Gather ye rosebuds: the Onion spoofs the good man crisis

A couple of people sent me the link last week to this hilarious Onion News Network video: Obama Releases 500,000 men from the National Strategic Bachelor Reserve. (You’ll need to watch a very short ad first before the two-minute spoof starts. There is mild profanity within the video as well.) The report speaks of an “Eligible Male Task Force” designed to combat the critical shortage of “Men who are Looking for Something Serious,” and the graphics are splendid. (There’s even a subtle jab at Henry Waxman, my splendid congressman). Watch it all twice.

It’s been nearly a quarter-century since the “man shortage” became a topic of national media hype. The genesis of the scare was a single Newsweek article from June 1986: Too Late for Prince Charming?

The traumatic news came buried in an arid demographic study titled, innocently enough, “Marriage Patterns in the United States.” But the dire statistics confirmed what everybody suspected all along: that many women who seem to have it all—good looks and good jobs, advanced degrees and high salaries—will never have mates. According to the report, white, college-educated women born in the mid-’50s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent. Forty-year-olds are more likely to be killed by a terrorist: they have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot.

That whopping bit of hyperbole in bold (as if there’s ever been a 2.6% chance of being killed by a terrorist) became the “killer quote” that drove the whole discussion. Even when the report (as well as the rhetorical overkill about it) was debunked, the fears that the Elaine Salholz article aroused remained. Nearly 25 years later, I still occasionally hear people use that “greater chance of being killed by a terrorist than meeting a good guy” trope.

The most savvy exploiters of the fears the Salholz piece aroused were social conservatives, who saw the chance to blame feminism for the “problem.” Women, right-wingers argued, needed to honor immutable biological truths, starting with the fact that both their fertility and their desirability peak in their late teens and early twenties. Rather than being misled by feminists into focusing on education and career, young women should leverage their sexual and reproductive power when it is at its maximum, while they can still “land a good man.” (Robert Herrick, call your office.) The conservative message was simple: focusing on career and personal fulfillment when you’re young in the expectation of easily finding a man when you’re ready to settle down was a recipe for heartache and loneliness. The feminists are lying to you, the far right said; we’re telling you the truth. Look at the facts.

Except the facts didn’t turn out to be true, as countless follow-up reports on the “marriage crunch” demonstrated. The marriage crunch, if it exists as a problem at all, is found among those least likely to go to college. Those who have most successfully made use of feminism’s promise are more likely to wed (and have children after marriage rather than before) than their poorer sisters. Even the social conservatives have changed their tune, pointing out that the marriage culture is thriving among urban liberal “elites” while it falls apart among the white and non-white urban and rural working classes. (This time, it’s feminism’s fault for making working-class men without college educations feel useless and unappreciated. The villain always remains the same.) Continue reading

Five years with Herschel

A personal post.

This Saturday, my wife and I will mark our fifth wedding anniversary.

As I’ve written at other times, I do as much as I can on this blog to honor my wife’s privacy. I am, at least in a small way, a public person. I write frequently about myself, not because I am so terribly interesting but because my experiences have played a vital role in shaping my world view. I have also been blessed to experience transformation and redemption; I am in an ongoing conversion process that continues to bring surprise. But some of what I share is, for lack of a better term, shocking to a few readers.

My academic interests revolve around faith and feminism, God and sex; the personal and the ideological and the vocational are all intertwined in my work. That makes it more obvious that I would write about the personal — but that doesn’t make me an easy person to whom to be married. Though Eira herself only checks in on my blog on occasion, our friends and her family are among my regular readers. She fields plenty of curious questions, though fewer than she did when I first started blogging.

This fourth and final marriage has now lasted nearly as long as my first three put together. The temptation to draw comparison between this relationship and those that came before recedes steadily; my wife and I are in uncharted territory not just chronologically, but emotionally, sexually, and spiritually. We have had our storms and our stresses, including all the familiar trials that come with parenting. But we’ve navigated through those tempests, motivated as we each are by deep love and a relentless commitment to building something extraordinary.

If you know my wife, you know she’s a force of nature. Eira is tall and strong, a former soccer star and kickboxer, a jock and a businesswoman. She does confrontation better than anyone I’ve ever known; I’ve watched her intimidate prima donna celebrities and their agents into stunned silence during negotiations. One of my many nicknames for my beautiful partner is “Herschel”. Herschel Walker was a star running back for the Georgia Bulldogs, Minnesota Vikings, and Dallas Cowboys. I remember that when he won the Heisman trophy in 1982, Walker was asked what he wanted to do after football. “I want to join the FBI”, he said. When asked why, Herschel replied “Because I like to meet people. And in the FBI, you get to go out and meet people — whether they like it or not.” That seems to capture my wife’s unyielding but indisputably charming gregariousness.

