Does your partner shrink from marriage? Is he overwhelmed by your yearning for children?
Recently I spent an entire endless afternoon in a delicatessen while the man in my life, whom we’ll call Henry, backed away from a previous urgency to marry me. I drank stone-cold tea and tried to paste the remains of some bleu cheese onto croissant pieces I’d practically fidgeted into crumbs. I tried to hear the final few hours of Henry’s views on things. There was not much else for me to do. My contribution to our breakup had come earlier in the day and my mind had fixated there with unbelieving horror.
As was our custom, Henry and I had gotten together late on a Saturday morning, and I had screwed up my courage to confide that I was having grave doubts about our plans for a home together. Henry is the sort of deep-thinking man you can explain such brutalizing things to without his flying apart with anger or pain and I fully expected that, once I had shared my fears, he would allay them, the way he has when I blurted that I am permanently deformed by a haircut.
Do you schedule all your weekends out of town together? Does your partner just "go along" ?
And so I told him — gently, I hoped — that I was overwhelmed by the responsibilities falling to me in our union: those of principal breadwinner, head of the entertainment committee, business manager, and mother of souls. I told him that more and more it appeared to me that he could not be counted on to contribute much to my care or the welfare of our future family. And having unburdened myself, I leaned back to bask in Henry’s reassurances.
At which point he said calmly, “Yes, I think you’re right. I’m just not a suitable choice for you.” He said a few million other words, sometimes relevant meanderings about the nature of the world and our place on it together and apart. Henry’s style of conversation springs from a considerable and original intellect, and in better days, I'd been alternately absorbed in and comforted by it, the way I sometimes actually watch a TV show and other times just flip on the set and feel glad for the company. But that afternoon, finally struggling out of a profound bewilderment, I interrupted his ramblings.
“If you agree with me,” I managed to say, “what were you planning to contribute to this relationship? What have you given to women before?”
Henry thought it over. “I’ve observed that I seem to function as an invisible support system,” he said. “I don’t know just what the form is, but I have noticed that when I have gone, my women have not done as well and not known just why.”
That afternoon of rupture is curiously clear to me, the way events of great significance preserve themselves for reference by seeming to absorb light as they lie in memory. But my belated discovery of Henry’s listlessness is not an event in a vacuum but part of a block of evidence about weak men that seems to swell every time I glance over my shoulder at it.
This phenomenon of sudden saturation is not new to me, but it has usually exhibited itself in connection with more homely little events. For instance, for several months after I sprang for my first expensive camera, the only things I really noticed in glossy magazines were the camera ads. During any five minutes in a check-out line, I was destined to flip to at least three full-page ads jammed with tiny type about Canon or Minolta.
I read an incredible number of very intricate ads and became convinced that there was something essentially muddy about my viewfinder. I was drawn to all this camera data because I had invested $500 in my camera.
I have invested a lot more in men. I have invested my whole life in men, in the heartbreaking and heartwarming events between them and me. So I am not surprised that my days are suddenly broken into with realizations about them, that I feel myself whirring like a computer every time I see a movie or chat with a friend or begin a romance or read a novel. As the clock keeps ticking and I’m neither younger nor more firmly settled in love than when I began my research, a primitive inner force wants to wind things up and have a life with someone. But something stops me.
And that something is that I’m surrounded by wimps.
I regret it has come to this. Perhaps I should define wimp, since Webster does not. A wimp is a wormboy, someone who does not want to carry the ball. A wormboy watches his life like a movie and flees when it makes demands on him. He is passive. He cannot be depended on during tough times.
Many women love wormboys but haven’t pulled all the evidence together yet. Here’s a little test, ladies, to help you familiarize yourself with a wormboy’s bad habits.
Does your partner shrink from marriage?
Is he overwhelmed by your yearning for children?
If so, maybe you have a wimp — although it may be too early to tell.
Marriage and family were once seized all too casually by couples ill-prepared for them, and men and women alike are often waiting to commit to each other until wisdom settles in.
Although you both work, when the two of you go to dinner, do you choose the restaurant? If you ask your partner to suggest a place, does he tell you solicitously that he “just isn’t sure what you feel like eating”?
Do you alone comb the entertainment sections of local periodicals for movies, plays, and events? Are you the one who suggests and arranges get-togethers with friends?
