Selective Empathy and “An Outlet for Maternal Feelings”

1. You Married Dudes are driving me nuts! Or, I’m driving myself nuts, I don’t know. I’m one of those women the Big Chatty Articles have been talking about recently — I’ve worked hard, and I’m more successful and make more money than most men my age, or so it seems. And I can’t find anyone to date seriously. The people who’ve achieved the kind of success I find attractive — I’m not attracted to unsuccessful men, or women either, I suppose — are usually older than me, by about 10 years. And men 10 years older than I am are usually married. So, nope can’t date him, can’t date him either, or that one.

But a lot of the Married Dudes I’ve come across have different thresholds for flirting/hitting on me/directly asking me to sleep with them. It’s on me for continuing to hang out with some of these guys, I know, but I like to be around people who are good at what they want to do, even if they don’t always have the most sterling marital rules or whatever. And should they, even? Marriage is stupid, right? It’s all just a mess. It feels like that line, I can’t remember where it’s from, but instead of the high school girls all staying the same age, it’s the Married Dudes who — to me, at least, at this point — all stay the same. Am I being a lazy, reductive jerk? Can I go on a tear of sleeping with whomever I want and not tiptoe on glass about other people’s husbands? Because if I were married, I’d almost feel sadder if I learned that the only reason my husband didn’t have an affair was because the woman felt sorry for me and said no.

You ask whether you can sleep with other people’s husbands. Surely what you mean is, should you?

I’m going to assume that you really want an answer to this question — not just a get-out-of-jail card. And I have to start by saying, straight out, that your last sentence is the purest bullshit. You don’t get to justify your behavior by selectively empathizing with people you’re helping to screw over. That’s the definition of self-serving. This is true even if you believe (as I do) that you’re less culpable than the Dudes who are trying to hook up with you. You can’t invoke some unknown wife’s imaginary pride as the reason it’s OK for you to fuck her husband!

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s consider whether it’s bad to fool around with Married Dudes. Yes. Sometimes. It depends. People say that if you can’t tell Grandma what you’re doing, there’s something wrong with your behavior. But who tells Grandma anything? Aren’t shameful things sometimes desirable because they’re shameful? Isn’t the wrongness sort of the point? 

I’m not immune to all that. Still, fooling around with Married Dudes is dangerous. People’s lives are at stake and you can’t pretend that’s not the case. Once you admit that your actions might hurt innocent people, you can’t kid yourself that what you’re thinking about doing is perfectly OK. But you already know this, or else you wouldn’t have written for advice.

That’s just about the best I can do on the morality front. I’m no angel. You’re going to have to choose for yourself and live with the consequences.

Anyway, this leaves a bigger question unanswered. Why does being attracted to successful men mean that you’re doomed to sleep with Married Dudes? This reads like a rationalization to me — like you’re trying to justify sleeping with some particular Dude or Dudes, not Married Dudes in general.

But let’s take you at your word. I understand the frustration: the Big Chatty Articles have a point. So let me ask you, what counts as success? Is it mostly economic? A matter of attitude or talent? If it all boils down to status and wealth, then you do indeed have a demographic problem. I mean, it’ll help that you’re young. (Evidence suggests that older guys are sometimes open to dating younger women.) But I don’t think you’re talking about balding divorcés; and that slightly younger demographic (I’m guessing, 35-45 years old, still in good shape and at the top of their game) are reliably coupled-up. If these are the kind of guys you really like, and you don’t want to be the reason they get divorced and lose their hair, then you’ll have to be patient.

Or maybe you can broaden your ideas about what counts as success? What about intellect, skill, and social grace? I work every day with young men of extraordinary talent and wit. They’re goofier and more insecure than your average Married Dude, but they also have fewer horrible kids. A couple of them will go on to become millionaires. One or two will die in poverty, their poems as brilliant as they are unread. Some will practice law. But if you remember only one thing from this slew of inexpert advice, it’s that you might broaden your romantic horizons before committing something you’ll likely regret.