Eira is also one of the kindest and gentlest people I’ve ever met, and of course, those qualities shine most (though not only) with our daughter. There are few joys comparable, I think, to watching the person you love most in the world nurture the child you made together. As is common wisdom, becoming a parent changes a relationship dramatically. Heloise’s arrival in our lives 19 months ago turned everything predictably upside down, but it made us a stronger, better team. We’re actually accomplishing more together than we were before the baby came; parenthood has forced us to be ever better stewards of our own and each other’s time.

Intimacy changes. Last night, we both had loads of work to do when we got home. I got Heloise fed and ready for bed, and then Eira put her to sleep (a fairly lengthy process). She had late night conference calls with colleagues abroad; I had writing to do. Before disappearing into separate rooms, each of us clutching a baby monitor, we sat for a moment on the couch. We checked in, held hands, shared our days. Then we leaned in, touching foreheads, recharging together, resting in the certainty of everything we are and everything we’ve built. And with a whispered “see you tomorrow”, we went off to our duties and to our five hours of sleep.

Not everyone’s ideal of marriage is the same (and many, of course, don’t have a marriage ideal, nor do they need one). We have the requisite love and desire. But more importantly, what Eira and I have after five years as spouses and eight years as a couple is a sustained vision for transforming the world around us. For us, marriage is a kind of spiritual docking station to which we each return after running down our batteries in our many wonderful, interesting, occasionally tedious and often exhausting tasks. We are shoulder to shoulder and oar to oar more than eye to eye — but as it turns out, shoulder to shoulder seems to be the best way for us to be heart to heart.

I have been blessed by second, third, fourth, and ninety-seventh chances. I’m blessed by the gift of being able to learn the lessons of a troubled past without being incapacitated by the memory of pain. What was is not the best predictor of what will be, despite the conventional wisdom. I have never been happier or more confident, never felt more certain of what it is I am called to do in the world. My favorite poem these past few years has been Justice’s “Men at Forty”. These final lines are not just about me, but about Eira as well — she too feels what the poet describes here:

Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

We are being filled. Whatever image you prefer, we are climbing the mountain together, rowing across the sea together, pushing, as Lewis so famously said, “further up and further in”. Together, with our breathtaking daughter at our side or in our arms, we’re crossing over, ascending, answering the call we both hear.

My wife, my partner, my best friend, my love, my “Herschel”, my Eira. Thank you for your faith, your passion, your tenderness, your relentless, your stern conviction. Thank you for your forgiveness and your humor and your sweat and your fire.

Thank you for pledging your life to this “lightwork” five years ago. Happy anniversary.

Fighting from the uncorrupted self: more on conflict in feminist heterosexual relationships

I’m writing a lot about men this week.

Below yesterday’s reprint about men being unable to articulate their deep emotions, Brian writes:

Reconciling some kind of commitment to egalitarianism with the conflict between how it plays out in practice with how people say it ought to isn’t very obvious, or straightforward… how can you reconcile “Figure out what you want, and require it” with “renounce male privilege”? Doesn’t sit right in the gut, you know?

I appreciate the question, and I see the concern.

In any healthy relationship, we don’t get to confuse our “wants” with what we “require” from our partners. The oldest truism in the book is that relationships require compromise. But compromise in heterosexual egalitarian relationships does involve several key things that aren’t always fully understood.

First of all, as I’ve written before, we (all of us, men and women alike) need to work on fighting fair. Part of that involves the recognition that it is very unlikely that in any given argument, all the truth is found on just one side. People tend to end up in relationships with partners who are more or less at their own level of spiritual and emotional health, which means that the propensity to be wrong is likely to be evenly distributed. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that the batterer and the batterree are equally at fault for the violence that happens in the relationship, but they may be equally at fault for the issues that were being fought over at the time the battering took place.)

