Learning to be a Husband, Not a Son

My first post with this brand-new blog format is a link to this morning’s column at The Good Men Project:  Learning to be a Husband, Not a Son.  Excerpt:

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.

Men, MILFs, and the Madonna-Whore Complex

Eira and I are home from our trip to Israel (I’ll try to write something about that soon). We’re off to Montana on Sunday, so the summer travels aren’t entirely concluded.

I do have a quick piece up at Good Men Project today: The Real Meaning of MILFs. Excerpt:

Though we had planned to have a home birth, in the end my wife needed a Cesearean in the hospital. (Our daughter was wedged into a breach position, and few obstetricians will support a vaginal breach birth these days.) I was at my wife’s side during the procedure, holding her hand and whispering encouragement, while watching with great interest as the surgeons did their work—blood and viscera galore.

I got to see the amazing moment Heloise was pulled (butt first, of course) from my wife’s body. I was there when our daughter latched on for the first time to Eira’s breast. I was awed and humbled by what I saw. And though I wasn’t turned on by watching the birth and the 15 months of subsequent breastfeeding, witnessing my wife’s transition into motherhood did nothing to reduce my attraction to her. That doesn’t make me unusual or heroic.

Read the whole thing. For an older piece on a similar subject, here’s my 2005 blog post Men, Childbirth, Lust.

Love, Venn Diagrams, and the Private/Secret Distinction

It’s not as complicated as the title suggests.

In a reversal of how it usually works, I wrote a piece for the Frisky that then got picked up at the Good Men Project: What’s the Difference Between Privacy and Secrecy? (Here’s the identical piece, but with a different formatting and comments section, at GMP). Excerpt:

Guarding the other’s solitude is about allowing your partner the right to a private, not a secret life. It’s a recognition that even the most sexually exclusive relationship functions a bit like a Venn diagram, in which the largest portion is a shared intimacy, but in which each partner is left with something that is theirs alone. It means having the trust to expect the truth, but also the respect not to ask questions that invite dishonest responses.

I’ve never asked my wife how many people she slept with before me. I don’t know how often she masturbates, or what she thinks about when she does. I trust her to manage her private sexual life in such a way that it doesn’t rob our shared intimacy of passion and power. And I trust her to be faithful as she trusts me.

We don’t have the right to a hidden life that contradicts our public commitments. But we have the right to a private world – and a private sexuality – that is ours alone.

Read the whole thing.

Note: Obviously, this is not a distinction I invented, though it’s one that doesn’t get discussed often enough. My cousin Tom Bishop gets credit for reminding me to write about it, and Charlie Glickman gets the hat-tip for reminding me that Marty Klein does a nice job of distinguishing privacy and secrecy in his now out-of-print 1989 classic, Your Sexual Secrets.

Unsexed by Eirasexuality

In a comment below this post on monogamy, Douglas took issue with my decision to identify as “Eira-sexual”, suggesting that it reflected a troubling insularity as well as heterosexual privilege. Gay and lesbian identity, he argued, is built on a sense of same-sex desire — and thus gay and lesbian community requires that desire have a public dimension. It’s an interesting point, one I hadn’t considered.

My “Eirasexuality” (the term comes from my wife’s name) privileges me personally. I wear a physical as well as a spiritual wedding band that others can both see and sense. My public commitment to one person, backed up by my private behavior, means that I’m perceived as more trustworthy by students, mentees, and colleagues. My motives are second-guessed as it is, of course. But my Eirasexuality unsexes me for everyone else, allowing me to appear safer, less potentially predatory.

If I were single, or in an open marriage, I don’t think I could teach or write about sexuality as effectively as I do in the way that I do with the credibility that I have. Whatever other agenda I have for doing the work I do, most people can quickly figure out I’m not working in this field in order to get laid. I’d like to think I could still establish a sense of safety even if I were single. But I think the task would be more difficult.

In a post a year ago called “Male feminists are mostly gay”: more on myths of lust and humanity I pointed out that we often assume gay men are more empathetic towards women because they aren’t blinded by sexual desire. It’s the old myth of the incompatibility of lust and empathy. Pushing back against that lie, I noted the need for “straight male feminists” to live out both their feminism and their heterosexuality in public. What I neglected to acknowledge is that my “available” brothers may have a harder time being trusted when they do that than I do.

