I'm a divorced woman in my mid-40s who has always been intellectually inclined and lives to debate all sorts of issues in science, philosophy and the arts. A few years ago, I left a long-term relationship with a sweetheart of a man who adored me and would walk through fire for me. Although he is common-sense smart and college educated, to me he was not all that interesting because he is not well read (he doesn't have a clue who Faulkner is although he does listen to NPR). I left him for a long-distance relationship with a successful writer, a nice guy, albeit with a huge (and growing) ego. Now, we are a couple no more (different values, communication styles and too many power struggles), but Guy No. 1, who has never ceased being my best friend and shares a love of the outdoors, animals and physical activity with me, is still available and interested. (Let me add that my attempts to find someone else online and in the personals have not been wildly successful. I'm picky, and I think that I scare most men off because I'm strong-willed, independent, outspoken, competitive, ambitious, accomplished and brainy. And I don't hide it.)
My conundrum: All the "intellectual" guys I've ever been with (especially the creative ones) have turned out to be exceptionally arrogant. Initially I am attracted to this, but then we inevitably clash, because I have a not-so-small ego myself (less tolerated in women, I'm afraid). I have never been able to happily hook up with someone on a long-term basis who has both the intellectual and artistic capabilities I crave but the willingness to lay off the power games. Am I just living in the wrong places (medium-size college towns in the Midwest and South) and picking inappropriate guys? Or is dynamic, creative intellectualism in a male not synonymous with the ability to share or even abdicate power to a female? (Most of the strong, exceptionally intelligent and artistic men I know seem to pair up with women whose primary role is supportive and who basically let them take charge.)
Should I go back to the nonintellectual guy who would do anything for me and doesn't mind letting me lead most of the time (but whom I have a hard time respecting because of his pliability, god help me)? Would that be "settling"? At this point in my life, when it is harder to find men who are available, is it wrong to settle because you don't think you'll ever find that "perfect" combination you think you need? How much compromising about your mate selection is too much? Or would it really be settling to go back to my best buddy who's never stopped loving me for the person I am, flaws and all? My friends say this guy is great for me, to get over the respect problem and find the intellectualism elsewhere, but I really do seem to need a constant dose of it in my personal life.
I wrote you a really good answer. Then I had lunch with my editor.
Not that she told me anything I didn't already know. But she reminded me of something. She reminded me that the intellectual realm is very close to the soul.
You see, I was thinking at first that if you have a guy who gives you everything but intellectual stimulation, you can always stick with him but join Mensa. My feeling was that devotion is such a rare thing in a man that if you find it you ought to keep it.
I thought I had it nailed.
And then I had lunch with my editor, and we talked about how for many women intellectual vivacity in a man is not an optional trait. It is essential to sex. We realized that we don't really know any women who have found it workable to keep a sexually vigorous brute, or a loving but unchallenging partner, as a mate while meeting intellectual hungers elsewhere.
If it is simply unworkable for you to be with this man who does not stimulate you intellectually, perhaps you are going to learn some new behaviors. As I read your letter over, I sensed areas of frozen belief, areas where you seem to have assumed that your diagnosis of terminal arrogance is correct and have passed over the possibility that if you change your methods a little, what appears like insufferable arrogance may turn out to be merely a different style of battle. The "power games" you refer to may just be games you're going to have to get better at playing. Since you describe yourself as outspoken, you may be giving signs that you enjoy intellectual combat, but not be signaling where your boundaries and soft spots are, inviting men to do their worst without knowing how to signal when you are wounded, or want to call timeout, or throw in the towel.
Believe me, most men have been beaten up at some point in their lives, and they know how to signal enough. Without delving too deeply into conditioned gender differences, it might be helpful to note that men are schooled all their lives in how to fight and compete; we share a vast vocabulary of honor and shame and so we often know when to stop; we know how to read when an opponent is vanquished; we know how to bow out to avoid shame and dishonor of either party. It may be that when you do intellectual battle with men, you are at a disadvantage because, frankly, when you were a little girl you were not a little boy. You did not learn the etiquette of combat on the playground. You may be giving signals that are wrongly interpreted or not perceived at all, because they are not the signals men learn to give in battle; you may also be wrongly interpreting men's signals concerning victory and endgame. Try crying "uncle" when you feel uncomfortable and see if you can't wring some mercy out of your conqueror. Try bringing some grace and good humor to your battle if you sense you are winning.
Or perhaps that is the point right there: that you have never felt vanquished, that you never know how to admit defeat, and so you drive your intellectual combatants to ever-crueler tactics. You focus may be so much on yourself, your pride, your ideas, that you forget that the person you are fighting with is a whole person just like you, even though he is a man.
In fact, the theme of wholeness keeps creeping in here. What is that about? Well, underlying this whole discussion has been the notion of discrete human attributes -- intelligence, devotion, compassion. But you can't really take a person apart.
Wouldn't it be great if we could gaze upon a person as a complete, whole being, whom we either love or do not love? And then whatever conflict follows from that love is not existential conflict, but behavioral or transactional conflict. Wouldn't it be nice if we could start from a premise of: This is the man. And then wherever that leads you, at least you have made your choice.
Where that is leading now, of course, is that you have to make a choice, and sooner rather than later. Please do not use the word "settle," which implies some vast hypothetical better whose infinite size ensures that you will never exhaust it; if you allow it to, it will always haunt you, at 40, at 70, at 90. It's time to make your best bet and stick with it until the dealer shows his cards.
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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.