push came to shove, do everything to avoid conflict (emotional or physical), and secondly, that the likely opponent would probably do the same…meaning it was highly improbable that any man was going to come up to me and tell me “what for” in an aggressive manner that might lead my husband to clock him.
My ex-husband never clocked anyone on my behalf. And he’s not a small man, by any means.
I remember a couple of years ago another girlfriend of mine noted how a male acquaintance had made a flirtatious remark to her one day in church and then promptly patted her on the rear. I asked her if she had advised her husband of this pass. “Are you kidding?” she replied “You know how scrawny Mark [names have been changed to protect the conflict avoiders] is. He could never take that guy out.” She totally overlooked the reality that even if Mark was a body builder, he would not have done a thing. My friend even asked her husband to give the offending churchgoer a call. He declined, saying it would be “awkward.”
The fact is life is awkward.
And men just don’t like awkwardness.
Rest assured, I’m not advocating the revival of dueling pistols. But once in awhile women like to know their husbands, boyfriends, maybe even their fathers think they are worthy. And it doesn’t require beating anybody up.
It requires something much more frightening to the male psyche—emotional risk.
Most men aren’t willing to take it and will do anything possible to avoid even having to look at it. Women, who live lives rich with emotional risk taking (unless, of course, they have experienced some trauma that has shut them down and made them more like men), cannot help but get angry at the men whose avoidance of reality causes so much depression, anger, and heartbreak.
In her essay, “Why Women Get Mad at Their Husbands,” J.R. Bruns, M.D., talks about this apparent emotional “detachment and selfishness” on the part of men that “leaves women feeling abandoned and frustrated.” Bruns describes the average American marriage, marriages that are often defined as “good” (meaning only that the couples are staying united despite their daily verbal exchange of snipes, ongoing resentment, and tension so thick you could cut it with a knife), as “loveless unions of obligation.”
Part of the problem is that men, in an effort to win the prize of the woman they think they want to have between the sheets with them for the rest of their lives, play an unconscious game where they temporarily release their emotional inhibitions, often speak and demonstrate their deepest feelings, and put on a display of just how much they will give for love that frequently rivals that of a Bird of Paradise. Even the smartest among us have been misled by this mating ritual, believing ourselves to be among the lucky few who have found some rare gem of a man who is unafraid.
What happens after marriage or after a year or so of cohabitation is that men go back to being men. Meanwhile, the brave women they seduced are left scratching their heads, feeling neglected, unloved, and bitter because the guys they so adored have turned into these creatures who make them feel used and taken for granted. The loving looks across the dinner table have ceased on the part of both parties. As Bruns points out, the eye gazing has turned into eye rolling.
Most men are actually okay with this state of things so long as their wives aren’t giving them too much crap about going out every Saturday morning to play golf with the guys or preferring the company of the television to date night. As their wives and girlfriends fall into despair over the loss of emotional intimacy in the relationship, the guys are issuing forth some sigh of relief that the risky stuff is over.
And while I know I tend to try to be upbeat (or at least humorous) when discussing the absurd trials and tribulations we all go through in this life, I have to be honest, ladies, and tell you the odds are stacked against you if your quest in this life is to find an emotionally courageous man. There are plenty of them masquerading as such. But don’t maintain too many fond expectations that the guy you’re in love with right now (if you’re unfortunate enough to even be “in love”) is ever going to pull out all the stops for you one day. He’s likely no Prince Edward, and while he may tell you you’re as worthy as Wallace Simpson, rest assured, he is not going to give up the throne of England for you…or anything else that makes the average male reasonably comfortable.
You’re just not that important to him.
This is not to say you’re not worthy. You know you are. Your girlfriends call you “fabulous,” and they mean it. You are.
But fabulous just isn’t a big motivator for guys, I’m loathe to report. Unlike us, if they have a comfortable place to sleep, access to some fine liquor for when they have an “off” day, good food to eat, some hunting or kayaking gear to keep them amused in their free time, and at least the respect of their colleagues and kids (if not you), they’ll consider life good enough if not downright grand. If they’ve got some true emotional intimacy with a woman who feeds their ego and makes them feel accepted, that’s just icing on the cake that most of them can live without, especially if they have to work too hard to keep it.
It’s a values game. Women value deep emotional connections; men, by and large, do not.
Women crave and dispense emotional intimacy as naturally as breathing, whether because they are biologically predisposed to nurture and love or socialized to be there for the people they adore, I don’t know. I just know that because women are so good at it and men so clumsy and ultimately uninterested, it makes for a tragic disconnect between lovers. Women come to see the men in their lives as fakes and cowards. Men come to see their women as nagging and bitter.
Respect dies on both sides.
And once respect dies, love is the next casualty.
