It's been nearly a century since Freud asked his famous question about the nature of female desire, and very few men that I know are any closer to an answer than Freud was. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, shortly after going through my own divorce, I belonged to a men’s group that met weekly, and I was regularly hearing the stories of men troubled by the fact that they had been unable to make their relationships work and distressed by their inability to understand what makes women tick. Although it’s widely believed that men’s infidelity, drinking, insensitivity, and all-around emotional numbness are the primary reasons most relationships dissolve, I was getting the other side of the story. My group included a man whose wife had left him after 22 years for a woman. She, of course, took with her half of their “community” property and regular spousal support payments, although their three teenage children continued to live with him. It included another man who had been unhappily married for over 20 years but couldn’t bear to leave his wife because she was sickly and very needy. But she had been handling the family finances, and when he finally did leave (with the help of Zoloft, which broke through years and years of depression), he felt so guilty he gave her everything she asked for (far beyond what was required by the community property laws of California), and she left him with nothing but a mortgage to pay. It included a man struggling to keep his construction company afloat, whose wife was demanding alimony payments that would clearly bankrupt the company. And it included one happily married man who had put his marriage back together after a year-long separation by simply doing everything his wife asked him to do. Not too long ago, University of Washington psychologist John Gottman reported that the secret of successful marriages is male capitulation (www.webhealing.com/joyrelat.html). When men defer to their wives’ needs and desires, the marriages last. When I told this to a married male friend, he smiled and said, “That’s not true; I always have the last words in conflicts with my wife. And those words are ‘Yes, dear.’ ”
Given that it is often assumed a marital breakup is caused by the male, is it any wonder that men generally, over the past several decades, have felt battered, misunderstood, and beleaguered and that many of them wonder what’s wrong with so many women that they can’t fathom the possibility that the “he said” side of any “he said/she said” story may have some validity? My favorite gender-based joke is “If a man says something in the middle of a forest, and there is no woman present to hear him, is he still wrong?”
So conditioned are we to assume that men are the perpetrators and women the victims in the ongoing war of the sexes, we can wander through the battlefields hardly noticing the wounded male bodies strewn here and there. A feminist friend of mine said that she thought that description was an exaggeration, but it reflects my experience talking to many men in many different contexts over the past dozen years or so. These were men of all ages, from college students to those now in their 50s and 60s, who have lived through both the sexual revolution and the gender revolution. The latter group are generally men who went into relationships with one kind of expectation and were caught by surprise at the changing attitudes and roles of the women in their lives. They are the collateral damage of the women’s revolution that very few chroniclers of that revolution have talked about.
I spoke with Richard Peacock, coauthor of Learning to Leave: A Woman’s Guide, who told me he was amazed when doing research for the book at how cold, methodical, and systematic some women can be when they’ve chosen to end a relationship. “Women have the ability to turn off the love tap and get on with things much better than men do,” he said. “It often leaves men confused and dazed. Here’s this woman who was showering you with love and affection, and suddenly she’s cold as ice and meticulously planning the future of her life without you.” This remarkable ability to go from devotion to distance, from nurturing to nastiness troubled a lot of the men I’ve spoken with and often left them puzzled. In today’s world of “serial monogamy,” the most intimate person in one’s life turns into a ruthless courtroom adversary. After a divorce or breakup, the quest for money often replaces the erotic component of a relationship. Obviously there are sociological reasons for this quest — men generally earn more than women. Economic inequality creates a situation where couples remain linked financially, although split emotionally and erotically.
Consider the case of Paul M. (all names have been changed), one of the men in my group. Paul was a technical consultant for a large corporation and was married for 22 years to the same woman, and he thought he knew her well. Paul and his wife Hillary had three children, two girls and a boy, who were now into their teenage years. Paul was absolutely devoted to his family and was enjoying the good life of his middle age. He owned a home in Del Mar — which they had bought years earlier, before prices moved beyond reason — had a solid job that paid well, and loved Hillary without reservation. So he was surprised when Hillary suggested they attend a couples group she had heard about in order to “enhance” their marriage. At the first meeting they attended, it became clear she had something else in mind altogether. Hillary announced — to the group, not to Paul alone — that she was unhappy in her marriage and needed time to discover “who she was.” She had fallen in love with a woman who understood her a great deal more than Paul did, and she was going to leave her marriage to live with her new love. To say Paul was dumbfounded, nonplussed, shocked, startled, driven to distraction, etc., would be understating the case. He could not believe what he was hearing. After the meeting, Hillary told Paul she would not be going home with him, and she walked across the parking lot to a waiting car, where her lover picked her up and drove her away.
When Paul got home he found Hillary’s closets and drawers had been emptied, and her journal was lying open on his desk. She had clearly left it there for him to discover. And discover it he did, reading it through tearful eyes for the rest of the night as it chronicled her long love affair with this woman, her involvement with women’s Wicca groups, her affinities with Native American rituals, her dissatisfaction with motherhood and their “picture perfect” Del Mar life. The short version of the story is, Paul was left with their three teenage children to raise and, two weeks later, slapped with divorce papers filed by a Del Mar attorney who is known in the trade as “the shark.” Of course, Hillary got half of everything and $3000 monthly in spousal support, while Paul used what was left of his consultant’s salary to pay the mortgage and take care of the kids. When I asked him if he resented this, Paul said, in his usual stoic way (he’s a New Englander), “Well, you do what you gotta do.” Then, amazingly, he went on to defend Hillary, saying that although she had a college degree, she had never worked, so she would need the spousal support to get on her feet.
The story of men’s puzzlement about women has gone largely unreported, although the women’s view of what’s wrong with men is virtually a national sport. If you were to wander into the self-help section of your local bookstore and peruse the titles on the shelves, you would find that many of them seem to suggest women need a lot of help in the world to set their lives straight. You would further discover that the reason they need this help is that men are basically demented and simply don’t know anything about women’s wishes and dreams.
The book that started this depiction of women as victims of male ineptitude is Women Who Love Too Much, which bears the subtitle When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change. The book, written by Robin Norwood, was first published in 1986 and has been in print ever since. If you click on the title at Amazon.com, you will discover the major industry of male-bashing that the book has spawned. Ms. Norwood has also written Daily Meditations for Women Who Love Too Much and Letters from Women Who Love Too Much, as well as Why Me, Why This, Why Now: A Guide to Answering Life’s Toughest Questions. The Amazon folks tell us that people who bought Women Who Love Too Much also bought Don’t Call That Man!: A Survival Guide to Letting Go by Rhonda Findling, Smart Women/Foolish Choices: Finding the Right Men, Avoiding the Wrong Ones by Connell Cowan, et al., and Men Who Can’t Love by Steven Carter (presumably a man who can love) and Julia Sokol. The effect of these books on our culture has been positively Circean, and this, of course, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
It goes without saying that you will not find books called Men Who Love Too Much, or, even more unlikely, Smart Men/Foolish Choices. And this is not because there are no men who “love too much” (don’t we need more love in the world, rather than less?) or men who make foolish relationship choices, but because men don’t generally buy self-help books unless they have to do with disassembling an automobile engine or repairing an electrical outlet, and even then, hesitantly. Of course, relationships are equally sabotaged by women, and women have cheated on, manipulated, been abusive to, and generally behaved badly to men in much the same ways and probably in the same proportions (after all, whom are all these heterosexual men behaving badly with?) as the other way around, but the popular perception — especially among women — is that men are incorrigible and women are almost always the victims of male insensitivity.
