Saturday, October 17, 2009

Infantilizing Men

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.


Anonymous said...

So let me see if I understand you correctly. If men are being immature jerks, it's WOMEN who are to blame?

Clarissa said...

No, you don't understand me correctly. :-)

What's to blame for this phenomenon is the nature of the patriarchal society that bars women from full participation in the public sphere and reduces them to the private sphere.

This particular phenomenon is part of the reason I always say that patriarchy is bad for both men and women.

Anonymous said...

What we get as a result, is an unhealthy and unequal balance of power both in the public and in the private sphere.


It's not that unhealthy because, based even on Hugo's post itself, such things are widespread. It's a stable and therefore "healthy" system. That some people dislike is another matter.

I have a question: if men infantilize women in the public shpere, why can't they just repeat that in the private one?

Clarissa said...

"It's not that unhealthy because, based even on Hugo's post itself, such things are widespread. "

-So if many people do it, it must be healthy? What about a society, where slavery is widespread and acceptable? Does that make it good and healthy?

"if men infantilize women in the public shpere, why can't they just repeat that in the private one?"

-Infantilizing yourself frees you from responsibility. So if you are tired of constant responsibility in one area of your life, the result might be that you will compensate for that by behaving immaturely and irresponsibly in another sphere.

Anonymous said...

I would like to suggest another, more basic, reason why women acquiesce to this model of relationships - because they are not (or feel like they are not) presented with any alternatives. If they want to be in a relationship, this is it. I see this so much with my friends and it appalls and saddens me, that they have to spend all their time and energy mothering their husbands/boyfriends. And yet at the same time, it occurs to me that at least they have a husband/boyfriend, and maybe there's a reason why I'm always single! =P Unfortunately, this model (which I think you correctly relate back to pervasive and damaging stereotypes in popular media and culture) is so pervasive that there are very, very few men (and, to be fair, women) who are able to or even desire to resist it.

Clarissa said...

Of course, it would take both men and women realizing how silly and destructive this game is. We could start thinking, for example, about the damage this model does to our sex lives. In this relationship model, is it any wonder that couples' sex lives often fizzle out a few years into a relationship?

mythago said...

As the saying goes, "your wife has sex with you; your mother cleans up after you; pick one."

Clarissa said...

mythago, this is genius! I have never heard this before. LOL LOL

Anonymous said...

This describes so many of the men in my age group who will openly assert that they don't ever want to grow up and still don't feel grown up (men in their late 40s/early 50s). It's so very sad, for them and for us.

And I don't understand it; there's nothing wrong about being responsible and adult, and nothing that keeps you from being playful or eccentric to boot.


Lee said...

I KNEW there was a reason I always detested these stupid shows like "Everebody loves Raymond" and the other ones you mention. It's almost creepy seeing a wife and a husband locked in a mother/son-type relationship.

And have you noticed how on these shows men always have to beg for sex and wives only reward them with sex for "good behavior"? This always seemed very weird and kind of disturbing to me.

mommasboy said...

well, what if you're into that sort of thing?

Clarissa said...

I'm sure that works for many people and I'm super happy for them. :-)

Anonymous said...

well here's a man's side of it. Women are never happy with how we do things. whether it's loading the dishwasher, washing clothes, cleaning windows, whatever we do, if we don't do it our wives way, it's wrong. women hold the power at home, it's called sex, and they use it. we try to please them so we can get sex. and women don't want sex, so they keep raising the bar. it's a nasty little cycle and has little to do with what goes on outside the home, and everything to do with women who don't respect men and don't think they need to.

Clarissa said...

I'm sorry you've been so unlucky in your personal life but there is no need to generalize. Some women are like that but many many women aren't.

Anonymous said...

In response to the guy that posted women are never happy with how men do chores at home and that we do chores so we can have sex but they never want to. How about this, ask your wife to show you how she wants it done and then give it a go. That's easy enough I think. Still no good..well find something you can do around the house that you are good at. I sucked making beds for awhile but I got better at it with practice. It's not rocket science bud. I bet if your wife got the can of carnauba out of the garage to wax the car you'd have all kinds of suggestions for her.

As for doing chores for sex, well, how bout doing chores cause it's as much your freakin' responsibility to keep your home kept up as it is your wife's. Yep, I know, a novel idea. Good grief man, do you still watch Green Acres regularly or something? Grow the hell up guy.

As for women not wanting sex..aaw..are you from planet earth? If anything it seems to be the other way around for most couples I hear of. My wife works at a large complex with about 600 other women. The number of women that have (yes, have) to go out and buy a vibrator would apparently amaze you. Then again, if you can't figure out how to clean windows properly then maybe there are some other things you have a problem with as well!