Do you schedule all your weekends out of town together?
Does your partner just "go along" ?
If you answered yes, you’re in wormboy territory. And this is territory pitted with explosives, because a woman in charge of a wormboy’s leisure time can start to feel like a real bitch. The situation may have begun with the two of you offering well-meaning suggestions, only some of which were agreed upon. But a wormboy collapses in defeat when a few of his ideas are rejected, and suddenly the responsibility for fun falls to you. One woman I know lived with a man for nearly a decade and says she began to believe that all entertainment suggestions had to come from her because she’s so difficult to please.
When you are ill do you find yourself suddenly alone?
Does your partner avoid confrontation, with you and everyone else?
Is he unconcerned with excellence in his work?
Is he lazy?
Loving a man with many of these traits is not surprising. Wormboys have their charms. They can be very sensitive and they often possess the wry human characteristic of the observer. They are abundant, so that over a period years their behavior has begun to seem normal. I remember the recent discovery of a friend of mine that what she wants is a “take-charge” kind of man. She is in her late thirties and has known many men — she knows more men than anyone except possibly my hairdresser — and this new, shinier standard was prompted by a very slight experience with leadership. After a long weekend out of town with a crowd, she returned home in the company of a man who took it upon himself to lessen his fellow passengers' boredom. “Let's sing,” he would say, and then lead the singing. Or, “All right, now let’s play a game.” My friend was very impressed with this level of initiative.
Wormboys are not the most deadly con artists in the world, but for a strong woman they are probably the most heartbreaking. A strong woman is capable of a big life with someone, and every time she finds she is not sharing energies with a partner but is actually giving her own energy away, she wonders a little more achingly if she will find companionship fervent enough to enlarge living.
You won’t hear much about wormboys in pseudo-psychological forums such as Hour Magazine, perhaps because not everyone notices them. “Men only seem like wimps to women who demand that they be strong,” says a friend of mine.
I am one of these demanding women but 1 wasn’t always. I was very nicely brought up by a mother who wanted me to wear low-heeled shoes so I would not tower over my boyfriends and thus humiliate them. I wore them, too. I am not a very likely candidate for this soapbox. So it might be helpful for you to know how I became so outspoken.
The whole business can be blamed on an article that I read recently about Teresa Callan, a young woman of goodwill who intervened at a neighborhood bar when it was apparent that the female bartender would otherwise be pounded to a pulp by a drunken bully. Callan got her own face bashed in while not a single male in the bar raised a beer-besotted finger to help.
While the author of that article was researching this story, she queried some of her male colleagues whether they would have rushed to Callan’s side. Each person polled explained he would have remained rooted in his seat. Men have been bar brawling much longer than women, they said. Women still leap to the demands of social responsibility because they’re naive to the consequences. One guy specified that he had gained new respect for the attitude “1 don’t want to get involved” — which until recently he disdained — when a stroll through the streets of New York had impressed him with a variety of brain-sprung weirdos lurking out there to be tangled with.
Throughout this discussion I was stirred by memories of my bedtime uneasiness as a child and how it was soothed by the knowledge of my father asleep down the hall. At five foot seven and 135 pounds, my father was hardly a physical menace, was a featherweight, in fact, who wouldn't have stood an honest chance in a tussle against any determined burglar. But I knew he would protect me or die. After finding this out, I made a mental note to stop depending on male aggression in matters where I may be torn limb from limb.
A friend who had been out of town awhile returned just as the Callan story came out, and the two of us went for twilight drinks. He groused about the timid men who left Teresa Callan to her fate. I murmured that I was less surprised, that men I knew and respected would not have helped either. My friend, who reacts vigorously to emotional issues and who considers everything an emotional issue, began to hold forth. What the hell was I talking about? he wanted to know. Men don’t behave that way, what sort of men do I know?
Which brought me up a bit short. In a moment I was confessing that the kind of men I know are men who look to me for leadership, men filled with fear of responsibility. I told my friend that after my relationship with Henry hit the skids, Henry nonetheless hung around until the exact day following the news that I might be soon entering the hospital, at which time he left town on business and literally never returned. I said that in two years I have not kepi serious company with a single man who has moved through our evenings together — or through his own life — with discernible surefootedness. I said I am sick to death of it. I said l am... exhausted.
