The Care and Keeping of Potential Husbands

April 30, 2013

stressed_out_manThe number of college educated women ages 35-44 who have married has remained steady at 88% for the last twenty years, but they’re getting married three years later, on average. Both sexes contribute to this, according to Andrew J. Cherlin writing in the New York Times:

It has become the capstone experience of personal life — the last brick put in place after everything else is set.

Still, there are other reasons the sexes delay marriage. The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia identified the top 10 reasons men today delay commitment:

1. They can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past.

2. They can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying.

3. They want to avoid divorce and its financial risks.

4. They want to wait until they are older to have children.

5. They fear that marriage will require too many changes and compromises.

6. They are waiting for the perfect soulmate and she hasn’t yet appeared.

7. They face few social pressures to marry.

8. They are reluctant to marry a woman who already has children.

9. They want to own a house before they get a wife.

10. They want to enjoy single life as long as they can.

Of these ten reasons, you as an individual are in a position to influence just three (bolded above):

  • You can mitigate his fear of divorce risk.
  • You can demonstrate your own willingness to compromise and to accept him unconditionally.
  • You can bring so much to the table that he will realize no other woman is likely to come close. 

In a recent comment thread, reader Mr. Wavevector shared that he felt rather unnerved upon learning that several friends are divorcing. Divorce is costly to both parties, as it means the setting up of two households and other lost efficiencies. But men in particular fear losing access to their children. I have seen this in my own marriage – Mr. HUS once left a very good job because a change in office location to a remote suburb would have meant that he wouldn’t see the children on weekdays due to the long commute. He preferred the upset of finding a new job to the loss of contact with his kids. 

Society often downplays the emotional needs of men. We expect stoicism, strength and competence from men at all times. If they fail to deliver, as we all do and must from time to time, we are quick to shame them. Writing about shame in The Atlantic (H/T: Mr. WV), Andy Hinds describes the work of Brene Brown, a researcher who studies  “vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.” Brown says that messaages of shame are organized around gender:

For men, the overarching message is that any weakness is shameful. And since vulnerability is often perceived as weakness, it is especially risky for men to practice vulnerability.

What Brown also discovered in the course of her research is that, contrary to her early assumptions, men’s shame is not primarily inflicted by other men. Instead, it is the women in their lives who tend to be repelled when men show the chinks in their armor.

“Most women pledge allegiance to this idea that women can explore their emotions, break down, fall apart—and it’s healthy,” Brown said. “But guys are not allowed to fall apart.” Ironically, she explained, men are often pressured to open up and talk about their feelings, and they are criticized for being emotionally walled-off; but if they get too real, they are met with revulsion.

Feminism romanticized Sensitive Ponytail Man but that doesn’t play well with most women. In fact, even feminists don’t like them. Women mostly see those guys as weak and effeminate. In extreme cases, they even feel repulsed and alarmed. 

As women, we are proud to feel strong, yet we do not hesitate to expect our boyfriends and husbands to make us feel loved, secure, even reassured. We’ll ask for it if we have to, but we’d much prefer they somehow “just know” when we need some extra emotional support. Yet we don’t reciprocate by giving them any space to fail, to feel hurt, frightened or insecure, emotions that all humans experience.

A 2010 report by advertising giant Havas Worldwide on contemporary gender dynamics describes the increase in female craving for traditional masculinity:

What we are seeing among many millennial females is that their vision of ideal womanhood is somewhat more traditional than that of their feminist mothers. They, too, want it all, but their definition of all highlights family and personal time at least as much as career. These women are far less likely than their mothers were to feel they have something to prove in the workplace, and they are conscious of the high costs of the sexual revolution. Without wanting to trade in any of the respect or freedom women have earned, they look back wistfully to a time when men were ready and able to take on the role of protector and provider.

In a world of Jon Gosselins and Judd Apatow characters (men frozen in the Adolescent Age), women are looking for controlled masculine strength (not aggression), self-assurance, and competence – a man on whom they can count no matter what. 

…When we say young women want a return to some aspects of traditional gender roles, we are not suggesting they want to return to gender inequality. Far from it. What they seek, to varying degrees, is a return to gender distinctions. They want to celebrate the sexes’ differences and enjoy the yin and yang that makes both parties stronger.

Women want a lot, but what are we willing to give in return? By becoming a provider of emotional support and loyalty, you signal your quality as a long-term partner, and potentially knock out three reasons to delay marriage. Relatively few women are even aware of what men are feeling, much less sensitive to their needs, so by stepping up you distinguish yourself from the pack right away. It shouldn’t be hard for you to earn “best girlfriend ever” status. That’s a sad reflection of the SMP, but you can use it to your personal advantage.

