Powerful Impact: Women are depicted as the “weaker sex”; have been for centuries. And in so many ways the inculcation of that notion, along with certain biological and physical realities, has successfully rendered them so, a state many of us fight each day. Yet there are times when sitting in my office, or out socializing, I see quite the opposite force operating in The Coupledom. However the strength that I see is neither the good one nor necessarily what women take pride in, are conscious of, or own. For those who have the muscle and the cable to watch HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the Larry David series, the character of Susie incorporates all the worst features of the “intimidating wife” in an exaggerated, hyper obnoxious format, the Larry David format. Everyone in the series, perhaps with the exception of the character of David’s former wife Cheryl, has a fairly obscene personality, meant to be so. But Susie is especially crude, pushy, judgmental and, for those who, as I have mentioned, have the muscle, hysterical. Though the Susie character is often right on with many of her accusations regarding her husband’s clumsy attempts at secrecy and his adolescent cast to pleasure, her methods are bullying, her reactions hellacious and her elbowing into people’s private domains egregious. She is one bad broad. Though not a shade worse than her male counterparts.
Role Clashes: The women I see in my office are not so extreme, and often innocent of intent to bully, intimidate or intrude. Rather, there appears to be a confluence of learned behaviors from their moms, the frightening pressures of child rearing, running a home, staying in shape and working against a backdrop of the specter of the preoccupied or illusive male, struggling with his own cultural job description of breadwinner, standard bearer of American masculinity, handy man, expert on the roadways, while he is attempting to retain a hold on that cocky adolescent boyhood, all ego, hormone and play. The perfect storm? You bet.
A Challenging Template: Women, raised by women for the most part, have a fairly rigorous template of family life to work from. They need their spouse to fulfill the requirements implied in the model which likely has remained in an unarticulated format. Hubby, not a mind reader, has no clue what’s in the contract and wife may herself be enacting it without forethought or conscious intent. After some months or years have passed, these folks stagger into my office, wondering what went wrong here. According to the men, the women are impossible to please, controlling and demanding. And for the women, men are dismissive, lazy, unappreciative and absent. (Though both may swear that their spouse is a great parent.) Yet it is often the man who seems most muzzled, provides few details as to his wife’s failings and cannot really locate any significant examples of her less-than-perfect behaviors except that for some strange reason, she is unhappy much of the time, and usually with him. On the other hand, the women have no shortage of adjectives to describe their spouses’ flaws and no idea that the man is intimidated by their unequivocal convictions, detailed memories (always far better than those of their men) and absolutes (he is always late, he never takes out the garbage, he never calls while away or texts or emails.) Are the men quaking in their shoes? Yes and no. Some quake in silence, some shrug and say, “No matter what I do I can’t please her.” These men seem bullied. Their wives seem shocked when I point out that hubby seems at a loss for words. That hubby actually appears borderline mute. She sees it as withholding or uncaring. I see it as fear.
Transference: Those of us who are the offspring of the psychoanalytic world attribute aspects of interpersonal perception and reaction to “transference”, the act of experiencing present relationships in terms of past relations. So the wife becomes powerfully good, bad, or mixed in some measure if the hubby’s mom or older sis was experienced in that manner. And vice versa. We experience our partners based on multiple factors: what they bring to the table and how we react to what they bring to the table. I watch men cringe when their wives speak of a minor disappointment regarding help with children, cleaning up, earnings or how they squeezed out the sponge. I have seen men have virtually no opinion that does not echo that of their spouse related to almost anything: decor, child rearing, friendships and restaurants. Though the man may have some island of influence and even respect, the voice of the woman in the home front becomes a military command, a force to obey, and someone with whom you do not cross swords. And what do the women tell me? They know better, do it better and cannot tolerate their husbands’ less than perfect interventions. The women are disappointed, bewildered and hurt and the men are cowed. Yes, cowed. And very reluctant to do or say anything that might stir the pot. Most admit, “I don’t like confrontation” which is male for “She scares the —- out of me.”
Shock: The wives are shocked to hear that their spouses are tip toeing around them, or hiding from them or submitting to them. Shock. Why is this the case? Because the women don’t hear themselves or if they do, and some do, they feel justified to nail their men on misdemeanors because of other hurts. Some unspoken. Some spoken but unheard by their men. Also, women mature into aspects of their own moms, women who had authority in the kitchen and spoke with authority and often self-righteousness on many subjects; food and children; behaviors and children; neighbors and behaviors; good taste, bad taste; good gifts, bad gifts; even world events. So the voice of the wife can mature over the years into that of an expert on all things domestic while the man, who is losing small quantities of testosterone with each baby diaper, may himself be transferring some of his little boy mom issues onto his wife. Not may be, will be. And the women are often aware and horrified that their husbands, who are suppose to be their lovers, are experiencing them in some measure “like his mom.” It is so insulting and unsexy. Yes, but normal. As is the woman transferring some of her daddy issues onto hubby or boss.
Owning The Bully Voice: I know from my hours of listening, that many wives are disappointed and hurt by their husbands for reasons that include dismissing their feelings, absent from home, or even just not being daddy. But what they may not realize is that they often become bullies when disappointed and hurt. That they use domestic weapons to get back at their spouses who often shrink further away from their wives, which intensifies the bullying tone. Powerless to get their point across the women descend into a bitter bath of recrimination and judgmental rhetoric about anything, missing a soccer game, forgetting when the cleaning lady takes her vacation, anything. My recommendation: listen to yourself ladies. What is your voice telling your spouse? Don’t be shocked to hear that he is intimidated by you. Take the conversation to a more open and vulnerable level and share the feelings, not the barbs. And find an expert to help you do that so you don’t become Susie. Curb your “enthusiasm” for the fight and you won’t end up like Susie, with a guy who leads two lives, one of them without you.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011