Years ago, in my brief incarnation as a hardcore evangelical, I read Intimate Allies: Rediscovering God’s Design for Marriage and Becoming Soul Mates for Life, a book written by two Christian pastors. It has as its chief virtue a belief in mutual submission; the authors reject the “man is head of the household” trope, understanding that when it comes to marriage, Ephesians 5:21 trumps Ephesians 5:22. I remember one line that was very helpful, but since I don’t have the book with me anymore, I’m likely to misquote it. The authors, Allender and Longman, suggested that a marriage couldn’t work unless each party could honestly acknowledge the other’s essential sinfulness. To put it in secular terms, until you can see your spouse’s most serious flaws, and acknowledge they are real, you can’t truly love him or her, chiefly because you’ll be unable to help them do the valuable work of becoming a better person. Allender and Longman suggested that at least some of the time, it is well-meaning men who have the most trouble with this, believing that truly loving their wives means never noticing any flaw. Marriage requires forgiveness, they wrote, but not a refusal to see where someone else is broken. And women, the authors noted, have just as much brokenness as men. The tendency to put women on a pedestal is well-meaning and foolish at best, demeaning and destructive at worst.

For men who are feminist allies (and not evangelical conservatives), is there any usefulness in what Allender and Longman are discussing? Yes. If you’re a feminist man in a heterosexual relationship, you know that both you and your female partner have been impacted by a sexist, often misogynistic culture. You know already how hard it is to root out the inculcated expectations about gender roles. And you may know the important idea we discussed on this blog last fall, that “privilege conceals itself from those who possess it.” But rather than be incapacitated by this awareness, we need to remember that our knowledge of how gender dynamics work is a tool for better understanding ourselves and our relationships. What we get from this knowledge and this work is, one hopes, discernment: the ability to distinguish what about our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (and that of our partner) is sexist role-playing and what are the needs of our own authentic self.

Not to verge dangerously onto philosophical ground, but I think most of us (even if we haven’t read Plato or been washed in the Blood of the Lamb) think we have a “true self” somewhere deep inside, somewhere deeper than the corrupting influences of a sexist patriarchal culture could reach. Overcoming sexism or racism is about overcoming learned lessons, not about changing our very nature. The fact that the lessons began to be taught before our conscious memory doesn’t change the fact that they were learned after birth rather than encoded in our genes or written on our hearts. And the feminist man in an argument with his female partner needs to remember that both he and the woman he loves have had their perspectives warped by society — and that each of them has an uncorrupted self which is no more or less valuable than that of the other. Those born with penises were not maimed from the start, carrying from their mothers’ wombs obtuse and violent hearts. (Sorry, William B.)

Obviously, we can’t unlearn everything. It would be absurd to say that fair fighting requires each person to speak from their “pure, true, untainted selves.” Deprogramming ourselves is always going to remain partly aspirational. As good as we get at purging the effects of the toxic soup in which our younger selves marinated for so long, we’re not going to finish the job in this lifetime. But we do our best. And when I, as a feminist man, fight with my wife (and we do fight), I remember that we both are still struggling to unlearn what we were taught. As I wrote last October:

Sometimes my wife is wrong. (Yes, my love, you are, even if it’s only every fifth Tuesday.) Sometimes I am right. We quarrel like any couple, though our experiences have given us tools like “fair fighting rules” that not everyone, alas, possesses. We know that in our marriage, each of us is equally important, each of us is entitled to his or her opinion, each of us deserves to be heard. But we also know that we didn’t come into this marriage as disembodied souls; we brought in our gender identities, our class backgrounds, our skin tones, our multi-generational family histories. And just as it’s absurd to pretend that we’ve come from equally privileged backgrounds, it is equally absurd to pretend that those backgrounds have not at least in part shaped our worldviews. Again, power obfuscates; oppression clarifies. So when the topic at hand is gender dynamics or race or class, the epistemic privilege is not mine. And thus the burden to reflect just a bit harder, is.

But not every fight is going to be about gender dynamics or race or class. And even when it is, the burden to reflect just a bit harder doesn’t mean the burden of always being in the wrong.

A follow-up on monogamy, a response to IP

After I wrote last month’s “positive definition of monogamy” post, I got a long and thoughtful response from Irrational Point, who blogs at Modus Dopens. IP’s critique of my position that monogamy is a uniquely effective vehicle for personal growth centered around my apparent unwillingness to acknowledge that polyamorous or “open fidelity” relationships could be, for some people, equally successful models for that kind of growth.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know very many folks who have been in long-term, sustained polyamorous relationships. I’ve known lots of folks who’ve been poly for a few years, but none who’ve done it for, say, a dozen years or more. I’d love to hear from folks who have practiced romantic and sexual commitment to more than one person over a period of many years, and learn from them how the opportunities and challenges of the poly lifestyle (I know, the term “lifestyle” grates) have been catalysts for personal growth. I’m genuinely curious.

I do take seriously another of IP’s criticisms. Monogamy is historically rooted in heteronormativity. Our language about commitment remains inseparable from the language of traditional marriage. Indeed, one of the reasons I’ve been such a strong supporter of marriage equality for gays and lesbians is because of my passionate commitment to monogamy. Of course, I don’t think for a minute that monogamy and legal marriage need always be synonymous. It’s perfectly possible to make and honor commitments without state sanction.

