Bad Company

January 14, 2004

Right before the hiatus I decided to skip the Bad Company part of my planned blogging. In fact, I’d even taken the title out of the sidebar of topics on the right (I’ll put it back later today). But then over the holidays I got this letter from “Joe”:

My wife suddenly started hanging out with girl friends more than usual. Lots of them! Going to their houses for our kids to play was her reasons. Going to be gone one hour always turned into late at night five hour stints. Sometimes, they come over here and they have a cup of tea for four hours or so and talk about negative problems in their lives (mostly about not having a clean house, kids are not getting educated well, why they have a procrastination problem, how-to get better organized, what to do about some of their kids drug problems, the cons of being a stay-at-home mom, the burdens of sex, budgeting problems, and so many more). It has gotten to the point that these sessions are more important than any other responsibilities in her life, including spending intimate time with me OR spending time with the children. She can go from 4:00pm until midnight with these girls, go to bed at 1:00am and get up at 10:00 am. I’m in bed by 10:30 pm and off to work by 7:30 am. I can’t forget that she tells them all just how wonderful I am and she can’t imagine a life with anyone else and how wonderful her kids are and we just moved into a beautiful new home this past year. Sounds like she has it all doesn’t it?

Can you tell me why she doesn’t have sex with me? Could it possibly be that I’m not sexxy enough or I’m not a nice guy or I stink or I’m ugly or I’m not funny? Her friends like to sit by me and smile a lot and talk to me when they are at our house. Hmmmmm… Could it be that she feels overwhelmed with tasks about the house? I usually do the major part of the laundry and dishes when I am home. I even clean the bathrooms, includes wiping the backs, sides, underneath, etc. the toilets. Hmmmmm…. Could it be that my wife isn’t beautiful or attractive to herself? I tell her everyday how beautiful she is. Yes, she is a little overweight, but I remind her just how sexxy those curves are to me and that I am very attracted to her and lust after her body.

I finally just asked her “How come we don’t have sex more often than once every two months or when she just happens to get horny?” Her response was, “Is that all I am, a life support system toa pussy (sorry)?” WHAT was that all about? What am I, just a “nice guy”or “great friend”?

There is a lot going on in this letter, and I’ll have more to say about all of it as time goes on, but today I want to talk about the part describing this wife’s apparently overwhelming attachment to her group of friends. This is an area of male-female relations that gets very, very tricky for me to talk about because in some ways I can be a bit of a “traitor to my sex”on this issue.

My first exposure to this phenomenon was when a pair of very dear friends of ours split up, and the husband of the pair cited his wife’s friendship with a loud, aggressive divorced neighbor who had, according to the husband, ranted night and day about the unappreciative perfidy of men and filled his wife’s head with negativity about the “trap” of marriage. I had briefly met the woman myself during a visit to this couple’s home and even in the half hour or so I spent with her I could see that she was something of an emotional Pied Piper. But even so, I was unwilling to accept the idea that she was the most important element in the couple’s breakup. Just because I didn’t like the woman or her attitudes and thought that she could indeed have been a very bad influence on my female friend’s thinking, I thought that actually blaming her for the divorce was a bit of a stretch.

Besides, at the time I believed implicitly in Sisterhood Forever, and all that. The companionship of other women — any kind of companionship and any kind of women — was almost by definition a GOOD thing for Womynhood, right? So if dissatisfied married women wanted to participate in an informal equivalent of 70s “consciousness raising” sessions with each other, well, fine, that was just wonderful. At least I knew it could never be a BAD thing. Right? Right?

After a while, though, I became a lot less sure about this, especially when I saw two more couples break up shortly after the wife involved herself very tightly with women whose constant negativity and pessimism about men and marriage seemed to reinforce her normal marital dissatisfactions to an ugly, unnecessary degree.

