I will return to new blogging, albeit at a slower pace, next week. Until then, one more reprint, this one from March 2007.
On Tuesday afternoon, I was talking to a woman with whom I regularly work out. While chatting about her recent break-up with her boyfriend, my pal repeated a line I find particularly exasperating. She said she’d been on her phone with her mother recently, and her Mom had said:
The best relationships are those in which the man loves the woman just a little bit more than she loves him.
My buddy was wondering about the wisdom of that oft-repeated line, and it occurred to me that I haven’t blogged about it.
I didn’t grow up with that particular piece of wisdom. The first time I heard the suggestion that “marriage is best when the husband is more in love with his wife than she with him” was when one of my cousins got married. My cousin’s new sister-in-law and I were chatting at the wedding (comparing the relative dysfunction of our respective clans) and she mentioned that her brother was absolutely enraptured by my cousin. She said something like:
“I know she loves him, but my brother loves her more. And I think that’s the way it should be. When a man loves a woman more, he’ll pay attention to her and won’t break her heart. When the love is equal, or the woman is the one more in love, there’s a much greater chance he’ll stray.”
This was not the sort of conventional wisdom we shared in my family, so I nodded politely at my new relation-by-marriage and wandered off to explore a new food station. But what she said stuck in my mind, and I began to check it out with my acquaintances. To my very great surprise, this notion that “the man should love the woman more” was actually fairly widespread. In completely unrelated situations, in the past couple of years I’ve had perhaps half a dozen women mention to me that they were raised with this particular relationship philosophy. And talking to my workout buddy on Tuesday really got me thinking about it.
As my regular readers know, if there’s one thing that really sticks in my craw, it’s the various ways in which our popular culture reinforces the “myth of male weakness.” Whether it’s armchair evolutionary biologists opining that promiscuity is hard-wired into the male brain, or misguided Catholic bishops insisting that women cover up to protect weak men from lust, or pop psychologists suggesting that women ought to accept male porn use as natural, a tremendous amount of damage is done by those who reinforce the lie that men lack women’s capacity for self-control, commitment, and relationship. Call it the “all men are dogs” theory, call it what you will — it’s a belief about human behavior that’s shockingly widely accepted, in and outside of religious communities and across vast political and cultural spectrums.
The bromide that “the man should love the woman more” is rooted in the expectation that virtually every man, sooner or later, will prove to be a colossal disappointment to the woman who loves him. If she loves him just a little less, however, this gives her a small “bargaining chip” with which to forestall his presumably inevitable infidelity or abandonment. The romantic imbalance, when it “works in her favor” gives her the chance to manipulate. If she loves him as much as he loves her, however, she loses that chance. And she leaves herself far more vulnerable to being heartbroken when he does disappoint, as popular culture seems to insist he invariably will.
One particularly frustrating way in which the myth of male weakness functions is to relentlessly urge women to lower their expectations for male behavior. Beginning when they hit adolescence, if not earlier, we often send messages to girls to “tone it down”, “don’t be too aggressive”, “don’t be too smart”, “don’t be too sexual”, “don’t want too much.” Older adults and cultural sages urge women not only to give up their girlish longing for a handsome prince, but to prepare themselves to “settle” for a “good-enough guy.” We urge young women not to have too many hopes about finding a man who is sexually attractive, capable, ambitious in his chosen field, emotionally articulate, willing to embrace monogamy in all its rigor and all its joy.
(Parenthetically, at the risk of getting flamed for racism, I see this “culture of diminished expectations for male behavior” particularly alive in my Latina students. Many of them were raised by their mothers to believe that the best one could hope for in a “good” husband was that he “doesn’t drink too much” and he “doesn’t hit” too often and he “doesn’t go to prostitutes.” While that particularly low threshold for masculine decency is certainly not unique to one culture, I do hear it more often from those whose families recently emigrated from Latin America to the USA. Perhaps the issue is more class than race.)
I am not defending genuinely unrealistic expectations for a romantic partner. Insisting that “perfect abs are a non-negotiable must-have” is silly, as is demanding one’s mate produce a seven-figure salary and a four-carat flawless diamond engagement ring. But there’s a world of difference between expecting a man to smother you in minks and jewels and expecting a man for whom emotional competence, fidelity, and a general sense of direction are givens! It’s one thing to teach women not to expect men to provide for all of their material needs; it’s another thing altogether to advise a woman that since most men will leave (physically or emotionally), she ought to “hedge her bets” by picking a man who will love her more than she loves him.
One of the most basic tasks of the men’s movement — not the MRAs, but the pro-feminist men’s movement — is really three-fold:
First, on a societal level, we need to work all the harder to deconstruct the “myth of male weakness.” We need to look at the various institutions (ranging from the inspid works of John Gray to the pious musings of church leaders who want our daughters covered up to the “popular science” articles that suggest that “evolution requires” men to be less capable of commitment, tenderness, and emotional depth than their mothers, wives and sisters) that promote the myth, and we need to take those institutions on directly. Whether the battleground is biology or theology, we need to rebut those voices that urge all of us to “give men a break”; we need to smash the Tammy Wynette school of gender theory. (Wynette famously sang that a woman ought to “stand by your man… because after all, he’s just a man.”)
Second, we need to raise young men’s expectations of themselves. Despite the claims of some men’s rights activists, pro-feminist men aren’t interested in transforming young men merely to turn them into the sort of lads who will fulfill female fantasies. Though raising consciousness and instilling accountability in young men will indeed serve to improve their relationships with all of the women in their lives, the real goal isn’t just ending rape or domestic violence, or improving romantic communication (as worthy as those goals are.) The real goal is to encourage young men to stop living lives of either quiet desperation or passive stupefaction. The real goal is not just to make men more responsible, accountable, and emotionally articulate (all good things) — the real goal is to make them active agents of transformation. It is to give them a sense that by living a life of justice, living a life of ambition, living a real life of sharing and generosity, they will discover a kind of happiness that they’ve never imagined. It’s about expanding their own sense of what it means to be happy.
Third, we need to continue to reach our daughters with a strong feminist message. We need to remind young women that a romantic relationship with a man is not the sole vehicle for personal happiness. But we don’t need to discourage an emphasis on love and enduring commitment altogether. While we can and should do more to encourage young women’s autonomy, we ought also to discourage young women from buying into the “myth of male weakness.” While some women’s fantasy desires may be unreasonable (insisting on the four-carat ring, for example) others are not (expecting fidelity, devotion, a commitment to egalitarian roles in the household, an ability to describe his own emotional terrain without becoming mute or haltingly inarticulate.) Though many women have had and will continue to have disappointing experiences that reinforce their sense that men cannot be trusted, we need to remind them that men are just as capable as their sisters of responsibility and forbearance.
And we need to assure them that settling for a man whom you love less than he loves you is selling everyone involved woefully, tragically, short.