I'm OK If We're OK
Men's fears of women in intimate relationships.
Posted Dec 17, 2019
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”—Margaret Atwood
It’s pretty clear that women are often afraid of men and with good reason. We hold positions of privilege and power in most personal and professional settings. Men’s fears of women are less visible, more hidden, from women, from other men, and from ourselves. We’ve done such a good job of hiding our fears and vulnerabilities that even our mothers and lovers don’t know how scared we are.
As is always true in the psyche, that which is less known is most powerful. In this case, men’s fears of women are the hidden cause of most problems in intimate heterosexual relationships. When we understand men in intimate relationships as commitment-phobic, emotionally withholding, or shutdown—the usual explanations—we do a disservice to men and profoundly misunderstand what is happening in the couple. When we understand the fears that lie beneath these defensive postures in men, then everything changes.
Because these fears are largely hidden, many of you may not yet recognize what I’m talking about.
Let me give you a few everyday scenarios; see how far down the list you get before the light starts to come on, and you recognize yourself, your partner, and/or your relationship.
1. You are a man in a committed relationship with a woman. You come home from work, and it seems clear to you that your partner/wife is upset. You ask if she is OK, and she insists that she is. You ask if she’s upset with you, and she assures you she is not.
Despite all of her reassurances, you can’t quite shake the uneasy feeling that you’ve done something “wrong,” although you have no idea what that might be. The longer she stays upset, the more worried you get, until her being upset becomes your single preoccupation, as if nothing else can happen until that is resolved. You want to feel off the hook and back to the status quo.
2. You are a woman in a committed relationship with a man. You take responsibility for organizing most of what goes on in your family, and you are mostly OK with that. There are a few things you ask your partner/husband to do, which seem pretty insignificant to you, but no matter how many times you ask and remind him, his performance is spotty at best. God forbid that he takes some responsibility and notice something that needs doing and take care of it without having to be asked.
You’re pretty sure he functions independently at work a lot better than he manages to do at home. Somehow it ends up feeling like everything in the family is your responsibility, and your partner/husband is just one more person in the family for you to take care of and worry about. More than anything, you yearn to feel like you have a true partner.
3. You are a man in a committed relationship with a woman. Friends ask you at the last minute to get together after work. You and your partner/wife don’t have any plans for the evening, and it bothers you that your first thought is not about whether you would like to see your friends, but about whether your partner/wife will be upset with you for asking.
Your partner/wife has never objected to your getting together with friends—this is not a group of guys who go to strip clubs or chase women—and yet, even after calling to check in with her, it’s still hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong. You long to feel free, unencumbered.
4. You are a man and a woman in a committed relationship, and you’re having an argument.
Woman: You are upset, hurt, and angry. The anger is hard to see, but it’s obvious you are hurt because you are crying, and the hurt is more visible in your tears.
Man: It’s clear to you that your wife is upset, and it makes you very uncomfortable. You can feel your own emotions welling up inside of you in response. Her tears make you very uncomfortable, and the anger that you sense underneath frightens you. For some reason, you think it’s very important for you to remain calm, rational, and unemotional, and that requires being detached.
Woman: You can feel his detachment and withdrawal, and the more he withdraws, the stronger your feelings get. You yearn for some kind of real, emotional response from him, and the less you get, the more desperate you feel.
Man: The more emotional she gets, the more withdrawn and clamped down you get. Consciously, you are just thinking about how important it is that one of you remain calm and rational, but underneath that, you’re really scared of the strong feelings you have in response to her emotions. What you yearn for is for her to calm down so that you won’t feel so stirred up.
5. You are a man and woman in a long-term committed relationship. Your sexual relationship started out pretty hot and exciting. You had a lot of sex, both enjoyed it, and seemed to be in agreement about wanting to have sex as often as you could. Over the last few years, not only has the frequency fallen way off, but sex has started to feel more like just another thing to check off the list, like neither of you is really excited about it. It’s just something you both feel you should do.
Man: Although you are less interested in sex with your wife/partner, you still feel very sexually alive. You are often turned on by other women, and frequently masturbate, usually to images of women who don’t look like your partner and sexual activities that are different from the sex you have with your partner. You are particularly turned on to scenes in which the woman’s desire is very overt, but when your wife is open about her own sexual desire, you get turned off. Truth be told, it often seems more attractive to masturbate to fantasies you can control than to navigate the complex emotional territory that’s become necessary to have sex with your wife/partner.
Woman: Your husband is an attentive lover, generous in his attention to your pleasure, but there is no passion in the lovemaking. What you yearn for is to feel desired.
For most people, these scenarios are not only very familiar but also emotionally evocative. I hope you have recognized enough of yourself to want to read more. In future posts, I will talk about six categories of men’s fears of women: the fear of being dominated by a woman; the fear of being trapped in a relationship with a woman; the fear of being emotionally responsible for a woman; the fear of feeling emotionally inadequate; the fear of feeling abandoned; and femiphobia, the fear of connecting with the feminine aspects of ourselves.