Then there is the spectacularly successful “Men Are from Mars/Women Are from Venus” series created by John Gray, who initially provided some corrective to the “women are right–men are wrong” industry by suggesting that both men and women need to learn to communicate with one another more effectively. But as the insights of Gray’s initial volume in the series have been expanded, or perhaps “thinned” is a better word, to give us all sorts of sequels (Mars and Venus in the Bedroom; Mars and Venus on a Date; Mars and Venus in Touch; etc.), calendars, workbooks, Braille editions, parodies, and endless variations, the Mars/Venus analogy has become a bit worn. Gray’s books, unlike the others mentioned, do not bash men and probably have helped a great many men and women to recognize the roots of some of their conflicts. But sometimes, particularly in the later volumes, by simplifying the complexities of human relationships and boiling them down to the hardly staggering insight that men and women are different, they may actually deepen the rift.
Instead of relying on books, I set about to uncover some real men’s attitudes toward real women in this postfeminist age by talking to men who had been in problematic relationships with women and listening to their versions of the relationships. Nearly everyone I told that I was working on this article said, “What about the women’s side?”
While there certainly is another side to each of the stories related here, that is not the story I am telling. You can find that story in the hundreds of novels, films, and nonfiction accounts by and about women who have been battered, emotionally abused, neglected, and generally treated shabbily by the men in their lives. I have no desire to “bash women” in this article, but I do feel it important that the other side of the story get told.
Meet Sing Yu, an Asian-American man of 45 who’s been married once and has had four or five troubled relationships since his divorce, nearly all of them punctuated by hysterical episodes. He’s gun-shy about remarrying because his wife left him for another man, blindsiding him with the news after five years of marriage. When I told a mutual friend I was writing this article, he immediately told me I must talk to Sing Yu. We talked for several hours in my living room, and he told me many of the details of what he called his “roller-coaster” relationships. Sing Yu grew up in Hong Kong and came to the United States in 1975 to attend college in upstate New York. He got a degree in physics and went to Chicago to complete a Ph.D. in physics. He got various jobs related to physics and math and finally ended up in biotechnology, doing research and technical work.
I asked Sing Yu to tell me about the significant relationships he’d had with women in his life — what was good about them and what was bad, as well as how they turned out. “Let’s see,” he said. “I was always the geeky type; I never dated until graduate school. Then I fell madly in love with this fellow graduate student from China, and of course she was married. She came here to study, and she left her husband behind. We had an extremely stormy relationship off and on — it was always a fragile affair, and you never quite knew whether we were breaking up or not. Anyway, it lasted two or three years. Finally, it ended. It’s not clear to me to this day who broke it off, but I think it was kind of mutual. It became so painful it was not worth going through the cycle. Then shortly after that I met my ex-wife. We got married.”
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Well, I met my ex-wife in Maryland. I was doing post-doc work. She’s a very interesting person, and I was very attracted to her. She is American, of English and Irish descent. Very intelligent and very intellectual but also loads of fun and, I think, very attractive. But then she is also very independent and very self-centered.”
“How do you mean that?”
“We were married for five years, but the marriage started deteriorating after the first two or three. When we first married, she told me clearly she wanted to settle down and start a family, which is what I wanted as well. But then things changed. She started to want her own life, so to speak. Not wanting to take responsibility and that sort of thing. She just wanted to do art and music and sort of let the relationship go. I had no objection to her doing art and music, but she really wanted something more. I think she wanted a more Bohemian life.”
“Were you surprised by this?”
“I was surprised by the abruptness of it. I knew she was drifting away. I knew she didn’t want to work. I knew she wanted to be an artist. But what really happened was she went to Mexico — I can talk about it now without much emotion because it was ten years ago. But she went to Mexico with a friend of hers, and when she came back she told me she had met somebody in Mexico. She said she wanted to try a new life. So we got divorced, and she spent a year with that guy. She brought that guy into America, but it didn’t work out.”
Sing Yu’s story got more complicated when I asked him if he was still in touch with his ex-wife.
“Well, what happened was that about a year and a half ago, she came back into my life and said she wanted to get back together. We had been divorced for eight years, and she said she wanted to get back together. She said fundamentally that the period we broke up was a very irrational time of her life, but our marriage was very fundamentally sound; it was just a certain period of insanity that ruined it, so she wanted me to consider getting back together. I thought about it long and hard. I really missed her. When you love somebody, it’s hard to resist the idea of getting back together. But the way she left me was very tough; it was just like, ‘Okay, honey, I’ll see you next week!’ So I don’t know if I could ever trust her again.”
I wondered if his experience with his ex-wife impacted his view of women in general.
“No question that it did. I think, looking back, a lot of my relationships are kind of random anyway, but I think fundamentally it’s always bouncing from one end of the spectrum to the other end. Never quite finding myself fully happy. After my wife and I broke up and I came back to San Diego, I dated, though not very seriously. Then I met this Thai girl who also worked at the same company that I worked at, and we got pretty involved. That was fun for a year or so, and then we broke up. It was getting — what’s the word? — she was possessive and needy, very needy. She was also very hyper. She couldn’t stay put, things were slightly out of order, and she would drive me nuts. But sexually it was a good match, and also culturally, because she was from the Orient and I had links there. And she and I also were pretty Americanized. It gave us a lot in common. But that didn’t work out. She was very needy.
“I was the one who broke that up. That one was hard for me. I broke it up. She wanted to continue, but she was extremely possessive. I had some friends that were female, but they were just friends that I like to spend time with, and she would be extremely jealous and didn’t want me to have anything to do with that. So that was one of the reasons I felt like, if I were to stay in a relationship with her I would have no other significant friendship with a female. And at the same time, actually, what was also factoring into the thinking was, I still missed my wife, and comparing my wife to that woman. I thought, ‘Well, my wife is this and this and that, so intelligent, so intellectual, so da-da-da-da-da.’ So that, too, was part of the dynamic, I think. I had certain expectations that she did not meet.”
This seems to be a problem for most men who enter into new relationships in midlife. They’re always comparing them to previous relationships. Once men have had a serious relationship, every other one is measured by that. A lot of men’s inner monologues are “She is like her in this way, but she is not like her in that way,” and this often prevents men from seeing a potential partner clearly, in her own right. This was true for virtually all the men I spoke with, and it’s my experience as well. I’m sure the same comparisons must be true for women. It’s one of the primary limiting factors of the serially monogamous relationships of our time.
Sing Yu continued. “So we broke up. That was tough on me. I liked her a lot, but I felt I just had to break up. Then I swore off relationships for a while, but that didn’t last long. Finally, in a very, very depressed and lonely moment in my life, I met Karen, who was totally opposite from any woman I’d met before. She didn’t have a job, she was kind of crazy — not intellectual but pretty street-smart, not educated but she read a lot. So it was an interesting mix. She is extremely kindhearted, very loving, and not possessive at all. So then she came and stayed at my place, and we ended up living together. In the beginning, once again, it was terrific, it was good energy and all that stuff, and she was quite pretty, I thought. She is American — I seem to vacillate between American and Oriental women. But gradually I realized that she had a problem, that she was dysfunctional. She couldn’t hold a job, she drinks a lot, and it finally dawned on me that she was actually addicted, that she was an alcoholic and a drug addict. It took me a long time to realize this — seven years. We lived together seven years. And once I realized this, I kept trying to help her, because she is such a genuinely good person. She has the biggest heart of anybody I know. Beautiful heart and beautiful face, actually. But living with her addictions day to day became impossible.
