Sunday, March 16, 2008

Feminist advice on a relationship dilemma

I recently had the opportunity to visit with my friend, Varda, for a few days. We were able to "catch up" after almost 20 years of infrequent phone calls and correspondence. Piece by piece, Varda shared how her 2 marriages had ended in divorce and how she's agonizing over what to do about her relationship with the man that she's been living with, on and off, for the last 5 years.

Also, like many women in her age group (she's now in her mid-fifties and her two children from the first marriage are grown), she's finding herself without decent employment. She went back to school to become a social worker and earned a good living for a time, but then a large medical corporation came in and took over the small non-profit that contracted out the county's social work. Now she works at a Home for the mentally challenged in a non-rewarding capacity and for much less pay. In addition to her reduced circumstances, she is also facing problems with the I.R.S. On the advice of her first ex, she withheld part of her taxes to protest the war; he didn't advise her on what to do when they came after her. And, she has borrowed on her credit cards to the hilt, and she now faces the loss of her house. She's considering taking the last of a small inheritance to go back to school or going to live with her daughter and starting all over.

I forgot to say that Varda is an extremely talented artist, who has created beautiful art.. She helped to found the women's self-help movement in the 70's, and organized many fabulous events. She is beautiful in both body and spirit. She's idealistic and generous; "she'd give you the shirt off her back" applies to Varda.

I proceeded to give Varda, free of charge, the advice that I've given to many women over the years who've faced similar dilemmas about how to handle a relationship with a man they're living with and don't know just what to do next. The ones who have followed this advice, I'm happy to say, have experienced great success.

Varda asked me to write up the advice that I gave to her piecemeal over a period of days, because she wants to study it and fully understand it. She has given permission for me to publish it. I don't know if she will end up taking it, because this advice requires her to think about relationships with men in a whole new way.

The Problem

First of all, I think that Varda is on the verge of a serious financial crisis. She's about to end up in debt to the IRS, which is the worst kind of debt to have. She needs to take immediate action to get someone to represent her with the IRS (this does not have to be an attorney). Secondly, she needs money to keep her house. (Since her kids grew up, she's had a succession of housemates with all the problems that go with that).


I asked Varda, "What about your manfriend? Can't he help". "If we lived together again, he could take care of the mortgage and help with the IRS problem, but he doesn't just want to give me the money. He says it would be charity."

Varda told me her friend, Reggie, has the money. He has a good job, his own house and he takes her out to nice places.

To me, the solution is obvious. If Reggie meets what I consider to be the feminist criteria, they should get married.

I start off with the proposition that we live in a patriarchy, where, in general, men make more money than women and have more economic stability. Obviously, Varda prefers to have male companionship. After one to five years of living together, it becomes extremely disadvantageous for a woman to live with a man. Marriage laws, as restrictive and weighted in favor of men as they are, do give women some measure of security, compared to just living together. After investing a few years into her relationship with a man, a woman need to insist that they get married, or he must free her up to find someone else or she can pursue her goals alone.

I asked Varda a series of questions which I think are the basic questions to ask oneself before considering marriage.

1) Do you have a basically good sex life? Obviously, we all have a different idea of what constitutes a good sex life. The point is that both partners should have similar ideas. But, life is too hard and the stresses of everyday living with someone are too great unless you have the comfort and escape of affection, hugs, kisses and for some of us, deep and frequent orgasms.

Varda felt good about this aspect of their relationship. So, onto the next question.

2) Does he work? This used to be an unnecessary question. Before the 60's generation, a woman wouldn't consider having a relationship with a man that didn't work. It was a no-brainer. Increasingly, women get involved with men who don't work (Note: I did not say that the man needed to earn a lot of money. Lots of nice men are poor). Some women think they have more power in the relationship when they're the breadwinner; they think they can boss the guy around. In my opinion, they have the worst of all worlds.

Varda tells me that he likes his work and that he makes good money. Next question.

3) Does he have any serious personal problems, such as addictive behavior, gambling, violence or abusiveness? If a guy has any of these problems, they will only get worse with marriage.

Varda said that Reggie had none of these problems.


But, Varda then explains that Reggie and her kids do not get along, and she's constantly in between and she's afraid that he will not allow her to have the kids in her life. When she met Reggie, her kids were teenagers and they took an instant dislike to him and vice versa. Even now, the main problem is that Reggie wants Varda's exclusive attention and complains bitterly and loudly when she divides her attention between him and her children.


Up to this point, most women would agree with my advice, at least as far as what are the criteria for a good marriage prospect. But, many do not. To them, Varda should move on until she finds a man who respects her right to give some of her attention to her kids (and soon, grandkids).

I think that here is where I think that many women fail to grasp the essence of male-female relationships in our present-day patriarchal society.

Today, the realistic goal of a male-female relationship is physical closeness and pleasure, raising of children, if wanted or necessary, mutual economic support, and companionship.

