My husband used to come up behind me and pinch my butt. Yes, really. Like some sleazy would-be-Lothario in a Milan elevator. He’d pinch it hard, too, really give it a clamp, and it hurt. It was like he was sticking a needle in my ass. To make things worse, he always did it when I was completely oblivious to him, thinking of something else, doing some routine chore like the dishes, so it would shock me, too, practically stop my heart every time. I didn’t know why he did this infuriating thing, but I had some vague idea that he thought it was cute or funny or something.
Then one night he pinched me when I was standing at the kitchen counter cutting cherry tomatoes in half with a paring knife and there was a split second there when — in addition to grinding my teeth in rage as I always did — I almost turned around and stuck that knife into his stomach. Whoa! Death in the Afternoon! Could you see the headlines? “Tomato Slicing Mom Snaps, Opens Husband’s Small Intestine…”
Aaaaanyway, contrary to what you might be thinking, this is not a story about how I righteously suffered my clueless husband’s casual sadism. This is a story about how I was such a dimbo bimbo that I never told him how much I hated being pinched!
Do humans get any stupider? Seriously. What kind of terminal twit wouldn’t tell the guy the FIRST time he did it that a) it hurt like blazes and b) it better not happen again? Why was I was such a pansy-ass?
The easy, surface answer is that I was brought up in the “ladylike” tradition, which demanded that I swallow a significant ration of shit in my everyday life. Now, there’s nothing wrong with teaching kids that they can’t always have their own way, that they can’t make non-stop demands on others, and that they can’t squall and scream about every little annoyance. There is certainly a dynamic in many relationships which could benefit from a big ol’ bolus of Calm the Hell Down.
That was not my problem, however. As I grew up I somehow absorbed the thought that when there was conflict in a relationship it was My Job to sop up and dispose of as much of the negative energy as possible, so that the conflict wouldn’t manifest itself in Unpleasantness. At least not before unpleasantness became Absolutely Necessary. I told myself that I was “picking my battles,” that when I did blow a gasket it was more effective for being so rare (and to a certain extent this was true).
I also told myself that I was steadier, calmer and more capable than most human beings, so it was up to me to be the most “mature” person in every relationship, the peacemaker, the one that kept everything running on an even keel. I was A Good Wife, see, the Heroine, and — (I’m so ashamed) — the Martyr. In other words, there was more than a little pride in my failure to tell my husband that he was reeeally pissing me off with that “minor” pinching thing.
As I mentioned earlier, imagining that you are the marriage’s MVP (More Virtuous Person), the long-suffering partner who is holding everything together, the one who puts up with more disappointment, more work, more emotional engineering than your partner, is very seductive. It is its own kind of power, isn’t it? It means YOU are In Control, and that’s what we all want.
But trying to be more-perfect-than-thou was playing hell with my love life. … continued …
My husband brought two school age children with him when we got married. We hadn’t planned on having them, but their mother, my husband’s ex, decided to join the army and my husband was too guilty about their divorce to refuse her request to take the kids in the meanwhile. (I later learned that she thought being saddled with the kids might break us up — and she was almost right.)
So I had an unexpected ready-made family. I liked his kids, they were good kids (and on their best behavior in the beginning), but I hadn’t counted on them and their needs being dropped in my lap as a newlywed, and needless to say it was rough. What made it even rougher was that my husband, brought up in the 50s and 60s by a stay-at-home mom and married the first time to a stay-at-home mom, was effectively oblivious to household equity issues. It’s not that he didn’t want to be fair, it’s that he couldn’t really see how much it took to run a 4-person household. From his point of view, things sort of Got Done, and although he was vaguely aware of the fact that Someone Else was doing them, he didn’t really register the time or effort involved. So he could imagine that his summer afternoons of grass-cutting and his twice-a-month work on the family bills equalled my daily round of cooking, dishes, organizing the kids’ calendars, laundry, bathroom cleaning, living room pickup, grocery shopping, bed-changing, vacuuming, kitchen cleaning…well, you get the idea.
Most things he did around the house were distinct, one-time tasks which had a beginning, middle and end, like repairs, which gave him a sense of accomplishment and of being “finished.” Or he did things that were visible to the outside world, like yard work and car waxing, which even if they were difficult or tiring were also a source of public pride, like his nice lawn. He had no ordinary, repetitive daily duties, so he essentially worked only on the weekends. To top it all off, we were both working full time — more than full time, actually, since we were Air Force officers and were often called on to work extra hours during alerts and exercises.
Again, this is not a story about how my husband was an inconsiderate beast. He was thoughtless, yes, but that was because he’d been brought up to ignore all that. I didn’t really have anyone to blame but myself, because I was Suuuuuperwoman! I was capable of anything, I was going to Make This Work If It Killed Me. I was going to be the “Charlie” perfume wife (yes, it was that era), “bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan.” So, all the while imagining that I was being the ultimate in human femininity, I sank myself into a situation I should have fixed. I simmered about it. I stewed. I walked around in a perpetual haze of resentment, practically ticking his sins off on my fingers. Other annoyances that had absolutely no relation to domestic chores took on more importance and seemed more awful because I was too weak to confront him about the household stuff. And — most important for our purposes here — the last thing I wanted to do was have sex with him.