“I have been today who I longed to be”: of monogamy, fidelity, and the case for virtue

This post first appeared in 2008, before Tiger Woods and Schwarzenegger’s love child. But the same arguments keep coming up. And I’ll keep pushing back.

Amber Rhea gets the hat tip for this article in New York Magazine: The Affairs of Men: The trouble with sex and marriage. That’s the title in the magazine, anyway, but when you click on the link, the title that comes up is What Makes Married Men Want to Have Affairs?, which is a very different sort of question. Asking why men want what they want is never, ever, the same question as why men do what they do.

The author, Phillip Weiss, gets us off to a depressing start:

When the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke in March, I had only sympathy for him: another middle-aged married guy tormented by his sexual needs. I’m 52 and have always struggled with the desire for sexual variety. Everyone gets an issue, and that’s mine; it’s given me pleasure and pain, and jolted my marriage. I’d only talked about my issue with any honesty over the years with about six or seven people, and when you leave out my wife and a therapist, they are all men.

So the conversation had a conspiratorial male character. When people at dinner parties cried out, “What was Spitzer thinking?” I whispered to a friend that I knew damn well what he was thinking: He wanted some “strange”, to quote the old Kris Kristofferson line. Or we passed around JPEGS of Spitzer’s date, Ashley Dupre, and commented on her luscious body. The governor’s plight had the effect of outing me. When I told one married friend about my torment, he cut me off. Everyone in our situation has had one or two episodes. Straying, wandering eye, a blowup. If you have a pulse

What situation is that, I wonder? The situation of the middle-aged married male, caught between his promises and his urges? Apparently. Here’s Weiss’ stunner:

An article of faith among the men with whom I discussed these issues (and an idea ignored, if not contested, by most of the women I know) was that the hunger for sexual variety was a basic and natural and more or less irresistible impulse. I haven’t ever seen anyone who doesn’t deliver on every single demand their sexuality makes on them. We make the mistake of thinking some people have a stronger will, they don’t, says a forward-thinking friend. There is no more unnatural principle of social organization than sexual exclusivity. But like other of my male sources, he didn’t want me to use his name. Don’t get me divorced! was the refrain. All of these guys nursed a fantasy, as quaintly surreal as an old tinted postcard, of a perfectible world in which we might have sex outside our primary relationships and say that it doesn’t mean anything.

Yikes. Let’s just say, the piece goes down hill from there. The bold emphasis above is mine; it illustrates the classic fallacy of what I call the “myth of male weakness”. Here’s how the fallacy works:

1. Men naturally desire sexual variety.
2. That desire for sexual variety is very strong.
3. That desire is, in fact, so strong that it can never be resisted, and in the end, will always trump the will. It’s only a matter of time. Continue reading

Royal Wedding, Take Two: the sermon, the hats, the kerfuffle

We had planned for 20 guests, but in the end several who had promised to come to our royal wedding party found the early (or late) hour too much of a stretch. A dozen of our friends did make it over at 1:00AM California time this morning to watch the royal wedding. We offered tea and scones, Stilton and Plymouth gin. We had a wonderful time, enjoying the build-up as well as the ceremony itself. I tried to explain the intricacies of the British class system to our guests, but gave up; it was an overask for the middle of the night.

I’ve explained my fondness for the royal family before, noting the distinction between respect and undue reverence. Both American and British, I’m comfortable with moving in two different cultures — though I am certainly at my core more coastal Californian than anything else. (I feel more at home in L.A. than in London. But I feel more at home in London or Exeter or Durham than I do in Bakersfield or Baton Rouge or Boise. My thoroughly cosmopolitan wife feels much the same way.) My brother, raised as I was in the same places, feels English, and has chosen to make his home in the land that saved my father’s family from destruction.

I posted on Facebook about the wedding, and “live-tweeted” my response to various happy aspects of the ceremony (like Princess Beatrice’s splendid hat and Bishop Chartres’ wise homily). I was stunned by the vehemence of some of my friends and acquaintances who were not only uninterested in the goings on at Westminster (perfectly understandable) but nakedly hostile to the entire event. I knew it was coming: on this Feministe thread, some commenters were unhappy that a feminist blog celebrated the wedding uncritically. And a few Facebook friends of mine went further, insisting that progressive politics were fundamentally incompatible with affection for the monarchy. It got a bit heated.