This morning, my four-year-old daughter crawled into bed with me, as she often does on lazy weekend mornings. After snuggling up to me and peering at me with those large blue eyes, she said, “Mommy, I love you, and I will take care of you for the rest of your life.”
She was decidedly baffled when I broke into tears. The tears did not come because I believed her or even because I knew that children say these endearing things while we parents know full well our children will grow up, move away, and think not much about us anymore (which is as it should be). The tears came because I, like so many women I know, once believed that a romantic partner would say those words to me and mean them, live by them—consider me worthy of the risk of his heart.
I have not been wise enough yet to give up on this quest for the brave man, though some of my friends laugh at me for believing men can offer anything to my life other than grief. They have been burned so badly by faith that they have forsaken it. One of my girlfriends who watched her own parents live in seething misery with one another for years said she can remember once sitting on the countertop in her mother’s kitchen when she was nine and saying matter-of-factly, “Mom, you need to get a divorce.”
The experience of her parents’ “loveless union of obligation” cemented her feelings for life that men and love were hopeless. She would, no doubt, call herself a realist.
Another of my acquaintances who spent years in a passionate love affair with a man she admits to this day is the only person who has ever lit her fire ultimately gave up the whole thing, exchanging it instead for a stable if passionless long-term relationship with a man who is often gone from home all week. She says she enjoys the alone time and remarks that she and her life partner have “really good sex” maybe four times a year. “And it’s enough.”
She may be onto something. Maybe we need to be more like men and start to understand the concept of “good enough.” Not only will we be less likely to be emotionally devastated when love forsakes us, but perhaps we will not resent the men in our lives so much either for failing to be brave and failing to love us as we feel we deserve.
There is one problem here, however, and it goes back to the old saga of shifting gender roles. In a world where most men no longer go off to war, earn all the bread for their families, or provide the tangible protection they offered a century ago to wives and daughters, courage has become a lot harder to define.
For some women, courage means having a husband who will tell off his dad who insults his wife. For others, it means having a boyfriend who is confident enough to cry when he is sad. It is no wonder, in some ways, that many men have given up the ghost, settled for “good enough” marriages, and forsaken love. We want them to be tough and sensitive at the same time, devoted and adventurous in the same breath.
The cultural dialogue is a mess of mixed messaging where we at once berate and honor the men who suck it up and stick around, frequently poking fun in popular culture at their dogged dedication to wives who despise and disrespect them yet then trashing the guys who go for broke and walk away from sterile relationships. Women who leave the “decay” of modern marriage, as Los Angeles Times reporter Robin Abcarian (who reported on the Schwarzenegger-Shriver split) calls it, are applauded for bravery. Men who go are often painted as selfish devils even though they were painted as selfish devils in the marriage, too.
It is a marvelous and wicked Catch 22. Risk everything, and you’re damned. Risk nothing, and you’re damned, too.
Women know the definition of courage for themselves. It has been the same for centuries and across cultures: risk everything for love (whether that’s love of lover, love of children, or love of friend).
For men, the definition was once “risk everything for honor.” Honor used to be a much simpler thing back when cultural hegemony was the norm. Now we live in communities and countries where values, religions, and ethics are more diverse than they have ever been. There is no longer one definition of anything anymore. The result is knowing what is right and brave is often a very individual decision bound to be condemned by someone.
It is easier perhaps to just lay low, watch TV, have a beer, and tune out of all the emotional drama. That is what men do.
It is why we women are so angry.
We have been taught to follow our hearts. When we stop following them, we know we have failed somehow. Men, on the other hand, have never had a cultural injunction to live for love. They know all about living for honor and duty (however their particular culture defines those things). But living for love is not in the male cultural lexicon unless they are poets.
So while I don’t know the answer for finding a satisfying relationship with an emotionally courageous man, short of finding your own personal Pablo Neruda, I do know you should not abuse yourself as not being worthy of love or give up on life, as Eula Varner Snopes did in Faulkner’s The Town. Nor should you, however, try to draw water out of a stone.
I have forgiven the cowardly men of my life because I know the varying societal pressures under which they operate and the psychological dramas from which they come, but forgiving and accepting are two different things. Sometimes accepting means settling for far less than you expected or desired. I’m not ready to do that yet. Because the day I do it is the day I become a coward. And, in the end, if we want to define bravery, let’s keep it simple: bravery is decided and worthy action in the face of fear.
If the man you love is afraid, do not censure him. We are all afraid. Cowardice is when we let fear stop us, whether we are women or we are men. “A fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got,” William Faulkner wrote in Light in August. “He’ll cling to the trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change.”
Faulkner is right, of course, but just because our natural tendency is to give into fear, that doesn’t mean we have to.