Joe thinks his wife has told her friends that he is a Prince Among Men, but my guess is that she has told them just the opposite. What tends to happen in such groups is a kind of “one-upmanship” about the trials and tribulations of their marriages. The women will almost always start by trying to paint their husbands as stand-up guys, and by thinking that at least their man isn’t nearly as bad as that horrible husband Mary Ann is putting up with (Mary Ann often being the most vocal and most attractively outrageous character in the group). But over time, the complaints that they are hearing from other women will remind them of their own, and they’ll tell about the time Joe did thus-and-so, can you belieeeeve it? The implicit challenge of each revelation, of course, is “Can You Top This?”

The thrill of “letting out” their half-formed resentments and bad feelings, being Deeply Understood, and being given the inevitable congratulatory feedback about how they are — like ALL the women there, of course — The Most Virtuous Person in their marriage can become downright addictive. Any person spending many continuous hours every week doing something (no matter how ostensibly “healthy”) which becomes much more important to them than their family obligations and normal life activities, or which causes them to unapologetically neglect commitments and promises they’ve freely entered into, is suffering from an addiction, even if there is no “substance”involved.

Okay. Let’s say that the feedback loop of “negative friendship”(does that sound a bit better than Bad Company?) is indeed a major part of Joe’s problem. What can he do? Unfortunately, maybe not a lot, at least directly. If he tries to separate his wife from her friendships by any kind of overt action, he could make the situation worse, as it is likely to be felt by his wife and — when she inevitably tells them — her pals as Intolerable Interference, an attempt to curtail her freedom of association and her solidarity with “the only people who really understand me.”

It’s a hugely frustrating situation to deal with, as all addictions are.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the varied feedback I received when I brought up this subject in an email group catering to psychiatric professionals.

COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG POST:

Great blog! I have seen this very thing as well. I had an aunt and a cousin, who were both stay at home moms, and who both decided to go to college and become nurses at the same time, and who (coincidentally?) when to the same college, and both enrolled in nursing school. I can’t say exactly what went on, but since I know both of them pretty well, I’m fairly certain that they both desperately tried to be cool, and fit in with the other college girls even though they were older. It wasn’t long until they were doing things that they used to consider morally wrong, and not that much longer until they both had messy divorces. (One after an affair with a male nurse.) You can’t tell me that they weren’t influenced in some way by either their friends or their new environment, because people seldom change, and these changed suddenly.

Paul 1/14/04; 12:56:04 PM

I’ve said for a long time to myself and then my kids, “What you put into your head is what you will get out of it.”Changing perspective and attitude is hard work, but 4-hour sessions a couple of times a week will certainly do it! (I wish I had time and money for that much therapy, it would have gone much faster I imagine.)

Just as we want our kids to associate with good kids, not thieves and drug addicts, so we can manage our associations. Why spend time with people who reinforce the worst traits you have, or who encourage you to be negative about something you want to support? I don’t know how to ask the wife to change her friends, though. You’d have to convince her first of the truth of my aphorism above, and then gradually bring her to an understanding that her friends are leading her into a perception of her marriage that damages this most important relationship.

Kris Hasson-Jones 1/14/04; 1:01:31 PM

Julia, even though Joe might have a really hard time getting his wife to respect his wish that she spend less time with her friends who are supporting her anger and poisoning their marriage, it doesn’t seem so intolerable to me. Would it be intolerable for his wife to object if he chose to find support from another woman who offered him comfort in those areas his wife no longer chooses to give? We could get into a long discussion about that. But Joe apparently isn’t doing that. Instead he asks for advice from this blog. In doing so he takes away a threat that MIGHT cause his wife to question her behavior, but what of the carnage from infidelity! I respect his choice, for in the long run, love marriages survive when both partners put their relationship first.

I agree with Kris that friends can be very influential. In fact, we ought to write her aphorism backwards on our forehead to remind ourselves every time we look in the mirror that we need to be careful about what we put in our head. Reading the aphorism another way, however, I notice that putting the blame on so called friends denies us the power we have to make our own choices. I don’t mean to sound moralistic or judgmental like someone repeating a mantra about abstinence. I do mean that what people want they often find. To pervert the theme of a popular movie: if you want to find hate, it’s all around you. Someone I really respect said to me recently, “If you ask people to write done what they don’t like about their spouse, you get a page and a half. If you ask what they like, you get a few sentences. Why is it that we are unkind to the one person in the whole universe that we care the most about?” I have an answer for myself.