Several male readers offered strategic advice:

HanSolo:

1) Understand the issues that men face, e.g. supposedly we have privilege yet collectively we’re going to college at a much lower rate than women.

2) Feel and convey empathy about general concerns to men and personal ones that the individual guy might have; since men don’t want to show weakness we may not bring these things up a lot.

3) Allay any legitimate concerns the man might have. Don’t flirt with other men. Don’t be entitled. Don’t emasculate him in front of others (or alone for that matter).

It doesn’t always require focused effort. From Lokland:

a) Display good character/personality traits- nurturing/kindness etc.

b) Demonstrate congruence both over time and between social groups.

I think making me feel secure is more of a passive act whereby the less she does to make me feel insecure the more secure I feel.

 In addition to the above, Mr. WV suggests:

Let him know you need him. Being in a relationship means allowing yourself to be vulnerable and dependent. This is true for men too.

Let him know you value husbands and fathers. Talk about how valuable a good husband is to a woman. Talk about how important good fathers are. If your father was great, say how important that was to you. If your father was terrible or not around, say how much you want your kids to have the great father you never had.

Re the way men deal with fear:

Two of the tricks men use to deal with fear are to externalize and abstract them. The first order is to convert a fear to a risk. It’s no longer an emotion I feel internally, it’s a risk that exists externally and can be dealt with rationally. A second order is to abstract the risk further and treat it as an injustice. So it’s no longer just a risk to me personally (which is still exposing a weakness, after all), but an injustice that is hurting a lot of people and undermining society. And it’s surely legitimate to feel righteous anger about something like that!

So understand that when a man frames the issue as a risk or as an injustice, it may be a projection of a painful emotion.

There are times in every marriage where a wife needs to be a pillar of support regardless of her own emotions. I don’t believe my husband has ever felt insecure in our relationship or worried that I would abandon him or our family. I did make many mistakes, but I’ve learned over time what keeps him feeling secure and happy. For what it’s worth, here is what I try to provide each and every day:

Affection and Desire

Do not take your partner for granted. You may know that you love him and are happy to see him at the end of the day, but he can only know that if you show him. No matter what I’m doing, when my husband arrives home I greet him with a hug and kiss, and I earnestly inquire about his day.

I touch my husband a lot. I sidle up for a hug, ruffle his hair when he is sitting down, place my hand over his when he’s saying something important. 

Any time you look at him and think he looks sexy, tell him. My husband is a very natty dresser, and unfortunately for him, I often feel he looks sexy as he’s leaving for work. It gives him something to think about during the day. 🙂 You’re aiming for 100% confidence on his part that you find him desirable. This has more leverage than any other practice, in my view. When my husband feels secure in my attraction to him, his mood reflects it and daily life is far more enjoyable.

Loyalty

Give your guy the opportunity to vent. We all feel persecuted from time to time. Your job is to let him express his frustration and yes, fear, without criticizing or grilling him. You must have his back.  I have found that when I express unconditional loyalty, my husband is able to become more objective. Because he knows that I’m on his team, he will often ask me to brainstorm with him – and I can offer constructive criticism then, if appropriate and necessary.

On the flip side, praise his strengths. When he comes home feeling proud of  himself, celebrate that! Never compete with your own mate. 

Never sass or criticize your partner in front of other people. Over the years, we’ve socialized from time to time with other couples who do this, and it’s always a “one and done” thing. They’re exhibiting their relationship dissatisfaction publicly, and they’re a drag to be around. Whatever your issues, don’t air them in public.

Appreciation & Reassurance

Convey your appreciation regularly for all the mundane and routine things your man does for you. My husband once walked 4 miles in a blizzard so that we could ride out the storm together. But he also did little things every day, like having my favorite yogurt in his fridge or finding me after class for a quick hello. 

Thank him for his help, his effort, and for making you a priority. 

Do not focus on material things. You and your children will need shelter, food, clothing and education. The rest is luxury. Fun vacations, nice cars, designer handbags – don’t build a life that requires these things. Whether you both provide, or your husband will be the primary breadwinner, avoiding financial stress is very important to your relationship. Express gratitude for what you have. I can guarantee that for everyone reading this blog, it is enough. 

Never treat your partner with disrespect. The expression of contempt has been found to be the quickest route to divorce. Avoid:

  • Sarcasm
  • Eye rolling
  • Dismissiveness
  • Patronizing 
  • Mocking or ridiculing

A high value man is one who is strong but emotionally intelligent. On the spectrum between asshole and wimp is where most men reside, and where all marriageable men may be found. When you force a man to suppress his real and natural emotions, you’re diminishing his happiness, and by extension your own. When you give him space for the whole range of emotions, including fear, you cement your bond and strengthen him, and by extension your relationship.