“So, which one of you wears the pants?”
No longer a tired cliche directed exclusively at gay couples, the question of who takes charge in a relationship has in recent years become staggeringly relevant to straight couples.
Of course it wasn’t always like this. Two generations ago the man earned the money and made the important decisions for his wife and children. If the family was an airplane, the husband was the pilot and his wife was the copilot. He charted the course, flew the plane, and kept the passengers safe; she backed him up, supported the flight, and sweated the small details so he could focus on flying the plane and leading the way. But the advent of feminism upended this dynamic in just a few decades’ time, and in the blink of an eye, relatively speaking, the copilots were promoted to pilot. Women became free to decide our own destinations and take responsibility for reaching them safely, short-circuiting thousands of years of gender socialization, tradition, and enforced subordination.
It was the start of a brave new world, but even to this day it seems that men struggle to find their place in it. And to make matters worse, some women almost seem to resent their newfound power and the responsibilities that come with it.
In a now-infamous edition of AskPolly, a frustrated wife writes:
“I am the one who wears the pants and I hate it. I don’t want to be the one who makes all the decisions, it’s exhausting! I want a man to lead me. I have tried to gently ask him to be more of a leader in our household and he’s made a few references to having trouble leading because I don’t follow…(But)My husband just doesn’t lead the household.”
She is not alone. I have known dozens of women over the years who have privately expressed to me very similar frustrations about their male partners not ‘wearing the pants’. I specify privately, because within the liberal circles I’m a part of, such an admission would be seen as a full-on betrayal of our feminist ideals, a bald refutation of everything our grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought so hard to achieve. The lack of women discussing this publicly leads me to believe this problem is likely more widespread than anyone would care to admit. Wasn’t breaking barriers and redefining social norms supposed to make everyone happier?
So we must ask some hard questions: If women are truly comfortable with — and truly suited for — the role of pilot, then why does it seem to bother so many of us when the man we love readily relinquishes command? (And with all due respect to pants, and the wearing of pants, I’ll be sticking with the airplane metaphor from here on out.) Do we really want to go back in time and give up the pilot’s seat exclusively to our male partners? Men’s rights activists will tell you that yes, in fact, that is exactly what women truly, deeply want in our heart of hearts — to return to the roles to which men and women are “more naturally suited”.
But as a wise pilot once said:
But all right, there is a contradiction here, a tension of sorts — and I believe that we should be honest with ourselves, disregard political correctness for a moment, and acknowledge double standards when we see them. It has taken me years — and more than a few blowouts with men that I tried very hard to love — to understand this particular dilemma, but I feel like I might finally have this one figured out. Forgive me for answering a question with another question, but let’s ask ourselves the following:
Do women actually lose respect for a man simply because he doesn’t want to be the pilot — or is the real issue that, in general, men make such lousy copilots?
Consider that a copilot’s job is not to sit around and wait for orders, but to actively monitor the pilot’s condition, the mechanical condition of the aircraft, the flight path and weather, and anything else the pilot may be unaware of or unable to do while actually flying the plane. Succeeding at most of these kinds of tasks requires intuition, anticipating needs and wants, a keen attention to the smallest detail, and yes, a willingness to take orders when needed — all skills that, at best, men were simply never taught to do, and at worst make them feel emasculated or small. Of course on the other hand, these are the kinds of skills that are socialized and cultivated in women from birth.
I actually suspect that my friends who’ve privately vented their frustrations to me would actually be quite thrilled with their man being a good copilot. When they express frustration at a man who ‘doesn’t take charge’, it isn’t simply that women want the man in their lives to lead, but rather a reflection of their frustrations with his inability or unwillingness to adequately follow. A classic example of this in action can be seen when women get frustrated with a man who must be told to do anything or else absolutely nothing will ever get done. “Just tell me what you want me to do!” he groans. “And I’ll do it. Geez!”
Now imagine that same guy as an actual copilot on an actual airplane, pouting in the cockpit, shrugging his shoulders and saying the exact same thing to his pilot as they’re getting ready to land.
Attention passengers, this is your pilot speaking. I’m turning on the fasten seatbelt sign because I’ve just thrown my useless fucking copilot through the windshield. So we may have a slight change in cabin pressure, but it’s fine because fuck that guy. And welcome to Las Vegas.
So the problem is not that women don’t respect a man who lets her lead. The problem is that while women have increasingly taken on the role of leader, men have never been taught the skills necessary to be good followers; in fact men often really suck at being followers, particularly when their leader is a woman. Again, this is not because men and women have some inherent biological differences that determine their abilities. The skills that make one a good leader or a good follower are not inborn attributes, rather they can be and are learned. (Though in fairness, as the New York Times recently pointed out, lately it seems as if no one wants to be thought of as a follower, and that’s a Very Bad Thing.)