“What bothered me most was the whole ‘nonpresence’ part of it, because you never knew, is she there or not? I’d come home and she would be wiped out, so it was just a pretty horrible situation. Then I started having affairs on the side, and of course I felt terribly guilty about that. But it became clear that this was never going to work. I was getting depressed, because I was drawn to her, especially to helping her. I really wanted to be free, but I really wanted to help her. I wanted to get her clean. I tried to get some private nurses to help her get clean. I tried it a few times, and it did not work. But at the same time, I just couldn’t leave her. I dated some other women for a while, but when they realized I was not going to leave Karen, the relationships never worked out.
“Except the last one, and this is very recent. This woman also works in the last company I used to work for. She is from China, she is divorced, she has a kid, and we kind of just hit it off real well. She was going through a pretty tough period with her boss. I was just there to help her. I really had a crush on her. So we just started to talk and became very intimate very quickly. Of course, she expected that I would leave Karen for her, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. That’s a very tough thing to do, because it felt like it would be abandoning her, and she wasn’t going to be able to make it on her own. I know this is what they call ‘enabling’ in the addiction profession, but naming it doesn’t make it any easier. This Chinese woman’s name is Gwen, and she was always very upset — that if I claimed that I loved her, then why could I not leave Karen? I told her, ‘You have to understand, this is the situation and I just cannot leave her.’ But she won’t have anything to do with that. So there was one year of a very stormy, very gut-wrenching relationship with Gwen, and then she decided that her job was not working out anyway and she wanted to move away from it, so she left San Diego and moved to Arizona.
“Yeah, she moved away. So then I say, ‘Okay, then maybe that will resolve itself.’ But then we started talking again over the phone, and she said that she really wants to come to San Diego and visit me again. But I was still living with Karen and was torn, although by now I had told her that she had to move out. I was tired of all these relationships that could be meaningful but never would work because Karen is living with me. So I told her that it’s not going to work, and she agreed to move to Big Bear, a place she’s always liked. I bought her a little place in Big Bear where she could live. So, ironically, she was packing up and getting ready to move out the day Gwen came back to San Diego for a conference. I spent the evening with Gwen (while Karen was packing), and towards about 11:00 p.m. I said, ‘Well, I have to go home,’ and then Gwen just threw a fit, saying, ‘How dare you? I came all the way from Arizona and you just came here to screw me, and then you are going to go back and screw her. What do you think I am, a whore or something?’ She threw a fit. I said, ‘You’ve got to understand’ — basically I pleaded, to no avail, so I just walked out, feeling crummy. At midnight, she called home and Karen’s there. Karen picked up the phone and then I picked up the phone and talked to Gwen, who is screaming at me on the telephone, and Karen is screaming at me in the room. I hang up the phone, and of course Karen is throwing plates and stuff everywhere. Then the next day Karen was getting so ugly, she left messages at Gwen’s house. Gwen still has a house here and had to clean up the house. Karen left a message saying all kinds of nasty shit. So again, Gwen picked up the phone after she got her messages and called back again and started the whole thing of leaving messages and bitching each other out, so to speak. I was, like, this is a circus; I couldn’t really deal with it. So Gwen left; she said, ‘Fuck you guys’ and went back to Arizona.”
“Wait, let me see if I understand this. Gwen went to Arizona while Karen is in the process of moving out to go live in a house you bought for her in Big Bear, which, by the way, seems very generous of you. That is, to buy a place for a woman you’re breaking up with.”
“Exactly. When Gwen left, Karen finished moving out and finally left, moved up to Big Bear. I think I am extremely generous to the point of being used, but whatever. So right now, at the moment, I think Karen and I are kind of broken up, but she has started calling me again, wanting me to come back, saying, ‘I am clean now, I hate Big Bear, I miss the way we were,’ stuff like that. Meanwhile, I have been visiting Gwen on and off for the past six months. It’s always the same story. Really sweet the time we spend together. As soon as I come back to San Diego, she calls me every night, and if I’m not home after 10:00, she gets very paranoid, and she would say, ‘Which woman are you fucking now?’ I say, ‘I am just working late.’ And she would say, ‘I don’t believe you are just working late every day.’ I say, ‘I spend time with friends.’ ‘Which friends?’ she would ask. She makes me feel like I have to be completely accountable to her for every moment of my life, even though she is not in town.
“And then the second-to-last time I was in Arizona, she said, ‘Okay, I finally understand. You are the way you are, so I won’t push you into anything you don’t want. So let’s just have a good time.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ This time, when I went over — it was only about two weeks ago — I came back and she repeated the whole pattern. So anyway, she just called me on last Tuesday night and said, ‘Where were you the last day or two?’ ”
“Does she think you’re having sex with other women?”
“Yes, she is very jealous. I told her, ‘If I’m fucking somebody else, I’ll tell you. I’m not.’ She blamed me for not calling her one night. I said, ‘I work so hard. I came back from a long weekend and I just wanted some space to myself, get my head together.’ She said, ‘You can have all the space you want,’ except now she hasn’t called me for a week.”
“It sounds like the two of you are trying to negotiate the right kind of psychological distance. That’s particularly difficult when there’s physical distance involved.”
“That is exactly the point. I like her; we have a good time together, but I want my space too. She expects a total commitment. She expects me to be there 24 hours a day, and I don’t want to be on call like an emergency room doctor. I want some freedom; I want to talk to my friends. I just want to be by myself sometimes for a couple of days on end. I mean, that’s not a crime. I am very clear now that if I don’t really have that, I’d rather be alone; if I have affairs, that’s fine, but I need to have some space to think. I think if you are not in a good relationship or an intimate relationship, you feel lonelier sometimes in a relationship than when you are by yourself.”
I asked Sing Yu, if he could put himself in Gwen’s shoes, what would her view of this be?
“Her view would be, ‘I’ll give you what you need, but I need you to be completely devoted to me.’ That’s basically it — 24 hours a day, for life. Forsaking all others. I don’t even mind forsaking all others. I honestly thought when I was dating her — even now — this is the closest thing to a real relationship that I would like to keep. She has all these wonderful qualities. But what she doesn’t understand is that I need my own space, and that doesn’t mean that I am running away and having affairs. She thinks that if I spend time with any other woman it must be sexual. But I still have other friends that are females, and I like my own space. That doesn’t violate the trust in the relationship. I am not violating that.”
“Well, she met you when you were involved with another woman, right? I think that is probably something on her mind.”
“That’s it for her. If I could have an affair with Gwen while I am living with Karen, there is certainly no stopping me from having an affair while I am having a relationship with Gwen. I think she is using that logic to say that I am not to be trusted. If my time is not accounted for 24 hours a day, then she cannot trust me.”
I asked Sing Yu, if he could create the ideal woman for him, what would she be like?
“Well, I’ve thought about that, and I’ve talked about it with my best friend. It’s tough. Even though we came to that conclusion, we don’t know how to accept it or how to deal with it. No one man can be everything to a woman, and no one woman can be everything. But knowing that, how can we go forward? How do we accept the shortcomings and settle for less than we hope for? Maybe there is a time when you have to say, well, I’m just not going to get everything I want. We try to find somebody who can fulfill all of our needs and desires, but, of course, that leads to conflict. What if the needs are sexual? What if you have everything in common with this woman, but she doesn’t really give you good sex and you start to mess around on the side? Now that would not be good. That wouldn’t work either. So even though I know no one woman can satisfy all my needs, I don’t know how to proceed. I guess the point is, maybe we need to prioritize what our needs are, what are the most critical things. If sex is important and she doesn’t give you that, then forget it. If money is important and she’s not making good money, then forget it. If you need emotional intimacy and she’s cold and distant, it won’t work, regardless of what else she gives you.
