Why do some men report that even the attempt to be a good husband is a soul-crushing experience?
There is a conversation that started with some guys in The Good Men Project—in person, by phone, via email—where men were asked to talk deeply and honestly about their marriage. What came out was startling: there is despair in the voices of married men. The refrain heard over and over is some variation of “I want to have a good marriage. I love my wife. But sometimes, all I feel is resentment—from my wife, toward my wife, toward the marriage. I believe my wife thinks I am an asshole, and she treats me as such.”
My first thought was: If an alien came to earth and read this, it would think marriages are a form of torture chambers. My second thought? Wives should know about this. I don’t think they do.
These guys seem to feel that a marital relationship comes down to more than compromise. Some go as far as to say it’s a form of humiliation—“a bitter pill that I have to trust will be worth it.” Often a man will admit that a central issue in their lives is dealing with the irrational-seeming criticism from their wives in a way that isn’t defensive but shows compassion and love, despite the cost to their souls.
There is an obvious breakdown of communication in the marriages where men feel resentful and women are oblivious to that resentment. But the saddest thing, to me, is that the breakdown is destined to continue; many men agreed to be quoted only if they could do so anonymously. They can’t talk openly about their marriages without fear of reprisal. The last thing they want is for their wives to find out.
Not every marriage is doomed, of course, and even where guys talk openly about the problems, there is a ton of love and joy that makes up for it. But others have lost hope that there is a way to solve the problem. Because, as men readily admit, maybe they are assholes, sometimes. We are all human; we are all flawed. Women are equally imperfect. But almost always, the men we talked to start with an intention of trying to understand their wives, get a grasp on what would make the marriage work, and have an intense desire to move toward an increasingly great relationship, instead of one where they feel continually disconnected. And yet, they can’t seem to get there. Despair is the end result of ongoing frustration and disconnection.
Here are some of the responses we received:
- “There’s an easy way and a hard way to communicate with my wife. The easy way is to admit she is right, immediately, no matter what. The hard way is to fight now and admit she is right down the line when you run out of steam.”
- “Women are constantly trying to control their husbands. If a man dares to critique his wife, she immediately goes on the attack, screaming and crying with the express intent of teaching, so that no good man would ever do it again. Most men learn the lesson well and early and learn to ‘seethe in silence.’ The resentment continues to grow. Men feel defenseless against this kind of attack and don’t know how to have any equality.” (John Wilder, marriage coach)
- “Most every problematic marriage I’ve seen has one theme in common. The woman is so busy trying to force the man to attend to her agenda that she doesn’t appreciate, or even notice, all of the things he does for her.”
The reason marriages fall apart is that we don’t communicate. The reason we don’t communicate is fear of reprisal. Obviously, these discussions should be going on, but they do not appear to be, and many men are at a loss for a way into the conversation.
Communicating is hard when you are always trying to duck and cover.
Difficult discussions are a given in any relationship. But this is different. The men we talked to appear unwilling or unable to displace their animosity and bitterness. Many want to hide behind the cloak of anonymity. The consensus is that the only way to protect the marriage is to not talk about it.
He says: “My suggestion: duck and take cover in an undisclosed location. I do have hope. I have watched my brother-in-law deal with my older sister in a very cunning way. He just ignores her, walks away, and goes to get a beer or smoke a cigar. I guess he is a man beaten down to a slow retreat each time the shit hits the fan. Calling them on the carpet doesn’t work. Countless times, I’ve asked my wife, ‘What’s up? Why so many orders, I am not your personal slave!’ She fires back, ‘I am not giving orders, only making suggestions.’”
She says: “I tried very hard to be the ‘good wife’ when the marriage was young. I think, however, that we women in general expect too much of men—we expect you to be our ‘soul mate’ and the source of all our happiness. Our white knight in shining armor. Whatever. Then reality hits. There is no way any man can live up to what were fed in romance novels and RomComs. So no matter what, you look like an asshole. We can’t handle the disappointment and are too brainwashed to admit that our expectations are just too high. So we lash out.”
Explaining the forces at work: a list and some details.
