My most popular articles tell true stories about my failed marriage and also tend to include a bunch of my own assumptions about “typical” male-female relationships.
Because of things I’ve experienced, observed, read, and heard about, I perceive there to be common male behaviors and common female behaviors, and sometimes when writing relationship stories—I will say things like: “Husbands often do this… and wives often do this other thing.”
I do it throughout the oft-read Open Letter to Shitty Husbands posts, and this very gender-oriented way of storytelling—for better or worse—is featured prominently in the only thing I’ve written that has been read millions of times: She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink.
I am a straight, white male who was raised in a small Ohio town, and totally immersed—from birth through high school—in conservative politics and what some people like to call “traditional Christian values.”
I used to think it was all very good. Common. Normal. The majority.
I always found comfort in being part of the “majority.” If MOST people believed something, then that must mean that believing that is good. The right thing to do. I am part of the group that is “most correct,” I reasoned.
Of course, I didn’t have access to any sort of data that could reliably tell me what “most” people thought, believed, felt or did, anyway. Nor was I wise enough to even ask the question. SO MANY people were “like me” where I come from that it never occurred to me to question things I was taught or any of the common beliefs of the people who lived where I lived.
Things are much different now.
I don’t live in a place where groupthink is as prevalent as it was for me growing up.
At 38, on the heels of my divorce that forced me to rethink everything I have ever done or believed, today I’m much better about questioning information I come across.
I always want to know WHY. Every one of our beliefs should have a WHY behind it. A REASON. There’s great danger in a bunch of people who believe things but can’t provide an explanation for WHY.
I’m less certain today about the things I think and feel.
Uncertainty isn’t comfortable. Uncertainty probably isn’t very attractive. But it damn sure reduces your asshole quotient. Since no one can know all things, behaving with certainty means you’re totally wrong (and a huge asshole) at least some of the time.
I don’t assume I’m correct about everything, but I always have a REASON for how I came to a belief, and if I discover that my reason for a belief is bullshit, I’m not afraid to abandon it in favor of a better idea.
I’ve learned to embrace the philosophy of Letting the Best Idea Win.
In every conversation, debate or argument between me and someone else with conflicting ideas, there can be only three possibilities:
- I’m right.
- I’m wrong.
- There is no objectively correct answer.
Many people behave in debates as if winning or losing are the only two outcomes. I tend to think everyone loses most of the time. I don’t think “being wrong” is the same thing as losing. Here’s why:
- If I’m right, I get to share a better or important idea with the person I’m talking to.
- If I’m wrong, I get to learn a better or important idea from the person I’m talking to, and stop believing something that’s untrue, harmful, or otherwise moronic.
- If there’s no objectively correct answer, fair-minded and reasonable people can always conclude that an individual’s life experiences shapes their beliefs, and that ANYONE who lived an identical life would have drawn an identical conclusion.
Is it Wrong or Dangerous to Identify Gender-Based Stereotypes in Stories Designed to Help People Improve Their Relationships?
A bunch of people (who might be correct) think I’m a complete idiot douchebag because of what they perceive to be cavalier use of “gendered” descriptors for human behavior.
If you also think I’m an idiot douchebag, you’ll take great joy in reading this MetaFilter thread about the “dishes” post that went viral in 2016.
It’s offensive for some men who are awesome about keeping their house clean, and mindfully comforting their romantic partners, and expertly managing their children’s many needs to read me write the equivalent of “Men are often thoughtless and selfish, dumping a bunch of housework on their wives, which inevitably causes wives to resent their husbands and eventually leave them.”
It’s offensive for some women who are sensitive about gender-based stereotyping of any kind to see it being done. The female experience for them has been one of being shoehorned into certain roles and stereotypes for no other reason than their gender. Women are still sometimes referred to as “minorities,” even though the human sex ratio is essentially 1:1 in almost every country and culture on earth.
I get this. Totally. I don’t like people labeling or telling me who I am either.
And I absolutely understand that this type of stereotyping and generalizing has categorically marginalized huge groups of people through the generations, because of their skin color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.
“Marginalized” is probably too soft a word for some of the atrocities people have experienced at the hands of the “majority.”
However, I can’t stop asking this question:
While gender-based stereotyping might seem ignorant or misguided to people whose life experiences were much different than mine, is it WRONG or BAD for me to make the observation that “Men often do this, and women often do something else”?