“Maybe you need to prioritize and say this is what I need in a woman, and this is the primary thing that I need, whatever it is. It may be different for different people. I think the stereotype would be that all men would put sex on top. I don’t know that that is completely true. Some men would and some men wouldn’t. I like a woman who has a certain amount of independence. It’s important to me. I really hate to feel completely like I have to do everything — you have to make decisions, you have to take care of her economically, take care of her emotionally. It’s too much; it’s just exhausting. So I like a woman who has a certain degree of independence. That’s very important to me. See, women, generally, I think — and again, this is just my thought — women think that men don’t like women to be independent. I feel good when I know a woman has got her own thing going on. It’s fun to be with somebody that’s got something going on; it broadens your horizons. You get into that world and you don’t feel totally responsible.”
As Sing Yu was outlining the things he wanted in a woman, I thought of a joke that has been widely circulating on the Internet, called “Secrets of a Successful Marriage”:
- It is important to find a woman who cooks and cleans
- It is important to find a woman who makes good money
- It is important to find a woman who likes to have good sex
- It is most important that these three women never meet.
Although none of the men I spoke with were too concerned about a woman who cooks and cleans, like all jokes based on stereotypes, this one has more than a grain of truth in it. Men often get different things from different women but usually expect to find the whole package in one person. Sing Yu wants an independent, intellectual, financially secure, sexy woman. And he often finds one or two of these qualities but rarely gets them all together.
“Well, what’s your situation right now?”
“Karen has been calling me every other day wanting to come back. She’s telling me the same thing that my wife is telling me, that this craziness was just a temporary insanity. So I’m dealing with a triple whammy. Three things going on. My wife and I have always kept in contact. In some sense, if there was a woman that I really loved, she is it. I did love my wife, even though sexually it was not that great — she’s very attractive and all that, but she’s not an overly sensual person; she’s more intellectual. But we had so much going on, and we would talk for hours every night. We would talk about philosophy. It was a unique quality, and I have to say it’s generally easier for me to talk with men about intellectual issues (that will get me in trouble if you print that), but she is about the only woman I could carry on an intellectual conversation with. She is also very gifted artistically. She is a really great painter. She’s very natural in music; she can pick up a guitar and play a song. She is a beautiful writer. She is extremely talented. She does everything; she can pick up anything and be good at it. That was just such a turn-on. So we kept in touch. I’ve always kept in touch with her, I always get a charge whenever I talk with her. We have a lot in common, so maybe in the very depth of my mind, I still entertain the thought that maybe we will get back together. When she actually proposed that we do, I just got cold feet. But, God, it killed me basically to have to say no to her.”
Like many men, Sing Yu is what a friend of mine calls a “possibilities junkie.” He has trouble closing doors on relationships and likes to keep all the possibilities open. This is a devastating malady because it leaves him perpetually in limbo. I recognized the symptoms from both my men’s group and my own life. Possibilities junkies often have the best of motives — they don’t want to hurt the women they’re involved with; they don’t want to make a disastrous choice; they see all sides of every decision.
Sing Yu is puzzled that the women he has been with don’t understand his conflicts. “Women are always talking about the need to be honest and intimate with them, truthful. But if you tell a woman your real truth — for example, that I’m having trouble leaving Karen because I’m worried about her making it on her own, that’s the truth, right? That’s the truth. It’s not a lie. But when I tell that to Gwen, she goes bananas. She is asking me on the one hand to be truthful and honest, to be intimate. On the other hand, she is saying, lie to me continuously. It’s a paradox. She says simultaneously, ‘Just don’t tell me. Yet tell me.’ What’s ironic is if I am telling the truth, she won’t believe it. Now, if I said, ‘I am not screwing anybody, I am not going out with anybody else, I am staying at home, sometimes I don’t answer the telephone,’ that’s the truth. ‘No, no,’ she says, ‘how can you not answer the phone at 10:00 at night, da-da-da.’ Isn’t that an irony? Something occurred to me. Maybe we are using one word — ‘relationship’ — to mean so many different things. There is the biological aspect, definitely; there is the financial and economic; there is the emotional, friendship-type aspect; and maybe at some point they all intersect. We’ve got to recognize that maybe there are some very different things we are talking about, and maybe they don’t always come together.”
I asked about the financial aspects of his relationships with women; whether, for example, women expect him to pick up the tab all the time.
“Most of them do, except the Thai girl. The Thai girl was very independent financially. She made very good money. It just didn’t quite work out in other ways. After 30 years of feminism and equality — and a lot of women that I go out with are making as much as me or close to as much — still there is the expectation that I will take care of the financial aspect. Which is ironic and strange, and I have really never understood that. Talk about this hypocrisy of independence. For example, Gwen got laid off about two months ago, and she said, ‘Oh I’m not worried. I can get a job doing this or that.’ Then one day she called me up, and she was being very sweet, and then she said, ‘Will you support me?’ Kind of in so many words. I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m still supporting Karen. I’m still paying her mortgage, and I have a big mortgage here. I’d like to help, but I don’t know. You have a son; you have a mortgage there. I will try to help, but I don’t know if I can offer complete support.’ She blew her top and said, ‘Well, I was just testing you. You think I would have so little dignity as to ask you for support? You know me well enough to know I would never sink to that.’ Oh, God, I’m thinking, then why the fuck do you even ask me that then? You set this little trap and I gave the wrong answer. She says, ‘I don’t need your money, da-da-da-da.’ ”
This made me think of the “man saying something in the forest” joke. “Do you ever hold your own in arguments with women?” I asked.
“Oh, boy. It’s never easy. It’s always a stalemate, I guess. I just kind of give up and hang up the phone. I find that women have an incredible talent for turning things around and making you completely wrong. Making you completely wrong. It’s like, my God, how could I? I’m a scumbag. I’m a total snail, scum of the earth that I thought this way. And it’s just, it’s frustrating. It’s like I am really not that way, but you end up feeling like, oh my God. It’s hard, it’s very hard. Man, that almost may be a biological, genetic thing. Because this is something I have experienced with every woman I have known. Every woman I have known. I experienced that I can never prevail in an argument. It’s always, if we are going to have a fight about something, I am going to end up saying, ‘Okay, maybe you are right, and I’m sorry.’ I am the one that ends up saying I am sorry. I’m really not sorry. I didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t feel like I did anything wrong. But I end up feeling that is the only way that we are going to be able to move on is if I say I am sorry. Like Karen moved to Big Bear and I have been supporting her. She calls me sometimes and says, ‘You are so fucking selfish, you are so cruel.’ I’m so selfish! I am paying for this fucking house she’s living in. Not only do I pay for the mortgage, but I am helping her with this and that and that and that. ‘Still you are just very selfish,’ she says. She has a sense of entitlement. ‘You owe me this.’ ‘Why do I owe you?’ ‘I wasted seven good years of my life with you,’ she says. I thought about that; I think, ‘I did the same for you.’ But I don’t say that, because that doesn’t count. Why is a woman’s time so much more precious than a man’s time?”
