Acting Like a Woman

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“What would the world be like if women stopped being women?” Katha Pollitt asks in her new book of essays, Learning To Drive. She continues: “Shut the tea-and-sympathy shop, closed the love store, gave up the slave religion?” She’s talking primarily about how women act in love affairs, how we bend to a man’s will or at least worry that he will leave us if we aren’t the women he wants us to be. Katha is smarting from her long-term lover’s abandonment, and the revelation that he has been unfaithful, possibly throughout their entire relationship. She wonders why we play men’s games, why we compete with each other for their attention, why we set ourselves up for disappointment and loss of self-esteem.

How much of our misery lies in our picking the wrong man to begin with? Are there really so few good ones around? Or is it just that we hear more about the bad ones? (They sell books. Think of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, which was also made into a movie, a semi-autobiographical novel about her marriage to Carl Bernstein.) Of course, saying that we pick the wrong men is making it seem like it’s all our fault after all. Maybe we make our choices in good faith, when the men are on their best behavior, and it’s not until we’re “hooked” that they reveal their true personalities. Then how do we protect ourselves from getting into such relationships? Maybe we can’t. Maybe the best we can do is know when to get out of them.

It took me four tries to find the right man. The first three weren’t bad men, but they were men, stereotypical control freaks with high expectations for their women and low expectations for themselves. (At least low expectations when it came to how they treated their women.) I know that these same men bemoan the fact that they can’t understand women and what exactly what it is that they want. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, really it doesn’t, to figure that out. Women just want to be treated the way men want to be treated: they want to be allowed to be themselves and not to have to fit into artificial roles with arbitrary rules of behavior.

My first husband expected me to keep a spotless and smoothly functioning household.He felt that I had to pay my dues; after all, he was out there making a living so that I could stay home with the kids. Never mind that I was grappling with what it means to be the mother of four children within six year, supporting him in his ministry and taking on odd jobs and babysitting to help make ends meet. He had rigid ideas of how a wife should act and I felt the heat of his disapproval whenever I expressed interest in stepping outside of those boundaries. Oh, he said that he was supportive of whatever I wanted to do, but when it came right down to it, he wouldn’t put himself out to make it possible for me to do them.

My second husband had strict ideas about how I should raise my children and set himself up as the “boss” of the family. Enough said.

My third husband was a traditionalist and had very set ideas of how a wife was supposed to act. Even though we both worked the same type of jobs and worked full-time, I was the one responsible for the house and children and even for getting together with and helping out his family members. I bought into these stereotypes for years, but eventually the restrictions and expectations chafed and I rebelled.

Don’t get me wrong: my divorces didn’t occur just because my husbands wanted me to fulfill their fantasies of what a wife and lover should be like. But their attitudes didn’t do much to foster trust between us. And frankly, it was hard to keep on adjusting to their expectations when everything within me wanted to be free–to be who I wanted to be, to break out of the roles that were thrust upon me.

One reason why I fell in love with my present husband was because I could tell that he was different. I had all kinds of tests he had to pass before I would marry him. I wasn’t always aware that I was testing him, and I didn’t let him know that he was being judged. But after three “failures,” I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to avoid. And of what I wanted to be allowed to embrace.

I’m now in a marriage where I don’t have to apologize for not getting things done, where I can spend hours on my own “things.” where I have freedom to be myself and to not worry about what I say and do. In other words, I have a marriage where I can act like a man. That doesn’t mean that I try to control my husband; on the contrary: I’m happy to give him the same space that he “gives” me. We appreciate and respect and enjoy each other–just the way we are. We both have times where we provide tea and sympathy, we both run the love store, and neither of us is slave to the other. In other words, I now have a marriage that’s a feminist’s dream.

But it took me almost thirty years to get here.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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