Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Modern Marriage in Trouble

Here you have it: another modern marriage going down the drain.

A woman writes to Carolyn Hax on behalf of her sister. You see, her sister is a modern woman, strong, empowered and fiercely independent... the primary breadwinner in the family. What could possibly be wrong with that?

For one, sister has just discovered that brother-in-law has been looking elsewhere for what he is not receiving at home. He is having what is called an emotional affair. He texts hearts and flowers to a woman who was his high school sweetheart. We do not know whether said sweetheart is or is not married-- a point that we certainly want to know.

So, a wife is strong and independent and autonomous, who seems to be emasculating her husband. For her pains she is about to lose her marriage to a hussy. So, she is trying to be more present at home.

Anyway, here is the letter:

I just got off the phone with my sister, who is married and has a 9-year-old daughter. Her husband has been having an emotional affair with his high school sweetheart. My sister knows because she has been going through his phone; apparently, he sends the sweetheart text messages and emails with lots of heart and flower emojis and has said that she (the sweetheart) is his "queen." Ick.

My sister has a high-pressure job. She makes more money than her husband and is fiercely independent. She has always made work a priority, sometimes at the expense of her family. She realizes this and has started to try to be more present when she's at home, realizing that her husband is probably feeling emasculated and in need of attention. She has a session scheduled with a counselor. Any other steps you can advise?

One should be cautious about introducing a counselor into the equation. Does the wife really want to confront her husband… perhaps pushing him to make a decision that she will regret?

Anyway, Hax believes that the wife does not have a problem; but that her husband does. On this Hax is woefully wrong:

I’d take exception to the “emasculated” line of reasoning. Money earned is (literally?) a paper-thin way to define masculinity. And everyone, not just the representatives of one gender, craves relevance, which comes in as many forms as there are people.

The male breadwinner role is more or less universal. Couples might have different ways to negotiate the situation, but these roles are more or less fixed. To say that there are as many forms as there are people is absurdly nonsensical.

Dare we mention that Hax does not seem to understand male psychology. Anyone who takes her advice, who underestimates how much male pride depends on the ability to earn a living and to support a family, is heading for trouble. She does feel contempt for the man... a natural result of seeing a man who is dominated by his wife.

If his high school sweetheart makes him feel like a king, his wife clearly does not. One would like to think that an added dose of affection and some more presence will solve the problem, but it is probably worse than that.

The wife has bought the idea that she should be strong and independent, without recognizing that men are not attracted to strong and independent, especially not to fiercely independent. We might also ask whether the wife provides very much care for her daughter or whether she neglects her daughter too.

Hax continues to miss the point:

Plus, she is who she is. Playing a role to flatter his ego is not anyone’s long-term solution. I hope.

It’s not about flattering anyone’s ego. If said wife is undermining her husband by demeaning and diminishing him, if she is insisting that he take on more household chores and childcare duties, she is effectively sabotaging his career prospects… such as they are. We do not know what the two careers are… so we cannot speculate more on this issue.

Any woman who adopts Hax’s dismissive tone will surely be damaging her marriage. Treating men with contempt is not a formula for a good marriage. Besides, how do we know which the wife really is? We do not know that her tough girl fiercely independent role is not itself play acting. Perhaps she picked it up in Women's Studies. Perhaps her job has obliged her to harden her soul and to toughen up. This might be who she is. It might not. For all we know she has a softer, more feminine side trying to escape repression.

Sad to say, Hax whiffed on this one.


Bill Peschel said...

I would only add that if you reversed the sexes, the situation would be more familiar. Husband dedicated to his career, neglecting his wife? It must be his fault then.

David Foster said...

"The male breadwinner role is more or less universal."

Except that in some societies, the primary male role is more *warrior* than it is breadwinner. cf many Native American tribes.

And what would we say of the male aristocrats of, say, 18th-century England?...some of them were military officers, but many seem to have devoted their time to some combination of recreational hunting, drinking, socializing, and (in a few cases) scholarly study. Management of their estates was often done by a hired agent.

Was Jane Austen's Mr Darcy a breadwinner?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

To be clearer, the role of breadwinner involves both providing and protecting, Warriors contribute. Yet, in Native American tribes, absent a male breadwinner role, we do not find a great deal of prosperity. As for male aristocrats, they often used family wealth to provide for their families and engaged in combat to protect them. On the other side, they also tended toward decadence... which is one reason why the aristocratic order was overthrown.

David Foster said...

re Breadwinners, Warriors, Recipients of Family Wealth and Bad Boys....there's an interesting passage in Hans Fallada'a novel of Weimar Germany, "Little Man, What Now?" The main characters in the story are a likable young couple, Sonny and Lammchen, trying to survive in very difficult economic circumstances. One day, they are treated to a movie...in the context of the overall story, a play-within-the-play.

The movie's protagonist is a young bank clerk, who makes very little money and is desperately afraid that his wife will leave him for his financial failings. One day, he thinks how easy it would be to steal some money, and his hand actually moves toward the pile of cash. He is observed by the Management Trainee, son of the bank's owner, who takes pity on him and starts helping him out with money.

He cannot bear to tell his wife that he is a recipient of charity, and tells her instead that he is embezzling the money. She is thrilled: "You're doing that? For me?"

Then the Management Trainee falls in love with the clerk's wife...but she will not leave her husband, with whom she is now totally enthralled. Then, on day, the he tells her about the charity...and she now feels only total contempt for the husband. The MT and the wife both laugh at the clerk, and leave together.

At the end of the movie, Sonny is so shattered...seeing such a parallel between the clerk's situation and his own...that he cannot even get up out of his seat.

Note the implied priorities of attractiveness:

--The husband the Thief is more attractive than the Management Trainee, the recipient of family money.
--But the Management Trainee is more attractive than the husband the Charity Recipient.

It is not made clear whether the husband the Mere Bank Clerk would have been kept by his wife or ditched in favor of the MT, had the charity and faux larceny never occurred.

Anonymous said...

In common with breadwinning and protecting is the idea of responsibility. In general, the man feels reponsible for the family's means of living and safety. Undermining this puts men in conflict with their essence by forcing them to act as if they are okay with being something other that what they are. (The same could be said of women, but about different matters.) Inner conflicts such as these do not end well.

David Foster said...

Thought experiment: Many analysts believe that automation will progress--fairly quickly--to the point where work, for the vast majority of people, will no longer be a thing. I don't think they're right...but what if they are?...so that everyone lives like minor aristocracy.

How might this influence the relationship between the sexes?

David Foster said...

Re my previous comment, Daniel Greenfield has introduced the term "Fully Automated Luxury Communism"