But some men are especially stubborn and don’t believe they should have to learn how to be followers, and they won’t be relinquishing control to any damn woman. Okay. For those men who believe that the pilot’s seat is their birthright, or who maybe are genuinely more temperamentally suited to leading more than following…as best I see it, you have one of three options for finding love:
1. Find a woman who not only honest-to-god enjoys following her man, but who is also good at doing so. And please, be smart enough not be fooled by pickup artist hype; there are very, very few women today who actually want this kind of relationship and who are also temperamentally suited to play this role in it. If you do find a woman like this she will probably have few, if any, ambitions of her own, and likely little interest in discussing abstract concepts. But she will nod her head and listen to you and be loyal and capable of running your home, backing you up and supporting you in your life endeavors (without needing to be instructed on how to do any of that). And if you go this route, be really sure you know yourself; be certain that you’re actually the kind of go-gettin’ son-of-a-gun who really is as awesome and successful as you think you are. Because if you’re not, what does she really gain, here? So good fucking luck with all that!
2. Or, realize that the world has changed for the better, because women make fucking awesome pilots, too, and then find it within yourself to be ok with you and your partner taking turns in power. This is the best thing ever. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that you are both fully capable of leading and following, and you can simply trade off whenever it becomes necessary or convenient to do so? Am I, like, missing something or is that not just a fantastic way to live? Of course, this will inevitably lead to conflict at times, or ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ scenarios, but you can handle it because you’re both intelligent, motivated adults who know what you’re good at/weak at, and are confident enough in your abilities to work it the hell out amongst yourselves.
3. And if all the above fails…hell, I don’t know. Maybe give Grindr a try? (People in same sex relationships legit have way less of these problems because there are fewer dumb expectations around gender roles. So hey, taste the rainbow! You never know, right?)
Lost in this sorry state of affairs is the fact that a man who may prefer to be the follower in a relationship likely has no idea how to do it well — and in fact believe that he won’t even be accepted as a man if he expresses this desire. ‘After all,’ he may say, ‘women don’t want a weak man.’ And he’s right! We don’t! (And trust me when I say: you don’t want a weak woman, either.) But what does it say about men that they equate following with weakness? That the only concept of power they can understand is “being in charge”? The housewives of the world sure as hell aren’t weak. Want to know how valuable the “supporting role” is? Just look up the difference in how long a widow lives after her husband dies, vs. how long a widower lives after his wife dies. (Spoiler alert: women actually live longer after their husbands pass away, while most men die of starvation like 20 minutes after their wife’s funeral)
Indeed, a pilot can’t fly anywhere without a crew; a doctor can’t heal shit without a nurse, and a quarterback can’t throw touchdowns without a tortured sports metaphor I can’t be bothered to finish.
But when men don’t believe they have value — or masculine allure — in a supporting role, then what does a modern woman usually find when she seeks a capable Watson to her formidable Sherlock? Often she finds one of the two following types of men:
1. The guy who feels threatened by her desire to lead, and who will almost always compensate by asserting his ‘power’ over her in abusive and destructive ways, all designed to tear her down and lift himself up. This is not power, because a man who truly believes in his own efficacy and strength could never be threatened by his partner’s abilities, intelligence, or ambition, and so his insecurity here reeks of weakness, and he loses her respect — if he ever had it to begin with.
2. Or she finds a guy who, in his ideal universe, would actually prefer not to be the leader, making the two of them a good match in theory. But because men are taught that giving someone else power means failing at manhood — and because men are simply not taught the skills that would make them an ideal second-in-command — he will constantly be at odds with himself and what he really wants. So in addition to not earning her respect, most women won’t want to stay with a man like this because we can sense how much work he will end up being, and how volatile he may eventually become when his frustrations boil over.
Too many men today exist in this weird sort of grey area described above — too insecure to share power and earn her respect, or else too conflicted and unskilled to effectively play a supportive role. This puts women in an unwinnable position: In the first case she must placate the insecure man’s ego by pretending to want less power and control than she really does, and in the second case she has to put up with a man who wants to follow her but, you know, fucking sucks at doing it. Again, I am willing to bet a great deal that most women would actually love a man who realizes his strength lies in doing a good job of supporting her, her career ambitions, their family, etc. But men have to get good at actually doing that for any of this to work.
It’s worth mentioning that some women may have an ambivalent view of holding power in a relationship — or in a more general sense — because growing up, most women were only shown the super fun and empowering sides of leadership. No one told us how fucking terrifying it would be to actually, you know, be the person individually responsible for shit working out or not working out. So I have to call that out, and ask women to make sure they aren’t trying to own the fun parts of being in charge, while also hoping to shirk the consequences if and when it all goes ass up. If you see yourself as the rightful leader in your relationship, well…then lead! And then sink or swim, it’s all on you. It has to be. It’s scary, but when it works — when it really works, there’s just nothing else like it. And hey, it’s a lot less scary if you can find a guy capable and confident enough to support you through thick and thin, who really believes in you because you inspired him to. And for goodness sake, if he’s better suited to take the wheel in certain situations, feel confident enough in yourself and your abilities to let him do it. You expect him to do the same for you, right?
But until we can all understand the role that gender plays in limiting and harming our relationships—and until we can all agree that divisions of power should be based on proven aptitude and not something as arbitrary as one’s sex — I fear we may be stuck in a holding pattern for the foreseeable future.