They arrive at my office in conflict. He has taken serious umbrage. She is terrified of his umbrage. Wounded and made sick by it. “I am sick of not being trusted,” he says. He is deeply offended.
Ah, yes. There it is: “How dare you!” It doesn’t always (or even very often) come out in those exact words, but I know it when I hear it. It has an energy. A feel to it. I’m very alert to “How dare you,” because “How dare you” is often the smoke under which there is usually a fire. A red flag.
Oh, if your mate lies about his/her mother having cancer to arrange a meeting with another lover, then, yes, I would understand “How dare you!” But, more often, in the regular course of the “normal” breakdowns of marital connection and intimacy, “How dare you” is usually a presentation of umbrage disguising and cloaking something else.
The something else is, of course, reactive ego-defensiveness. And what the ego defends is fear and vulnerability.
I listen to the couple, they who have been married these past six years. After a couple of cautions, then a warning, I have to ask the husband to escort his umbrage out to the waiting room and give us a moment. (Sometimes my job includes shades of elementary school teacher on recess duty.)
When he rejoins us, I say to him, “So, gotta tell you, I’m not married to her. You know her better than I do. But, I was listening to her very carefully while you were gone, and no part of what she is saying sounds to me like an accusation of distrust. It sounds like she’s asking for secure attachment.”
We’re primates, folks. And we’re not happy unless our bonds (attachments) within the troop are secure. We get stressed out and anxious. We spend our lives (especially with our spouses) rehearsing behaviors that promote, reaffirm, nurture and celebrate secure attachments.
If you watch chimpanzees, they rehearse attachments by grooming (combing through each other’s hair looking for bugs), physical play (tickling, wrestling, chasing and rolling around) and making love.
OK, I hope your mate’s hair doesn’t contain bugs, but you get my point.
Here’s a short list of common ways modern lovers nurture and affirm secure attachment:
Touch: We love it. We’re built for it. It soothes us, both to touch and to be touched. In great marriages, people touch a lot.
Common courtesy: Yep, people in great marriages are bent to reciprocity, service and just plain good manners. Common courtesy reminds your mate he/she is first in your thoughts.
Forthright transparency: This is way more than don’t hide, deceive or lie. This is knowing that my mate does have a rightful claim on my comings and goings, my whereabouts, what I do with my time, the identities of my friends, etc.
Public advocacy: Our mate needs to know that, in his/her absence, we are still presenting “We” to the world. That we “stand up” for the primacy of our marriage relationship to all comers — family, friends, colleagues, exes … everyone!
The problem of modern people, I think, is that we’re somehow ashamed of asking for the reassurance of secure attachment. So we ask for it “bassackward.” Around the barn. We encrypt the request in ways our mate is wont to miss. Or worse, misinterpret. I suspect the person asking to reaffirm attachment does often cache the request as an implicit mistrust.
“Who was that on the phone,” sounds to the recipient more like, “So, are you having an affair,” than it does, “Would you please reaffirm the security of our bond and attachment. Tell me again I’m No. 1 in your life.”
“I have an insecure feeling” is in fact NOT the same as “You’re cheating on me, aren’t you?!”
If you’re married, it’s really normal that your mate will, from time to time, find ways of asking to reassure and reaffirm the security of attachment.
Defensiveness, exasperation and indignation are NOT the correct response. Or, as one spouse said to me recently, “The idea of ‘asking for what you need’ doesn’t work in my marriage. That’s always a sure-fire way of getting even less of what I need. Plus, it almost always starts a fight.”
Yikes. Did you really mean, “I really hate it when you ask to be securely attached to me. I prefer relationships without any expectations for secure attachments. Secure attachments really irritate me.”
Because that’s what your mate heard.
Many wives are mean to their husbands. And I’m not talking about lazy, abusive or selfish husbands. I’m talking about men who are devoted to their wives, who work honorable jobs to support their families, who go out of their way to try to please, often conceding their own wishes to keep the peace, and who are good fathers and good citizens. But instead of appreciating this kind of husband, they make undercutting remarks, often in front of peers. They demand more help around the house, then criticize or belittle the manner in which tasks are completed. They want them to be involved fathers but they attack their methods of playing with or caring for the children. They freeze their husbands out of their beds because they feel if their husbands wanting to have sex with them means they’re just depraved pigs who only want their selfish “needs” met. These are the same women who, likely during their courtship, went to great lengths to procure a proposal and a ring from just such a man. To what end? To ultimately create an atmosphere of resentment in the home she was bent on creating with him?
I place some of the blame for this man-bashing on feminism. Feminism is one of the biggest boondoggles of modern sociology. Feminism is a concept whose purported aim is contrary to its actual effects. It claims to “empower” women, to demonstrate that women are as vital and capable as men. Did we really need a “movement” to perpetuate this idea? Are not both genders equally vital and capable in their own unique and beautiful ways?
Rather than empowering women, feminism has adopted a “divide and conquer” mentality. Make women suspicious of men, so they feel threatened at every turn that men are trying to take something from them. It has made women feel that they have something to prove instead of letting their accomplishments speak for themselves.
Men and women are not enemies. There are just as many poor-quality women out there as there are poor-quality men. Being a bad person is part of the human condition, not an affliction of a particular gender.
So, has simply being kind to your husband become a hallmark of weakness or submission?
— D.H., Las Vegas
(It seems important that my readers should know this letter is from a woman.)
Oooh … kindness experienced as weakness and submission. And, conversely then, “being mean” deployed as personal power, confidence, and self-respect. Before I even get to the question of The Feminist Movement, I’m struck by you putting your finger on the great paradox of western civilization.
By “paradox,” I was trying to be polite. I meant, rather, insanity. Really, really crazy. Or, in the words of sociologist/therapist Brené Brown, “The idea that vulnerability is weakness is the single greatest lie of western civilization.”
Let’s get one thing straight: The nurture and embrace of authentic identity yields authentic personal power. And, other than to physically or morally defend itself, authentic personal power virtually never needs to fight, argue, justify, demean others, defend itself or particularly assert itself. Bullies — whether on a playground, flashing a gang sign or standing in a kitchen intimidating their marriage partner — are the most fragile, frightened and foolish people on the planet. Weak. Pathetic. And you’re right: Both men and women can be this kind of marital bully.
I have such ambivalence about the Feminist Movement. On the one hand, the movement was courageous (not to mention morally right) to name injustice. To demand justice. We owe the Feminist Movement a lot.
On the other hand, the post-feminist world certainly reverberates with some confusion for both men and women. What is feminine authority? What is masculine authority? When you find yourself needing to make a point in principle (especially with a loud, unpleasant voice) with your husband or wife, then I suspect the point you’re trying to make is not yet truly forged inside of you. You are taking a stand on real estate you do not yet possess.
I’ve always suspected that “I can do this by myself” … “I don’t have to ask your permission” and other such defensive rhetoric in marriage was evidence not of power but of grasping after power. Authentic individuals don’t desperately grasp after individuality. Nor do they constantly harangue others with just how self-sufficient they are. They don’t need to. Rather, they are free to need and be needed, to depend and interdepend.
And truly liberated individuals would never belittle (be mean to) their spouses as a means to assuage and reassure their sense of selfhood. It would never be necessary.