That was the first time I admitted to myself that the men I go out with are not what Jimmy Stewart promised me onscreen they would be. And once sensitized I found all around me evidence of the wimp phenomenon and its inconsistencies:
– Some wormboys are wormy in a big way. Last March a woman entered Big Dan’s Tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to buy cigarettes. She was subsequently gang-raped, reportedly over a two-hour period while onlookers cheered and the victim screamed for mercy. There is evidence that the male bartender, who did not call the police, continued to serve drinks throughout.
– Others are in the closet. A story in a recent edition of the Los Angeles Reader brought fame to Uba, the proprietor of a popular fetish haberdashery who is pleased for her customers to get their kicks in drag but who will also pin a grown man into a large diaper and then give him a little spanking. Uba claimed that the diaper routine is most popular with mover-and-shaker types, and she also said, “I don’t tolerate any weirdos in my store.”
– Some men who are not typical wormboys may have latent tendencies that show up when they are challenged by women. A recent study at the University of North Carolina found that men married to better-educated women or to women employed in white-collar jobs face two to three times the risk of heart disease than other men. “The dual role of some women in raising children and working outside the home may produce added pressure on a marriage and also may lead to more coronary heart disease among husbands,” said the study’s primary researcher. “Another possibility is the wives with superior educations or jobs may threaten their husbands’ self-esteem, resulting in insecurity on the part of men in these marriages and subsequently higher rates of heart disease.”
– Some men have so successfully rationalized the rejection of responsibilities that at least one theoretician is building an entire new civilization around the absence of male wage earners. An article printed last winter in that dreamy-eyed publication The Nation — called “After the Breadwinner Vanishes” by Barbara Ehrenreich — assumed that traditional marriages held intact by amiable husband-providers are largely history. Men, she said, have come to regard that harness as guilt-motivated behavior that will drive a fellow into an early grave. Ehrenreich likened old-style marriage to a “private-sector welfare system,” and proposed that to combat the sudden and burgeoning poverty of ill-prepared single mothers, the federal government should fill in by becoming an all-giving welfare state. This article was excerpted from Ehrenreich’s book The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.
– Men who still believe in marriage are finding that they would rather be home with a baby. This is not a brand-new phenomenon, but is still sufficiently peculiar to generate tee-hee role reversal movies like Mr. Mom. One of the early house-husbands, and certainly the most famous to date, was John Lennon, who was unfortunately murdered just as he began publicly to discuss, via a Playboy interview, his years of secluded adventures with child rearing and bread baking. Lennon found a tower of approving strength in wife Yoko Ono, and perhaps together these two could have enlightened us about new ways. But it didn’t happen, and other couples have not been so lucky. An article in Glamour last year, “When You Love An Unambitious Man,” set out to show what life is like for women with untraditional husbands — and what it was like was awful. Although the article’s author, Jane Adams, proposed that “for women with strong career goals of their own, loving a man who’s not traditionally ambitious can be a blessing" — primarily because of lack of competition for career attention — not one of Adams’ sources concurred with her.
Witness this exchange between Stan, a thirty-year-old M.D., and his wife, Diana, a computer systems representative. After the birth of their child, Stan decided to work just three emergency room shifts per week and spend the rest of his time “living his life.”
“ ‘Stan’s suffering from burnout,’ (Diana) says crisply. ‘But take my word for it. He’ll be back in a full-time practice this time next year.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ Stan asks with amusement. ‘What makes you so sure?’
“ ‘Because you’re basically an ambitious man,’ she tells him. It’s clear they’ve had this discussion before. ‘You ’re just ambitious for other things right now.’ ”
Later in the article Stan reveals that he would like to have another child, “and that subject triggers Diana’s real feelings about her husband’s career choices,” wrote Adams. “ ‘Not until you go back to full-time work,’ she says. ‘I don’t mind sharing the expenses, but I’m not going to support all of us.’ She adds, it’s not seemly for you to live like this forever . . ”
Another of Adams’ case histories was the marriage of Mac and Jenna. Mac quit his job as a city attorney to learn construction, and the shrinking economy has meant he does not always find work that suits him. The marriage is deteriorating. “Tight money is a symptom, but it’s not the disease — Mac’s lack of ambition is,’’ wrote Adams.