It’s also true that the idea of companionate marriage as a vehicle for mutual growth is a relatively recent one. Marriage itself, as researchers like the indispensable Stephanie Coontz have pointed out, has evolved and metamorphosized in extraordinary ways. It certainly wasn’t always an institution designed to bring emotional growth and fulfillment to its participants.

Marriage also wasn’t always an institution closely correlated with monogamy. Though polyandrous (one woman,many husbands) marriages were rare, polygamy and marriage have obviously gone together, and in some places, still do. And even where monogamy was expected, husbands were often expected (or at least permitted) to stray with few if any serious repercussions. Thus my enthusiasm for marriage is entirely for one particular modern understanding of the institution, one that comes with an expectation of mutual monogamy as a challenging, useful, and life-enhancing discipline.

As a feminist, I am acutely conscious of the ways in which the “yoke” of marriage (to borrow Christian language) has been particularly burdensome for women. I’m also aware of our cultural myth that men are naturally promiscuous, women naturally monogamous. That myth suggests that men are thus more reluctant to commit to marriage (or its equivalent). It suggests that if a woman does find a man who is willing and capable of being sexually faithful to her, she should be bloody grateful and not ask for much else. One of the many insidious ways in which the myth of male weakness works is to suggest to women that monogamy is such an incredibly difficult sacrifice for most men that if a wife is fortunate enough to have a faithful husband, she ought to give him a pass on everything else. That lie needs regular repudiation.

As I argued in my May 11 post , however, we need to see that monogamy is more than sexual fidelity. It’s not enough to not fuck other people, or have emotional affairs with them. I think that the case I made for monogamy transcends heterosexuality. I’m not sure, however, it can encompass polyamory. On the other hand, I’m not sure that it can’t. On that latter score, I’d like to hear more.

“A relentless catalyst for the other’s growth”: a positive definition of monogamy

What does monogamy look like?

I got that question, phrased precisely that way, from a friend recently. He wasn’t asking for a definition, and he wasn’t asking for a defense of the institution. He was asking about living it out in practice.

I told my friend I wasn’t necessarily the best person to ask; though long a defender of the principle, until well into my thirties I proved capable of honoring monogamy only in the breach. Fidelity didn’t come naturally to me, something I’ve noted before. My friend told me that this was precisely why he was asking who it was he was asking — I had a “before and after” story he found moderately compelling, and he trusted that my relationship with my wife today is as it appears to be: faithful on both sides.

I’ve touched on this issue before in various posts, but I’ll summarize a bit today. First off, monogamy needs a positive definition. It can’t be summed up by what one doesn’t do with other people. I’ve never liked the “I’m monogamous because when I’m in a relationship I’m not sexual with other people” stance, not because I disagree with the statement, but because it’s far too limiting. Monogamy is about where we direct our physical and emotional and sexual energy, and not just where we don’t. In other words, monogamy is as much about single-minded devotion to one other person as it is about scrupulously avoiding sex (or emotional affairs) with others. If the energy isn’t flowing towards our partner, then we can’t claim we’re really monogamous if all we’re doing is keeping it bottled up. Monogamy and sexual self-denial are very different beasts.

Bottom line: monogamy is as much about how I love my wife as it is about how I don’t express that particular kind of love to others. It is defined by intensity as much as by exclusivity. That intensity has waxed and waned over our nearly eight years together; it has been profoundly impacted by the birth of our daughter. But it remains more than shared bank accounts and parenting duties and the enduring pledge not to be sexual or romantic with others. Our relationship is, at its core, a contract of mutual support and a pledge to act as a relentless catalyst for the other’s growth. And if you know me, or you know my wife, you know just how relentless we can be.

Seventeen May 4ths ago — a dream fulfilled, a friendship lost

Tra la! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
That darling month when ev’ryone throws
Self-control away.
It’s time to do
A wretched thing or two,
And try to make each precious day
One you’ll always rue!


Seventeen years ago today, I started dating the woman who would become my second wife. I’d met Sara at a Twelve Step meeting in the summer of 1991. I was a year into my troubled first marriage and, at the time, just over a year clean and sober. Sara and I shared the same sponsor, and we became fast friends.

