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Underwhelmed

What Lies Beneath

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 4/4/2001

A few years ago a friend of mine was in the process of breaking up with her husband, a man she'd been involved with--happily, we all thought--for most of her 20s and early 30s. We were both in graduate school at the time and, although we each had a lot of studying to do, we also had the dangerous luxury of unscheduled midweek afternoons. So we'd often meet at a diner halfway between our apartments and talk for hours over "bottomless" cups of coffee.

My friend--let's call her Janice--has always been a self-controlled, smoothly articulate person, not given to emotional outbursts. So it took me several of these meetings to recognize just how deeply unhappy she was in her marriage. She'd been hiding a lot of bad stuff for years. Her husband was the son of a belligerent, intolerant, supremely snide intellectual. He had learned from childhood to project a nice-guy image over a core of bullying, defensive behavior. He was 100 percent his father's son, just more subtly packaged. I thought I knew him well but came to realize how unperceptive I'd been.

Part of the problem was that I'd also bought into Janice's own brand of subtle packaging. I'd always believed her to be a strong, centered, self-assured woman, and now I was learning about all sorts of manipulative, controlling behavior she'd been letting her man get away with for years, bullshit that a healthy person wouldn't put up with. It was never physical abuse; rather, Janice had slowly given up her power, starting with minor accommodations. For example, both she and her husband had been avid music listeners before they met, but afterward Janice, overwhelmed by his gargantuan LP collection and outsized opinions and tastes, had simply stopped buying albums on her own.

It was a small matter, but a harbinger of other, much larger abdications. Daily domestic negotiations became raging power struggles--bitter fights over how long the undone dishes festered in the sink, how loud the television should be after 10 p.m., how late was too late to have sex on a weeknight. They were both too stubborn and defensive to work out a compromise, and Janice always eventually caved. Toward the end, she started an affair with a 23-year-old college student, an immature, erratic, alcoholic pretty boy who seemed like her son more than her lover. Fortunately, this doomed and wholly reactionary relationship also ended, and Janice ultimately moved on to a more balanced life with a fellow adult.

At the height of our diner period, I was in compulsive serial-dating mode and had not really been in a serious long-term relationship. In comparison to Janice, who'd had several major boyfriends, I'd always felt a bit weak and confused when it came to dealing with men. So it was exceedingly strange to hear that this apparently strong, intelligent woman had quietly been transformed into a doormat in her own home. I still had a lot to learn about the difference between the appearance of self-confidence and the real thing. In some ways she was the perfect match for her ex-husband--both were great pretenders. I now can see how so much of Janice's personality was a mask to cover deep, painful insecurity, how so many of her admirable qualities were illusions.

Power struggles in heterosexual relationships don't always fall so neatly along the stereotypical gender lines. But still, it's frightening how often strong women sabotage themselves by hooking up with secretly authoritarian men. Janice is an extreme example, but I still see it all the time: a weirdly passive, overly deferential streak--coupled with a compensating need to control small matters--that we all must have inherited from our mothers. Even those of us blessed with rational, balanced, healthily accommodating, totally nonabusive male partners have a habit, I fear, of avoiding conflict by caving on small and not-so-small matters. It takes a great deal of introspection and genuine confidence, not just a brassy presentation, to learn not to do it.

I will offer one comical example of what I'm talking about. A woman I know was planning to have her husband's mother over for dinner. For days in advance this young woman obsessed over what she and her husband would cook. She had a great rapport with her mother-in-law, felt no need to impress her, but still felt a powerful desire to make this woman happy. She kept needling her husband to choose some recipes for them to use. (It was understood they'd both be responsible for the meal.) He didn't appreciate the needling. Here it was only Tuesday, his mother wasn't coming until Saturday . . . why was his wife so anxious about it? At some point it dawned on the woman that the essential problem wasn't her husband's lack of interest in early menu-planning; it was her own relentless compulsion to take care of things, to facilitate, to accommodate, to please people, and to maintain control while doing so. "Fuck it," she told him. "She's your mother. You handle dinner." And he duly did so, without complaints, on his own schedule. A lot more last-minute than she would have chosen--but hey, it worked for him. She threw in a salad but otherwise did no facilitating, accommodating, or compulsive people-pleasing that day. I'm told it was a very good meal and a very good evening.

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