“ ‘His attitude is, I have what I need to make me happy, how come you’re not?’ [Jenna] says. It’s quite clear to her why she’s not. ‘I’m the prime support,’ she says. ‘I have to bring in not just the money, but the energy. The less Mac works, the more detached he seems. His value system has changed — he’s so laid back he exhausts me!’
“ ‘Ambition corrodes the soul,’ says Mac. Jenna winces . . .
“ ‘Lack of ambition is not an aphrodisiac,’ Jenna says.’’
– Despite national predictions that ninety percent of today’s teenage girls will work outside the home for at least twenty-five years, some young girls continue to expect they will one day be someone’s little woman. The findings of one survey of teenage girls showed they didn’t believe they’d have to work for a living when they grew up. “The girls expected to get married someday and have a big house on a farm with horses and the whole bit,’’ reported a spokesman for the research, which was conducted at a private school in Philadelphia. “Oh, some thought they’d have a career of some sort but they considered careers incidental.” Another study in the Midwest polled the top two female students at every high school in the state and found that most of them did not expect to be working more than five years after high school graduation.
And in Southern California, a woman who teaches classes in future planning for teenage girls, Melinda Bingham, has been quoted as saying, “Most girls have not looked at the issue that they may be single, and they may be single parents. They expected to be taken care of.”
Of course it would be absurd to suggest that every man eager to lift a lighter load is a sniveling child, or that women have a right to expect business as usual. No one can fault any man’s relief that at last he has more to look forward to than marriage to a millstone.
Not too long ago I breakfasted with a freelancer who has greatly benefited from the upheaval of the last twenty years, who seemed very pleased with the improvements and not very changed by them. He’s probably The Whole Package — bright, introspective, motivated — and one of the first things he said to me about his wife was, “She’s self-supporting, which is very nice.” I couldn’t help contrasting his unfurrowed brow with the white hair of another man I’ve known all my life who, at age forty-six, finds himself unemployed with five dependent children and a wife who has never worked outside the home. I have been overwhelmed at second hand by his responsibilities, have imagined him awake in the dark fretting for the futures of seven entire people. Let us all sympathize with generations of providers who accepted a he-man burden and finally, irascibly, began to demand the end.
But some of the oppressed have run amok. I have to stand tall amidst the chaos and point out that a collapse of society is not appropriate. Look, we all favored more freedom during the Sixties, but not once did the crowd roar that its greatest desire was to never be able to depend on anyone again. Wormboys have no right to look to me and my kind to compensate them for centuries of abuse as the heads of households.
These wormboys can be a pernicious group, radicals without the decency even to get themselves a magazine, Ms.-style, so that I can pick them out and beat cleats away. Yes, indeed, some wimps are clever. For example, one night last month a friend fixed me up with a man who proved to be as amusing and attractive as promised. We passed a very pleasant evening. No sooner had I returned to my apartment than my friend, a women’s activist, was on the phone. “I just wanted you to know that if you like him you’ll haVe to be the one to pursue it,” she said. ‘‘He’s very passive with women.” I had to shake my head. Here was a fellow who had trained a feminist friend to do his work. Give that worm-boy an award.
A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking
Before I traveled farther down this presumptuous road, I thought it would be wise to check my perceptions of a proliferation of mild-mannered men. I planned a discussion between women of demonstrated backbone. But I didn’t want to lead these women into conclusions that weren’t theirs, and I didn’t want to invite only personal friends who could be trusted to be loyal to my prejudices, so I tried to approach the whole thing obliquely. One of my slanted overtures was to a male colleague whose girl friend and roommate, Cynthia, I had met only once. I sort of shuffled around the subject with my associate, avoiding all labels, explaining that I was contemplating an article about relationships and that sometimes it appeared to me that men just weren’t the go-getters of yesteryear. I wondered if he thought Cynthia would like to kick this possibility around. He said that maybe she would, and I agreed to phone her later in the day. He appeared in my office door about an hour later and said, “I’m not sure just what you’re after with this article, but Cynthia says you’re right, most men are wimps.” That same afternoon, I invited another woman I work with, careful of my choice of words lest she believe I was organizing a female arm of the KKK. She suggested brightly that we call the discussion a “wienie roast.” So much for impartiality.