I fell in love with Sara very quickly. I’d had affairs while engaged to the woman who became my first wife, and that behavior hadn’t stopped after we’d gotten married. (This raises the excellent question of why I wanted to get married in the first place, which is another story). I never attempted anything with Sara, however. Rather, from the summer of 1991 until the summer of 1992, I spent as much time as I could with her and our friends in the program, minimizing my time in what was a very unhappy and frustrating marriage. (For which I take full responsibility. I was a wretched, manipulative, passive-aggressive, dishonest cad. I operated under the noxious principle that my own pain was so great it served to exculpate me from any pain I might cause others.)

Sara and I talked on the phone daily; I became her confidante and best friend. She figured out that I had a crush on her, but made it clear (in subtle and unspoken ways) that she didn’t reciprocate. Eventually, I left my first wife at the urging of the sponsor whom Sara and I shared; my sponsor told me, wisely enough, that I needed to find a way to be faithful in my marriage or I needed to end it. I chose to end the marriage in July 1992.

Sara and I grew closer, but even after I was single, I never attempted to start a relationship with her. I was terrified of losing the friendship, and was certain that her love for me was entirely platonic. So I pursued other romantic adventures, TAed classes, prepared for my doctoral exams, edited UCLA’s Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and lost a lot of weight. I dreamed about Sara at night, fantasized about a life with her, and kept it all to myself. ‘Twas a familiar story of unrequited graduate student longing.

On May 4, 1993, Sara invited me to her apartment in Brentwood, a few miles from campus. We had a weekly Tuesday night dinner arrangement, and these occasions were the highlights of my week. Sara and I would laugh and talk and gossip about the program; we would read poetry together and eat fat-free cookies for dessert. (Remember the “fat-free” craze of the early 1990s, long before the Atkins outbreak of a few years later?) That Tuesday night, Sara took my hand as soon as dinner was finished, and in a gentle, trembling voice told me that she had feelings for me. She explained that she’d always known how much I’d loved her, but while I was married, she’d blocked them completely. As we’d become closer friends in the months since I’d been separated from my wife, Sara explained that she’d begun, slowly, to reciprocate the feelings I had for her. She was in love with me, she told me that night, and wanted to know if we could start seeing each other in a new way.

I made it home to my apartment a little before five the next morning. I wrote in my journal as soon as I got in: “Yesterday was the best day of my life. I have never been happier.” And for the next week or two, I was walking on air. The dream of everyone who has an unrequited crush on a friend is that that friend will suddenly fall in love with them as well. It rarely happens. But it happened to me, and I was over the moon with joy.

The relationship, I’ll note, was an utter disaster. Sara and I had been magically close as friends; we were awful as lovers. It’s not that the sex was bad, but that our capacity to communicate seemed irrevocably compromised by romantic intimacy. What had flourished so easily in our platonic relationship collapsed very quickly under the weight of something very different. But we persevered. We were both — and here is the point of the post — desperate to make things work because to admit failure would have been to lose the friendship that had been the relationship’s genesis. Sara and I both felt we had no choice but to keep trying. And we spiraled downwards fast.

We were engaged before my first divorce was final, and we were married in a lavish Palm Springs wedding in the autumn of 1994. We were separated twenty months later, following my relapse after more than six years of sobriety. I haven’t laid eyes on Sara since she kissed me goodbye in a hospital in June 1996, and she remains the only ex of mine to whom I have been unable to make amends or even attempt closure. I do know that Sara ended up moving in with a woman just weeks after I saw her last. Where she lives now, I have no idea, and in this technology-saturated age, have resisted the temptation to find out. (UPDATE: A more recent post about her “coming out” here.)

A few years after we separated, a psychic told me that Sara and I were supposed to be brother and sister in this lifetime. That, the psychic explained, was the source of our intense platonic bond — and the explanation for why our romantic relationship had proved so catastrophic. “Your souls knew you were committing incest”, the psychic said, “even if you weren’t consciously aware of it.” That sounds like a lot of woo, but the point was a fair one. Sara and I had been such dear friends, so devoted to one another, that each of us had developed the fantasy that we could easily transition into an equally devoted and intense love affair. I developed the fantasy early; she developed it late, but we both came to believe in it.

And when we found that the chemistry we’d had as platonic friends turned poisonous in a sexualized context, our disillusionment and bewilderment was profound. I’ve never said such hurtful things to a partner as I said to Sara; nor have I ever been on the receiving end of hateful diatribes like the ones my second wife delivered to me. But our rage, I came to see years later, was rooted in a profound sense of mutual betrayal. Each of us blamed the other for not keeping the initial relationship as it ought to have been. Each of us clung to the illusion that we could make things work. It ended very badly.