Well, I don’t have the answer to that, but I needed to move on to hear from another man who had also been introduced to me by a mutual friend. This friend told me that Robert C. had emerged dazed and bloodied from the relationship wars. Robert is in his mid-50s, about five ten, and his dark, darting eyes seemed both frightened and weary. He sat across from me on the sofa, wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and jeans, fidgeting nervously as he told me the details of his recent relationships with women.
“I had a long-term marriage, and I thought it was a happy one. We had two daughters. I thought we were doing a fairly successful job of raising them. My wife and I both kind of had this dream, and I left my regular job and we saved up all our money and bought a bed-and-breakfast and tried to make a go of it. It was kind of at a time when the economy tanked, and it didn’t do well. In the process, we lost almost all of what we had earned, and in the process, she decided that I was not the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, because I wasn’t successful. So we got divorced. That was her decision primarily. I definitely wanted to be in the marriage. I was very upset about the bed-and-breakfast not having made it, but basically I would have stayed there. I was basically happy and loved my kids, and they were just about grown at that time — in fact, they were grown. So I decided to come out West.”
“So you came out to San Diego, and you were on your own, right? You were living here as a single man. Single for the first time in over 20 years.”
“Yes. I didn’t know hardly anybody, really. I was pretty unconnected to anybody in the San Diego area.”
“So what did you do in terms of getting connected? Did you try to meet some women?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I looked in the Reader, and at that point, it was before the online dating frenzy. The Reader, somebody told me, was the way to meet women, and I spotted an ad that said, ‘Professional woman looking for professional, attractive man,’ and I answered it.”
“What happened then?”
“Well, I answered that ad, and this woman turned out to be Sondra. She was in the educational field. She was an assistant professor of business administration at a local college and hadn’t received tenure yet because she had worked at several places and things hadn’t seemed to have worked out in any one given place yet, but she was trying to make a go of it. She had been married once before but didn’t have any children. She was 39 or 40 at the time. She asked me a lot of questions. She asked me about my past, what I looked like, what my educational background was, what my career was. Asked me a lot of questions. I guess I must have passed the first cut because she set up an occasion to meet me at some friends of hers who were having a dinner party.”
“Okay, so some friends were having a dinner party and she invited you there?”
“Yes, she invited me there. So we met there. She was very attractive. She was thin, and she had dark raven hair, beautiful eyes. I was taken by her physically, and she seemed to be very interested in me. I got to know her a little bit. I could see that she was intelligent. I could see that she was certainly interested in a relationship. It didn’t seem like she had any baggage, in that there didn’t seem to be any ex-loves in the picture, and she did have a career. So she didn’t seem like she was somebody that I would need to be able to financially support, because I wasn’t doing too well financially at that point. I was just starting a new life, and I was doing some computer sales. It was difficult. Frankly, it was probably the low ebb of my life as far as my earning capability. I was hoping that I would be able to get a better job and do better and kind of rebuild my life. But I wasn’t there yet, and, of course, I was still reeling from the failure of the bed-and-breakfast and the divorce.”
“Was she making more money than you were?”
“Well, she was and she wasn’t. She had the capability of it, she certainly had the educational background, but she seemed to have trouble staying in one job for any length of time. So she wasn’t a tenured professor at that time, and she tended to have bounced around enough that she really didn’t have money saved up. So she was probably doing better than I was at the time, but she wasn’t really in a stable situation either.”
“So what happened? How did the relationship progress?”
“Well, I remember that on our first date after this dinner party, we went on a picnic out in the wine country area of San Diego, Temecula. We took a picnic basket. We stopped and got some food, and I bought a nice bottle of wine at one of the wineries. We sat out all day, talking about our interests and what we were looking for and how we wanted to meet that right person and get connected. We talked about the fact that we had both dated a bit. I hadn’t dated as much as she had, because I hadn’t been single that long, but we both were looking for something that was stable and would be permanent and weren’t anxious to date a ton of people. She seemed very interested in me. I felt really good about the fact that she really, really seemed to be interested in me. So we got into a relationship. We started seeing each other quite a lot. She asked a lot of questions about my children, what they were like, what they looked like, if they were smart, if they were not smart. She seemed to be totally available to me as far as she had lots of time to spend with me. I didn’t get the feeling that there was anybody else in the picture. Sexually, we got involved fairly early on, and it was great. It was great sex. We were having sex all the time, and I felt she really was starting to care for me, and I certainly was really falling for her. I was a little nervous about that because I had just come out of a very bad relationship. But she was really there for me, and I was really interested in her.
“I started spending more and more time at her place. She owned a little house in Clairemont. I ended up spending more and more nights there, and it started to come to the point where I was only going to my place to get clean laundry or take a shower once in a while. But we talked about it, and she asked me to move in. She wanted to make one thing real clear, and that was that she was approaching 40 and her biological clock was definitely ticking. She really, really wanted to have a baby. She asked me very early on what was my willingness to do that. Frankly, that was not something I would have ever considered doing again. I had two children. I was very happy with those two children. They were grown and raised, and I frankly didn’t feel like I was in a position financially or any other way to start again. On the other hand, I was really falling for this woman, so I didn’t preclude the possibility of doing that, although I had a lot of reservations about it. Lots and lots of reservations about it.
“But it became clear to me that she was going to try to get pregnant. That was her main thrust in life at that time. If not with me, then with someone else. So while initially I wasn’t enthusiastic about it, I wasn’t going to give her up, and I was willing to do that for her if it was that important to her. I had a lot of misgivings about it, and I got to meet a number of her friends as we dated, and I got the feeling that even they thought maybe this wasn’t the wisest course I could take. In fact, I even went as far as talking to her friends about what they thought about the wisdom of my having a child with her.
“The first one that I talked to was Cindy, and while she didn’t have strong feelings about it, she wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. She told me that I should kind of take my time and really look at the situation. But another friend of hers, Beverly, told me point-blank that she had talked with Sondra about her need to have a child and that Sondra was basically much more looking for a sperm donor than she was a father for her child. And that it was less important to her that she was in love with the man, but that she was very focused and goal oriented about having this child above all else and passing on her gene pool.”
“So what did you think when you learned that?”
“Well, in a way I was upset; in a way I was flattered that she thought that my gene pool was a good one. I must have met the criteria, I guess. I was bright enough and good-looking enough. On the other hand, I got to know her friends pretty well, and I did have concerns about what she really felt about me. But we were having great sex, and we were living together. I wasn’t spending any time in my place. I moved into her place. It just didn’t seem to make any sense for me to keep an apartment, and this allowed us to try even harder to have this child, and it was one less expense. So we shared expenses and I moved into her place.
“She was having trouble getting pregnant. She went to fertility doctors, I went to fertility doctors with her, and I was tested, etcetera. Then one day she told me that while we were trying the old-fashioned way, she was also going to a sperm bank and trying to have a child any way she could. Hopefully with me, but if not with me, through an anonymous sperm donor.”
I asked Robert how he felt about that.
He fidgeted nervously. “I was shocked. I was disconcerted about it. But by the same token, I loved her enough and I thought no matter what, this child would be my child. I was living with her, I intended to stay living with her, and I was willing to take on a child, whether it was my genetic issue or not my genetic issue. I would have preferred it to be mine and wanted it to be mine, but it would have been mine anyway.”