A quick, non-scientific survey of self-appointed experts in the perception of husbands as assholes, despite a lack of evidence, turned up a list of potential causes of this phenomenon:
- “Marriage is hard work. There is no disparity here. Wives feel that husbands order them around. ”
- “Some kind of Freudian thing that women generally resent their fathers and take it out on their husbands.”
- “It’s just a hormonal thing.”
- “Men see the locus of control inside themselves, so when shit goes wrong, they try to fix it, where women more often see it externally, so they blame others.”
- “It’s about sex. They want to make you earn it.”
- “The beauty-maintenance-insanity correlation. If you want a beautiful wife, you are going to pay the price since they have other options, always, and will make you aware of that fact implicitly.”
- “Guys really are thoughtless assholes. We need a woman to slap us upside of our face to get us to do pretty much anything.”
- “Golf. Too much golf is the source of all problems.”
- “Every guy secretly wants to marry a stripper, and your wife is just letting you know if you do, it’s really, really going to be painful.”
Women and men both were quick to jump in with some of the details.
She says: “Look, maybe we don’t ‘nag you constantly’ at all. Maybe we’re just flapping our lips and you’re projecting. Think about how much time we spend on the phone versus how much time you spend on it. Consider that we can talk to our sister/best friend/cousin five days in a row and never run out of things to talk about. We need to discuss and dissect our mother’s insensitivity, our job’s unrelenting pressures, and the nasty look the cashier gave us when we tried to use an expired coupon at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Most of the time we’re not saying, ‘You are such a jerk for leaving your socks on the floor!’ but ‘Oh my god would you look at the socks all over the floor!’ We’re giving a play-by-play of the minutia that is our lives (because that’s what we do), and you’re getting defensive because, well, you know you’re a slob, so you assume our ire is your fault. Sometimes it is, but just as often it’s not. (Tip: When we’re on a rant, the very-best way to diffuse it is some variation of ‘You sure do a lot around here and I am one lucky son-of-a-bitch.’ You should try it!).”
He says: “This ‘male’ training goes back to the built-in insecurity of wives fearing their husbands will abandon them and stop providing and protecting them, and hence to need to keep them on a short leash. I still like being a guy better. Remember—it’s easier dealing with a difficult woman than living as a difficult, demanding woman 24/7. That’s why many women don’t like other women, too. We guys are simple and lower-maintenance on average. We just want women to be in a good mood, give us some positive reinforcement, do fun things with us (such as sex), look good (but not over-the-top perfect), give us some space, allow us our food and sleep, and clear out some other hassles and roadblocks in life. That about covers it. What do women want? Everything. Without having to spell it out first—but then get mad afterward if he doesn’t do it. Because after all, ‘if he really cared about me, then he would have [fill in the blank].’”
She says: “As a woman, we suffer from a behavior which I have named ‘I’m not happy and it is all your fault.’ We have learned that unless we are in “control” of our spouse’s thoughts and behavior (‘don’t fold the towels that way, why did you say that and not this’), then there must be something wrong with our spouse and the relationship. There is a line from the movie As Good As it Gets that illustrates this perfectly. Jack Nicholson’s character is asked how he writes so successfully about women. He states, ‘I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.’”
One of the scariest things about these conversations, and the reason it’s important to get them out in the open, is that not only does resentment beget resentment, but it starts that dangerous spillover where men and women start to make vast generalizations about each other, based on what they see as repetitive behavior in the one relationship they would like to believe is unique. As some men told us:
- “Men want to be good husbands but they honestly don’t know how. And the women they truly adore pound them as a result. Rather than talking it through, they ultimately get to the point where they give up on dialogue and just take the punishment as part of what they have to endure. And what’s interesting is how that enduring punishment comes out sideways over time in terms of men’s true view of women.”
- “We don’t have the verbal endurance to match the detail of women’s reasoning, and we cave. Even though they’ve missed the point entirely. Part of the problem is the support they get from their friends. Without that extra inspiration and misplaced confidence they might actually check with us to see if they’re on the right track. Naaaah.”