One of the many small blessings of that second marriage was that it ended my habit of getting crushes on female friends. It’s a common dynamic: boy meets girl, boy projects a huge fantasy onto girl, girl just wants to be friends, things muddle on in a state of awkwardness. (Lots of boys in these instances have “Nice Guy” syndrome, rooted in a sense of frustrated entitlement.) I had these unreciprocated crushes and obsessions on and off for years, from 16 to 26, on perhaps half-a-dozen close female friends. Finally, with Sara, my most fervent wish came true. And the aftermath was sufficiently ugly that it served to cure me of the habit.

I could have posted about other things today. But for some reason, the date echoed in my head when I woke up this morning. More traditional posting coming soon.

Rebounds and transition figures: doing it right after a divorce

Another email, from Mallory. She writes:

I was married at 27 to my college sweetheart. This man checked all of the boxes dreamed of on the surface – doctor, boy scout-esque from a nice family – all of the family, etc. were thrilled when we were married. However, quite quickly after the wedding things fell apart and he told me essentially that he was not ready to grow-up and had to go find himself. I picked up the pieces, moved to another country with a business opportunity, and started over.

I started dating a man that is very fun, we have a great time together; he’s one year younger, we are very attracted to each other, he stimulates me intellectually and I care about him a great deal. However, I do not see it going towards a serious relationship and/or marriage. This is primarily for a mis-match in ambition levels, he is not willing to move countries, and I am not convinced he is fully ready to take on the responsibilities of a relationship on that level (needless to say a big sticking point after the last relationship).

Currently I do not want to be married, but I am ready to care for someone deeply again.
Being in my 30s, divorced, but not interested in dating lots of men, I feel like it should be okay to have a lighthearted relationship – but I cannot quite shake this feeling of maybe looking like the overweight, middle aged comb-over guy in the red Porsche when dating someone I have no intention of being serious about.

When does it become counter productive to engage in flippant relationships? Am I listening to society too much, or not enough to my gut?

Though I am fond of marriage (I’ve done it four times), I don’t think lifelong monogamous commitments are the only sort of relationships worth pursuing. I’ve come to believe, instead, that at different seasons of our life we may need different sorts of relationships to help us grow. And one of the most important kinds of relationships we can have after a divorce is with a “transition figure” who can help us process the lingering wounds and doubts that almost always remain in the aftermath of the end of a marriage.

I’m not talking about using people. I’m not talking about relying on one’s own pain as an excuse to deal cavalierly and recklessly with another human being. One basic dating maxim for grown-ups: our past history of suffering doesn’t vitiate our responsibility to avoid hurting others. It’s not enough to simply say “I’m on the rebound, watch out!” and then, having broken the heart of the person with whom we rebounded, to exclaim “What did you expect? I was on the rebound!” Nothing we’ve endured gives us the right to disregard our responsibility to consider how a sexual relationship we’re having may affect the other person emotionally. Misleading another person into believing that what is temporary might turn out to be permanent is bad form indeed, particularly for those old enough to know better.

That said, I think there’s a distinction between a “rebound” and a “transition relationship”. The difference lies in three things: our willingness to assume complete responsibility for our own actions, our honesty — in both word and deed — with the other person about what we can and can’t offer, and our own internal clarity about what purpose this relationship plays in our life. If we’re scrupulous about these things, “transitional relationships” which are time-limited but intense can be enormously healing for those who have them. Continue reading

Men, money and marriage: the Times drops the ball

The blogosphere and the mainstream media have (when they aren’t rightly focused on the continued heartbreak of Haiti and the implications of the Scott Brown victory) had much to say about the Pew study released Tuesday that shows that more than ever before, men are likely to marry women with more education and earning potential than they themselves have. From the Times story:

“Men now are increasingly likely to marry wives with more education and income than they have, and the reverse is true for women,” said Paul Fucito, spokesman for the Pew Center. “In recent decades, with the rise of well-paid working wives, the economic gains of marriage have been a greater benefit for men.”

The analysis examines Americans 30 to 44 years old, the first generation in which more women than men have college degrees. Women’s earnings have been increasing faster than men’s since the 1970s.

“We’ve known for some time that men need marriage more than women from the standpoint of physical and mental well-being,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and research director for the Council on Contemporary Families, a research and advocacy group. “Now it is becoming increasingly important to their economic well-being as well.”

Some of this is attributable to the much-discussed “mancession” (the startling reality that 75% of all jobs lost since the start of the current downturn have been held by men). But this is more than a short-term trend; as the study notes, more women than men receive college degrees. Not only are women more likely to hold jobs in sectors less impacted by the recession, women’s superior educational attainment makes them more attractive hires, particularly for better paying jobs.

