Poor, Poor, Pitiful Men: The Martyr Complex of the American Husband

Guy Code, Hugo Schwyzer writes, attempts to give men a free pass from being emotionally understanding in their relationships.

It was with a familiar sense of frustration that I read Lisa Hickey’s piece on straight men’s views of their wives: “Are Husbands Really Assholes?”  Hickey, who heard from a number of men and women in lasting marriages, paints a grim picture. The husbands report being married to wives who are relentlessly critical and nit-picky. Despite what they universally claim are their best efforts, these men (at least the ones who shared with Hickey) lament that their wives remain perennially dissatisfied. As one husband put it:

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.

 I don’t think that the anonymous married man who shared that was wrong about the two statements in his first sentence. Most men, as far as I can tell, do want to be good husbands. And most of them really don’t know what that entails. But that inability to figure out how to be the good husbands we dream of being is not our wives’ problem to solve. The source of our frustrated inability to connect with our spouses and long-term girlfriends isn’t their elevated expectations or some innate male biological trait that serves as an impediment to self-awareness. The problem is that most men are raised with what is often called the “Guy Code.”

The Guy Code, which boys learn from their male peers and older men, prizes action rather than words. It teaches boys, as the sociologists Deborah David and Robert Brannon pointed out decades ago, to be highly competitive “sturdy oaks” with little vocabulary for anything other than ambition or anger. The Guy Code teaches men how to pursue women, how to court, and how to charm; it teaches us nothing about how to be in an actual relationship with a woman once we’ve succeeded in catching her.   (If you’re getting an image of a dog who looks bewildered and helpless when he’s finally managed to catch the cat he’s been chasing, you’re not far off the mark.)

Once in a relationship (much less a marriage) with a real-honest-to-goodness human being who didn’t grow up with the Guy Code (and thus wasn’t shamed out of her ability to articulate her feelings, as most of us were as boys), we’re often in awe of what seem like her “naturally” superior emotional abilities. Women seem to have this extraordinary capacity to describe their feelings with precision; they seem to be so much better at remembering the nuances of conversations we’ve long since forgotten.

Many young—and not-so-young—men feel overwhelmed by what seem to be the superior verbal and emotional skills of female romantic partners. When a man has grown up learning not to display feelings, or to talk about them, he may end up feeling as if he’s a first-year French student suddenly plunged into a conversation with fluent native speakers. He hasn’t got—or he feels he hasn’t got—the vocabulary with which to keep up. This isn’t because of testosterone, of course, or some inherent aspect of the human brain; it’s the hangover from growing up with the “guy code.” And the guy code, followed rigidly, leads to a kind of learned emotional helplessness.

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Make no mistake: I don’t think women are blameless. Women are acculturated to take charge of the emotional health of the marriage; women are taught to confuse being controlling with being nurturing. Women, as well as men, buy into the male myth, the one that says we are physiologically incapable of being as emotionally complex, intuitive, or articulate as our wives and girlfriends. Some women take a certain satisfaction in the mistaken belief that they “know their husbands better than they know themselves.” Women play at least a small part in the maintenance of the male myth.

They sound petulant and resentful; they sound defeated. Two guaranteed-to-fail tactics are all they have in their arsenals: “submarining” and pre-emptive self-deprecation.

But the majority of the men in Lisa Hickey’s piece don’t sound like men who are actively trying to resolve a problem with a partner whom they regard as an equal. They sound petulant and resentful; they sound defeated. Two guaranteed-to-fail tactics are all they have in their arsenals: “submarining” and pre-emptive self-deprecation.

Submarining is what it sounds like: diving deep to avoid a tempest that must eventually blow over. By viewing your wife’s rage as a temporary storm to be avoided, you will, like a sub, dive inward, remaining as impassive as possible, waiting patiently (or, more accurately, anxiously but with an outer veneer of tranquility) for the tempest to cease. This is passive-aggressive conflict avoidance; I did a lot of “submarining” in my first two marriages.

Other men will pull out the infamous pre-emptive apology strategy (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, whatever I did, I’m sorry. Please stop being mad.) Still others, of course, will retreat to self-deprecation, figuring that if they say truly awful things about themselves, they’ll force their lovers to cease the search for legitimate discussion and turn to the more traditionally feminine role of soothing male anxiety. (I’m such a piece of shit, I don’t know why you stay with me. Batterers use that line a lot in the remorse stage, following an episode of abuse.) It often works, particularly on a younger woman who fancies herself capable of showing a man a side of himself he has never seen. And so a lot of women, torn between exasperation and compassion, give in at this point and say, “Oh Theodore, you’re not a bad person. I really do love and admire you.” She temporarily breaks off the attempt to push through to him and to create change; the status quo is preserved.

