The Expert: About a decade ago, I worked with a May-December Coupledom, the wife almost twenty years junior to her hubby, who were at a marital crossroads. The images each had originally held of the other were now anachronistic. The husband seemed trapped in the patriarchal position of most knowledgeable, the decider and the protector. In his view, his wife’s strivings to make independent decisions, to go back to school and work, were incomprehensible and reflected a personal rejection of him. The wife was roiled by his resentment and inability to recognize that she had matured. She had grown up. He was not the expert on her anymore, nor was she his worshipful Pygmalion yielding to his benevolent guidance and direction.
You Are Not The Same Person I Married: From the perspective of the wife, she had begun to recognize and develop her own strengths and was eager to exercise them. Her husband, who had taken pride in his ability to protect and provide for her, saw her energy being directed outside the marriage and family, and was not just threatened by this but hurt and confused. There was an added and significant element; the husband was ill. The image of the once invulnerable, all-knowing guardian was permanently shattered. He could die. He might die. He was imperfect, unreliable and weakened. Just as she was beginning to soar, he was on the verge of crashing to earth. They both saw shattered images; each looking across the dinner table at someone whom they felt had betrayed them. “You are not the same person I married.” Really?
Marriage Is Not A Sitcom: Marriage is not a sitcom where character traits are scripted and remain stereotyped and static for the run of the series. Marriage is a relationship between two earth-bound, flesh and blood, psychologically complex and physically mortal entities. Spells trouble? You bet. Being alive means continuous change, in every quadrant of our being, from the molecular level to the conceptual level. This is the nature of marriage. Now what to do?
Wikipedia Man aka Renaissance Man: All marriages occur within a broad cultural context and for the purposes of this narrative, I speak of the American culture, the United States of America variety. Recognizable gender biases mold our expectations of our partners and shape our attitudes and beliefs. Views introduced to us in early childhood seem to cling like the plastic wrap used to seal leftover cheese. You can’t shake it off your hands. It has to be peeled away deliberately and painstakingly. One characteristic expectation that clings to many today, in spite of women’s leaps as bread winners, CEO’s and physically competitive, powerful beings, is the notion that men know more about the world than women. It is true that family sitcoms have evolved from the Father Knows Best/Leave It To Beaver nineteen fifties motif depicting a highly revered male figurehead with a clever but supplicant wife, tothat of the mocked and laughable dads of All in The Family and Everyone Loves Raymond, morphing into the current genre with Modern Family style scripting, where everyone is reduced to humiliation and redemption in one hour. But despite depictions of less traditional Coupledoms, from a clinical perspective I see men and women continuing to struggle with the culturally resilient belief that men are the experts, the ‘go to’ person, the problem solver, the final word. In fact, both men and women can be burdened and confused by this construct, as were the May-December couple, whose marriage bogged down when one member of the dyad started to change that paradigm without first getting permission i.e. establishing a communication and understanding between them.
Prior to Wikipedia, Safari, iPhone, and Quora I used to turn to my husband for all my answers spanning the sciences, history, medicine, the sunset, the sunrise and right and wrong. He was my renaissance man, the one-stop shopping for all data. And I, the eternal novice. Of course now I have technology. But even before the lighting speed access to answers, I found myself an increasingly resourceful ‘go to’ person. I discovered the fountain of my own intelligence and retired the male spousal crown. Now we are resources for each other. What I have noticed both personally and clinically is that motherhood shifts the paradigm from man as expert to a more multifaceted social construct: women are the domestic experts who know what’s best for the children, the running of the household, and the social agenda. And men, who often do not desire that particular status, remain the authority and ‘go to’ person for the remaining essential life tasks. The male uses his breadwinner role as his measure of all things which can appear to their partners as if everything boils down to dollars and cents. The woman stands by her expertise on domestic matters, the children, the decor (maybe) and social network. This construct works well for a while but as the sands of life, marriage and growing children shift, so does the construct lose its footing in the shifting sands.
Old Fashioned? Perhaps this description of today’s Coupledom sounds outmoded. I would have thought so too but that is not what I see. Of course, my sample is limited, but that is the sample I am addressing in this post. I am surprised too, at just how tenacious this outmoded view of the male-female dyad remains.
Reconfiguring Me and Us: What we probably need less of is “expert” status and more of influence ability in the evolving Coupledom. The playing field changes as marriages age. Aging marriages are not the same as maturing marriages though. I have seen men yearning to have more influence in child rearing matters when their youngsters reach school age, engage in sports and prepare for higher education. No longer the father of infants or toddlers, they see themselves in their growing offspring and have opinions on discipline and goal setting. I have seen women become more confident in their financial muscle after working or managing volunteer jobs with budgets and running a household for years. And I have seen both sexes dig their heels in, unwilling to share or relinquish a role that they perceived as their exclusive domain. Men who won’t share financial information with their wives. Who, though burdened by being the primary breadwinners, or at least the ones who worried the most about mortgage payments, are now reluctant to share their CFO status with their wives. Wives who see the men as imposing their agenda on the children’s academic direction or athletic choices, when once they seemed content to let the wife be the decider, are offended or resentful. “Where were you years ago for the midnight feedings? Now you want to be hands on?” All this disgruntled stuff indicates that it is time to change the previously held cultural notions of the male and female construct and reconfigure expectations that acknowledge competence and allow turf to be shared. He is not the expert. She is not the eager, grateful recipient of his expertise. He is not her invulnerable ‘go to’ protector and she is not his compliant and dependent spouse. The marriage contract has to reconfigure itself for the marriage to mature into a collaborative venture with shared responsibilities and mutual influence.
Marital Maturity Crossroads: Some people call it the midlife crisis when the marital step begins to stumble but I call it a marital maturity crossroads. The relevant question is “Can this marriage mature?” Our culture may have taught us to idealize the opposite sex for circumscribed and limited traits. The male is knowledgeable, expert, strong and protective. The female is yielding, nurturing, sexy, socially attuned and good at whipping up a meal. Both are archaic idealizations, perhaps unavoidable in youth, and have to be cast aside like an old pair of glasses; they once fit the prescription but vision changes over time. Marital vision needs to change too. Get a new pair of glasses on your marriage, on your partner and your self and that midlife marital crisis will morph into midlife marital maturity. It may sound terribly boring but in fact, it is a lot of fun.
Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012