There is no malice intended in my observations that men frequently demonstrate a lack of awareness and empathy in their conversations and behavior at home with their wives. I honestly believe this is the most common scenario. That this is true most often.
There is no malice intended in my observations that women frequently feel sad, abandoned and afraid—and later, resentful—in their marriages because of this common male lack of awareness and empathy.
I am not judging men. I don’t believe women are better than men. But I do believe that women frequently demonstrate superior relationship skills to men like emotional intelligence, empathy, efforts to communicate, and stronger home- and child-management skills as mothers.
I believe that’s true. That doesn’t make anyone good or bad. It simply makes me correct or incorrect—and I honestly don’t know which I am in this case. This is what I think. Not what I know.
I am certainly not judging women. I don’t believe men are better than women, particularly in the context of male-female romantic relationships in cohabitation, marriage, or parenting. But I do believe that men are frequently innocent of intentional wrongdoing in their troubled relationships. That they are predominantly good men with good intentions who honestly love their wives and families, but mindlessly do or do not do things that hurt their wives, and often results in painful break-ups and divorce.
I believe this is true.
I believe anyone can look around and see this for themselves in their own families, and neighborhoods, and workplaces, and religious or social groups, and among the professional relationship therapists who have spent years listening to the same kinds of stories I tell, and who hear all of the same stories I get in my email inbox and in these blog comments.
Another Viral Example: ‘You Should’ve Asked’
Someone awesome and clever created a comic that I believe encapsulates the spirit of several of my posts like the “dishes by the sink” one, or how making your wife or girlfriend feel like your mom by managing your life and cleaning up after you all the time is a common recipe for the death of sexual attraction, and often, the relationship.
I think the creator (her name is Emma) did an incredible job of capturing this Common Relationship dynamic I’m always going for, but I think she did a better job than I do of not assigning blame or shaming anyone in the process.
I was struck by how many people criticized the piece because they perceived it to unfairly stereotype genders in much the same way people have criticized me.
Does content like “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” and “You Should’ve Asked” cause more harm than good by being too gender-focused? Or do they do more good than harm by raising awareness to relationship issues so common that millions of people read and share them?
I am a guy. Because of this, I write for guys and feel comfortable talking about “guy things” in the same way I perceive them to be true. I don’t pretend to understand what women experience outside of the many books, conversations and stories I’ve read or heard.
I was a husband. Because of this, I write about husbands.
I write stories that I hope resonate with many people, and I don’t know how to do that without describing situations I believe to be most common—most statistically likely to have been true for the average reader.
But, if this isn’t obvious to you already, I believe sexism—which I hope is mostly unintentional—plays a prominent role in the fundamental breakdown of the common marriage, as I tend to describe it.
I defend my stereotyping (right or wrong) because I am rarely making value judgments about men and women.
I think it’s fair and reasonable to identify things as being DIFFERENT, without the underlying assumption that one is better than another. Equality is NOT “Everyone’s the same!” Equality is “Everyone has equal value.”
And I believe that strongly. That all people have equal value, regardless of how many differences we can identify.
I think, whether it be because of cultural conditioning and exposure to mass media or something else entirely, that men frequently demonstrate behaviors common to most males, and that women frequently demonstrate behaviors common to most females.
I don’t know why this happens, though I have foolishly suggested that evolutionary science might have something to do with it because I’m an idiot who occasionally talks out of his ass.
But I think it’s less foolish to observe things that happen around us, and then use those observations in stories designed to hopefully help people discover something important about themselves, about their partners, and about their relationships that might otherwise deteriorate and end painfully without that story resonating with them. Without stories that feel a lot like their own experiences.
Sometimes people see themselves in the words, and everything changes for them. Sometimes kids don’t have to move between houses and cry. Sometimes two really good people who honestly love each other don’t spend years accidentally damaging one another’s hearts and minds, because they finally SEE what’s really happening.
I want to believe that the stories told here have done more good than bad.
If there’s a way for me to do more good and less bad, I also want to know that.
But this criticism and question needs dealt with.
No matter how “common” it may seem to me or anyone else. No matter how easy it is for me to justify using a Mars/Venus backdrop to relationship stories. No matter ANYTHING else: Do we hurt others, and ultimately cause more harm than good when we use words that categorize or label or attempt to define a group of people because they’re connected by a shared trait?
I don’t know.
But if I can do better, I must.
If we can do better, we must.