Combining anger and sex is often problematic for a woman because the physiology of the most usual acts requires that she allow her body to be penetrated. A certain, shall we say, receptivity is essential. I’m avoiding the word “surrender” here, because it has a lot of connotations that are not necessarily operative, but many women do (if only unconsciously) see the sex act as something of a submission scenario — which can be very much enjoyed when she is happy with a man, but which can also be a major turn-off if she’s furious with him. Even leaving the physical aspects of the act aside, it’s psychologically difficult to “give in” to a request for a special goodie from someone you’re pissed at. It’s like he’s asking for candy bar when you’d really like to give him a whack in the chops.
So what can you do if your wife has gotten herself into Superwoman syndrome? Don’t over-estimate how much you’re doing around the house, and especially look out for whether or not you are only doing those “pride” and “accomplishment” tasks that don’t have to be done every day while “counting” them against the daily drudgery. Write down a list of all the things you do, and let her write down a list of everything she does, and if it looks like things are uneven, talk about how they could be shared more equitably.
And if you think that because you “make the money” you shouldn’t have to contribute anything to the household routine, we gotta talk.
There used to be a pledge in traditional marriage ceremonies that went something like, “With all my worldly goods I thee endow,” and the usual legal understanding of marriage is that the partners pool the economic assets and financial resources they acquire during the marriage. Economic partnership, in fact, was often the main or only incentive for marriage back in the Not-So-Good Old Days.
The rise of wage-paying work has somewhat distorted the economic understanding of marriage from the era when a woman’s work in the farmhouse was as essential to the running of the agricultural enterprise as her husband’s work in the fields. Now there is a tendency to discount the housekeeping contribution to family well-being because it doesn’t bring in actual CASH.
Oh, people certainly pay lip service to the idea that traditional stay-at-home “women’s work” is valuable both to the marriage unit and the larger society, but these days few people really value it for what it’s worth.
Money is power in this culture, period. The identification is very direct and constantly reinforced. We may be very pious and emotional about money not buying happiness and all that rot, but most of us would still like just a little more. People who make more money are simply able to do more, get more, and control more than people who don’t.
The fact that money buys power, both directly and indirectly, is what makes money such a fantastically emotional matter for many couples. Like sex, it is an area where the partners’ sense that they have lost the other’s Love drives them to seek Power instead. Any major struggle over money signals to the players that individual power has become more important than the loving partnership.
This was played out in my own marriage when, after I became a stay-at home mother, my husband once attempted to end a disagreement over how we would spend some money by saying, “It’s MY money, so I get to decide.” He felt that since he earned the actual cash by doing a job outside the home, it was HIS and not OURS, and therefore he had the Right to spend it as he pleased, Julia be damned.
In his mind, apparently, I was merely the equivalent of his employee. I was being “supported,” see, so the way he saw it (when his power was threatened), I wasn’t really an equal and eternal Partner in the business of life, I wasn’t his Beloved, I was — not to put too fine a point on it — The Help.
Although it might make perfect sense to a coldly rational person that I was his economic “dependent” and therefore should shut my mouth and do as I was told, emotionally it was scorched earth devastation. I was led to question the entire concept of marriage and family, given that such a good and fair guy as MY HUSBAND could have been thinking of me and my role in such stark and awful terms all along.
And of course I was mad as hell. I had two tiny children (ages 1 and 3) and was struggling with my health at the time. I kept going, I worked all day, I cleaned, I washed dishes and changed diapers and fed them and cleaned up after their messy meals and gave them baths and … well, yadda yadda is probably apropos here. I felt as though I was working at least as hard as he was at his relatively cushy 8-5 staff job.
And since we had decided that it was best for the kids if I stayed home while they were little, I didn’t really resent the fact that he came home and put his feet up while I soldiered on in the evenings. We were partners, and I loved him, so I wanted to be generous to him and the kids, give them my time and work and love. Besides, it was my job in the marriage, my part of being a good partner in life. If I sometimes felt I was a little overtasked in relation to him, I also figured that kind of inequity has a way of working out in the long run, so there might come a time when I would be the one putting my feet up while he did a little more.
And then I found out that he considered our income HIS money, and my contribution to maintaining our life and raising our children was worth nothing to him when it came to deciding how that money would be spent. And when I realized that, I realized that he probably thought that sex was part of my “employment” contract, too.
This is not a good way to think about sex. It kills the essential trust and interpersonal enthusiasm that fuels desire. It ruins confidence in Love as the basis for the relationship, and makes everything that happens seem like a mere transaction, with Money Man sitting in the cashier’s chair. The sense of hurt and relative powerlessness such thoughts awaken can make a woman perpetually angry and reluctant to — as she sees it — “knuckle under” to requests that she justify her continued “employment” with sex.
So watch out for the idea that you should always get your way because you’re bringing in more money, and if you find yourself thinking your wife is an “ungrateful bitch” because she won’t “pay up” with poontang when you’re bringing home lots of green, you’re indulging in Power thinking, not Love thinking, and effectively cutting your own sexual throat.
Comments on ANGER from the original blog can be found here. Add your own via the form below.