Today, I regale you with a second Ask Polly column. You might want to read the earlier post before you read this one. In this one, in a reply to a woman who calls herself “Iceland Iceland Iceland” Polly sees the problem. She does not know what to do about it. Or better, she offers what any therapist would offer, consolation, a pep talk and some male bashing. For the sake of this column I will call the letter writer, Miss Iceland—and not because she is competing in the Miss Universe pageant.
Anyway, Miss Iceland found herself a boyfriend who seems to have been something of a reclamation project. The condition seems endemic to young men in our world, so perhaps she could not find anyone who was better. And she helps him to grow up, to act like more of an adult and to get his life in order.
It’s a noble enterprise, except that any woman who has been around for a while could have told her that making yourself into a man’s schoolmarm will eventually cause him to leave you. He might like how much his life has gotten better, but he will resent being pushed around by a woman. And he will resent the fact that it took a woman to make him into more of a man. And he will feel the woman's condescension.
This much for background. As it happened, Miss Ireland was bossy. She leaned in. She pushed her man around. And, at some point, he simply broke. And he left her, even though, being slightly pathetic, he still loves her and misses her.
In any event, let’s see how well leaning in worked for Miss Ireland:
I was hard on him about all this stuff and in retrospect should have been nicer, but I felt like it was an emergency. In the meantime, I did a lot of the heavy lifting financially and domestically and felt a little taken advantage of and used. But within a year or so, he had found his footing, learned to clean and cook, started paying his bills on time, and even built up a little buffer in his savings account. We moved into a modest apartment and got a puppy. Finally, we were on equal footing, we had built a little family, and I was thrilled. He seemed happy with the changes in himself, too, and commented frequently that this was the best thing that ever happened to him.
One appreciates that she felt a need to take charge. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. One appreciates that she is decidedly unhappy that she is being punished for it, but such is gender.
Anyway, one day the now-happy couple was invited to take a trip to Iceland. He did not want to go. She “strong-armed” him into it. Apparently, that tactic described the nature of their relationship, so she didn’t think very much of it. Apparently, he did. For him it was a tipping point, a point where he saw that he was being bossed around and bullied into doing things—for his own good, naturally. He had had enough.
Miss Iceland describes what happened:
We got invited on a spontaneous trip to Iceland with friends over New Year’s, and I sort of strong-armed him into booking it. That wasn’t unusual for us; he always needed some convincing that he should spend money on luxuries and hadn’t really traveled much. In the past he always had a great time on trips I pushed for, and told me later it was totally worth it.
Then, something changed:
But then it became a BIG deal to him. He started bringing it up constantly, how we were spending too much money and burning too much vacation time and it was affecting our Christmas plans and we never should have booked it, like he’d said from the beginning. At first I was defensive, but then I apologized sincerely, and offered as many options as I could think of, short of not going at all (remember, flights were nonrefundable). I offered to cover some of the costs out of my savings account, I offered for him not to go if he really didn’t want to, I promised that this would be the last trip we took for a while. None of this was good enough. He brought it up at EVERY opportunity, for three months straight.
Of course, Iceland is not the issue. It was about her being in charge. It was about him feeling diminished and demeaned by her bossiness. After they broke up, he made his feelings clear:
But he IS sticking to his guns with the metaphor shit, like “This is an example of how you bulldoze me into doing things even when I say I can’t” or “This is an example of you always getting your way” or “This is an example of how all our plans are things YOU came up with and not things I want to do.” But I don’t always get my way. I definitely push him into trying new things, but it isn’t out of selfishness.
Apparently, Miss Iceland never learned about gender roles in college, so she is now getting a good lesson in how not to deal with men. How not to deal even with modern men who have had most of their manliness wrung out of them. Considering that no one has apparently ever taught him how to function like a man, her erstwhile beau can only adopt a shrill, slightly histrionic tone.
As I said, Polly does understand that the male/female dynamics are the problem. But naturally, she thinks that the problem is his, not hers and she advises that he should go into therapy. You might have noted that Polly seems like something of a shill for therapy. One does not understand why, since it seems merely to have filled her mind with psychobabble.
Anyway, Polly wants Miss Iceland’s sometime lover to stand up for himself and to express his desires. Thus, that it’s all his fault for allowing himself to be pushed around by her. One has a glimmering of sympathy for the fact, though the solution might be to find a woman who is less of a bulldozer and who is in closer touch with her feminine mystique.