At the appointed hour, a varied group of six assembled in my living room. Each was known to be independent and directioned. There was a lawyer, a restaurateur, a city employee, a couple of writers. For varied reasons they were unwilling to be identified, and so aliases are created for them here, and for their men.
Mary, thirty-three, has been intensely involved for three years with a man she says laughingly could not “under any definition be termed a wimp.” She describes their relationship as a “very, very strong and important one, and definitely the only relationship I’ve ever had of this kind.” Mary is divorced.
Cynthia, thirty-three, has recently begun living with my aforementioned colleague, a man who is both enormously sensitive and subject to a bull-headedness I would like to vaporlock. Cynthia is divorced and has a thirteen-year-old daughter.
Beulah, twenty-five, has a boyfriend in San Diego.
Jane, thirty, is approaching her second anniversary in a romance but has never been married or lived with anyone. She has had “several significant” relationships with men and has also gone through long manless periods.
Nan, forty-five, is divorced and has two grown daughters. She is not involved with a man.
As for me, I too, am divorced. In terms of later developments, you already know a little about Henry.
The discussion began decisively, and went straight for the indecisive behavior of men these women know.
Me: You’re all here because either I or someone close to you has judged you to be strong women.
Cynthia: You made me want to be here because I think you’re right about men being, if not passive, at least not aggressive, and not assertive and non-nurturing.
Me: Do you see that as different from the way they used to be?
Cynthia: I see it as different from my ideal of what men used to be. I don’t know if I grew up too much on Nancy Drew, but it’s real different from what I thought. I am very disappointed in men.
Jane: I find that now in my relationship I’m a lot more willing to make compromises than I used to be. The person I’m involved with now is a shy, quiet person. I still am very hesitant to describe him as a wimp just because he’s quiet and often takes a passive approach to life, because that’s just his personality and his philosophy. I tend to see persons more as individuals.
Beulah: I’m in the awkward position of having a long distance romance right now. In some ways I’m glad he’s not here, because I think I’d end up being responsible for him if he was and I don’t really want that. I have a fear that I’d wind up supporting him financially at the very least.
Me: Does he expect you to be emotionally responsible for him, too?
Beulah: It’s hard to say what he expects, although I think that would wind up happening.
Me: What qualities of leadership do you look for in a man?
Jane: One of my friends at work and I were talking about this. She had an occasion a few weeks ago to meet a man who appeared to be very interested in asking her out. And in fact he told one of her friends, “I would like to ask her out, do you think that she would go out with me?” Her friend is a sort of matchmaker because this man won’t call my friend. Instead he calls their mutual friend, who then responds to him, and this has been going on for a long time.
Men seem to be having a very hard time relating to women who are independent, who are self-sufficient, who appear to be happy with their lives the way they are, who are not interested in making any drastic changes. And my friend and I concluded this: that most men — this is probably a gross generalization — most men are not interested in working at relationships anymore. They’re not interested in beginning a courtship, there’s no enthusiasm . It’s so much easier to go to a bar or a party and meet a woman in that way than to call a woman on the phone and say, “Would you like to go have dinner?’’ They’re more interested in saying, “Why don’t you meet me for a drink?’’ because it implies so much less commitment on their part.
Nan: I think that is hard for them, because they’ve been rejected so much that it’s so much easier to say —
Me: Have you never been rejected?
Nan: No, but I haven’t had an awful lot of relationships. I’ve been married most of my life.
Jane: Maybe it’s something a lot heavier than fear of rejection. There are no rules anymore. No one really does what’s expected and least of all men. And women have overcome that because they’ve filled a new role and had a period of turmoil and consciousness raising. But now the men are totally thrown off.
At this point in the conversation, I became irritated. Twice in a row, first Nan and then Jane had excused male wishy-washiness even though it made life difficult for them. I couldn’t help thinking that I, too, have been rejected and that I am so confused about sex roles that I haven’t even the dimmest idea what a man expects of me. And yet I keep risking. I hesitate and give myself pep talks into the mirror and often blush once I’ve gotten a man on the phone, but I try for love. Why should I expect less of the confused, rejected men I meet?
I was recounting this part of the hen session to my friend Holly the next day and she said, “Well, it’s that whole mommy-baby thing. Look at me. I’ve built an entire theory around it. Until women refuse to be mommies to their men, the men won’t grow.’’