- “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Somewhere along the line, the sewing circle (or whatever the XX version of the boys club is) started telling each other what they would and would not accept from their husbands, sometimes not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. The Elk Lodge, on the other hand, felt like they had to one-up each other with sometimes-apocryphal tales of henpeck-ery. As time marched on, men felt like they didn’t have it too bad at home, women felt like they didn’t have it quite good enough, and an entirely fictional middle ground was met.”
What if a contract really was a contract?
Perhaps, then, a new framework is needed.
I remember working in advertising with a creative superstar, one who yelled and screamed at vendors, photographers, directors, and colleagues in an effort to get them to buy into his creative vision. One day I was sitting in his office, cowering, and he turned to me and said,
“Hey, you know, I’m not really an asshole when I leave the office. I go home, kick off my shoes, pat my dog, and invite my girlfriend over for a bottle of wine. My assholeness at the office is all a performance. I just need to get shit done.”
And yet, when you look at what guys are saying about their marriages, the reverse is often true. In the office, they are treated with respect and courtesy. They’re listened to, and negotiations happen aboveboard and frankly. But when they get home, all hell breaks loose, the rulebook is nowhere in sight. There’s, at best, a sense of anarchy and, at worst, a feeling of slavery.
Here’s what some men said:
- “It’s funny how I can go from the office where people seem to respect me—my intelligence, my work ethic, my abilities—to a house where I am more or less treated like a lackey,”
- “Where men handle their power in the workplace, there is a disconnect with the rules of engagement at home. Men enter into romantic relationships with no concept of the extremely ‘contractual’ nature of all human interaction. The contractual aspects of being at work are apparent and, even if you missed some of the fine points of your offices etiquette standards, enforced by everyone. No one likes to see someone break the rules of behavior in an office. Whenever someone yells, they’re reprimanded and ignored until they can ‘act like adults.’ If someone is condescending, they get called on it, are made to prove the correctness of their position, or labeled an arrogant creep. Threaten to ‘walk out,’ and you get fired. Make a claim you can’t prove against another employee, and you may get a lawsuit along with your pink slip. Even bosses must bend to the structure the company has decreed. Try to break these contractual points, and you are let go. If you are continually exposed to those ‘breaches,’ you will instinctively leave and seek a better job.”
- “Compare that to the home life scenario. Men are exceedingly flustered by the treatment they receive by their wives. But even though we have plenty of anecdotal evidence to indicate they could have called their spouses on it at any time, they don’t. They hide, they “Yes Dear” to things they know are unreasonable, insulting or unfounded and they just take it.”
- “Married men treat their wives differently than they do other women. In a well-meaning but unhealthy way, they don’t hold them accountable for their behavior, thinking that they’re doing everything they can to please their wives. Unfortunately, the lack of confrontation fuels the woman’s view that she can do whatever she wishes without encountering any resistance or blowback from her husband. Over time, he does what he can to keep the peace, while she continues to grow ever more demanding, testing his limits. You’d never see a guy do that in his workplace, but he does it at home. Half because he thinks he’s making her happy and half because he thinks he’s doing what he can to keep his home harmonious. Neither works.”
Perhaps, then, the answer lies with both parties—men and women—seeing marriage as the contractual relationship it really is, to explicitly honor the vows to “love and cherish.” No matter how hard it is. To look at those words as action words, not feelings. It’s impossible to commit to “feeling” the same way forever. But it’s not impossible to “act in love” with the person you cherish, until death do you part. You only need to believe that it is possible. And, for the record, I’ve never been to a wedding yet, where one says, “I vow to be an asshole and to let you treat me like one for all the days of my life.”
It still bothers me that there’s no real dialogue around this issue. Men feel resentment, women appear oblivious, and conversation around the topic seems nil. Men and women both hope that their spouse will suddenly turn into the magic mind-reader, someone who will wake up and “get” the anger and disconnection that they are feeling. But if we can’t start the conversation husband by husband, wife by wife, then let’s start it together and get some of these issues out in the open.
As one guy mentioned, “I was having lunch with a friend who is about as happily married as any guy I know, to the same women for the last 25 years, and was telling him about this article. He just started laughing out loud and commented, ‘every guy I know can relate to that one.’”
Being the Man Does Not Automatically Make Everything Your Fault, Jackie Summers