I like Dan Hodges’ bit in the Guardian today: We needn’t be royal wedding party poopers just because we’re leftwing. Hodges wrote: What we saw today wasn’t a celebration of aristocratic privilege. It was a celebration of a shared heritage. A heritage that is owned as much by the left as by the right. I agree.

As for the sermon by the Bishop of London, it was splendid. My favorite bit:

Marriage should transform, as husband and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform as long as we do not harbour ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom. Chaucer, the London poet, sums it up in a pithy phrase:

“Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon,
Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon.”

As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.

Bold mine. (And I’d add that this is true of any enduring commitment, including those between two people of the same sex. What is needed is the complementarity of spirits and hearts, not necessarily the complementarity of male and female.) We all need reminding that no other person can be the sole, or even primary, source of our joy.

“I’m not faithful because I love my wife. I’m faithful because I love myself.”

You’re working in the modeling industry now? Good thing your wife is both beautiful and tough; that must help you stay faithful.

— a (now deleted) Facebook comment that appeared yesterday on my link to my post about the Perfectly Unperfected Project.

I got that comment just as I read an email from a good friend of mine, who wrote:

I saw Geraldo (Rivera) on Oprah talking about his past as a playboy. He is now married for the fifth time to a gorgeous woman at least 30 years younger than him. He says that he has put an end to his womanizing because she is “all the woman he needs” and that he no longer “needs” to look anywhere else. I’m sure, at least on the surface, his wife takes this as a compliment. But I was disturbed by it. The obvious implication is that his affairs were due at least in part to his previous wives not being “enough” for him

This isn’t a post about Geraldo, or about my new work within the modeling industry. It’s about fidelity.

I am not faithful to my wife merely because she is beautiful. I am not faithful to my wife because I am afraid that she will beat me up (she is a kickboxer) if I cheat. I am not faithful to my wife because I have a reputation to uphold, and I know that my career(s) depend on my living out my professed values in my private life. Make no mistake, I am in awe of my wife’s enduring loveliness; I am keenly aware of her physical strength, and the thought of a divorce makes me shudder. And of course, I know damn well that my work as a mentor, a writer, a public speaker on issues of gender, relationships, sexuality and self-image hinges on my ability to be whom I claim to be. But none of these things are the real reason I’m faithful.

Like Geraldo, I’ve been married several times. Like Geraldo, I was a cheat, chronically unfaithful for many years. My cheating, however, never had anything to do with the beauty or the personalities of the women with whom I was in what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship. I cheated for other reasons, many of them: I cheated because I wanted validation, I cheated because I liked “new skin” (the chimera of everlasting novelty), I cheated because I wanted to prove that I wasn’t the dorky awkward kid I had once been (see Mick Hucknall, whose story reads very familiar to me), I cheated because cheating kept me safe from becoming too dependent on one relationship. I cheated because I was afraid. I cheated because I could.

My infidelity and promiscuity were not the fault of the women to whom I was committed. I didn’t cheat because they were insufficiently beautiful, or because we didn’t have sex often enough (or the right kind of sex.) Nothing — nothing that they did or didn’t do could have kept me from cheating because I was in the throes of a compulsion that I alone had the responsibility to solve.

I learned how to be faithful from my late mentor and Twelve Step sponsor, Jack. Jack had been unfaithful to his wife in his drinking days before coming to AA. In AA, his sponsor told him “You need to start being faithful to your wife.” Jack complained, “But how can I be faithful? I don’t even think I love her!” His sponsor snorted. “Of course you don’t love her. You don’t know what love is yet. But the reason to be faithful isn’t because of her. It’s because you made a promise. You owe it to yourself to be the kind of man who keeps his promises. If you cheat, you cheat on yourself first. And if you know you’re a cheater, you set yourself up to drink.”

“Oh”, Jack said. He told that story to me and to countless other sponsees over the course of his nearly four decades of working a program. And he learned to be faithful to — and to love — that same wife.

Jack’s story and mine were different in many ways. But what he impressed upon me all those years ago has stuck with me ever since. When we make a promise to someone, we make a statement about ourselves. We’re saying that we’re the sort of people who can make promises — and keep them. So when we cheat on a spouse or anyone else with whom we’re in a monogamous relationship, we’re breaking the promise we made to ourselves. As I wrote in another post, we become what we pledged not to be. And we don’t become what we pledged not to be — a liar and a cheater — without doing serious harm to our own self-worth. (Aristotle pointed this out, back in the day.)

