Stand Up to your Wife


Author Steve Biddulph

In the first of a series of extracts from his book Manhood, Steve Biddulph looks at the need for men to stand up to their partners, to value the warrior that protects their emotional castle and to set rules to their passion.
There are three things men need to understand if they are to get it right with women.

    1. "Standing up to" your wife or partner as an equal without intimidating her or being intimidated by her;
    2. Knowing the essential differences in male and female sexuality and so mastering "the art of the chase";
    3. Realizing your partner is not your mother and so making it through "the long dark night".

Intrigued? Well, here we go with part one – standing up to your partner.

Man As Loveable Dope

Most modern men, when faced with their wife's anger, complaints or general unhappiness, simply submit, mumble an apology and tiptoe away. (Other men respond in violent ways but we’ll look at them later on.) If men grumble, they do so into their beards. For the most part they act conciliatory and apologise for being such dopes. "I'm sorry dear !"

In the media this has become a universal male stereotype for many decades - from the classic Dagwood cartoons to the "Bill Cosby Show". Everywhere you look around, the "husband-as-a-loveable-dope" is an agreed-on type.

Real life, however, doesn't work like the sitcoms. The millions of men who adopt this stance find that it rarely if ever leads to happiness. Women with dopey husbands are not happy - they actually become more dissatisfied, more complaining. Often without even realising why, the hen-pecking behaviour escalates - for a simple reason. Deep down, women want to be met by someone strong. They want to be debated with, not just agreed with. They hunger for men who can take the initiative sometimes, make some decisions, tell them when they are not making sense. It’s no fun being the only adult in the house. How can a woman relax or feel safe, when the man she is are teamed with is so soft and weak?

I've met dozens of strong, capable feminist women, who tell me in the confidentiality of the counselling setting, that they have finally found the sensitive, caring, new-age man they thought they wanted and they are bored stiff! They are starting to drive slowly past building sites,wondering whether to whistle!

Whenever a group of men in their thirties and forties gather, it soon emerges how many have been badly wounded in the relationship stakes. Whether they show their sadness openly, or put on a belligerent front, it's the same thing. They know they are failing to satisfy the woman in their life, have failed to keep their relationships together and don't know what they have done wrong. Robert Bly describes this phenomenon in men’s groups -

      "When the younger men spoke, it was not uncommon for them to be weeping within five minutes... grief flowed from their trouble in their marriages or relationships. They had learned to be receptive, but receptivity wasn't enough to carry their marriages through troubled times. In every relationship, something fierce is needed once in a while – both the man and the woman need to have it. But at the point where it was needed, often the young man came up short. He was nurturing, but something else was required - for his relationship and for his life. The "soft male" was able to say "I can feel your pain and consider your life as important as mine and I will take care of you and comfort you" But he could not say what he wanted and stick by it. Resolve of that kind was a different matter."
Though it may surprise many male readers to know it, women are only human. This means they are sometimes dead right and somockquote>etimes completely wrong. Most men are caught up thinking women are either devils or saints and miss this simple point. Women are normal fallible human beings. So it follows that being married to one you also have to keep your head on straight. You cannot just drift along and let them decide everything, which some men do. Marriage is not an excuse to stop thinking.

Not only can your wife be wrong, or immature, perverse, prejudiced, competitive, or bloody-minded, (just like you ) – sometimes you and she just will see things differently because you are different. What is right for her may often be wrong for you - it's as simple as that. Women often don't understand men. How can they unless we explain ourselves to them? That doesn't mean you can't get along, just that you have to keep negotiating! Being falsely agreeable doesn't help either of you. Prepare for many long, patient debates!

I have heard literally hundreds of women tell me in frustration, over the years, "My husband won't fight with me, he won't even argue. He just walks away." Perhaps the husband walks away because he doesn't want to get physical like his father used to do. But avoidance does not solve this problem. Perhaps he had a nagging, carping mother and a weak father. Retreating is all he knows how to do. To have a happy marriage, a man has to be able to state his point of view, to debate, to leave aside hysteria and push on with an argument until something is resolved.

Gordon Dalbey tells of a woman who phones him after he has counselled her husband:

      "It's obvious Sam's getting stronger, speaking up for himself and letting me know how he feels," she said, hesitating, "I know I've always wanted him to be that way... but... I guess there's a part of me that kind of enjoyed having the upper hand and being able to manipulate him into doing what I wanted. I want to be strong enough myself so that I don't do that any more."
It's a measure of Dalbey's skill as a therapist that this woman is wanting to give up her power in order to experience a really equal relationship, based on intimacy and negotiation, not on emotional dominance.

The Warrior

There is an inner part of a healthy man or woman called the Warrior. The Warrior does not harm others. It does not need to. The Warrior "guards the walls" of your emotional castle and protects you from mistreatment or abuse. The Warrior is not strong in children, which is why they need our protection.