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It’s tempting—oh, so tempting—to attribute our own comparative inarticulateness to our testosterone, or to our Y chromosome, to God’s plan for marriage, or anything that is sufficiently immutable so as to excuse us from having to engage with these heavily-armed wordsmiths as equals. Thanks to the Guy Code, we confuse what we weren’t given with what we can never learn. It’s an alluring mistake; if we buy into it, we can lapse into the grim satisfactions of martyrdom (I’m such a heroic knight, why can’t she appreciate me?) or we stray into emotional or physical affairs with women who seem so much more understanding (My secretary really gets me. She makes me feel like a man. Not like my shrew of a wife who cut my balls off and keeps them in her underwear drawer). And all the while, we submarine, self-deprecate, and endure.

When men are raised with little sense of how to “fight fair,” particularly with romantic partners, they often lack the discernment to determine a legitimate criticism that ought to be taken to heart from an unfair attack. Women aren’t the only ones who fall for the myth that wives, girlfriends, and sisters know the guys they love better than they know themselves; for different reasons, men and women alike are attached to that sexist conceit. This assumption that men are a mystery to themselves can function, for some men, to legitimize anything a woman says in anger. And sometimes in anger, we—men and women alike—say unfair things to our romantic partners. We speak from a place of pain, frustration, and rage, and we say what we know will wound. Women do this, men do this. The difference is that many men, thanks to their “learned obtuseness,” are particularly unlikely to be able to differentiate between the legitimate criticism uttered in a healthy fight and the unjust accusation blurted out in a moment of wrath.

It’s not news to report that wives are gonna say some things that are hurtful and unfair. But they’re also gonna say some things that are hurtful but fair—and the real problem is that most men still need to do the hard work of learning how to discern between the two. I won’t pretend that’s easy. And I also won’t buy the lie that it’s impossible.

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Are Husbands Really Assholes? Or Do Their Wives Just Think They Are? Lisa Hickey
Being the Man Does Not Automatically Make Everything Your Fault, Jackie Summers

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—Photo CarbonNYC/Flickr

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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. Richard Aubrey says:

    Hugo’s been around long enough to know what the guy code is, but he never fails to misrepresent it.
    The guy code is; as long as something needs to be done, control your grief, fear, annoyance, pain, fatigue, etc. Get whatever it is done. When it’s done, then knock yourself out with whatever reaction you like. Problem is, if the post-event self-knockingout isn’t done precisely as women do it, you’re wrong.
    What this has to do with marital relationships is unclear.

  2. Remember, this guy tried to light himself and his girlfriend on fire during a drunken drug binge. He’s also slept with several of his students. Take everything he says with a grain of salt.

  3. Alright, going along with Hugo’s views here: But if women are brought up with the idea (imposed by society, of course…) that she has natural superior emotional and communicational abilities. How are we ever going to get to the point were we actually listen to EACH OTHER?? If both parties all the time have this underlying notion that whatever they disagrre about, she has the power of the veto…

  4. Isn’t it funny that when people complain about marriage, whether they’re male or female, the complaints sound remarkably similar? He/She always has to be right. He/She just doesn’t get how much I do for her/him! I just want to be appreciated!

    It’s almost like it’s not a gender issue at all, but a human one… hmmmm… naw, couldn’t be.

    Anyway, I found this article refreshing. In my marriage, I did a lot submarining, and always assumed that if my wife criticized me, that she must be right. I listened, but I did it the wrong way, by not speaking for myself. I aided and abetted that instead of risking some wounds to get down to the heart of the problem. And unfortunately, I rolled over, played martyr and resented.

    For me, it was because I was afraid that I really *was* an asshole husband, and overcompensated. I put the health of my marriage on the back-burner to avoid feeling like a jerk, even when I knew I wasn’t. It was not a worthwhile bargain and cost us dearly.

    For some reason, we guys get to thinking that setting boundaries and asserting ourselves in relationships makes us entitled assholes. We think that if we tell them “no,” we’ll somehow transform into a beer-gutted misogynist. So we let ourselves get walked on. Then, we get all pissy and passive-aggressive about it. After all, if women are our equals, and if setting boundaries makes US entitled assholes, isn’t our wives’ boundary-setting and criticism the same thing? Is *SHE* the asshole? The subconscious fills our minds with this garbage, and thus begins the illusion of martyrdom and the onset of resentment.

    It really should go without saying though, that women do the exact same thing in their marriages too.

    • This is the best comment I’ve seen on this article. After all, isn’t a real relationship where both people are respected and valued what we’re after?

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