We fall in love with this beautiful statue that some foundry pulled from a very special mold. Every curve is luscious, and we can’t believe how lucky we are. As time passes we begin to notice little blemishes, just a small spot that could use a bit of polishing. We get out the file and start grinding away. Surprisingly we find that the metal is a lot harder than we expected. Sparks fly. Sometimes they start brush fires. As we focus on the bumps that undercut perfection, we lose sight of what drew us to our mate in the beginning. This is more than a metaphor. I have the scars on my heart that reveal my own foolish efforts to improve on what I couldn’t change.

Jack 1/14/04; 5:25:21 PM

I’ve got two theories on this particular relationship. The first one is boredom. It sounds to me like maybe the kids are getting older and don’t demand so much of her attention, so she’s looking up and around and saying “hey, there’s a whole world out here!”. And maybe it’s time for her to start thinking about getting a part-time job. Or a new hobby or volunteering somewhere, or something. Suggest THAT, instead of suggesting she have sex with you. My second thought is, maybe she’s gay (or thinks she might be). That comment about “life support system for a pussy”, combined with “you’re a great guy but I don’t want to sleep with you”, makes me wonder if she’s maybe a lesbian (or now thinking she is, or bisexual and just attracted to one of the women in the group). I don’t know WHAT to suggest in that case. Are these NEW girlfriends, or OLD ones?

catnmus 1/14/04; 6:27:47 PM

We’re all here on this blog for the same reason … that is because we don’t necessarily understand what is going on inside their (wives) heads. Either we don’t want to stir up to much crap by asking out right and starting the action-reation fight or there is too much pride involved to admit there is a defficiency and that things really could be better. Alot of important realities were pointed out about what we can “view”in our own minds eye and fantisize or demoralize what’s actually going on.

In this case I am of the popular opinion that misery breads company … and that Joe needs to approach his wife about these attitudes and where they are coming from. It’s time to reflect on what they enjoy together and the whole reason they are together. Is the “interest”gone. That comment about life support for a pussy has to dig real deep … it would for me. I have recently gone through a few “bumps”and my wife was searching over hells half acre for reasoning and thinking that was just not rational at all about me being unhappy, bored etc … which is completely the contrary so I to am on the path of regeneration.

Steve 1/15/04; 6:39:10 AM

Hi Julia…welcome back. I read this post yesterday and have been trying to figure out how to respond. Although my wife has never specifically said that my desire for her makes her feel like a life support system for etc., she has said the same thing in different words. This seems to be a fundamental difference between men with high sex drives and their wives with low sex drives. We want to connect with them sexually in order to feel loved (and to show them, in our favorite way, that we love them), and they need to feel the love first before they are willing to connect sexually.

I see a few problems with Joe’s wife’s kaffee klatsches with the manhaters, (because it’s eating into family time, eating into husband/wife time), but mainly it’s because their attitudes are preventing her from feeling the love for Joe. How can she feel the love when she spends her free time dissing him? How can she respect him when she knows that, while she’s dissing him, he’s at home doing the laundry, scrubbing the toilets, parenting the kids, etc? I’m not saying he should stop doing these things…heck, who else is going to do it? Maybe stop doing HER laundry…stop doing HER chores. Here’s another take on this. If Joe was “Josephine”, and Josephine’s spouse was out all night with the ‘boys’ and they were talking about what lousy wives they had, how they worked hard and came home to a dirty house with a bunch of snot-nosed kids, and, hey, I came home and my wife has the gall to ask me to “fix the leaky sink”(or insert other gender stereotype substitution here for ‘have sex with me’) and I said to her, “Is that all I am, a life support system for a pair of strong arms and a tool belt?”

