Learning to be a Husband, Not a Son

It took Hugo Schwyzer four marriages to realize that there needs to be an equal partnership in setting limits.

Not so long ago, my wife and I were talking to a recently-divorced friend of ours. She’s younger than we are, in her early thirties, and as far as she’s concerned, she’s never tying the knot again.  Not because of an objection to the institution, but because she’s convinced that most men marry for one reason: they want to be taken care of emotionally.

“I got tired of thinking about someone else’s needs all the time”, our friend said. “I’m prepared to take care of a baby. But I don’t want my first-born to be my second child.”  When she heard that, my wife turned to me and gave me a grin. She knows my history.

In three previous marriages and a handful of other long-term relationships (I haven’t been single for long since I was 16), I found myself—like so many men—taking on the parts of the “naughty boy” and the “helpless child.”  Time and again, I turned wives and girlfriends into mother-figures, and the result was inevitably disastrous.

I know that I’m not the only man who found “courtship” easier than “relationship.”  Over and over again, I devoted time and energy to “getting the girl”, and when I succeeded, soon felt vaguely let down and confused about my role. Like so many men, I was good at the chase, and lousy at maintaining the relationship I’d worked so hard to get started. After I’d been dating someone new for a few months, I invariably began to become increasingly childlike. I figured out that most of my partners were students of my emotions (it’s what we raise women to do), and most of them were eager to make the relationship work.  So they were the ones who took over the “feeling work” of the relationship while I settled into amiable uxoriousness.

♦◊♦

When I lived with wives and girlfriends past, I’d quickly cede control over our living arrangements. What went where, and what got done when were decisions I wanted my partner to make. I thought I was being accommodating, telling myself and her “You know, honey, you care more about this (the color of the sheets, what kind of plants to have outside, what we have for dinner) than I do; why don’t you decide?” And my wife or girlfriend would make a decision, and whether I liked the decision or not, I didn’t have much to say about it either way. When pressed for my opinion, my favorite response was “Whatever you want, darling.”  Of course, I liked having everything done for me. My wife or girlfriend maintained the relationship, kept things running, and in the cases where we lived together, made the major decisions about the house. I said loving things, made money, bought flowers occasionally, and did my best to be faithful. That, I figured, was my part.

Sara and I had created an ugly quid-pro-quo: I’d let her micromanage what I ate and wore, where we went, and who my friends could be. In return, I’d get to evade responsibility and resent the hell out of her for treating me like the little boy whose part I stubbornly insisted on playing.

Now, as the son of a feminist mom, I was always very big on doing my share of the housework. I was a loyal washer of dishes, a frequent doer of laundry (I actually like doing laundry), and a good grocery shopper. But I thought of what I was doing as “doing chores”, in much the same way I did chores as a child.  I did not take responsibility for making decisions about the household, even as I seemed to be—to the outside world—an equal partner in the running of the home.

In early 1995, on the downslope of a disastrous second marriage, I remember having what Twelve Steppers call a “moment of clarity.”  My wife and her sister and I were having lunch, and I stepped into the kitchen and opened the fridge.  I then poked my head back into the dining room and asked my spouse, “Honey, can I have a Sprite?”

The two women gaped at me; my sister-in-law laughed awkwardly. I realized in an instant how utterly pathetic the question sounded. I was 27 years old, already a college professor on my way to tenure.  And yes, I’d married a world-class co-dependent woman who was so anxious about my addictive personality that she’d decided to try to control as much as she could of my behavior. But she could only control what I willingly ceded to her. Sara and I had created an ugly quid-pro-quo: I’d let her micromanage what I ate and wore, where we went, and who my friends could be.  In return, I’d get to evade responsibility and resent the hell out of her for treating me like the little boy whose part I stubbornly insisted on playing.

That marriage didn’t make it to a second anniversary.

♦◊♦

One of my friends once told me: “Hugo, relationships are like stoplights at an intersection. In order for the traffic to flow, both sets of lights have to work. Sometimes the light for the east and west bound traffic has to be red; sometimes the north-south. There’s got to be partnership in setting limits; each set has to take responsibility for yellow, red, and green — or there’s chaos.”  In my past, like a child, my basic approach to everything was “green.” In every area of my life, I waited for my partner to flash the yellow or the red light.   She (whoever she was) was the one who would decide “how far we went” sexually, emotionally, financially, geographically.  We would always both end up resenting the hell out of each other for the other’s role. I would always end up seeing my wives and girlfriends as controlling, mothering, and judgmental; they would always see me as irresponsible, dishonest, and childlike.

And I’d end up doing things like asking a wife’s permission for a Sprite, resenting the hell out of the fact that I felt I had to ask, and getting back at her (and restoring what I thought was my dignity) by cheating on her.