Of course, the Times piece — like many of those that commented on the Pew study — chose to take the opportunity to emphasize the exact opposite of what the study actually said. The Sam Roberts article begins and ends with anecdotes from a successful 28 year-old, Beagy Zielinski, who recently broke up with her less-well-educated beau because, as she put it, he was “extremely insecure about my career and how successful I am”. The tone of the piece suggests that despite the evidence that a great many men are willing to marry women who earn more than they do, “being too successful” is still a threat to a woman’s chances of finding love.

Here’s one key tidbit from the article:

While marriage rates have declined over all, women with college degrees are still more likely to marry today than less educated women.

There’s the fact. So why does Roberts conclude the piece with this bit from Zielinski?

Ms. Zielinski, the fashion stylist, said her best friend, a man, told her once: “ ‘You are confident, have good credit, own your own business, travel around the world and are self-sufficient. What man is going to want you?’ He laughed, but I found that pretty depressing.”

I’m not just picking on the reporter who wrote the piece, though ol’ Sam is deserving of some serious criticism. She (or he) is only reflecting what we’ve seen over and over again in the media for decades; the tone of the article is just a repackaged version of the old warning “Don’t show the boys you’re smart, or none of them will want you.” As women continue to enjoy greater and greater access to economic and political power (it should be noted that the gains for white women have outstripped those of women from other groups), there is mounting evidence that younger men in particular are comfortable with dating and marrying women whose educations and incomes are equal to or greater than their own. But the old discourse that “real men” (Zielinski’s ex was a blue-collar shipyard worker, a profession redolent with masculine caché) won’t accept an independent woman as a mate continues to exert influence, even in the face of the facts.

Marriage rates are dropping. A growing number of people see the institution as archaic and unnecessary; others continue to delay marriage far later than earlier generations, sometimes because of unrealistic expectations about what is needed in order to enter into wedlock. But the happy evidence is that as fewer and fewer marry, those who do marry are increasingly likely to reject (in practice if not in their hearts) the traditional ideal of man as “breadwinner” and woman as “homemaker.” Despite what grandma or the New York Times may say, the evidence is clear and unmistakable that for women who still do want to marry a man, having a college education and a career increase their chances of finding a husband.

Of Roman generals, Tiger Woods, and the challenge of self-soothing

I’m not interested in blogging the particulars of the Tiger Woods story; countless folks are already doing just that. We have a fondness for Tiger in my family, mind you; my late grandmother, who died in 1998, sometimes enjoyed watching golf on television in her final years. Woods was just emerging as a major star as she declined into her final illness, and she often mentioned to the family the pleasure she got watching him play. And so since her death eleven years ago, we’ve all had a bit of a sentimental attachment to the fellow. The only thing I’ve ever held against him is his refusal to use his considerable heft to nudge the Augusta National Golf club to admit women as members; Woods is, to my eye, excessively reluctant to advocate for social change. (And as a Cal alum, I note that Tiger is a passionate supporter of his alma mater, Stanford — and thus a fair target for derision during Big Game week.)

The issue that I’m interested in is infidelity, particularly those that come about following the arrival of a new child. We don’t know how far back Woods’ “transgressions” date (he and his wife, Elin, were married in 2004 — and their first child born in 2007), the evidence seems to be that they either began or increased in frequency after he became a Dad. Certainly, it’s a familiar story in heterosexual marriages: the husband is discombobulated by his wife’s response to the birth of a child. Suddenly, he perceives that which was rightly his has been withdrawn, transferred to someone else whose demands trump his own. Even the wealthy change diapers and nurse (the issue of breast-feeding and class has been a hot one in the feminist blogosphere); a great many women, in the first year or two following the birth of a baby, experience an understandably diminished libido.

If a man has been inculcated with the unfortunate notion that it is his wife’s job (a la the execrable Laura Schlessinger) to take care of him, he may imagine himself neglected once the child appears. That sense of neglect is rooted in a false sense of entitlement, and that latter sense can often act to justify an “affair”. Of course, it’s the myth of male weakness again — the notion that men have irrepressible needs that can only be met through sexual relationships with women. If a wife or a girlfriend (even for the excellent reason of having just become a mother) reduces her attentiveness to those supposedly overpowering needs, than the myth suggests that a “normal, red-blooded guy” is at least somewhat justified in seeking sexual satisfaction (and soothing) elsewhere.