Well, do you think he’s going to respect Josephine? He spends hours talking about what a whiny b!tch she is. Given this situation, I wonder how many Josephines would have a problem with, not necessarily cutting off contact with the other boys, but saying that the time has come to limit that contact so that you can devote some time to this family we SHARE. That’s what Joe needs to do, if you ask me (which you didn’t).

Harry 1/15/04; 10:31:00 AM

Hi, Harry …. Hope your holidays went well.

Joe …. In my opinion, the going out with girlfriends is an avoidance of something going on at home such as (insert any reason) and not always related to you as the husband. What has happened is that she is feeling majorly loved and taken care of emotionally in this group whether they are bashing husbands or not. When we (women) feel this loved, we want more and want to be around those people that make us feel better about ourselves. In some ways it might be perceived as an emotional affair …. basically she is focusing her emotional and physical time at another person(s) at the expense of herself, her husband, and her children.

She won’t see it this way because there’s the old saying, “if mama ain’t happy, nobodys happy”and she’ll say she’s just trying to make herself happy. But, she is spinning her wheels trying to make herself happy by not focusing her time on you and her family. By not confronting the issues that are not making her happy at home. I have been reading a new book and it makes me cry every time I read it. It has really opened my eyes and I wish every woman would read it. You see …I have always tried to show my husband how much I love him, and I thought my actions and words were quite obvious. While I felt I was trying soooo hard/giving way beyond the “call of duty”, I thought he was giving forth zero effort, could have cared less about me, and was willing to take the love, but not return it.

The more I felt this way the more I moved away from him and delved into children, friends, volunteer activities to get my needs met the way I wanted them. What I didn’t realize was my husband was showing me he loved me every day by doing the small stuff like taking out the trash, going to work, sitting down to dinner with the family, not griping about the house, or how much weight I had gained from having babies. These were actions that I EXPECTED out of him and did not attribute them as acts of love. They are simple everyday mundane acts not the hugs, kisses, and sweet sentimentalities I expected him to do to show me that he loved me.

I now try to take the time to look for and thank him for the “small stuff.” I want him to know that I notice and appreciate his efforts of love. I think we women get too caught up on how we expect our husbands to treat us instead of appreciating how they treat us. I hope that statement makes sense. I think women spin these wonderful dreams of how love should be expressed and get so disappointed when these dreams/ideals are not met. Then, we blame our husbands for not meeting our needs. Frankly, if the shoe was on the other foot, I don’t think we could live up to our own expectations. So, still in the end …. communication is key and each person’s perspective influences how we react to each other and our desire to have sex.

One part of the book that hit me like a 2×4 was a statement that basically went …sex for men is the best way men like to express their love for their wife. Basically, it is a man’s way of talking with his wife. Just think how a woman would feel if a man chose not to speak to his wife for 2 or 3 weeks. He would be in major trouble. So how is it any different for men not having sex with their wives for 2-3 weeks? Food for thought.

Joe … my suggestion to you is to take your wife in your arms, hold her close, tell her that you’ve been missing her presence greatly in your life. Then make explicit plans/dates with your wife for several nights each week. Perhaps make one day a family night with pizza and a movie or a game night. Make one night a romantic night with you. Draw her back to you and let her know that the real love is with you and not with her tribe of friends … although she does need to get out with the girls once in awhile, but that should be a couple of times a month not a week. :0) Good luck ….

VelvetPear 1/15/04; 12:44:39 PM

Hey VelvetPear! Will you marry me? j/k 🙂 >Paul 1/15/04; 2:54:39 PM
I understand how you feel basically getting cut of from sex with your wife. I don’t have any answers, I am still seeking too; but I will say that after our second child my wife seemed to no longer care for sex. After we got the second child, which seems to be what she wanted out of sex, she no longer has cared for intimacy. She does kiss me once or more everyday, but we have little intercourse. Last year of 2003, there were three occasions when we had intercourse. I will only say that sometimes it drives me crazy. Need I even metnion that masturbation is a big, perhaps too big part of my life. I sure long for the good ‘ol days when we sometimes had sex 1-3 times! I still sort of do, but it s a hands on experience solo.

sereph 1/15/04; 10:33:21 PM

Quick question for Velvet Pear … What is the name of the book you are reading? Thanks.