So, who has shot down your chances? Your ex has. He resents you because he doesn’t know how to express his true needs and desires the way you do. He doesn’t ask for what he wants. He watches things go badly, shakes his head from the sidelines, and blames you for it. He’s not an adult yet.
This guy needs a therapist. If Iceland is a metaphor, it’s a metaphor for something much deeper than just you and him. This isn’t about planning a trip; this is about the way he was treated as a kid. Maybe he was coddled but disrespected. Maybe people pretended to listen to his needs but did whatever they wanted instead. Whatever it is, he still feels angry and powerless and he’s projecting that onto you.
I have empathy for that.
Polly doesn’t recognize that it’s not quite that simple. If he is dealing with a bossy woman who insists on leaning in and who always wants to get his way, he is not going to be able to assert himself without provoking constant conflict. It’s nice to think that both parties can be equally assertive, but such is apparently not the case. The relationship in question shows us that it’s not the case. If he were to start asserting himself and trying to get his way, Miss Iceland would not thrill to the new experience. She would push back and get right back in his face. Having learned to unman men she is not going to change because he has gotten some therapy.
In truth, if her man goes to most therapists he is going to hear that he is being petulant and childish and ought to be thankful that Miss Iceland has taken charge of his pathetic excuse for a life. I mention that in order to save you from having to waste your time with certain kinds of therapists.
In any case, Polly has no real sympathy for manly men. She wants them to become more vulnerable. But, she knows from the case of someone named Bjork that, as mentioned yesterday, being a strong, powerful, independent autonomous woman is really a formula for being alone.
Instead of learning how to become open-chested, instead of embracing vulnerability as the cure to their inflexible, defensive, anxious, blaming postures (Björk’s album title: Vulnicura), some people retreat, get defensive and anxious, and blame others for everything that’s wrong in their lives.
And if you want to understand why people avoid certain kinds of therapists, consider this from Polly. She thinks that the man is afraid of intimacy. How ridiculous can you get? This is girl talk. A man who feels unmanned needs, according to Polly and to most therapists, more girl talk:
It’s going to take a lot of work and belief in vulnerability and growth for him to express his desires directly and stop making other people responsible for what happens to him. He needs to understand: This is about intimacy. Intimacy scares the fuck out of him, and makes him angry. My guess is that he didn’t feel safe in his most intimate, affectionate relationships as a kid, so you make him feel tremendously unsafe and angry.
Polly does understand that men do not find strong and bossy women attractive. Unfortunately, she blames it on men:
It’s pretty common, actually, for a strong, decisive woman like Björk to wake up one day and discover that her partner secretly resents her power. Even a famous artist like Matthew Barney can resent a strong woman. But seriously, what are you going to do? I guess you could’ve let your ex get a place of his own instead of saving him when he moved to your city. Some guys don’t want to look back on a story like that, even if they say it forced them to grow up. They can’t stand it when you bring it up, either. They need an Iceland to counteract it.
Men don’t always like a woman who upstages them, who is more capable and maybe braver than they are. You can’t understand why they’re so tepid, and then it comes out: They want someone to be a pretty background while they’re the main attraction. Other guys just don’t want to be asked to bring everything they have to the table. They don’t want to share, because sharing and intimacy feel like being manipulated to them. They’re stuck, but they don’t want your help, either.
It would be nice to think that people can have it exactly as they want to have it. In truth, life is about trade-offs. If a woman wants to be strong and decisive, as mentioned yesterday, and as most women seem to understand, she is not going to find very many men who will take up the challenge. She can stick to her guns or get back in touch with her feminine mystique.
Of course, Polly tells Miss Iceland that even if she chooses to become more feminine, it will never work. In truth, it does work, and it is a bad idea to suggest that Miss Iceland should not change her own errant ways:
If you choose a man who resents your power and feels small whenever you feel big, you’re very likely to give up your own power and independence and happiness just to soothe him. You won’t just have a bad relationship, in other words, you’ll also feel insecure in your career, angry with your friends, and unhappy in general. And even when you compromise yourself to prop a man up, he might still feel like you’re robbing him of his independence.
It’s not a question of soothing anyone. It’s not about propping anyone up. Note that Polly chooses the most derogatory terms to describe what used to have something to do with the way women act towards their men. It’s about taking a step back and allowing him to exercise his own authority. Some would call it deference and denounce it. Whatever you want to call it, most women understand that being bossy and leaning in toward a man does not produce very many happy endings.