It took a lot of emotional, spiritual, and therapeutic work—and three divorces plus a fourth marriage—but I finally did get myself to the point where I could set good boundaries, self-soothe, and show up as an equal. I can flash yellow and red as well as green at my spouse. I’ve learned the importance of giving my wife the chance to be occasionally uncertain or even work, and relax into my certainty. That’s what it means to be a husband, not a son.

Though my case may be extreme (not many men are thrice divorced by 35), there are plenty of other straight guys out there who outsource their self-care and the boundary-setting to wives and girlfriends. Research shows that it’s women (not men) who are taking an increasingly dim view of marriage worldwide. And though there are many other reasons for declining marriage rates around the globe, one is surely what our single friend cited: women’s lack of interest in having their first-born be their second child.

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Women are increasingly less tolerant than men of being in a less than ideally happy marriage, and initiate divorce to get out. The exact reasons for their unhappiness vary. I’ve been married once for quite a long time. We take care of each other, in overlapping ways.

    As far as decisions go: the things she cares more about I leave to her, and the things I care more about she leaves to me. Where we both care, we discuss them and come to an agreement. Although we’re not perfect, the arrangement seems to make sense and has worked quite well.

  2. I’m going to recommend your article to my friends, who are mostly queer, because the dynamic you describe isn’t only found in men. There are people of all genders who are old enough to be adults, call themselves adults, and have accomplished some remarkable things, all while remaining unconsciously childlike in some other area of their life, and wondering why they can never find satisfaction. Wooing the girl, getting the degree or the good salary, are like a kind of junk food. They are more rewarding in the short-term than they deserve to be, for what you had to do to get them and for how much good they do you. It takes an adult who cares about the long-term, not in a future-focused way, but to care about the foundational relationships in his life now, in the present. Part of being an adult is to privilege the everyday work of making a marriage work over the flashier attributes required to get someone (and not the right kind of someone) to say yes in the first place.

  3. Thank you for this!

  4. My sister used to joke about having to raise 3 children — her 2 kids plus her husband. Another friend always refers to “my three sons” when she is talking about her sons and her husband. It seems to be a common relationship dynamic.

    My boyfriend is easy going but he has strong preferences on a lot of things and he’s not afraid to say things like “I hate beige furniture from Pottery Barn!” or “no potpourri in the bathroom!” It’s refreshing, to be honest (much as I love beige furniture and potpourri …) It let’s us find things we both like rather than having a household where he doesn’t feel at home

  5. The Bad Man says:

    I think it’s women’s liberation that is causing women to marry later in life. Men are starting to catch up to the liberation thing and also take a dim view of marriage. Part of that is articles like this reminiscent of the 1950s housewife…for men.

    Marriage is very impermanent, so it seems that there is very little value to legally binding yourself to another person. Dude, you’re still in the prime of your life, what are you thinking?

    • It really brings uncertainty to the notion of interdependency. I mean do independent people truly need each other? 

      • The Bad Man says:

        Right there I think you identified the root cause of the decline of marriage that has eluded me and others. Marriage was a societal construct that offered security and permanence for the survival of the family. With women’s , and now men’s growing independence and the impermanence of marriage, there is little practical value other than romantic fantasy.

        • @The Bad Man

          Tell me about it…
          I was raised on T.V. Dad idealism. I  can’t even contemplate some of prof. Hugo’s anecdotes.

          I’ve always thought that stoic submission to the institution of Marriage was a man’s greatest moral endeavor. 

          Now I live in fear of the Alimony. 

        • Really? You think marriage has no benefits for people who are independent? You can’t be independent and still want a partner to share your life with, to raise children with if you choose to have children, to offer emotional support when needed (which even independent people sometimes need), etc., etc. ??? Wow.

  6. Anyone ever tell you you’d make a good therapist, Hugo?

  7. Wish this were required reading, Hugo– for both genders but esp. men, since women are historically socialized to be the emotional caretakers and I’ve met many men who exploit that. I wish I had a dime for every story like this other women have shared with me!
    The result is always resentment on both sides, and in my own experience, the end of finding him attractive like he was when he first cared/ made an effort to carry his own weight emotionally,socially, financially, etc. (yes, I realize women do this to men in their own ways, as well).
    Glad you finally stumbled on what breaks that pattern. Maybe we can all learn from the traffic light metaphor.
    Please keep sharing your hard-won gems here!

  8. Thanks for the very good article. You should show it to dating “experts” who teach women and men to relate to each other in the usual, male-dominated ways.

    Men who expect women to “mother” them usually say that they leave the “little” decisions of the family to the woman, and then, they turn around and say they make the “big” decisions of the family and are the “head of the household.” Oh, please!

  9. Uncle Woofie says:

    “…as far as she’s concerned, she’s never tying the knot again. Not because of an objection to the institution, but because she’s convinced that most men marry for one reason: they want to be taken care of emotionally.” This scenario ends with the next paragraph explaining the reason for the condescending, knowing wife-smile from what appears to be Mr. Schwyzer’s current mate.