Whenever I work with sexually abused clients, a final step in the healing is to help them become so angry and experience such burning rage that they mobilise all their physical and mental energy. They have never breathed so deeply, yelled so loud, focused so clearly. Once this energy has started to flow, I have no fears that they will ever be abused again. A person who has access to their inner rage is awe-inspiring. When a man or woman's Warrior is mobilised, then the child within can finally feel safe. A woman who does this work can now begin to be close to and if she wishes marry a man. She will feel able and willing to bear a child. I have known fertility problems to disappear through this work - as if a woman's body would not bear a child until her mind knew it could and would protect that child.

For a marriage to thrive, both partners need to bring their Warriors along. It's not that the other person wishes them harm, just that people getting close will inevitably overstep the other's boundaries and need to be reminded. Often it’s enough to say "Hey, you are crowding me", "Don't make my mind up for me" or "Let me choose my own clothes!"

Both partners can learn more respect for the other's need for selfhood. At times, there will be a real clash of realities, and more exploration will be needed. This is why couples need to fight in order to root out fixed attitudes or longer term misunderstandings, and pull them into the light of day. A good marriage is therapy, every living day.

We made a mistake when we pursued the harmonious, sweet and loving ideal of marriage. The passionate, heated European style marriage has more going for it. Jung said " American marriages are the saddest in the world because the man does all his fighting at the office".

Bly agrees:

      "Conscious fighting is a great help in relationships between men and women. When a man and a woman are standing toe-to-toe arguing, what is it that the man wants? Often he does not know. He wants the conflict to end because he is afraid because he doesn't know how to fight because he "doesn't believe in fighting" because he never saw his mother and father fight in a fruitful way because his boundaries are so poorly maintained that every sword thrust penetrates to the very center of his chest..."

      The adult Warrior inside both men and women, when trained, can receive a (verbal) blow without sulking or collapsing, knows how to fight for limited goals, keeps the rules of combat in mind and in general is able to fight clean and to establish limits."

Passion Needs Rules

It’s paradoxical that we can only let our feelings flow freely, and only be truly passionate, when we have certain boundaries laid down. Trust has to be there.

By limits, we mean:

        • Never being physical or threatening to be.
        • Never walking out mid-fight.
        • Not using put-down language.
        • Staying on the point and not bringing in other material.
        • Listening to the other’s point of view, while honoring your own.
        • Taking time out, by agreement, if it becomes too heated - to think it over and returning to continue the argument.
These rules allow you to debate cleanly and respectfully, until understanding is reached.

Fighting in marriage can be a source of great learning and growth: Bly quotes Marie-Louise von Franz's story about a friend who had a series of marriages which were extremely turbulent and painful. They always started well but each time the arguing eventually lead to physical fighting and divorce. The friend's fourth husband was different. The very first time on which the wife "threw a fit" (her words) and began to be wildly abusive, the man simply walked quietly to his room and began packing his things. He refused to fight "dirty" as was being expected to. His words are beautiful. "I know I am supposed to act like a man now and shout and hit you, but I am not that sort of man. I will not allow anyone to talk to me in the way you have and I am leaving." The woman was so shocked she apologised. They are still together.

Bly is at pains to point out that if the woman in this story had been making a point, asking for a change, then the man needed to stay put and listen. But this was quite different . She was "having a fit". In Bly's words:

      "Men and women both have this capacity for blind rage which achieves nothing. Arising out of centuries of two-way intergender abuse, there is an archetypal core of rage in us which if we take into our relationships, destroys all love and feeling."
"I've had it with men" says she! "Women!" he cries, "Can't live with ‘em, can't live without 'em!" It's the frustration of needing each other so much, but coming from a tradition of estrangement and misunderstanding that goes way back into our Judeao-Christian roots. Germaine Greer said "All men hate all women some of the time". And we should add, vice versa. There is a long history of male bashing by women, and female-bashing by men. But this isn't a personal thing and shouldn't be brought into personal affairs. The inner child in our partner cannot bear to face this much hate and he or she doesn't deserve it.

So there are two imperatives here. We must fight, debate and be true to ourselves, otherwise our closeness is just an act. But in fighting, we must show great restraint and always have respect. (My partner Shaaron and I wrote a book about this, called The Making of Love, which has rules for fighting and many stories by way of illustration).

Sam Keen puts it well. "Romance is all 'yes' and heavy breathing - an affair built around the illusion of unbroken affirmation. Marriage is "yes" and "no" and "maybe" – a relationship of trust that is steeped in the primal ambivalence of love and hate."

"Love and hate" doesn't have to be all that dramatic. It's as simple as the switching between "I just want to lie with you here forever" and "Will you for Chrissake leave my desk as it is - I know where to find things!" "But I was just tidying it up." "Well, don’t!"

We all want to be close, but no-one likes the feeling of being swamped.

| special advisers | events | snapshots | manzine | men's group |
feedback | links | manhood forums |resources | about manhood | merchandise | home |