This part of Robert’s story sounded a little fishy to me. I wondered what Sondra’s view of the situation would be, but then again, what’s important to me here is how Robert felt about it, not whether it was the “objective truth.” It’s just that it’s hard for me to imagine an unmarried man who will continue to try to get a woman pregnant while she’s going to a sperm donor to get pregnant that way. You can almost predict the paternity battles ahead. But Robert was blissfully oblivious to this while it was happening.
After Sondra finally did become pregnant, Robert immediately assumed the role of caretaker and expectant father. “I was excited,” he said. “Her dream was fulfilled and she was so happy, and therefore I was happy. She seemed grateful that I had been through a couple of pregnancies with my former wife. So I had experience to tell her what to expect, what not to expect. I wasn’t as nervous as I would have been if I never had had a child. She went for the amniocentesis. I went with her, of course, for the sonogram. We found out it was going to be a baby girl. I was ecstatic. She was ecstatic. I really wanted another little Sondra in my life at that time. I thought that we would be together forever.
“When she gave birth, I was there, obviously. I was there for the delivery, I was there for taking her home, and I was not doing too well at work at that time, so I was spending most of the time at home. She was doing her thing at the college, so she was spending more and more time away, and I gradually took on more and more of the child care. It was easier for me to do some of my work out of the house, and she was out trying to make more of a success of her career. Meanwhile, I was bonding with this baby, whom I love dearly.
“She was making some money, and I was making some money. She had owned her house for a while, so the expenses weren’t great. We were both making a modest living, but nothing to write home about. Well, we went through the first year this way, and she started to find more and more faults with me, particularly relative to my earning capabilities. She felt that I ought to be making a lot more money, being a successful executive or successful something. Frankly, I was around 50 at this point, and the San Diego economy wasn’t that great, and they weren’t looking with open arms to hire somebody like me at an executive level. So I was sort of eking out a living. I will admit, too, that I was so attached to this baby that I was happy to spend more and more time with her.”
I interrupted: “But Sondra wasn’t too enthusiastic about that? She wanted you working?”
“She seemed to be mixed about that. In one way, she was happy to have the help; on the other hand, she was very unhappy, increasingly more unhappy, that I wasn’t making big bucks. She wanted to be thinking about getting a better house and the better school system, or the better whatever, and that maybe she could stay home and spend time at home in the future — that we would have this much better lifestyle financially than at that point I was able to provide.”
“So when did you feel that the relationship turned or started being problematic?” I asked.
“I think about the time that she was used to the baby routine and it was kind of in a pattern. When the up-all-night, up-all-hours-of-the-day sleep deprivation ended, she increasingly began to find more and more fault with me. We fought a lot because she seemed to not accept the fact that I was trying to do better, but I wasn’t being successful here, financially. I was always there for the child. I was always there for her in whatever way she needed me relative to our relationship. I just wasn’t able to be financially successful at that point.”
I asked Robert how the sexual relationship was going.
“Sexually, she seemed a lot less interested. I wrote off a lot of that to the fact that we had an infant. That happens, I’ve been through that before with a lot of competing demands. I thought it would increase when the baby started sleeping through the night, when we were past the sleep deprivation point in time. But that never seemed to pick up anywhere near what it used to be. And then one day she finally basically told me to move out. She wasn’t interested in having me around anymore. It was over for her, and she really didn’t want me in her life anymore.”
Dear reader, though you and I knew where this was going several paragraphs back, for Robert it came as a complete surprise.
“It shocked me,” he said. “I knew she wasn’t happy with me, but I thought of myself as being a part of her life, and I certainly always thought of myself as being the father of this child and raising a child with her. I thought that was what she really, really wanted, and even though it wasn’t something I sought out, I agreed to do that for her. I agreed to all her terms and conditions. Even her going to the sperm bank. So I was stunned when she threw me out.”
Robert’s lips twitched as he said those words. He seemed to be holding on to a lot of emotion. “She threw you out?” I repeated.
“Well, she basically gave me an ultimatum of, you have a couple weeks to get yourself out of here. We had never married, so there were no legalities to go through. I wanted to get married, but she never did. I definitely wanted to get married when we had a child. But she continued not to want to. She would kind of postpone the discussion and never really wanted to go there, so we never did. The long and short of it is that I was forced to move out, and my daughter stayed with her. I, of course, wanted to spend a lot of time with the little girl, but she didn’t want that. I was devastated. I said, how could I not; she is my daughter. That’s when she brought up the fact that she might not be my daughter. She wanted me to take a paternity test. I didn’t want to take a paternity test because it didn’t matter to me. When she was going to the sperm bank and I knew that and we were also trying to have a child, we had agreed that no matter what, this child was our child. To think of it as her coming from a test tube where she would never know her father versus having somebody who wanted to be her father and had bonded with this child for a year, I couldn’t even comprehend that. So I refused to take the paternity test. I absolutely refused to do it.”
“But you had no legal rights to the child if you weren’t married to her and couldn’t prove you were the father, right?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what she told me. She said we weren’t married and I had no rights to the child and that if I didn’t take a paternity test, then under no circumstances could I ever see her again. I was devastated. I have never been more devastated — my marriage breaking up, nothing in my life had ever prepared me for this.”
“Well, what did you do?” I asked. “Did you take the paternity test?”
“I had to. I finally had to because I knew it was my only possibility of seeing the child. I took the test and I got the results, and I was not the father. But I was the father of that child in my heart and in my mind and in every other way. I was devastated. I couldn’t imagine anybody doing that.
“There wasn’t much I could do at that point. She wouldn’t let me see the child. I had no legal rights to the child. She didn’t want any part of me. I begged, I pleaded, I cried, I carried on, and it didn’t seem to faze her one iota. I felt humiliated. I couldn’t live in San Diego like that, and I finally left town. I’m just here for a few days visiting friends. It’s painful to me that I can’t see my daughter while I’m here. And I don’t know when I will be in another relationship again. Because it’s going to take me a lot of years, if ever, to get over this one.”
Robert was close to tears. I moved the conversation to another place. “Let me just ask you one more question. You have had two major relationships, and neither one of these relationships worked out. What’s wrong with these women? What kind of woman would make a relationship work for you?”
“I think what I needed and I didn’t have in either one of them was someone who would accept me for who I am and what I am. I am not going to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I’m in my 50s now, and that is not going to happen. I am willing to work, and I am willing to work hard, but I am not going to be a great financial success, and I need somebody who loves me for me and not because I am going to produce a child, or because of the numbers in my bank account, or because I can take care of her in the classic terms of she’ll never have to work again and I can buy her a big diamond ring and take her to Europe every year; but who loves me because when I come home at night we both want to be there, we both really, really can talk to each other and know that through the good times and the bad times we are there for each other. And no matter what happens in either one of our lives, that we love each other enough that we would deal with it. I don’t expect to marry or to end up with Julia Roberts — I’m not Ben Affleck — but I think I have a lot of love to give. I think I am a man who wants to be with one woman, who doesn’t have any desire to see how many women I can screw or how many relationships I can keep in the air at one time. I think I am attentive. I think I am someone who has value. I think I am an honest person, a decent person. I am willing to work hard. I may not always be successful. But I want someone who can appreciate those qualities in me and really love me for me.”
Robert seemed sad and wistful. His description of the ideal woman sounded a lot like descriptions I have read of the ideal man that women in his age bracket seek. He remained on the verge of tears. “You have not found that person yet, though?”