2. So my slightly femme, well dressed husband has a grooming problem: He sometimes stinks! He’s not a sweaty person (unlike his wife here, who wears men’s clinical strength antiperspirant) and he’ll always shower after going to the gym, but he doesn’t like to wear deodorant. Sometimes he comes home from his office job stinky, and I don’t think he notices! I’ve tried to mention things in passing in the past, and he either brushes it off or gets really hurt and mopey. He tried my antiperspirant once in a sullen fit and it gave him a rash, so he just says he can’t wear any. I bought some hippie, all-natural stuff (that smells really good!) ‘for me’ and told him he could use it, so as not to hurt his feelings, but he hasn’t taken the bait. As we are getting older, the stink is getting bolder, and I don’t know how to tell him without making him sulk! This smell isn’t an everyday problem, but sometimes it makes night time cuddling unattractive. Help!

[Ed. – Ahem.]

Does your husband’s stink bother you more than the idea of his mopey reaction? If the answer is yes, then you should sit him down and explain — gently, with love, as you did in your letter — that our body chemistry changes as we age and that the bathing habits of yore no longer wash. You might suggest that nighttime rewards await fresh-smelling men. That would work for me.

If the answer is no, his moodiness is more repellent than his stink, then you should probably have a different conversation. You should talk about being able to communicate honestly, in a conversational space free of judgment, in the interests of long-term happiness, so that you can let him know he’s rank.

3. My boyfriend’s parents recently moved close enough to us that we see them, often. And every time they come over, his dad makes some kind of remark about how I purge my maternal instincts by having two dogs. Like, we will all come home from somewhere to the house my boyfriend and I share, and I will make appropriately coo-ey doggie-woggie noises at my pups and cuddle them hellos, and boyfriend’s dad will remark “It’s good you have them as an outlet for your maternal feelings” in a voice like he’s some kind of scholar on maternal feelings (i.e. not a joking voice). At first I would respond with some variation of “hell yeah, I love my dogs!” but then when he did it EVERY time I started to get annoyed, then think it’s sexist, and now I wonder if I should TELL him it’s sexist. Boyfriend’s father never makes a crack about my boyfriend’s “paternal” instincts, even though boyfriend makes the same fuss over our dogs (because they are our dogs!).

And I don’t want kids, and neither does my boyfriend, so I don’t know if it’s meant as some kind of jab at our kidless desires (which I don’t even know if boyfriend’s father is aware of, really)? It feels like one of those times when maybe I snap at a guy, and he makes a crack about me being on PMS, and I am outraged because I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE MAD AT WHAT I AM MAD AT, DON’T DISCOUNT MY FEELINGS AS BEING CAUSED BY HORMONES BECAUSE I AM A WOMAN, except maybe I actually am PMSing. You know? Maybe I do feel maternal toward my dogs, and I don’t think being called maternal is an insult, but somehow it feels wrong and sexist in this usage, as a label applied to me instead of one I apply to myself. But does it bother me enough to call my boyfriend’s dad sexist? I don’t know. I am sure he wouldn’t understand my offense, and I would just be labeled an oversensitive feminist. My boyfriend says I can do what I want, that it’s between me and his dad, but he doesn’t really get why it bothers me (and neither do the female friends I’ve brought it up with, actually. Well, they understand kind of, but say it wouldn’t bother them). Am I being oversensitive? How could I bring it up in a way that makes it clear he’s being sexist (if you agree he is) without making him defensive? Or is it not even worth it? If it matters, I generally like his dad, and he is a pretty liberal guy, but he is also 70 years old, so. I don’t think he thinks about things like how calling me maternal might be sexist.

I think he’s being a bit sexist. There’s no contradiction between not wanting kids and loving your dogs as you do. You’re not being “maternal,” you’re being affectionate in a soppy, pet-ownery sort of way. If all caring feelings (even the coo-ey, goo-ey ones) were reducible to parental archetypes, our emotional landscape would become impoverished and silly. Anyway, reducing all women to mothers, or potential mothers, is inherently belittling.