Holly is very contentedly living with Bob, and together they have decided that the world divides itself into “stalkers” and “dreamers” — the theory she mentioned. A “stalker,” Holly has told me at some length, is defined by the things around him or her, while a “dreamer’s” understanding comes from within. It’s a very complicated theory, and what it boils down to is that Holly is a “stalker” and within her relationship she’s the one who rises better to the demands of leadership.
The discussion moved forward to concerns with professional power. When a man has power in his job, what sort of man does he become? When he doesn’t have it, does he look to his woman for it? And is power still the most pleasurable stimulant in the world?
Beulah: I’m not sure if I’d describe myself as successful, but I am probably more successful than most men I encounter in any social situation. And that makes them a little afraid to step on my toes. A lot of people I run into are sort of floundering.
Me: I've been out with a couple of men who were secure in their careers. But they were not men I could really talk to, who had much sensitivity'.
Jane: I was talking recently to a friend who is more looking for a relationship than I am. She has been trying to get involved with a person she thinks will be just right for her, which would tend to be a more career-oriented, high-power person, and they have been uniformly a disappointment to her. She found three lawyers last year, and she said she’s given up on lawyers. She found them all to be self-centered, and they expect her to make all the sacrifices for their needs.
Another thing that came out in this conversation was that between the two of us we knew a lot of couples where the woman seems to be much stronger than the man and more career-oriented. We were trying to analyze that.
Beulah: There are many relationships where there is a strong person and a weak person and you know the ones where there are strong women because your friends are strong women. There is a whole shitload of wimpy women.
Mary: There are a lot of women guilty of the same kinds of things we object to. They rely on one man for everything.
Jane: There are a lot of differences between me and the man I’m having a relationship with. I’m definitely more ambitious in terms of jobs, outgoing, more talkative, in some ways more cerebral. But he’s a very nurturing person. He’s in charge of giving me back rubs when I come home and I’m tired. He very often makes dinner for me when I’ve been very busy and I’ve been working late. Things which I’m very grateful for and I’m very conscious of the fact that there is a role reversal going on here, and it makes me a little bit uncomfortable. I realize how wonderful it is to have somebody in that role, which is why men have always liked it. But I also want to be careful not to just reverse the roles and abuse it in the same way that men have abused it.
Me: Does he make as much money as you do?
Me: Does that bother you?
Jane: The money per se doesn’t mean anything to me. It would be a problem if it represented a real difference in attitude about looking forward and being interested in new challenges. I wouldn’t want his making less money to mean that at some point he’s going to be a less interesting individual.
Me: The old theory was that women responded to power.
Nan: I think that men are responding to power. Being a powerful woman you attract a less powerful man very easily and then you see him in that sort of wimpish light. Power is so attractive in either sex, really.
Mary: I think of power as someone who is very strong and very directed and secure and is able to handle a woman who is all those things without being threatened. All that has to do with how intensely you feel about life, about where you’re going and what risks you’ll take because you feel secure enough to take those risks. I think power is tremendously attractive.
Beulah: I don’t know if power is the word I would choose because it has a strange connotation, it sounds like Rocky III. What I look for is people who are very good at what they do, whatever it is that they do. And the reason I’ve walked out on the people I’ve walked out on is that I’ve begun to realize there was nothing they did well, that they had confidence in, or that they cared about, and they would look to me to fill in.
There was a man I was involved with for two years and who I lived with for a period of time. Before I was involved with him I had a crush on him and I respected him. Once I started seeing him, I got this phone call from him and it was like this depressed, “I just don’t know what to do with my life. I’m confused.” And I thought, Jesus Christ. But I said, “Oh, well, honey, it’ll be okay.” This was very early on and it went on for two years afterward but I was so disillusioned. This was not the man I thought he was. All the things I had thought he did well fell apart. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing and he was willing to follow me anywhere: “Well, where do you want to move? I’ll go there.”
This may be self-destructive, but one of the things I love dearly about the long-distance current romance is that he wasn’t willing to come here just because I did.
Me: What level of vulnerability is acceptable to you?
Beulah: Mike has his ups and downs and I'm sympathetic. As hard as it may be to believe, I can be sympathetic.