“Not yet, and I doubt I ever will.”
Robert’s tale left me depressed. I wanted to find a man who had had a good experience with a woman recently to assure me that the war between the sexes was not totally lopsided. Who else to seek out but a recently married young man who came of age after the feminist upheavals of the ’70s and ’80s. Since I teach at San Diego State, I thought someone in one of my classes would do fine. It just so happened that I was teaching Ray Carver’s much-anthologized short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The story is about two couples, sitting around a kitchen table drinking inordinate amounts of gin and trying to figure out what love means in the contemporary world. Mel, the male half of one of the couples, has a remarkable monologue in the middle of the story that summarizes the state of amour in our time. After talking about the transience of various kinds of love in today’s world, he says, “There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts…I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know.” During my lecture on the fragility of relationships in Carver’s fiction and in contemporary life, I read this speech. After class, Jarrod W., one of the best students in the class, came up to me and said, “I wish you hadn’t given that lecture today. I’m getting married on Sunday!” I apologized to Jarrod and was delighted that despite the gloomy prognosis for marriage in much recent literature, he believed in it and was taking the plunge.
After Jarrod’s wedding, we spoke in my living room, sitting on the same sofa where I had talked with Robert and Sing Yu. Jarrod is 25 and comes from Northern California. He wears horn-rimmed glasses, is nearly six feet tall, has a sturdy build, an intellectual demeanor, some light stubble on his face, and a receding hairline. I asked him if he could tell me about his earliest relationships with women.
“I don’t know if this is relevant, but I come from a divorced family, so my views of women have always been kind of — I wouldn’t say tainted — but a little bit different than those friends of mine who came from stable homes. I was 3 when my parents divorced, and I moved away from my mom when I was 13, because my relationship with her was not good. I went to live with my father, and then I had kind of a maniacal stepmother, so I haven’t always had the best female role models — they’ve always been a little weird.”
I asked Jarrod if his experience coming from a divorced family impacted his ideas about marriage. “Did it make you wary at all about the idea of getting married?”
“It did affect me quite a bit. ‘Wary’ is an accurate description. I guess I have seen love fail over and over again. My mother has actually been divorced five times. So I have seen it fail over and over again. Perhaps that leads to my views on love. I think what people call love is really lust; in my opinion, it is really just a kind of physical attraction.
“The first time I ever really had a relationship was in my junior year in high school, so I guess I was about 17, because I had just moved to California, Northern California. I had a girlfriend named Jennifer. I didn’t really know anything about girls or courting rituals, so she is probably the closest thing to a first girlfriend I had. What I mean is, I just got those impulses that people get when they are 17. The only problem was that Jennifer was probably the most hard-core drug addict that I had ever met. At the time this was a plus. It was really fascinating. I was more drawn, not necessarily into that lifestyle — I had never really done drugs myself — but, I mean, she was such an interesting character. I wouldn’t label it as a bad relationship. We got along very well, and I always thought that the acid reactions and things like that were interesting. She claimed to see trails — you know, she had a wild psychic life. I don’t know if I believed everything she said, but she was pretty far-out.
“It was a thrilling environment to be in, to hang out with her and her friends. In many ways they were a little clichéd and stereotypical; they liked living the druggie lifestyle. That lifestyle wasn’t as interesting as just listening to her talk about the various trips she’d had. That relationship broke up because I was pretty sure she was cheating on me, and I was sure that the right thing to do was to break up with her; she was never the most believable human being. But all my friends were telling me she was seeing this other guy. It was all word of mouth. It lasted a good 2H years, which is a long time in your teenage years.
“Anyway, the breakup was really kind of mutual, because I was interested in someone else. It wasn’t entirely self-righteous. Another lady named Shannon H., who I met in college — I actually met her at chess club. Jen and I had a long-distance relationship for a while, but after I met Shannon there didn’t seem much point in carrying it on. I had already moved to San Diego.
“Shannon was the exact opposite of Jen. She was Irish. She had really, really pretty hair, which is what I was first attracted to. She didn’t drink or do drugs at all. I myself, I don’t drink or do drugs. I’m not against it. I just, I have better things to do, I guess. She loved chess as I did, and so we played chess together. We built kind of a relationship, I guess, kind of an intellectual relationship. We went out together for a very long time. Well, about two years, I guess. You asked me, when I told you I was getting married, whether or not I loved before. I can honestly say that I think I loved her by any definition of the word ‘love.’ I have always argued that you can choose to be in love; it is something that you make a conscious choice about: that you care enough about a person that you are going to be in love with them. Everything else is just a physical attraction. But Shannon was very self-absorbed, and I guess that is what kind of led to the downfall. I was into her as a human being and I wanted to spend time with her, but I felt a lot of times I was getting blown off, and that would really hurt my feelings. After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore. So I left her.”
I had heard from many men that the women in their lives were self-absorbed. Not surprisingly, this is also a complaint that a lot of women make about men. We all want attention from the people we love, and when we don’t get enough, we feel they are self-absorbed. I asked Jarrod if he could be a bit clearer about Shannon’s “self-absorption.”
“Well, she was inconsiderate; maybe that’s a better word. She would make major changes in her life, and therefore our relationship, and not even talk with me about it. She started teaching elementary school in Los Angeles, and this is another relationship that ended up long distance, because she moved to Los Angeles and I was still going to school here. She got a teaching job in Los Angeles, and I went up to visit her often, and whenever I would go up, it seemed that she would be more interested in something else. She would say, ‘Oh, we can only be out for a few hours. I have something else to do.’ A lot of times it was class-related, but other times it was just a friend that she wanted to see, or something like that. And I honestly felt like I was making this tremendous effort, keeping this relationship together by going back and forth to L.A. It was rare that she would come down to see me. But she always seemed happy to see me. Maybe I was pushing myself on her, but I don’t think so. She was the sort of woman who moved from one thing to another very quickly. Whatever was interesting to her at the moment was the most important thing to her. I used the word ‘self-absorbed’ because other people who knew her described her that way as well. Whatever was most interesting to her at the moment was always more important than I was, despite the effort I had made to come and see her — and with traffic, that is a good two-hour drive up there. After a while, that wore a little thin. And it would hurt my feelings. I wouldn’t say it was a pride thing; I don’t have to be the most important thing in a woman’s life, but I have to count for something. I would make all this effort, and I would be all excited to see her and would end up disappointed. Eventually I asked myself, ‘How long am I going to do this?’ So we broke up. I don’t know if it is important, but I initiated it. I said, ‘You know, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and she didn’t seem all too broken up about it. She just kind of moved on. At the end, there really wasn’t any hard feelings or anything. Shannon actually ended up going to Ireland for a few years, and then I completely lost contact with her.
“I guess about a year after I broke up with Shannon, I got involved with an organization called San Diego State Ambassadors; it’s a group of tour guides who take visitors — prospective and new students and their parents — around campus and represent the university. That’s where I met Kathy, the woman I married last week. I’ve always held the view that before you get involved in a relationship, you should always be friends first. But that didn’t happen with Kathy. Actually, just five days after we first met we began seeing each other and dating and everything, so there was no friendship first. It was kind of an immediate relationship. I don’t know if that factors into anything.”
“I think it does,” I said. “Sometimes you can theorize about what you think a relationship should be and how it should happen, but it usually isn’t like that and doesn’t happen that way. We create ideal situations in our heads, but life keeps throwing us a steady diet of particulars that don’t match those ideals.”
