Over the past several years, about once a year, a friend announces that she’s getting a divorce. What’s interesting is the pattern I see in the marriages that don’t last (and most of my friends are in marriages that are lasting). The breakdown seems to be bounded by wants and needs. The men in these divorces are defined by their wants: What they want at any given moment is of paramount importance. Often intelligent and successful, although seldom charming, anything that interferes with their desires is seen as an insult to their sense of self.
The women are defined by the needs of others: their children’s needs, their husband’s needs, their aged parents’ needs, their job’s needs, their car pool’s needs, their neighbors’ needs, the school system’s needs. They therefore parcel out their time and attention on a constantly sliding scale that measures whose needs are most urgent at any given time, and whose needs are manifestly less urgent. (Deal with vomiting child or get husband another soda from the garage? Hmmm. Which shall I do? Complete project that’s on a drop-dead deadline or help husband haul out the garbage cans? Decisions, decisions. Listen to whining neighbor or cuddle on couch with husband? That’s a no-brainer.)
During the course of these now broken marriages, from the outside looking in, it appeared that all of these women were good wives: they took care of themselves, respected their husbands, ran the household for the men (and the children), and didn’t seem to be shrews. Their husbands did not appear to be neglected (that is, the women were not Victorian consumptives who took to the couch, or maternal martyrs who made the children their dominant theme in their lives, or emotionally distant figures in a way that made any closeness impossible.) The one thing they didn’t do, though, and the one thing the men seemed to need, was devote 100% of their time and emotional energy to these men. And in each case, the man responded to his wife’s failure to satisfy his every want in the same way: with an affair (or more than one affair).
In the wake of the divorce (but not during the marriage), the women started to talk. It turned out that they had found marriage hard, since the men, focused as they were on their wants, had little room to spare for the little things that women value: a kind word, a night out, a helping hand at the end of a long day. Still the women stuck it out, knowing that they were needed. However, for each woman, the death knell for the relationship, the moment she could no longer tolerate an adult clamoring for 100% of her attention as if he were himself one of the children, was the affair.
One of the things I’ve sensed is that all of these marriages worked all right up until the kids were born. At that moment, the women peeled away a part of themselves for the child. And the men, all of whom love their children, couldn’t tolerate that loss. They somehow expected that the women would be able to provide 100% of themselves to the husband and 100% to the child (because the men, after all, love the children and want the best for them, including complete maternal love). And in each case, when it was manifestly impossible for that to happen, the men responded by increasing their demands to the point at which they could justify an affair by pointing to a wife who had abandoned them.
As I said at the top of this post, most of the marriages around me are just fine. Both husband and wife engage in the daily balancing act of giving attention to the marriage, the kids, the jobs, the parents, and so and so forth. Both partners to the marriage are sufficiently mature to recognize that, once you pass the toddler stage, your life motto can’t be “me, me, me.”
In the marriages that broke down, however, the man could not recognize that. The wife, however, was able to make that change, and that fact may, perhaps, be biological. Before the children came along, the wife might have been every bit as self-centered as the husband. The process of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing, however, in an ordinary woman, creates a bond that transcends selfishness. No matter how much you wish to put yourself first, you just can’t do it anymore. That helpless little thing needs you.
Before I get too locked into my biology theory, though, I should note that I’ve seen one divorce where the pattern (one spouse’s personal wants, versus the other spouses impulse to fulfill others’ needs) has been precisely the same, except that the one who couldn’t transcend pre-child selfishness was the wife. It was the husband who stayed at home, nurturing the kids and taking care of the community around him (parents, neighbors, school, etc.). The wife, despite loving her kids, had never bonded with them sufficiently to transcend her own personal goals, something that eventually halted the marriage. (I think the “affair” that finally killed the marriage in this case was a workaholic’s loving relationship with the job, rather than a flesh-and-blood romance.)
Anyway, these are just Sunday evening ruminations, brought on by the news of another broken marriage. I guess it’s also whistling in the dark — an attempt to put distance between others’ bad luck and my own life.
UPDATE: Mike made a good point in a comment, which is that I’m only hearing the women’s side of the story, and those stories are inevitably going to be self-serving and one sided. I agree completely. What’s interesting, though, is that these stories are so similar. One would think that, since these are different marriages, and these women aren’t friends, they’d have different tales of woe. And they don’t. It’s always the same.
More than that, the sameness always involves describing a husband (or that one wife) who has characteristics that, I realized, precisely mirror the DSM criteria for narcissistic personality disorders:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance
2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. believes that he or she is “special” and unique
4. requires excessive admiration
5. has a sense of entitlement
6. is interpersonally exploitative
7. lacks empathy
8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Perhaps the bottom line is that, when children come along, it’s impossible to maintain a marriage with a classic narcissist.