Many women are seeking a relationship with a man that includes intimacy and romance, maybe even shared interests; these women are doomed to frustration and disappointment. Why? Because, in a patriarchy, men are not raised to experience intimacy in a love relationship; they're raised to dominate. There are a few exceptions, to be sure, and most men can and do have sincere feelings for their mates, but in general, it's women who are raised to be in touch with their feelings.

Note: A good pop psychology book is "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." The author, Gray, describes male-female relationships in a patriarchy pretty accurately. His whole message to women is to accept men as being unwilling and/or unable to invest the same emotional intensity into a relationship, and to find their fulfillment elsewhere. I thinks he gives good advice. Ironically, some women consider themselves to be a feminist and still expect a man to meet all their emotional needs; in fact, many of them consider this to be what a strong woman demands and gets from her relationship with a man.

My advice to Varda was, "Get married, get some financial security and deal with the problem of his possessiveness on a daily basis. It will never be easy. You will need to assert yourself, and work out compromises on a case-by-case basis. You won't get everything you want, but remember, he needs you as much as you need him."

The next day, we resumed our discussion. Varda said, "Yeah, I get it. All I have to do is to give into him and let him have his way, and we'll get along fine."

I realized that Varda hadn't heard a word I said about how a heterosexual feminist copes with pre-revolutionary relationships. Or, she had heard, and the prospect of living in a marriage under patriarchy didn't sound that great. Well, it isn't, folks, that's one of the reasons we want to overthrow the patriarchy. When men are in charge and get most or all of the goodies in the society, it's an unfair situation. To think that under these conditions, a man and a woman can have an idyllic relationship is (I can't fill in the word here; it's too sarcastic).

Personal note: when I became a feminist, I realized that probably I could have had a satisfactory life with my first husband. He was a decent guy and he was on the brink of making pretty good money (he died a few years after our divorce). We both loved our kids and we enjoyed working together. If I hadn't believed that my ultimate happiness depended on our having the perfect relationship and if I hadn't been unwilling to go out and create my own happiness, I probably could have managed his tendency to drink too much on social occasions and his carelessness about his health. My marriage counselor did try to give this advice to me. However, I did divorce and remarry, and I had a much better love life with my new spouse who I've been married to for over 45 years, so I guess it all was for the best.

Varda didn't say this, but my guess is that she also wonders if Reggie would, in fact, agree to get married? Perhaps this lack of confidence is undermining her ability to assert herself with him. My guess is that he would be willing. Otherwise, why is he saying that he won't give her the money unless they live together if he doesn't want to have her companionship?

While I'm on the subject of whether men want marriage, I am of the belief that they desperately want it. They devised the institution, didn't they? It protects their interests. They just want it on their terms. As a feminist, I eschew manipulation and scheming, a la "I Love Lucy", but I didn't park my brains when I became a radical feminist either. I have attempted, and I encourage women, to be a step ahead of the men we relate to at all times. I believe it's up to us to pick who we want to marry and then help them to go through the emotional growth that will lead to a lasting relationship.

Will Varda take this advice. I hope so.

When I mentioned my talk with Varda to one of the women I gave sisterly advice which she used to get herself established in a very good married relationship, she laughed and said, "Yes, my friends and co-workers just think I was really lucky to have found such a nice guy!"


jude said...

Carol, I just loved your comments about your friends situation. Having been in a lesbian relationship for over 25 years, and having friends in lesbian relationships, it brought back to me things that I have though about these relationships.
Since lesbian relationships also exist within the patriarchy and a society based on sex roles, lesbian relationships are not immune to power-relation struggles.
I have seen many relationships suffer from power imbalances due to class and race issues, women not asserting themselves in relationships, lack of intimacy, etc.
Many lesbians think that just because they are with a woman means that they will have an perfectly romantic relationship with equality.
I have told many of my friends that, "being a lesbian does not make one a feminist." Unfortunately this has fallen on deaf ears more often than not, to the detriment of many well-meaning women's groups.

hodge2100 said...

Well this one's thought provoking, Carol. I like dominating lovers--even dangerous folks--especially when I'm under stress and loss, I think. I'm not making any assumptions about Varda, but if the losses are stacked up close together, having person making up your mind for you can be handy--but then what?

I've had lots of losses and stresses in the past few years, but good works are good, and choice of folks to date -- uhh -- well -- uhh-- If more grounded I'd like to date sure, and I want to be that good "husband" -- maybe I am if only to myself, working, able to give and take some pleasure, and getting away now from such heavy personal stresses.

hodge2100 said...

mmm--you see it is thought-provoking. I don't "like" dangerous folks, but found myself there under stress. Because you want to lean on someone sometimes, but it's at the time you're leaning--reeling--you may make poor choices. I did at first after my loving spouse, woman lover, of many years died, but I walked away from a dangerous person quickly. However, even in the more loving case of my late lover, we had some severe problems at first, but established a "household," a way of living, rather than being 'at' each other. She met the good husband list.

I think you have to have some ground under you, or understand where you're vulnerable and have other folks outside the relationship for some of you fun, intimacy and support, so the thing doesn't implode.