Reprint: “A man should love his wife more than she loves him”: rebutting a nasty old piece of conventional wisdom

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.

8 thoughts on “Reprint: “A man should love his wife more than she loves him”: rebutting a nasty old piece of conventional wisdom

  1. I can tell you from cultural custom that yeah, girls are taught not to be overly aggressive, and I was told that “it would be good to go into teaching” in order to spend enough time with the children (it is automotically expected that I have children and get married). I’m also expected to marry before the age of 30, which is quite frustrating.

    So, I can relate.

  2. These low expectations are SO evident in adolescent boys. I have a passion for working with high school kids, and I’ve seen over and over–the girls will quite often take leadership positions, they will learn to be confident and self-assured, they will understand that they can do/be anything they want, they know there are high expectations of them and that they have a choice of whether or not to meet those expectations. The feminist movement has done a bang-up job of fostering women and encouraging them to go for broke, which I think is absolutely awesome and well past due.
    But my husband and I were talking about this just the other night–where is the men’s movement? Where are the men who will step up and raise the bar of expectations for their brothers? Where are the men who will demand equal respect for stay-at-home dads; who will fight for the right to express whatever emotions they have, not just the “masculine” ones; who will push for the same kind of “you can be anything you want to be” encouragement for young men as we give to young women; who will break out of the masculine mold our society has cast for them and expand the range of what counts as “manly”?
    Women can be SO sexist and judgmental when it comes to the issue of masculinity–how many times have you heard women criticize a man by saying “that’s just not manly” or “guys don’t do that”? We need to educate both women and men to expect just as much from men as we do from women–after all, we are all just sinners after the image of God, making our way in this world. We’re not that different, really. So why expect us to be?

  3. ¨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.¨

    I don´t think that it is about heartbreak. Or, at least it didn´t start out being about heartbreak. I think the origen of the need for women to have room to be manipulative in a relationship is the real power differential in patriarchal relationships.

    People in relationships manipulate to get what they want when they know that the other person wouldn´t do it normally or wouldn´t want to do it. In my experience, men who have completey bought into the patriarchy but whose partners insist on acting like human beings with their own wants, desires, wishes, ideas and opinions, manipulate their partners to get what they want when it is not in line with what their partner wants. Men think that they should have power, they don´t have it, so they manipulate. Women do the same thing but generally because they DON´T have the power to make their partner do something that he doesn´t want to do.

  4. “But my husband and I were talking about this just the other night–where is the men’s movement? Where are the men who will step up and raise the bar of expectations for their brothers? Where are the men who will demand equal respect for stay-at-home dads; who will fight for the right to express whatever emotions they have, not just the “masculine” ones; who will push for the same kind of “you can be anything you want to be” encouragement for young men as we give to young women; who will break out of the masculine mold our society has cast for them and expand the range of what counts as “manly”?
    Women can be SO sexist and judgmental when it comes to the issue of masculinity–how many times have you heard women criticize a man by saying “that’s just not manly” or “guys don’t do that”?”

    Jan,

    There’s a Men’s Rights “Movement” — but so far, it hasn’t evolved beyond the words ‘feminist’ ‘bitch’ ‘cunt’ and ‘nazi’ – and there are some really mysoginist nutbags in there. I hope, at least I hope, that there are some normal MRA’s who support women’s rights, while supporting men’s rights. The crux of the movement is the fact that the men feel that, overall, they are becoming second-class citizens within the law, with respect to alimony, divorce, the amount of child-custody payments, easy arrests with respect to violence, and a lack of media attention with regards to men being victims of domestic violence. All of which I could see their point, but not the way in which they do it, and this battle of the sexes crap is getting annoying!