I don’t stay faithful to Eira because I love her. I stay faithful because I love myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my wife: I do, with all my heart. But the feeling of love waxes and wanes in any marriage. If I am faithful out of love for her, I do what Geraldo did in his Oprah interview: I shift responsibility for my own actions away from myself and on to my wife. It’s not her job to keep me faithful, either by being lovable or by being sexy. If another woman tries to seduce me, that’s poor behavior on her part– but another’s enticement doesn’t absolve an adult man from responsibility for his actions. Men are not so vulnerable individually and collectively that the very fabric of society can only be held together through women’s sexual self-control. That’s the myth of male weakness: the false notion that women are biologically “stronger” than men when it comes to the capacity to resist sexual temptation.

All of my sexual and romantic energy flows towards my wife, not simply because I love her (which I do) but because I believe in what it is that we are accomplishing together. I believe in our partnership, but I also believe in myself. I know myself well enough to know that I am a man of great passion, but also a man who thrives best in a committed, monogamous relationship. (Hence the penchant for marrying early and often.) But I couldn’t really bring what I needed to bring to a monogamous relationship until I grasped that it wasn’t the job of love, or desire, or a woman to keep me faithful. Fidelity was and is all about me, not because I’m a narcissist, but because my capacity to love my wife and my daughter and my students and my business partners and my friends and my family and the whole damn world rests on my capacity to love myself. And if I love myself, I will be the sort of man who honors his commitments when it’s easy, and when it’s tough. I know how painful it is to be a liar and a fraud; that awareness more than anything else drove me to the point of suicide. And I’ve come to know how good it is to live a congruent life, where my words and actions cohere.

I love my wife. But that love is not what keeps me faithful. The love that keeps me faithful is the love for the man whom I was called to be.

Kate, William, Charles, Diana, and Camilla: a note about love, age, progress and compatibility

Count me among those who felt a twinge of excitement when the news broke Tuesday of the long-awaited engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton. This excitement has very little to do with being a British citizen. For all intents and purposes, I am culturally American — but Americans have a long-standing fascination with the House of Windsor and their goings-on, and in that regard I am no different from most.

I can’t help but do what so many are doing, which is compare this engagement announcement to the one that came nearly thirty years ago from William’s parents, Charles and Diana. As I’ve written before, I was not quite fourteen when I first saw the future Princess of Wales on television, and I promptly fell into the strongest and most passionate celebrity crush of my adolescence, surpassing even Kristy McNichol. Like millions of others, I stayed up all night on a warm summer evening in July 1981 to watch live coverage of the royal wedding from London. I was absolutely captivated, my normal pubescent cynicism replaced by wide-eyed and unabashed romantic fascination. I never quite lost my fascination with Diana over the years, and when I learned of her death (in Manchester Airport, just after I had arrived in the UK to give a paper) I was rocked to my core. Though it always surprises people when I say it, I consider the events of 9/11 to be only the second most shocking news event of my life; the first happened four years earlier in a Paris tunnel.

In 1981, much was made of Diana’s purported virginity. Much was also made, but hardly ever in a critical way, of the age gap between Lady Spencer and Prince Charles. He was 32 when they were engaged, she had just turned 19. And much would be made, in retrospect, of their painful awkwardness together, including their infamous answers to an interviewer who inquired whether the couple were very much in love; Diana offered a blushing “Of course”, Charles, a devastatingly diffident “Whatever love is.” As we would eventually discover, he was already very much in love with the woman to whom he is at last now married, Camilla Parker-Bowles.

The difference between the Charles/Diana and William/Kate engagements — and more importantly, between the relationships themselves — says a great deal about the evolution of our society in the past thirty years. Very few people think Kate Middleton is a virgin, and no one in their right mind likely cares. Equally important is the difference in the narrative arc of the two courtships: Diana and Charles were the poster children for rushing into something, while Kate and William have been very much young people of their generation, showing no interest in hurrying to the altar. As most folks know, the young couple have dated for eight years since meeting at university, and took a much-publicized “break” along the way. A great many young people in the Western world today will be able to identify with such an extended courtship that has had such obvious ups-and-downs. The sensible modern idea that sexual compatibility should be determined before marriage, and deep intimacy already established before walking down the aisle, is made manifest in the story of newly engaged couple. This is to be applauded.