Me: Do you think power is attractive to powerful men? Do they want powerful women or admirers?
Mary: I think that just like women want a partner, that men do too.
Me: Have you seen a lot of that go on?
Mary: I have in quite a few relationships.
Cynthia: I find it real incredible. I don’t see it very often. Most of the men I see who are in positions that would be considered powerful are more interested in women who are there to nurture them and advance them.
Mary: I guess that gets back to redefining terms. Is power being in a powerful position or is it security and inner strength and knowing what you want?
Cynthia: Most of these relationships are built on power that’s externally generated by their positions.
I began to be restless that we seemed to consider all men as members of one of two groups, respectively headed up by Charles Bronson and Phil Donahue. I was even more uncomfortable that I could assign many men I know to one camp or the other — yet that, as I watched women in the room struggle for a balance between sensitivity and strength, I could not so patly define any of them.
Real Men Aren’t Wormbovs
Allow me to testify to the enormous pressures brought to bear on the woman who does not excuse wimpism when she discovers it in an otherwise respectable man. The first thing you hear when you complain that you are surrounded by weak men is that this is exactly what you wanted. That some perverse, self-destructive trigger goes off in you every time a wimp comes near you because you need to dominate him. Or something.
My own lost love Henry has devised a less accusing adaptation on this theme. I told Henry that I thought women’s lib was a case of many women demanding the option to be more all at once. And that the burgeoning wormboy population was a case of men, faced with real options for the first time, choosing to be less.
“That,” said Henry, “is the organic nature of relationships.”
If you don’t collapse beneath the compelling arguments of eternal balance, next they’ll try to catch you off guard: they’ll agree with you. There’s a catch, though.. They’ll say that wormboys can’t help themselves and that charity is in order.
An example. I have a very well-meaning and effective therapist (who nonetheless is so shy of this topic that he asked to be identified in this article as a sixty-year-old black Muslim). Over the course of the past year, I have primarily discussed men with this therapist, and in particular Henry. One day I was lamenting some suggestions of immaturity in Henry, and my therapist began to talk about Carl Whitaker, one of the originators of family therapy. Apparently Whitaker once said, “Sometimes it seems to me that men are children grown incompetent.”
“And do you agree with Whitaker?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I do,” said my therapist sorrowfully.
If neither of these rationales succeeds in quieting your demands, you will find yourself attacked by your own kind — other women. Just last week I was leaning up against a friend’s drainboard hacking cheese onto big crackers and sharing recent wormboy findings when she interrupted me, “You hate men, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“Yes, you do,” she said.
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“You’re going to have to be very careful with this article,” she said ominously. “Or you will just be seen as a woman with an axe to grind.”
At this point, you will realize that serious, heartfelt criticism of men makes people very nervous, as testified to by the term “ballbuster.” (You will also realize that there is no equivalent term in our language for a man who goes for a woman’s ego at the kneecaps, and that the omission is not because men never do.) You may feel very alone, and begin to believe that if
a woman can hold out against defenders who hint that her thinking will result in eternal datelessness, she has proven herself such a rock that she doesn’t need to worry about the company of worm boys or anybody else.
But of course it isn’t true. The truth is that my life has been much richer for the men in it, including the wimps — men who have laughed with me and built fires for me and helped thrash out career choices and read my rough copy and one standout who often provided the unbeatable comfort of reading to me until I fell asleep.
The truth is also that in recent years I have not met men who want to share my life in a complete way, or who want me to share theirs. I have not met men I can depend on for enthusiasm and energy, but I have met many men who want these things from me.
And while I understand perfectly that men are as confused as I am by the society rocking beneath our feet, I hope they will notice that I have not used confusion as an excuse for paralysis. I continue to struggle with the demands of leadership, and I strain to summon support when someone else is in the lead. I try to know when to be tough and when to be soft. I make a lot of mistakes on this tightwire, I am subject to bad temper and discouragement, I am often very tired.
But even while I’m frayed by not knowing the moves. I’m moving. And I have faith that men can do the same. I have faith because beneath my rage with wormboys are memories and knowledge of friendships with brothers, comrades, a sweetheart or two, who are both brave and deep. Because of them, I believe in men, and wish they’d get off their asses.
This article originally appeared in the New Times of Phoenix.