Society teaches us that guilt trips are the purview of women. I’d like to suggest, however, that there is no gender specificity when it comes to guilt. And while I grew up seeing a lot of guilt exercised by women who felt “powerless,” I must say that my more recent life experience shows a good deal more emotional blackmailing by men than women.
Is this a sea change? Perhaps. Perhaps given the fact I tend to associate with professionally and financially successful females, I see a lot more “powerless” feeling men–men who, because their partners and lovers don’t need them as breadwinners and protectors, worry about being ultimately insignificant.
The result, I think, is a strange reversal where women who wish to exercise independence from male partners find themselves in the crosshairs of guilt trips that would even make the proverbial “Jewish mother” blush.
I have enough cases in point to fill a self-help book.
One evening, a girlfriend who had joined me for a night out, advised me her husband would make her “pay for this.” “It’s totally worth it though!” she exclaimed, reveling in a few hours’ freedom from the burdens of marriage and motherhood.
This is not the first time I’ve heard such proclamations. How many times have I watched female friends “watch the clock” on lunch and shopping outings, worried their husbands would give them the third degree later for enjoying themselves outside the family unit?
And these are not pathetic, submissive, and dependent women. They are women who have chosen to be with their male partners out of love, not necessity.
Nevermind that their husbands gleefully go on weekend hunting trips, spend hours watching football with the guys, or spend evenings alone absorbed by their computer screens. For women, this kind of “independent of partner” behavior still remains unconscionable.
And honestly, I don’t get it.
For all the failings in my own marriage, one thing where my ex-husband and I excelled as partners was in giving each other space to be ourselves and experience life outside the confines of “the relationship.” I never chastised him for weekends spent racing anymore than he begrudged me my wanderlust gene that led me to travel to distant places, often without him, exercising my passion for new experiences.
I am not alone in this experience, though sometimes I feel nearly so. I have a girlfriend whose husband has actually thanked me for taking her on “girlfriend getaways” because he says it so lightens her spirit at home when she returns. But this kind of thing is rare.
Plenty of men complain about the resentment they feel from the women in their lives—their spouses’ lack of interest in sex with them, their lovers’ increasing disinterest in spending time with them. As a friend of mine pointed out recently to male colleagues complaining because they’d not had sex with their wives in more than six months but then proclaiming themselves to be such superb lovers, “If you were good in bed, you wouldn’t be having this problem!”
And it’s simple but true.
No one wants to be hen-pecked, male or female. No one wants to be persistently criticized and put down. No one wants to be guilted instead of romantically seduced into sex. No one wants to be made to feel guilty for wanting more than the family unit provides. This is true regardless of gender. And there are few quicker ways to kill romance than to nag, criticize, and guilt trip.
We first fall in love because another human being sees the beauty inside us, remarks on it, tries to access it, grow it. Love drifts into nothingness when that interest turns to jealous gatekeeping, where we think we can protect our turf by making the beloved feel like less than he or she really is.
I’ve seen it many times, in my own life and in the lives of others.
It is perhaps why, when an older gentleman remarked to me one evening at a restaurant I frequent with my daughter, “I’ve watched the two of you interact. You are so loving with her. It is a beautiful thing to behold.”
His comment literally knocked the air right out of me. No man had ever said anything like that to me. All I’ve ever known from men is criticism of my failings as a mother, and this has not been reserved to my ex-husband, mind you. Even the handful of men I’ve dated seriously enough to introduce them to my daughter have remarked repeatedly on my so-called failings.
Meanwhile the women in my life repeatedly cheer me on, empathize with the difficulties of being a parent while balancing a demanding career as well. Is it any wonder I seek their consolation first when faced with the trials of life?
Is it any wonder so many of the women I love do the same? Going to girlfriends, mothers, and sisters—sources of support and understanding who will gently remind them they are incredible mothers, amazing professionals, grand organizers of life’s mayhem.
And yet so many husbands and lovers begrudge their retreat into the arms of this network of unconditional love, somehow failing to realize that if they could acknowledge these women in their lives as beautiful, dedicated, smart, and nurturing and feed them the easy romance of seeing and speaking these things, no guilt trips would be necessary. Wives would come home without dread. They would love without duty but with true longing. They would return to that sacred place they once occupied before the men in their lives became hopelessly scared of losing them.