Steve 1/16/04; 6:09:06 AM

The Proper Care & Feeding of Husbands by Dr. Laura.

VelvetPear 1/16/04; 9:18:24

Velvet Pear,

Thanks for the info on the book! Have you read Life’s Work by Lisa Belkin? It is just as great as this one sounds! I am going to buy the book you mentioned today. Also, I agree with Velvet Pear, Joe, make a date with your wife, draw her back to you. Tell her how much you feel disconnected from her and how much you miss having her in your life. I can understand what you are going through, I have seen to many of my friends marriages end the way you have mentioned. My husband and I are saddened everytime we hear of friends of our getting divorced. We thank GOD for each other and the marriage (although not perfect, but happy and with the communication a couple needs) we do. It is so easy to get caught up in the every day things, that we as women look past the things we think our husbands SHOULD be doing (the cleaning, cooking etc.) and start missing the things that (in our heads) they haven’t done (the kisses, flowers, and sweetnothings). Thanks for the reminder people :o) I need to tell my husband I noticed he did a great job on cleaning the kitchen last night while I was working late. Best of luck to you Joe! Try what Velvet suggested.

Monica 1/20/04; 2:35:55 PM

Hi, Monica …Thanks for recommending another book. :0) VelvetPear VelvetPear 1/20/04; 7:57:29 PM

January 15, 2004

Leif Edward, a clinical psychologist on the professional list I wrote to about the problem of addiction to Bad Company wrote:

[T]his is what in social psychology would be defined as group-think. A set of norms evolve in the group, of what are legal topics, what manners of speaking about these are allowed, what value different phenomena are assigned, etc. and these norms are not subject to evaluation. Conformity is maintained through thought-policing, where those who break the norms are sanctioned.

Soon the mere idea of losing the group is unthinkable (literally) as is breaking the norms and thinking illegal thoughts (at least out loud! sometimes altogether). All studies of conformity from Solomon Asch onward are of course also important (he showed that individual’s perception may be fundamentally influenced by group processes). This may happen in all-male groups too, even when the consequences are dire and one would hope for and expect a more rational and critical group process. A much cited example would be the Kennedy administration’s handling of discussions of the Bay of Pigs incident.

The “sanctions”in a women’s group-think situation are usually very small things like frowns when certain subjects or thoughts are brought up in conversation. It doesn’t take long for most women to understand any group’s “norms,” even though they sometimes are not always able to ape the accepted behavior. We have very sensitive socio-emotional radar (whether it’s the result of nature or nurture) that can make even the slightest, most subtle rejection signals feel like slaps in the face.

A similar sort of thing often happens within a marriage, although the “groupthink”norm of a marriage is only between two people. Certain subjects or areas of inquiry become “unthinkable”or are very, very carefully avoided, to the extent of staying away from subjects that might even remind the couple of the forbidden territory. As in the group situation, it’s a self-imposed censorship, and over time the “group members”so internalize the supposed “truth”of their situation that they can’t see it any other way. Edwards points out the most important part of this process: the fear of losing the relationship, or, in the larger group situations, of being viewed as an “outcast.” It’s like high school all over again, only on a much more dangerous adult scale. So the first thing we have to understand about the problem of Bad Company is that an attempt to separate your spouse from her friends is going to be seen as an attack on values and thinking patterns that the group has made almost second nature to its members. Katie Hill wrote:

I was informed of recent research into the differences in behaviour of men and women when under stress. Women enhance social networks and become more nurturant. Men distance themselves from others and become isolated within. … I have socialized with women from other countries who are ‘contained’ within the marriage and they function in this behavioural outlet in an extravagant manner, which is not to say that they are distraught. They also are expected to remain in the marriage for life. Behaving this way helps them to stay psychologically stable. It doesn’t reinforce their dissatisfactions so much as it enables them to remain dissatisfied and [also] be able to interact in a loving manner within the relationship. They are dependent upon their women friends (as they were cut-off from their women relatives). …

The women that I knew did not work in the public domain. Their children were disrespectful on top of the norms of patriarchal disrespect that is endemic to their and our culture. I suspect that they have given up on obtaining familial respect. The American way heaps even more disrespect upon these women aside from their foreignness, as they do not work and have variant philosophies – on everything. So these women are treated like jokes by spouse and children. Perhaps they recognize and defer to the most harshly daring, angry or outspoken member of the group because they sense her greater pain. … I have found that validation is supportiveness.

