This column may be biased in favor of the more gracious gender. To be fair, I’ll write another column, soon, extolling the virtues of men and taking ladies to task. Some may think that I should just leave it all alone, but there are things that need be said because mates really can’t say these things to each other; it leads to contempt and resentment. It’s heard as blaming or nagging. If I say it here, there’s the benefit of being a somewhat neutral party – then couples can be blameless with each other and say, “Blame Bannister; I didn’t say it!” (I’m pretty tough – and besides, I get paid to have people be angry with me.)
I saw a younger female patient this week, probably she is in her mid-twenties but she complained about a problem-dynamic that seems ubiquitous and is not age specific. It's a problem I've heard many-many times, hence, this article. When will males become men?
In short, I’ll summarize two of things women often say about their mates. (When I speak of case material anecdotally, I typically refer to men & women as Dick & Jane.)
Example #1 Jane tells me that Dick frequently suggests that Jane may have an affair. This somehow becomes a rationalization for guilt-tripping the women into making promise after promise that she will NEVER stray or even appreciate (as eye candy) some piece of hunky man-flesh.
Explanation: We all have insecurities, but as we mature, HOPEFULLY, we get a handle on our insecurities. We learn there are no monsters in the closet or bogeymen under the bed. To use an expression from a Jerry Seinfeld episode, we become “masters of our own domain”. We learn to take care of ourselves instead of relying on OTHERS to reassure and comfort us. When we were children, perhaps our parents reassured us that we’d be OK; that the sun would rise in the morning – we learned to tolerate our own anxieties and were no longer reliant on others to comfort us. Using psychologese, we develop an “internal locus of control”.
Some people, (men more than women) seem to have a difficult time reaching this developmental milestone. Rather than being responsible for dealing with our own anxieties and being masters of our own domain, men often suggest that our mates are responsible for reducing our anxieties to levels we can tolerate – and these levels are sadly under-developed. [Warning: A crude analogy is quickly approaching!] I asked my patient, “When your mate has a bowel-movement, are you responsible for wiping his bottom?” “Of course not!” she replied. I was relieved to hear that her mate is able to handle his toileting needs himself. Perhaps the analogy is absurd in the extreme, but it illustrates the idea that we all should be expected to handle our most personal concerns without implying or insisting that someone else (usually a female) is responsible.
Example #2 Frequently, after Dick and Jane begin sharing living space, it GRADUALLY becomes Jane’s responsibility to handle finances and other domestic tasks. Somehow, mysteriously, Dick’s only responsibility is to go to work and come home and either drinks beer, watches TV or plays video games or even worse – stays out late drinking with his buddies. I’ve seen this same pattern even if Dick is unemployed and Jane is fully employed. The domestic tasks still fall to Jane even when she’s working full time. And even worse – if there are children – the responsibility for child-care is ALSO Jane’s task.
REALLY? Does this even approach fair? Do you think the couple ever had a conversation wherein Jane said, “I’ll assume responsibility for all the heavy lifting in the relationship and you can be entirely irresponsible.” Uhh… I doubt it. Then how did it get this way?
Explanation: This is an extension of the first explanation. (Hopefully the reader will begin to see a pattern developing.) As toddlers, we have very few responsibilities. With luck, we will be blessed by having parents who gradually require us to be more responsible as it becomes developmentally appropriate. Hopefully, if we are responsible, we will experience positive consequences. If we fail to demonstrate responsibility, our parents will provide effective negative consequences. If we are blessed with wise and effective parents/care-givers we will develop emotional AND intellectual maturity. Conversely (not a tennis shoe reference), If we’ve been raised by care-givers who were over-indulgent or overly punitive, unpredictable, immature and didn’t require us to be responsible in a manner that was reasonable, we will become a dysfunctional hybrid – part physically/sexually mature but intellectually and emotionally immature jerks.
Note: Nature takes care of physical maturity – usually between the ages of 10 and 13 we all navigate the white waters of puberty, but there is more to maturity than the ability to procreate. On average, by the time half of us reach age 17 we will have the intellectual maturity of most adults over 30. But intellectual maturity isn’t the whole enchilada. Most of us will not reach EMOTIONAL maturity, the age at which we should be able to regulate our own emotions, until we are near our thirties! As I’ve said before: If one has lots of money (power), one may never mature.
One may be wondering, “Is there any good news here? What if I’m in a relationship with someone who isn’t “all growed up” but I don’t want to end the relationship – is there hope?” Here’s the answer, “Yes there’s hope.” Just as an illiterate adult can learn to read, an immature adult can mature. (Remember the ol’ joke, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer: One… but the light bulb really has to WANT to change.) The same principle holds true; the immature one must be truly motivated to grow up. If the motivation is largely on the side of the already mature party – it’s not a good predictor.
Sometimes, if the less mature person becomes KEENLY aware that a REAL likelihood exists that the relationship will dissolve if they don’t grow up… there’s a chance things will improve. If the more mature and responsible partner continues to enable the other partner – then I’m not very hopeful. Then you are only replicating the poor boundaries that your partner’s parents exhibited.
Some time ago, a patient helped me understand a definition of maturity.
The ability to discriminate between reality-based thinking and fantasy/wishful thinking…
In this case, the ability to see if someone can REALLY change.
Choosing the reality-based choices/decisions because you recognize that what you wish/want just isn’t based on the reality…
In this case making a choice to stay in the relationship or leave the relationship – but based on realities – not wishful fantasies.
The willingness to tolerate/accept the predictable emotional fallout.
In this case being willing to accept the heart-break if you leave – or accepting the frustration and anger should you decide to remain.
A relational partnership HOPEFULLY involves two people who are (nearly) fully mature. If there’s a significant disparity of maturity – then you’re signing up for a long hitch of frustration, resentment, and threats.
Women (as a generalization), tend to mature more quickly than men; at first it’s biology. Later, if children come along, women quickly learn that the needs of the infant come first. Perhaps, if men became pregnant, men would become more mature, more quickly.