“Yeah, this is a perfect example of that. We met, and I definitely do love Kathy. I don’t think there is any question about that. We both care very much for each other. We dated for four years before we got married, but neither of us is like any other of the people we went out with before.”
I wondered aloud what the mores of marriage proposals were these days, since my own occurred in prehistoric times. “Was the marriage a mutual decision, or did you propose to her, or how did that happen?”
“We had discussions first. It was kind of funny, and we tiptoed around it for a while, but after about two years of dating, we got a dog. That somehow was a turning point. It was pretty obvious to me that I wasn’t interested in having sex with anyone else. Two years into it I knew I was probably going to marry Kathy. I have always thought that a lot of marriage is just timing — whoever it is you are dating at a particular time in your life when you’re ready to get married. I think that happens a lot, and I’m fortunate in that I really found a good match. But I always wonder if I was dating someone else, one of the other two or someone else at this time in my life, whether or not it would have ended up in marriage. Once we started talking about marriage, it seemed inevitable. As a matter of fact, she began by telling me what kind of engagement ring she’d like. So I was sure that she would have said yes when it came time to propose. I actually did on her birthday. That was in March, and we were married in October.”
“Were her parents divorced also?”
“No, no. She comes from an ideal family. I know no family is ideal, but her parents have a very strong relationship. Both of them like me quite a bit. So there was no stress or no problem. But I guess my own experience with divorce made me search out Kathy because I knew she would be somebody I would want to be with or want to care about 30 years from now rather than just right now. There are probably a lot of women who could satisfy my ‘25-year-old urges,’ but Kathy is the kind of person that I definitely want to spend my entire life with. She has a caring personality, we share the same intellectual pursuits, and she’s the kind of woman I wouldn’t mind growing old with. Yeah, yeah, just like the Beatles song. I know for sure I’ll still love her ‘when I’m 64.’ I guess that comes directly from the divorce, knowing that these kinds of crushes or immediate feelings, to me, seem doomed to failure, because I have seen them fail over and over again.
“The wedding was very interesting. What was funny was the pictures. When we would line up for photographs, we would have the groom and bride and their immediate family. And Kathy had her mom and dad and I had my dad, stepmom, mom and stepdad. So the photograph would be heavy on my side — it seemed disproportionate.”
I told Jarrod that it was good to see that he was committed to marriage, despite having come from a family where divorce was commonplace. I asked if he had some sense of how his peers feel about marriage.
“Well, one of my other friends was married about a year ago, and she is already divorced, and others I know seem to be avoiding it. It seems like the males are avoiding it, and the females are pushing forward, and it just kind of runs into that same kind of stereotype that you see over and over again. I really don’t see much of a difference from what has always been the case.”
This surprised me, and I told Jarrod that. “I’m just wondering what’s new under the sun. I am wondering about whether things have really changed between men and women, or if there’s still this tension and certain kinds of misunderstandings, difficulties, and so on.”
Jarrod pointed out one observable change. “The only thing that has really changed is the technology, I think. You know, the universal themes I am reading about in mythology seem to still hold true today. But the Internet, I think, has created a whole new kind of weird relationship where people actually ‘meet’ before ever meeting, and it becomes so intense and so involved when they meet, it never seems to really work out.
“It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s almost the opposite way we usually get to know people, which is you get to know them physically, then you get to know how their mind works. The Internet, you don’t know them physically; you know their mind and how that works and you get attracted to that, and then you meet them physically and it may or may not be a click. It usually fails. People who claim to be hyperintellectual and say they couldn’t care less about how their partner looks will meet and it will matter a lot. Suddenly there is no spark. ‘I wasn’t interested in her.’ Well, it’s because she was fat. That’s why you didn’t like her. I mean, be honest about it. So when you ask what’s new under the sun, that’s something I have seen a lot of. When I say a lot of, I mean about five of my friends got seriously involved with somebody on the Internet, and all five of them ended at the first meeting.”
“Well, that is something new,” I said. “That’s really intriguing. I have heard people argue that it’s a better way to meet people because you get to know somebody psychologically — you get to know somebody’s mind and how they feel and how they think — before you meet them physically, and it’s a deeper connection. But it seems to me that we live in the real world and you have got to have somebody that you can be with.”
Jarrod said, “I don’t think that’s really true. I don’t know the cause of it, but in a sense, it is everything about you is manufactured on the Internet. I wouldn’t tell anyone that I am maybe a little bit overweight or this or that bores me; you know, these aren’t the types of things that would be brought up on the Internet. It would be, ‘Oh, I am interested in literature’ or my ability to play chess, or these kinds of things. So, again, I would be shown in the best possible light; I create my entire being.”
I asked Jarrod if he felt, at his time of life, that he had some understanding of what women want.
“Of course,” he said. “I understand that they are irrational, that’s it.”
Having heard the sad stories of Paul, whose wife left him with three teenagers to raise while she discovered her new lesbian identity; of Sing Yu, who never recovered from his divorce and had one roller-coaster relationship with women after another; and of Robert, who seemed brutally used by a woman with a self-involved mission of her own, I found it hard to disagree with Jarrod. Of course, the truth is that there may be as many irrational men as there are irrational women, but I suspect that more men perceive women to be irrational than the other way around. Sing Yu, Paul, Robert, my friend Jack, and even Jarrod are perplexed by a kind of behavior they find inexplicable. I would like to think that these stories are anomalies and hardly representative of a great many contemporary male-female relationships. However, having talked to dozens of men about their relationships, I can assure you they are not. Many men remain as confused as ever about Freud’s question, “What do women want?”
In 1986, the sociologist-reporter Anthony Astrachan published an assiduously ignored book called How Men Feel. Astrachan traveled all across America asking men how the women’s movement had affected their lives. He found that although many men intellectually support feminism and women’s equality, they tended to have more and stronger painful feelings than pleasurable ones about the changes in social gender roles that were occurring at that time. Those changes are still occurring, and more recently, Susan Faludi chronicled a great many men’s feelings in her book, aptly titled Stiffed (1999).
Faludi’s findings suggest that things haven’t changed much since the mid-’80s. Men still feel troubled that they are seen by women as powerful and privileged when they often feel powerless and used. They still feel burdened by the demands of being protectors and providers while at the same time surrendering authority and often feeling financially, emotionally, and socially manipulated. They hear about books like The Rules, which essentially advises women to be dishonest and never show men the truth of their feelings until they have “captured” them, and they fume inwardly. Like Sing Yu, many feel reluctant to commit in a relationship because they have been burned early along and fear the withdrawal of love and the onset of hysteria. Like Paul M., many have had to bear a heavy financial burden for women who have made detailed and elaborate plans to leave a marriage and to change their lives. Like Robert, many feel abused and manipulated by women who never consider their needs and desires and think that fathers are disposable.
Of course, many women do not behave in the ways the women described in this article behave. And many men abuse and manipulate women. But a great many men seem to want much the same thing from a relationship that a woman wants: the kind of unconditional love usually reserved for children by parents. Neither is likely to get that, because as human beings, we are flawed and protective of our emotional expenditures. Nonetheless, like Jay Gatsby, men cling to the notion that the ideal woman is out there, near the green light at the end of the dock, just beyond their reach, as women cling to the notion that someday their prince will come. The late poet and short story writer Ray Carver, shortly before his death, wrote this “Late Fragment,” which quietly speaks for the secret desire in all of us:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.