Gender Roles

Yesterday I was reading a blog entry in which the author expressed her need for a knight in shining armor to rescue her from all the current disasters and complications in her life and her husband’s perception that his inability to do so somehow made him “the bad guy“.  Her life is complicated for a lot of reasons, none of which have anything to do with marital discord or infidelity, but it set off a train of thought about the damsel in distress/knight in shining armor paradigm. Feminists have taken issue with the idea for decades since it makes a woman much less than an equal partner in a relationship. Others feel that modern society has ruined relationships because it has made men less manly and women less feminine.

The Knight in Shining Armor and the Damsel in Distress

Last night, I was following an elusive thought that the need for rescue – for “a knight in shining armor” – could explain infidelity in some cases. I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of gender. Everyone wants to be rescued when their life seems overwhelming – and who do we expect to rescue us? The person we love, the person we know best – our spouse. If the spouse doesn’t meet the need for rescue, then the spouse becomes a bad person. Unfortunately, it  is not possible for the most loving spouse to meet the interior needs of another person – a person who is not clear themselves about what they need or why they are dissatisfied. The person in distress then looks to someone else to rescue him or her.

In trying to explain this train of thought to my husband, he pointed out that if I were his knight in shining armor, then he must be one of the seven dwarfs, since he is is not a damsel or a princess. This certainly put my train on a different track, since one of the issues that we had prior to his affair was his feeling that I did not “need” him during my cancer treatment – I handled the details, took care of myself, and supported what I thought was his need to care for his dad at the end of his life. Somehow, I appear to have stolen his armor and set off to slay the dragon alone. The result: he was vulnerable when a woman came along who spoke damsel language – who admired him, who needed him, who flattered him and told him how strong and wonderful he was.

To paraphrase the Cowboy Junkies "Where Is My John Wayne? My Marlboro Man? My happy ending? Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

Before I could really sort out what I was thinking, this morning I read another blogger expressed her dissatisfaction with all the “Lost Boys” in the world, men who can’t sustain an emotional commitment, who don’t give, don’t share, are not strong – who are not men. In America, the stereotypical “real man” is the cowboy. Country music is built around the idea that such men are strong and loving and true, women are sexy and maternal and supportive. Half the songs in this genre indicate that infidelity is the result when either partner steps outside his or her role, i.e. Your Cheating Heart, I Wish I Didn’t Know Now What I Didn’t Know Then, Before He Cheats, Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares).

Is it really so simple? Are all of us who are struggling to put marriages back together or who have lost a marriage that we valued in this shape because we messed up the basic cultural belief that the man is the knight in shining armor and the woman is the damsel in distress??

I refuse to accept this premise. I don’t think sticking to stereotypical gender roles helps anyone to be happier. I just think we have not recognized yet that our expectations and our realities don’t always match up. Men are expected to be more sensitive, but still be strong and manly, to be more involved with their children, but also to be professionally successful and support the professional goals of their spouses, but are not really given the  tools to handle emotions in a positive manner. Women are expected to be professional and maternal and sex goddesses – without any understanding of how to manage the conflicts built into these roles. I have friends who still believe that it is their husband’s job to support them financially and resent the need to work, or who are stay at home moms, but feel smothered and ignored, and men who expect their wives to handle childcare and housework, even when they work full-time. Reading seems to indicate financial pressures and the constraints of domesticity push some over the edge – regardless of gender. If these problems are complicated by health issues, death of a loved one, career pressures, or God Forbid, a lack of appreciation, then infidelity rears its head.

Instead of searching for or trying to be a Knight in Shining Armor or John Wayne or a Damsel in Distress, might I suggest the following as a more positive approach:

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