By Dalma Heyn
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“Why Do They Stay?”
When they are unhappy, women usually think they need more love, but the objective evidence suggests that they need more independence.
–Historian Francesca M. Cancian, Love in America
If you’re still wondering why you and other strong women put so much time into doomed relationships with Drama Kings, why you and they don’t pack their bags sooner, you’re not alone. I’m asked the question all the time. “Why do strong women stay in relationships that drain and exhaust them? Why don’t they just leave?”
Strong women stay in relationships with Drama Kings as long as they do — which isn’t necessarily very long — because they want relationships. They love men and desire them. They want love. They want sex. They care what men think of them, and they want all the intimacy and involvement that partnership promises. They don’t want to be alone. They know they live in a world still set up to be easier for couples than for singles. They hope that with increased commitment, time, and change, even rocky, weird, and dysfunctional relationships with Drama Kings can improve and develop into a new story, a narrative of deeper attachment, cooperation, intimacy, reciprocity, and continuing strength for them both. They’re willing to work at it.
Sometimes they stay simply because they’d rather have a weird, rocky, and dysfunctional relationship for a while than have none. Everyone knows by now, since every developmental study shows us so, that girls and women flourish when connected to others and ensconced in relationships. So we women have a tendency to put enormous energy into our love affairs, sometimes overdoing it when our partners put in too little. Even the very strongest and most independent of us sometimes temporarily resort to the tactic of trying to assure a good relationship by using the old “feminine” conduct-book skills — accommodation, pleasing, deferring, silence, and, yes, manipulation — because, particularly with Drama Kings, it’s the only way we can think of to have the sex and fun we want, the love and connection, and maybe marriage and kids, too. It’s part of attaching to want to stay attached.
Strong women may stay longer than they planned to with Drama Kings because they don’t respond to stress according to the well-known fight-or-flight model but to a newly articulated “tend-and-befriend” model developed by UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, PhD, and a team of colleagues. Noticing that almost all the studies on response to stress have been conducted on male animals who do illustrate the fight-or-flight paradigm, Dr. Taylor observed that the people she’d worked with for thirty years in her health practice do not. Women, she and her colleagues have speculated, respond to stressful situations by protecting themselves and their young (the “tend” part of the model) through nurturance and seeking support from others (the “befriend” part). Male dominance behavior seems to be involved with androgen hormones like testosterone, while female dominance appears to be linked to oxytocin, a hormone that actually inhibits aggression and fear and stimulates relaxation and the desire for social contact in survival situations as well as in breastfeeding, sex, and cuddling — the opposite of fight or flight!
So rather than leaving when things get tough, a woman’s survival mechanism may prompt her to invest more energy in trying to connect or to stay put and increase her contact with friends — a possibility supported by research in humans and animals.
Stay put for a while, that is.
I have a better question for you, though. Why do women leave? All the women I interviewed for this book who’d been with Drama Kings left before the two-year mark. This is not the old story of men leaving women. This is not middle-aged husbands looking for younger women, not males fed up with “needy” women who they believe perceive them as meal tickets, not young men looking to have their cake and eat it, too, who are leaving in great numbers. Women are leaving men. Marriage statistics are telling: Two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by the wife! How could a truth that has so dramatically transformed our country’s domestic landscape so elude the trend watchers?
When I reported the statistics a decade ago — after all, it’s a fact I didn’t make up; it’s right there in government brochures — I was laughed at. I’d go on the air, disclose what women were saying, and then be asked the same old question even as I answered it: “So, then, if women are so unhappy, why do they stay?”
I’d repeat, “They don’t. That’s the point. They’re walking out the door.”
They still are today. As a result, much has changed. Married-couple households, which accounted for 80 percent of the population in the 1950s, now account for only 50.7 percent; married couples with children, once the cozy composition of almost all American households, now make up a mere quarter of them and will probably decrease to a fifth by 2010; families with husbands who make the money and wives who work in the home account for a measly one-tenth of all households. These domestic changes were spearheaded by women. One paper reiterating statistics about women leaving concludes, “While these statistics alone do not compel a conclusion that women anticipate advantages to being single rather than remaining in the marriage, they do raise that reasonable hypothesis.”
As an American, a woman, and a wife, I wonder whether any other institution with similar cockeyed statistics could escape notice. If sixty-five percent of women schoolteachers fled the academy, or if the same number of female soldiers left the army, wouldn’t the culture be alarmed? Wouldn’t we start asking new questions instead of old, irrelevant ones?
If an exodus from any other treasured and important institution were led by one gender, wouldn’t there be a serious national effort to discover what made them flee or to redress their grievances, find incentives to encourage them to stay? Women’s wholesale retreat — from Drama Kings but also from other men — is all the more startling because relationships are the habitat in which so many young women believe they want to be, and marriage is the environment they grow up assuming will be the most nurturing. After all, ninety percent of American women marry at least once before their fiftieth birthdays, and they do so expecting to thrive — and intending to stay.
Here’s another statistic: Single women are far less depressed than married women. And single men are far more depressed than married men. If many of these men are Drama Kings, then the group of people in our society who are most in need of the balm of intimacy are the least able to let it reach them.
At the time I first heard these numbers, I was interviewing married women, hearing so many of them struggle to articulate why they felt as disenfranchised or alienated in marriage as they might in an institution in which they’re emphatically unwelcome, such as the Vatican. I remember thinking then that no billion-dollar initiatives “to support marriage” make sense unless it’s clear what part needs support. What needs fixing in marriage is the same as that which needs fixing in relationships with Drama Kings: the part that isn’t working for women. Men, far more often than women, thrive in marriage. Men, far more often than women, wilt and wither physically and psychologically outside of wedlock. It’s men who find the institution of marriage to be the nurturant, comfortable place it’s reputed to be for women — thus, it’s men more often than women who remarry surprisingly quickly after they’re divorced or widowed, and men, beneficiaries of the old system, who are not hurt by its inertia.
Marriage isn’t just an institution, then, it’s as male an institution as the NFL. And if marriage proponents really want to tackle the issue of why so many of the strongest women are hanging up their wives’ uniforms years before crossing into the end zone, they had better take notice.
Copyright © 2005 – 2011 Dalma Heyn