When a Roman general was given a “Triumph” following a victory, he would be paraded through the streets, feted by the magistrates and worshipped by adoring citizens. It could, of course, all go to his head. During the parade, a slave would famously stand just behind the general, whispering in his ear memento mori — “Remember that you are mortal.” In the face of the temptations that come with fame and wealth, it may be necessary to outsource one’s conscience to trusted professionals. If I were Tiger, I’d use some of my wealth to assemble a team with whom I traveled everywhere — bodyguards whose job is as much to protect Woods from his impulses as it is to protect his person from those of others. I’d let trusted family members (including Elin, his wife) select the “accountability team”. And they’d be empowered to escort the superstar back to his hotel room lickety-split if he starts canoodling with a cocktail waitress. “Remember your vows”, these bodyguards might murmur with polite but forceful tones. If one’s own moral voice is too still and too small to be heard in the face of temptation, why not hire one or several such voices to be with you at all times? There’s no shame in acknowledging one’s vulnerabilities — just in refusing to take reasonable measures to protect oneself and one’s family from the harm those vulnerabilities can bring. Continue reading

Neither too much to expect, nor too much to ask: how Lesley Garner gets rape, marriage, and men all wrong

Via Amber, whose blog I’ve long admired, I found this horrific English advice column and this blistering retort from M. Le Blanc.

A woman, Eva was raped by her boss while abroad on a business trip. Upon her return to the UK, her husband noticed something was wrong, and Eva told him the terrible story. She also discovered that the rapist had impregnated her; she made the difficult choice to keep the baby. Too upset at the prospect of raising another man’s child, the Eva’s husband left her, and has never seen the son to whom she gave birth. Seven years on, she’s still single — as is her ex-husband — and she’s written to a Telegraph advice columnist about the possibilities of reconciling. The advice columnist, Lesley Garner, is breathtakingly unsympathetic to her, writing:

You decided to continue with the pregnancy in the absolutely unrealistic expectation that your husband would be happy to bring up the child of another man, his wife’s rapist. This is a no-brainer, Eva. No man could contemplate this. He would have found your decision inexplicable.

M. Le Blanc, Amanda Hess, and many of the commenters at the Telegraph site, are appalled both with Garner’s dreadful analysis and the beastly behavior of Eva’s husband. Amber, with whom I generally agree, surprised me by sympathizing with the ex, rejecting Hess’ characterization of him as a “total dickwad”:

It is baffling to me how the same people who would (rightfully) snap if a female rape victim was told not to abort her pregnancy because she’d love the baby as soon as it was born, or that tons of women are stepmothers or social workers and thus raising other people’s kids is no big deal, are incensed at the idea that a man might not be able to embrace this situation.

Count me in the camp that labels Eva’s husband a complete and utter “dickwad”.

There is nothing remotely analogous about, on one hand, forcing a woman to carry to term, against her will, a fetus conceived as the result of a rape — and on the other, expecting a husband to support his wife’s decision without equivocation. Even in marriage, a woman’s body doesn’t become her husband’s property; he doesn’t get to be sovereign over her reproductive choices. Obviously, in terms of their shared sexual life, a couple should, ideally, make decisions together about every aspect of family planning. Real life, however, wreaks havoc with our ideals. Men still rape women, and sometimes those women get pregnant as a consequence. While it would be a rare married couple who would have discussed this potential scenario in advance, it’s not at all unreasonable to expect a husband like Eva’s to share his wife’s burden to the best of his ability — and to share in the joy and responsibility that comes when a child is born.

This doesn’t mean that a man whose female partner is raped isn’t entitled to the full spectrum of feelings that would seem natural, given the situation. He’s entitled to feel ambivalent about raising a child conceived in an act of violence. But he wasn’t raped, and he’s not carrying the child. To leave his wife because he “can’t handle” the constant reminder of what happened is to elevate his feelings above her, to suggest an indefensible false equivalence between the harm done to his wife and the harm done to him.

This is, in yet another nasty form, the old “myth of male weakness”. This version suggests, as Garner does, that men are incapable of bonding with a child not biologically their own. I know a great many adoptive dads, including some wonderful gay male couples who parent together, who would be flabbergasted to learn this. (Parenthetically, I’ve always thought that what makes Joseph, husband of Mary, a saint in the Catholic tradition is not his willingness to raise a son who is clearly not his own. That was his moral if not his legal obligation, and ought to be expected of any husband. What made him saintly was his willingness to stay in a marriage that would never be consummated, the lasting companion of the ever-Virgin!) It is not “asking too much” of husbands to expect them to stick by their wives following rape and an unwanted pregnancy — unless we believe, as Garner does, that the male ego is terribly fragile, and the male capacity to love so very small indeed. Continue reading