    The first thing that bothers me is this: isn’t ONE of the noble reasons any of us, regardless of gender, plunge into marriage is the comfort of being “taken care of emotionally” by our spouse? When I was young this was explained by my mother as “The best reason to get married is to have someone with you that puts you first in their life.” This has to include the proviso that this emotional care is a two-way street of course. So far, neither Mr. Schwyzer nor any of the subsequent comments have pointed this out. Nor does Mr. Schwyzer point out that some women DELIBERATELY set out to create this son-spouse paradigm for reasons of total control.

    This illustrates the chief conundrum The Good Men Site must at least attempt to guard against; male apologist syndrome. In my rich imagination this means guarding against a scenario involving honest discussion of finding male resolution to gender problems & issues degenerating into being hauled to Themiscyra (Wonder Woman’s hometown) in chains, and attempting to explain to the goddesses-in-charge that you’re good people despite the handicap of penis ownership. This article does very little to escape the aforementioned scenario.

    The next thing about this opening gambit in an otherwise good article that I find irritating is contained in the phrase “…most men marry for one reason…” The phrase “most men”, rendered to generic terms is “most _______” that phrase is the gender-correct bastard cousin to “All______are_______” The same could be said for the intellectually bankrupt mentioning of “one reason”, all of this adds up to a brush so broad it would take a skilled team of forklift drivers to utilize it just to paint a wall.

    The subject is worth tackling, but for the reasons stated above, holding this young woman’s comments up as anything other than her regrettably necessary post-divorce traverse of the enchanted land of the “She-Woman Man-Haters Club” is pretty dubious. The Little Rascals already mentioned the name of the male equivalent in case you think I too, am being one-sided.

    • “holding this young woman’s comments up as anything other than her regrettably necessary post-divorce traverse of the enchanted land of the “She-Woman Man-Haters Club” is pretty dubious.”

      Exactly.

      Her complaint holds little to no value unless it was a shotgun wedding with a gun held to her head. Even if her experience is 100% accurate and unbiased, this was the man SHE married. He was no stranger.

      If he acted like her son after marriage, he surely behaved like her son before marriage. Unless she married a relative stranger, in which case she has no one to blame but herself. But, she probably didn’t marry a stranger. Most likely, she married the man she CHOSE to marry after getting to know him. Unfortunately, many women (and men) pick someone they are attracted to and think has potential to be the man (or woman) they REALLY want to be married to, go ahead and marry Mr. (or Ms.) potential and then try to change them into who they really want, instead of waiting for or going out and finding the man (or woman) they really want to marry.

      This article should be about what she learned about waiting for Mr. (or Ms) Right instead of setting yourself up for a life of frustration and misery and/or divorce.

      • That’s why you have to date for longer than a few weeks before you marry. Sometimes people
        don’t show you who they are until you start living with them.

  10. Are there some men who are large children? Sure, I don’t deny that. But on the other hand, let’s not forget that many women just love to play the martyr card as well. These are the women who complain about doing all the house work, child care and making decisions, but then refuse to release any control over said decisions. I’ve seen this A LOT.

    To a certain extent, one of the best parts of being married is having someone there to take care of you. We shouldn’t be solely dependent on one other for Sprites, but as long as we’re alternating in our caretaking duties I think that’s commendable.

    And circumstances will always dictate how married couples are with decisions. I commute at least four hours a day, work eight hours at my primary job and then come home to spend an hour with my son and work on my second job. I literally do not have time for some of the household decisions. Meanwhile my wife is temporarily out of work, and has the time. So I leave it up to her. Not because I’m lazy or irresponsible, but simply because that’s how the division of labor is shaking out.

    Every couple is different.

  11. Funny article.

    So you need 4 marriages to understand that you need not ask permission from your wife to drink a Sprite?

  12. Please stop projecting your lived experiences onto the rest of us Hugo, just because you experienced something doesn’t mean that the rest of us experience too. That said, I do understand that feminist women can produce dysfunctional and self loathing sons and I sympathize.

  13. Great article. I’ve just discovered “The Good Men Project” and this is the second of 2 articles that I’ve read that have actually impressed me. So happy I’ve discovered a site that actually explores the thoughts and inner workings of men. So, great article and thank you for your honesty.

    @ Ron: I happen to think that Hugo’s situation is much more widely experienced by men than you think, and I don’t believe Hugo ever stated that all men act like this, but a lot do. And as with any article, t.v. show, book, etc., rarely does the experience or advice within apply to everyone. You certainly don’t have a problem assuming you can speak for the rest of us when you ask Hugo to “…stop projecting your lived experience onto the rest of us…”, so stop being a hypercrite. And as for your comment about feminist women and their affect on family members, it speak volumes about your principles and values… very sad.

    • Howard, I was talking about a recurring theme with Hugo.

      I don’t see how my comment about feminists and their family members speaks volumes about me, I do however know of quite a few men who have suffered emotional and psychological abuse by their mothers in the name of feminism.

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