When the subject under discussion is a negative attribute in one’s life, it is necessary to discuss negative attributes and not listen to a load of positive self-deceiving lies. The term used for positive input today is ‘uplifting’. I consider ‘uplifting’ non-supportive. Anyone coping with a negative attribute would. Mind you the professionals are heavy into ‘uplifting’. The professionals in human services seem to need to redefine reality into fantasy. …

These women’s husbands are never locked out. They have locked themselves out — hence the stress on the woman. Naturally, they are locked out of the group. The last thing they want to hear is what’s wrong with them. The men have no intention of change. That’s why the women must behave this way. (I would have to say that NO ONE ever wants to hear what’s wrong with them. The avoidance of bad news or criticism is not limited to the male of the species. And as we can all see on this blog, men sometimes have every intention of changing themselves and their approach to these issues.)

The thing that Katie illustrates for us is that many (not all) women’s attraction to these kinds of groups is initially as a coping mechanism. Something is wrong, some kind of stress or dissatisfaction is eating away at them, and in the group they can verbalize about it and get soothing feedback. “Yes, yes, you’re not alone, I feel the same way, and — best of all — we’ll get through the difficulties of life together.”

This has the effect of reducing the importance of the problem and, as Katie notes, enabling group members to not only endure what they were initially thinking might be intolerable, but to literally make the best of it. Group members can also have the psychological delights of the “us vs. them”psychology which can contribute to self-esteem. The “uplift,”in Katie’s parlance, paradoxically comes from emphasizing negative experiences outside the group. Unfortunately, like every other pleasure in life, there are tradeoffs, one of which is isolation from one’s marital partner.

Okay, that’s enough for today, but fear not, there’s LOTS more on the way, including an account of a subtle group-think situation that was (perhaps only temporarily) derailed by the injection of thoughts from the “outside.

COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG POST:

Hmm. I think I agree more closely with Katie on this matter. But the issue is not just validation — it’s intimacy. The intimacy, meaning emotional enmeshment, between the spouses is being replaced. The wife is making an active choice each time she selects interaction with female friends versus her spouse; she’s seeing the intimacy with her circle as more rewarding than that with her husband. It may be less about the content of the conversations with friends than the intimacy they share; to discuss topics that are painful and negative connotes a strong degree of intimacy. An inability to connect sexually connotes a missing level of intimacy.No way around it but to get to the heart of the matter: what is it about the relationship between spouses that caused the lapse in intimacy? why is this relationship less rewarding than that of friends (regardless of the topics/interests which these friends share)? I suspect there’s more than one angry person in this relationship, too. Depending on the personalities of the parties involved, outward expressions of anger are difficult. Emotions are swallowed and interest is redirected towards more pleasurable pursuits. Just my guess.

Rayne 1/15/04; 2:40:02 PM

January 16, 2004

The Bad Company discussion has prompted a lot of mail! One of the professional counselors who responded had a very interesting anecdote regarding one instance in which “group think”was essentially broken up, at least for a moment. George O’Brien writes:

People can get addicted to feeling bad. I think some groups do that. My mother used to mention that the women were together getting into their pity pots and she would leave the gathering and come home. She was a grade school principal and both fulfilled and successful for her time and place in the world. She didn’t have much time for women’s groups unless she was leading a bunch of teachers. Some recent research that was on this list-serve said it took 5 positive affirmations to balance one negative act. The members of some groups don’t really have much to do. Some people that had parents without much to do really got negative about the whole thing. I have my hair cut in a beauty salon. A couple of months ago several of the women were talking with their hair dressers about their unhappiness with their marriages. This beauty shop is a fairly small place with some 6 people getting clips.