    Women are so sexist? We are? Really? Hey, can I put gifs on here? Lemme try. [img]http://i215.photobucket.com/albums/cc15/Silverarrow_2007/grouphug.gif[/img] — that pretty much sums up what I was trying to convey – I love men. Hell, I love Ryan Reynolds, Callum Keith Rennie and Hugh Jackman so much, that if I could just get them all together, I could love them all equally! Sorry, I have to add in a little humour, the forum does get a bit dry with a lack of humour. Anyway, in my generation, generation Y, I really haven’t heard of women remarking that ‘that’s not manly.’ What I see though, is a generation of men who are not worried about their girlfriends or wives making more money then them, and women (including myself) do not really like it when the man tries to order for the woman. Maybe in previous generations, but not so much now.

  5. Seems to me that boys in school are expected to behave like girls.
    Sit quietly, don’t speak out of turn, don’t rough house. If you do that, there’s something wrong.
    There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. A bit more physicality for girls, a bit less Ritalin for boys.
    I know ev psych annoys feminists because if something is hard-wired, it can’t be changed by whining about the patriarchy.
    But neurology and endocrinology say there are differences.

    Boys, being kids, will eventually live up to the expectations placed on them. About six hours a day, one hundred and eighty days a year, they’re usually in a school, with mostly women teachers and expectations of behavior which is designed by a slow process of “evolution” to be suited more for girls. His bumps into this are usually couched as negatives. Presume he sleeps, say, nine hours a day. So a good portion of his structured conscious day under authority is in a situation suited for others than he.

    So who does mentor boys? All the folks the feminists don’t like. Boy Scouts. Boys’ sports and their coaches. Hanging out with their fathers and uncles and other older male friends. Later on, hunting, or doing things like cutting wood or fixing stuff around the house. Each other. As my son’s best man said of my son, “Steel sharpens steel and Tom helped me grow.”

    Through a certain amount of introspection and a certain amount of observation, I have come to the conclusion that boys learn, starting about age five, that the only woman who loves him for his own sweet self is his mother. The only person, in fact. For everybody else, it’s what can you do? What are you good for? If you can do, if you are useful, you have friends, including girl friends. If not…not. Thus, when a situation exists in which a boy’s or young man’s particular competencies are either unnecessary or even scorned, what’s left?

    It is curious that a group which is prepared to make horrid glottal noises at Young Earth Creationists, Old Earth Creationists, and Intelligent Design folks must insist that a million years of environmental pressure has, in this particular case, no effect. Can not have any effect. Must not.

    And Hugo gets defensive–remember his post on men in his class apologizing in advance (I’m gonna get killed for this)–when he confuses a culture (Latin) with a race. Cultures differ, said Thomas Sowell, and differences have consequences. Were it not so, the cultural relativists would have to seek honest employment. Doesn’t look good to apologize for what one teaches the rest of the week.

  6. ” All the folks the feminists don’t like. Boy Scouts. Boys’ sports and their coaches. Hanging out with their fathers and uncles and other older male friends.”

    Richard, I’m guessing you don’t know many feminists, except for the caricatures you have in your head.

  7. This old woman’s theory (and it is an older generation theory) doesn’t really stand up in modern times, since women’s lib we should be getting away from these views of the man being predisposed to sow his seed and to the idea that a woman needs to “keep hold” of her man. It’s extremely rare that two people love each other equally, but the dynamic should not always play the same way. Women are wont to stray too. And if a man is likely to do so if he’s not as in love as his partner, then why the hell shouldn’t a woman be expected to do the same by the same token? Besides a marriage shouldn’t be built on the premise that the husband will inevitably stray unless his interest is held by being subservient to the wife. It’s pre-judging the strength of the union and it’s unhealthy. Surely this is a hangover from the days when women didn’t really have much control at all and at least this was a way of safeguarding themselves by being in a strong position in one sense in the household?

  8. I don’t like the Boy Scouts because of their policies on homosexuality, not because of any male mentoring they do, or camping or building balsa wood cars or whatever. I do somewhat resent that my girl scout days were so gendered towards traditionally “feminine,” things when it sounds like a lot of the cub scouts got to do things that sounded more fun, like the annual car race. The only racing we ever did was to try to sell the most cookies!

    I would add that I don’t even remember a scout troop without a female leader. Den mothers, I guess they called them? Anyway, all the boy scouts I knew as a kid had those, not male leaders.

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