Recently, I read a very interesting post by Hugo Schwyzer that made me think about how often men are expected to pay a role of infantilized, immature and helpless little creatures in a relationship. Hugo's description of how he used to feel in his relationships is very telling in this respect:
"In my past marriages and relationships, I found myself– like so many men — taking on the part of the "naughty boy" and the "helpless child." Time and again, I turned wives and girlfriends into mother-figures, and the result was inevitably disastrous. I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers as to why we do what we do, or even why I did what I did. I do know that I’m not the only man who found "courtship" easier than "relationship." Over and over again, I devoted time and energy to "getting the girl", and when I succeeded, soon felt vaguely let down and confused about my role. It was all too easy for me to become increasingly childlike. I figured out that most of partners were students of my emotions, and most of them were eager to make the relationship work. So they were the ones who took over the "feeling work" of the relationship. They were the ones who brought up when something wasn’t working, they were the ones who took on the primary role of keeping what we had "oiled and running", as it were." (The rest of Hugo's interesting post can be found here.)
This is precisely the balance of power within a romantic relationship that the media always portray for us. Women are bustling around men, trying to figure out "how to make a relationship work", "what is wrong with the relationship", and "where the relationship should go". Think about the endless discussions on these topics on Sex and the City, where women seem to do little else other than engage in endless attempts to figure out men and relationships with men. Think about such shows as Everybody Loves Raymond, King of Queens, According to Jim, and the like, where the relationship inside a middle-aged couple looks more like a relationship between a.mother and a teenage son.
Many women automatically think that being in a relationship means that they have to take upon themselves the greater share of work needed to maintain the relationship. This goes both for housework and for any practical and emotional issues attendant upon being part of a couple. This sad reality robs women of time and energy that they invest into all that housework combined with having to work as a psychologist and couples' therapist within their own relationships. As a result, being with somebody becomes for many women one more full-time job rather than an opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves.
Hugo Schwyzer tells us honestly why men agree to play the part of a helpless child within a relationship: it seems easier. Of course, as he also recognizes, this stunts your emotional growh and robs you of power to decide what actually goes on both inside the relationship and inside your own house. For my part, I'm more interested in why women agree to take on this model of behavior.
The answer, I believe, is manifold. On the one hand, there is that feeling of being indispensable that I discussed in my post on gender and housework. There is also a need to conform to the patriarchal standard that presents all women as more emotional as men, better at communication than men, and more capable of resolving emotional issues than men.
And then, of course, there is this whole issue of empowerment and control. As women, we often feel disempowered in view of continued gender inequality within society. We still don't get equal pay for equal work, we are still often prevented from career advancement, our right to control our own bodies is still in grave danger, we still have to fight extremely hard to get taken seriously, we still get the least prestigious, badly paid, menial and monotonous jobs, we are still severely underrepresented in the Senate, the Congress, the Supreme Court, etc. Our society offers us the romantic and emotional sphere as pretty much the only space where we can be completely in control. If you are infantilized by men at work, in a classroom, in the public sphere, it often seems like the only solution is to infantilize them in return in the personal sphere.
What we get as a result, is an unhealthy and unequal balance of power both in the public and in the private sphere.