Monday, July 28, 2008

Yes, men feel used too

"What the hell kinda title was that?"

The caller was a friend, so he could dispense with all of the niceties and preambles preparatory to starting a conversation and get straight to the heart of his concern. Anticipating well his next volley, I promptly broached the topic of men also feeling used in relationships. Understand that, for me, it isn't a question of whether men feel this way or not, because I am certain that women have not cornered the market on feeling exploited in relationships.

But I was curious as to whether my friend would concede that there might be important gender differences in how this being used is expressed or at least perceived. Specifically, I was wondering whether women are more likely to feel sexploited in relationships, while men perhaps feel used more for their money or status.

My friend countered with the observation that a woman could sexploit him any day. He had no problem with that. But he was fed-up, he had had it up to here with being used by women for money.

Then he launched into an angry diatribe against a young woman who had just recently treated him exploitatively. Turns out he had barely befriended the woman before she was asking him to pay her cell bill. And since this seemed important to the further development of their relationship, he had paid. The next thing he knew, he was paying her rent and buying Pampers for her youngest child. And he continued to pay, all the way to a better apartment and her diploma. After which, he alleges, she dropped clean out of sight and has not been seen or heard from since. Now, is that using or not, he demanded to know.

How could I not agree? It was difficult not to concede that my friend had indeed been thoroughly exploited. But surely there was more to it than that?

After empathising with his distress, I wondered whether he had ever considered that he had given so much because he might have been getting something very valuable in return. What had there been in it for him? Was there perhaps a self-esteem boost that came from being able to take care of a woman's every financial need, I queried gently?

My premise was that self-esteem probably plays a crucial role for men and women who remain in exploitative in relationships. While low self-esteem may propel a woman into allowing herself to be used sexually, it is perhaps the desire to raise his own self-worth that may make a man vulnerable to financial exploitation.

Furthermore, while money and transactions around money often play a central role in the relations between men and women, money often means something quite different psychologically between the sexes.

For every man going through a divorce who thinks his wife is only seeking to empty his wallet, it may be important to consider that it may not be about the money at all but about her need to feel emotionally secure in the face of psychological abandonment. And for every woman who resents the fact that her husband does not give her complete access to his chequebook, the issue again may not necessarily be about money but perhaps moreso about power and control. Paying for everything may allow the man to feel all-powerful and in charge. He who controls the checkbook, controls the woman. And he can thereafter take credit for her every achievement. After all, he paid for them.

But similarly, there is also usually some kind of secondary gain for the woman who allows herself to be exploited by a man. Perhaps this affords her a sense of emotional security. Perhaps it meets the desire to be held close, and to feel cared for in a cruel world.

But sometimes the exploitation is mutual, as in the case of the much older and successful man who secures himself a trophy wife whom he can display. She gets all of the emotional and material benefits of his wealth. He gets the bonus of a self-esteem lift.

My friend could concede that indeed, the usurious woman had met his need to feel grounded within a family setting. And he had really liked the fact that she was so busy concentrating on her studies that she never pressed him for marriage. He had thus been able to enjoy a semblance of marriage and family without ever having to commit to the real deal.

I remarked that he had paid dearly for his illusion. That invited a well-deserved parting shot. He retaliated with the tired joke about marriage not being a word but a sentence. I laughed and allowed him the last word. I understood that his self-esteem needed the boost.

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