My barber [asked] me how the women in my life were. I said, of course, I’m divorced, but my only relationships right now are the women I work with. We’re all dedicated professionals doing a difficult job with few resources (Psychotherapists-Counselors). I said I really respect the bunch of co-workers that I know well and I think they all respect me as well. After this one woman that had said nothing started talking about how happy she was with her marriage. She felt she had found exactly the right balance of closeness and separateness. This was quite complex and seems to have “just happened.”

There was a very heavy silence when she finished, but the negativity certainly stopped. There is, in other words, hope.

What needs to happen to break an addiction of any kind is some interruption, some shakeup, some realization that the pleasure that a person is indulging in has gone too far. This is how “Jonathank”saw it happen in his household:

My wife, when she wasn’t working, spent tons of time with a woman, now settled (to a degree) in her 4th (?) marriage – really only settled because now she’s gotten older – and they would go out, shop, shop, shop and I’d hear way too much anti-male crap. It’s called too much time on your hands and, to a degree, taking too much advantage of your freedom and perhaps resenting it as well. I call it the Suburban Starbucks Syndrome. Pass through any suburban Starbucks after commuting time and, allowing for the ebb and flow of blue collar guys getting coffee, they’re full of women. To be more precise, they’re full of women living in nice houses, driving nice cars, wearing expensive if not necessarily nice clothes. I hear them complain, mostly about how they have to be here at x time for this kid and there at y time for this kid, when of course they have the freedom to sit and sit and do nothing at all and see their friends.

My wife and I would have “discussions”about how my days off from long, long hours involved doing laundry and running errands for the family, things that she didn’t want to do during her day (they’re work, after all) when instead I’d come home each day and find more useless stuff bought because it was a great deal, etc., etc. It’s a real strain on a person and on a marriage to feel (correctly) that you’re taking all your free time to perform tasks that your wife could easily accomplish during her day if she simply treated them as part of her job. Not fulfilling? Well, then get a paying job and we’ll figure out how to deal with this stuff together, but if you’re sitting in a fucking Starbucks having a latte with this gang of women (and two guys who don’t work) then don’t expect any fucking interest from me about what this person said and all that other sopohomoric shit.

Fortunately, my wife is not an idiot and realized that she was doing the wrong thing. Funny how quickly the gang weren’t such good buddies when she couldn’t hang out for two hours after driving the kids to school.

Although I think it’s sometimes a little too easy to believe that housewives hanging out at Starbucks are in some way qualitatively different from businessmen hanging out by the watercooler, in the gym or at a two-hour lunch in the city (or chatting on the Internet in their offices when they’re supposed to be working those “long, long hours”), I think Jonathank and George O’Brien are on to something when they note that part of the problem is that there is not enough sense of purpose and importance in these women’s lives. Housewifery involves so much pure drudgery and so little sense of value or urgency that it is easy to feel deeply unhappy about yourself and your “job”in the world. Been there, done that. The 60s classic The Feminine Mystique went into detail about the soul-destroying effects of a life of open-ended, detailed, picayune shit that not only didn’t challenge and involve, but literally didn’t pay, emotionally, socially or financially.

Thus, if you are a housewife, you are in a life situation that is essentially powerless in all the ways that matter in this society. This causes what might be called existential distress. Although your life situation might seem enviable to most of the rest of the world struggling with “real”problems, it’s still really painful in its own amorphous, debilitating way, and it undermines your whole sense of self. It’s no wonder that you want the reassurance and pleasure of companionship with others who are in the same boat. It’s a substitute for the huge pleasures of self-esteem and influence over others (even of the most minor, or even merely monetary kind). One of my correspondents wrote:

I do this but not all the time. Men treat us like servants and so do the kids…..it is a natural desire to strike back at people who use you like a rug.

I think this is essentially an expression of the anger all of us feel when we think we’re “stuck”in a situation of powerlessness. It’s similar to the anger you feel when you can’t get through to your wife and get her to love you like she “should.”Never underestimate the strength of the urge to redress a perceived imbalance of power.

COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG POST:

I stumbled on this site late yesterday, and I’ve spent today reading from Introduction through Boredom. So far I’ve seen no mention of a point I think might be significant to wives who find themselves in these situations. He knows that you know that millions of women not so very different from you have practiced the Oldest Profession with some degree of success, despite extremes of Disgust, Discomfort, Distraction, Insecurity, and Anger. All the Serious Discussion seems to agree that (with a little external lubrication) it’s easier for women to Fake It when they’re not in the mood than for men. So you must be aware of the message you are communicating about how much you value the relationship if you can’t offer at least a sincere apology or a quick hand job. And you must assume that that’s the message he’s receiving.

I certainly agree that if the man wants to fix the problem, then it’s up to him to act unilaterally to relieve the Disgust, Discomfort, Distraction, Insecurity, and Anger. But if the wife is actually aware that there is a problem, then she needs to make some effort to find some way to at least acknowledge that she is aware of the man’s efforts. Or else have the decency to tell him directly that it’s a lost cause. This subject is not particularly enjoyable for me, and so far I haven’t seen any earth-shattering new information (hey, people have been writing about this since cuneiform), but I like your style, so I’ll keep reading.

Ted 1/16/04; 6:08:53 PM

“I do this but not all the time. Men treat us like servants and so do the kids … it is a natural desire to strike back at people who use you like a rug.”

I think I have to say something about this. For my partner and I, the past 12 months have been a rollercoaster in the employment department. Now, we try and be ‘fair’ about household-related matters (bills, chores, etc) and we don’t have kids. The deal we struck was this: the person who isn’t working, or is working less (say a casual position?) does more of the housework. This is on a scale. At the same time, the person who earns more contributes more to the finances (again, on a scale).

The point I’m slowly reaching is this: At one point I had lost my job and she was working full-time. I did all the housework, had the place nice and tidy, and eagerly awaited her return. I wanted to share her day, share mine, and spend some time together. I also happened to make sure I still contributed as much as I could to the finances from my unemployment benefits. When the table was turned, and I was working full-time and she not at all, she did most of the work, but complained. Wanted me to do more around the house, and was rarely in a good mood when I got home. Due to the government’s means testing she also wasn’t getting unemployment benefits and so we were wholy dependent on my paycheck. Not that I even made a virtue of that or even considered using it as ammuniion (promise).

Is it possible that the female psyche has a problem being the at home person where the male may not? Is it perhaps not the male but the female that perpetuates this problem as she ASSUMES that she is subjugated thanks to society’s typecasting? This, of course, does not help the man, except to understand the deeper workings of the female mind (if in fact I’m on anything close to the right track).Shadow 1/17/04; 5:21:49 AM

“Housewifery involves so much pure drudgery and so little sense of value or urgency that it is easy to feel deeply unhappy about yourself and your “job”in the world. Been there, done that.”

Ah, but the Zeitgeist is changing. . .as is the perception of value about work involved in keeping a home. This is a discussion we’ve been having over at my blog, and Rayne’s and a good one called Theory of the Daily. I think mainly because people do so many things nowadays; society is a lot more fluid. Few are defined by their “job.” How this will affect sex remains to be seen. . .

Leah 1/20/04; 1:29:39 PM

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2 Responses to “Bad Company”

  1. sdbri Says:

    The key here is moderation, and to achieve that sometimes compromise is a valid route. Friends can have a negative influence, but fortunately this is usually temporary. In any case, simply demanding that she stop seeing her friends so much is not going to work.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I agree that friends can be very bad for a marriage. When we were going through some really rough patches I would confide in people who would not be objective at all and tell me I should leave and that he was an ass and all that jazz. Only after completely withdrawing myself from everyone, even my husband, could I recognise that all the negative talk with other women was absolutely destructive and I had to focus more on the positive elements of our marriage. It is such a shame that so many of us (women) regularly badmouth our husbands to our friends, but never balance it out with the good things.


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