And of course, I’m pleased that we’ve got a marriage between chronological peers. While Diana was thirteen years Charles’ junior, Kate is six months older than William. I’ve made the case again and again that older men/younger women relationships, for all their culturally-constructed allure, are frequently problematic, even exploitative. This is especially true when the younger woman is below, say, the age of 25 while the man involved is a decade or more her senior. (As was very much the case with Charles.) It certainly ended disastrously for Diana, not merely because her husband was unfaithful, but because she and the Prince of Wales were, like so many other age-disparate couples, manifestly incompatible. It’s no surprise that the great love of Charles’ life, Camilla Parker-Bowles, was his same age (actually, as with Kate and Wills slightly older than the prince.)

While attraction, fueled by fantasy and need, can offer flourish across a significant age divide, deep and enduring romantic compatibility can rarely survive that divide when the younger partner hasn’t even reached full adulthood. (And the rental car companies are right — most of us, as the brain research suggests, need until our mid-twenties to hit that full adulthood.) Charles lacked the courage to push against the culture and the palace in order to marry the woman he loved, but the heartbreaking example of his tragic first marriage seems to have made a considerable impression on his elder son and future daughter-in-law. Kate and William, despite colossal media pressure, have allowed their relationship to unfold slowly, have allowed themselves their very public doubts, and have built a bond based on both the eros and shared experience of the sort that is really only possible with a generational peer.

As a feminist, I worry for Kate — but I’m hopeful as well. Diana tried to fashion a more modern vision of royalty, and met with spectacularly mixed success. Middleton will face tremendous pressure to conform to a traditional ideal, and the fear is real that she may find her individuality disappearing behind the royal veil. But if she and William can be as different from his parents in their married roles as they were in their engagement process, then there is real hope that she can be a more modern and egalitarian icon than we’ve yet seen.

So here’s to their marriage, but more so, here’s to the route they’re taking to get there.

Feelings aren’t facts: on friendship, fidelity, and fleeting fancies

I’ve written before on male-female friendship, most notably here. The short answer to the old question “can men and women be friends?” is “yes”, and there’s a part of me that’s always astounded when I run into serious adults who say otherwise.

I was reminded of my old post and the larger debate when I saw this series appear at Slate over the past ten days: Strictly Platonic: Friendships Between Men and Women. Slate offers several articles dealing with a variety of issues that arise around male-female non-romantic friendship, and there are some well-written contributions from both halves of these pairings. I enjoyed reading all of the short essays, and recommend them. (Including a nice explanation of how Plato gets dragged into the whole thing.)

I especially appreciated this Juliet Lapidos post on sexual desire within friendship.

This past winter I asked Slate readers to fill out a survey on “platonic friendship.” I said I was looking for subjects with a “platonic friend,” so it’s unsurprising that more than half of the 549 respondents who answered all of the relevant questions profess no attraction of any kind—they’ve never had sex with their friend, never talked about sex, and never thought seriously about it. Just over 5 percent are on the opposite extreme, and report significant sexual tension or ongoing sex. There’s a range of experience in the middle—mostly versions of the dating-to-friendship narrative, or accounts of fleeting romantic interest.

The survey indicates that the question “Are straight men and women able to forget sex and engage in a truly non-romantic fashion?” is too narrow. It’s wrong to think of platonic friendship as a binary proposition—in which couples either avoid sex entirely and make the relationship work, or they don’t and it doesn’t.Sexual feeling within friendship exists on a Kinsey-type scale, and moderate attraction does not necessarily ruin or invalidate the relationship.

Bold emphasis mine.

I think that last sentence is vital. Many folks will admit that friendships between men and women can exist and thrive, but only in those instances where neither party has any sexual attraction to the other. But according to this view, if flashes of mutual desire surface, the friendship will inevitably transition into a sexual relationship or the friendship will end. If just one party “wants something more”, the strain of that wanting will invariably create a barrier between the two erstwhile friends, driving them apart with guilt and resentment. Or so the pop psychology argument goes.

First of all, this argument ignores the very real human capacity to weigh costs and benefits and consider friendship to be a particularly valuable example of the latter. Sticking with the heterosexual examples, a man and a woman might both be pledged to other people in monogamous romantic relationship. They might both be deeply invested in those relationships and in honoring the commitments they made. The two friends might also be keenly aware that if they were each single, then a very different kind of relationship would involve between them. Continue reading