Saturday, March 6, 2021

Annals of American Marriage

There’s good and bad in this week's Ask Polly advice column. This makes it a cut above the usual column, where the advice is generally embarrassing. To the advice-giver, that is.

So, here we have another portrait of an American marriage. It is currently going South, thanks to the wife’s constant complaining. You see, her father just died of the coronavirus and her husband is not quite as emotionally labile as she would like. 

Dare I mention that we know nothing about what either husband or wife do for a living. We know that she is in her late 20s and that they married recently. We do not know where they live, how they live or what they play for the future. Surely, her grief is real, but she would do better to imagine naming their first child after her father. 

She is moody, psychodramatic and self-centered. She complains all the time, and she is distressed, to the point of thinking about divorce, because he is not as moody and psychodramatic. He does not share her pain. He does not feel her pain. He does not suffer a surfeit of empathy.

To be honest, I am shocked and happily surprised that the word “empathy” does not enter the conversation. Clearly, this wife has read too many books on empathy and wants her husband to feel what she is feeling. He, being a normally constituted male, does not feel what she is feeling. Polly understands well that the husband is trying to anchor the wife, while she flies off into constant complaining and permanent psychodrama. Because that is what he ought to be doing, to support and to help her through her grief. 

Unfortunately, our culture has prescribed empathy as the ultimate psychic balm. It is yet another effort to girlify the culture. As I have said in the past, an excellent antidote is Paul Bloom's book, Against Empathy. Creating the expectation that empathy cures has damaged more marriages than I care to think about.

So, for you edification, here are some excerpts from the letter, especially the part about their marriage:

He is doing his best but he cannot emotionally support me. He agrees that this loss is unfair, hugs me, etc., but he doesn’t know what to say. I am in my late 20s, and I got married a few months ago. I’m never the most straightforward person, as I am prone to moods, but this is something else. I feel a physical pain like I am being ripped in half. Very dramatic and self-centered, but there it is. I am trying to support my mom, as are my brothers. So I am basically taking all of my rage and frustration out on my husband. He is kind and patient but I am beginning to think that we are completely incompatible and that I should have seen this earlier. However, I know that I am too mercurial and impatient and selfish — I do make resolutions to behave better but then snap pretty much straightaway. He is patient and emotionally very constant.

I asked him to talk to me about stuff, like my dad, but he just wants to focus on practical tasks, like home improvements. I do not care about home improvements right now — I care about making things okay for my mom and not going entirely crazy/setting fire to everything else in my life right now. And yet we have one-sided conversations, in which I get mad and he becomes more taciturn and withdrawn. I say things like “We should get divorced, I am horrible and I just want to be by myself, and you don’t even like reading,” and he says things like “I don’t want to divorce you, you don’t mean it.” Polly, I am so confused and unhappy. I can hardly get my head around the fact my dad is gone, and now I am also beginning to fear what self-sabotage I will get into for the rest of this miserable year.

So far, not so good. If she wants emotional support, she can talk with female members of her family. Or else, she can adopt an emotional support llama-- it's all the rage.

Of course, while Polly does not use the word empathy, she regales us with absurd stories about her own marriage and her own husband. Apparently, she is writing a book about what a clod he is, but that she still loves him. All things considered, if he married Polly and if he puts up with her publicizing intimate details of their marriage, he is probably something of a clod.

In truth, no one really cares about Polly’s private life. I understand that she is trying to comfort the letter writer by explaining that all men are lacking in feminine feeling, but still, why not address the woman herself and not embarrass yourself and your husband with your indiscretion. As opposed to the letter writer, Polly is not anonymous. Thus, from a purely rhetorical perspective, Polly is practicing indiscretion, and this a genuinely bad idea. She is setting a bad example.

A while back I quoted Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax, to the effect that it is a bad idea to make imperious demands and to issue threats.

So, of course, Polly opens by recommending just the same, not as a threat, but as an insistence. There is little difference between the two.

I think you should insist that your husband take walks with you and not talk about home improvements. You need him right now, and it’s important to ask for exactly what you want in a calm, consistent way. It’s good for you and him and your marriage. You should tell him that. Say to him: This is what it means to be married. You do things for someone else when they’re in crisis, things you might not normally do.

In truth, if she wants to spend more time with him, she should stop psychodramatizing her loss. Her grief is certainly real, but making it into a family drama is not going to help it work itself out. 

Of course, the letter writer is undergoing a normal mourning period. It is not a crisis, of course. As for the marital crisis, she is manufacturing itself with her incontinent displays. If she manages to speak more reasonably and to distract herself with other activities, she might find her husband to be more willing to reciprocate. If he believes that she is about to drown him with an intemperate rant about her feelings, he will protect himself by walking away. She would do well to follow his example.

No Ask Polly column would be complete without her saying something stupid, like this:

Stand up for your right to feel what you’re feeling.

She feels grief. She should let it work itself out. You do not stand up for your right to grieve. The concept is inarticulate and incoherent. Besides, no one questions her right to feel her feelings. What else would you do with them besides feeling them? The question involves the way she is conducting her marriage and her wanting to make her feelings into the defining element in said marriage.

Then, to our surprise, Polly starts talking sense. She does so because she begins to appreciate the husband’s attitude.

You say that you’re mercurial and dramatic, and it also sounds like you can’t see straight when you feel emotionally overwhelmed. I would argue that you wisely married someone who can handle this, who doesn’t turn against you when other men might. I don’t mean you’re impossible, not at all. I mean you’re a specific sort of prickly pear, and your husband is a specific sort of arid, gravelly soil that looks like not much of anything at all — at least, until you throw down a few prickly pear seeds and they flourish there.

Dare we say that the metaphor about the prickly pear and the arid soil is lame. Some people should not be pretending to know how to use metaphors.

Polly adds another salient point, to the effect that by not coddling her emotional incontinence, he is doing her one great favor. And that his being stolid and stalwart in the face of a storm is highly admirable. It certainly does not mean that he does not love her.

Focus on how much he cares about you — how solid he is when you tell him to pull over, how solid he is when he calls the hospital for you, how solid he is when you cry and tell him that you feel like nothing will ever be good again. Stand where you are and let your husband love you. It won’t always feel like enough. That’s how love is sometimes.


Sam L. said...

I would recommend AGAINST an "emotional therapy" cat. I find that cats just "don't care" about humans. Well, except for feeding times.
{Warning: Strange/peculiar/weird comments may occur suddenly out of the ether...)

KCFleming said...

“ I am too mercurial and impatient and selfish”


Sam L. said...

The ether is empty. Resume being normal. (I'm TRYING!!!!!)

Anonymous said...
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KCFleming said...

And thanks for the book recommendation.

“The question involves the way she is conducting her marriage and her wanting to make her feelings into the defining element in said marriage.”
Helpful insight.
Emotional incontinence is quickly becoming the defining element in Western culture (BLM-trans-LGB).
Feelings uber alles.

Anonymous said...
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