That said, I think it’s probably not worth bringing this up with a nice, liberal pensioner who’s an important member of your family and whom you have to see pretty often. Think about it: You’ve already struggled to explain things to your closest friends. What makes you think this old guy — the one person, however nice, who has the most reason to feel defensive — is going to find it any easier to see your point? I could be wrong, but I’d file this gripe in the “pick your battles” folder and try to move on … At least until it bursts out one miserable Thanksgiving when the old man’s 88 and you’re on your seventh eggnog.

One more thing: It might be a good idea to talk to your respective parents about your kidless desires. My wife and I spoke often about wanting to have a child, and even we were driven insane by our parents’ endless clucking. Talk to them about the fact that you’re not planning on enlarging the human race, and ask that they don’t spend the next 10 years making “jokes” about suppressed maternal instincts and the patter of tiny feet. This might save you a lot of bother. It might solve the dog problem, too.

4. My boyfriend and I don’t really have a relationship anymore. We’ve been through a lot in seven years, and a lot of it just has to do with normal growing up, since we were 19 when it all started. About two years ago, he started not being himself around me, and just not really talking to me anymore. He also lost interest in sex (how does that even happen!), and just never seemed to care about doing nice things for me or complimenting me, ever. I’m not super needy or anything, but it really turned into us being roommates and not best-friend-roommates-who-do-everything-together, more like I-found-a-roommate-on-craigslist-but-it’s-cool-as-long-as-he-stays-in-his-room roommate. He swears he still loves me and has nothing to do with being attracted to anyone else, etc., and he’s not mean or aggressive or anything. Before I was really upset that I didn’t feel like I was in relationship, now I’m just used to it and I don’t expect anything anymore. I work full time, I write, I help run a non-profit, and go to school part time, so needless to say, I stay distracted.

Also, we have children together.

He says he’s not with me just because of the kids, but I’m at the point now where that and being too busy for anything else really are the only reasons I’m okay with where we are now. I’m also not interested in dating or any of the perks of being single.

The part that freaks me out is that one day we’ll realize that we’ve grown old together without meaning to.

Is it better to stay in this weird complacent state for the kids and for sticking with what’s easy and workable, or should I throw a wrench into everything?

I was about two-thirds through reading this letter — around, oh, the part where you were describing your work life — and I knew what I was going to say.

GETOUTGETOUTGETOUT!

I mean, come on. You’re only 27 and you’ve been together since you were teenagers. You don’t talk. You don’t have sex. You don’t even do nice things for one another. If this really were your roommate, I’d still tell you to post a “room vacant” ad on Craigslist. But your boyfriend?

DTMFA.

Then I read “we have children together.” And my feelings got a lot more complicated.

You know what, though? I’m still going to tell you to dump him. My parents divorced when I was four and I never seriously regretted it. I was brought up by two reasonably happy adults who both remarried and both continued to feel the joy and pain of love with people they cared about intensely. Life wasn’t perfect but it was lived.

Looking back, I know that my parents’ divorce had relatively little to do with the sadness that visited our home from time to time. I knew my parents loved me. What’s more, I came to respect them for working out joint custody arrangements and never fighting over my sister and me in public. I learned an important lesson about monogamy: trust and honesty flourish within its embrace, but without love on both sides commitment is just another word for being locked in.

So get out. And if you don’t get out, do something — go to couples therapy, shake things up. Pay attention to him and make him pay attention to you. Don’t settle for the status quo. Don’t stay locked in “this weird complacent state.” That’s nowhere to be.

This will take some time. If you decide to leave, you’ll eventually need to talk seriously with your boyfriend about why you’re going — also about custody, finances, and how to co-parent. You’ll need a lawyer and you’ll have to have awkward conversations with your kids’ teachers. Don’t rush, but don’t stay still. Open up to the people you trust. Consider your options. And then act.

Previously: Shared Spaces, Lie Measurement, and the Manageable Hassle.

A Married Dude is one of several rotating married dudes. Do you have a question for A Married Dude?

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