My fiance can't say no to women!

He lets ex-girlfriends ignore me, he lends money to female friends and lets his mother boss him around.

By Cary Tennis
Published February 25, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My fiancé can't say no to other women -- ex-girlfriends who refuse to acknowledge me, female friends who ask for money, and most of all, his well-meaning mother who wants to dictate our lives. These women make demands upon him, and at times it feels like they interfere with our relationship. He doesn't know how to establish and enforce boundaries with women in general. With male friends and business associates, he has no problem asserting himself, but when it comes to those of the female persuasion, he loses all backbone. We've discussed how their inappropriate behavior upsets me but I'm not sure he truly understands why.

We've discussed my relationship boundaries and what I need from him to feel secure in the relationship. He says he understands, but I feel betrayed every time he chooses to placate these women rather than defend himself and our relationship. When this happens, I feel like we're getting kicked to the ground. I'm starting to have doubts about our future together and wonder if he will protect our family, if need be. What kind of role model will he be for our children if can't even stand up for himself?

What can I say to him to get him to understand I feel hurt when he chooses them over us/me? Is this more my issue or his? Basically, I'm asking you if it's OK for me to be upset over this?

Lioness in Winter

Dear Lioness,

Is he secretly writing large checks to strippers? Or is he just lending a dollar to a friend now and then for beer? Is his mother climbing into bed with the two of you, eating doughnuts and playing with the remote? Or does she just telephone more often than you wish? When you say his ex-girlfriends refuse to acknowledge you, do you mean that a quintet of scantily dressed chorus girls gathers around him and elbows you away every time you step out your door? Or is it more that one or two ex-girlfriends have given you cold looks, or failed to greet you warmly when you run into them on the street, or simply haven't sat down yet to admire your engagement ring and tell you how beautiful you look and how lucky he is to have you?

There are degrees is what I'm saying. We balance our own expectations against the ability of others to deliver. When others' failure to act as we wish becomes an intense, chronic or overwhelming problem for us, it can signal that our own expectations are unrealistically high.

And don't forget other people have feelings, too. Ex-girlfriends get sad and angry when their boyfriends get engaged. Sometimes they don't like the new girlfriend. A mother doesn't always like the idea that she's about to be displaced in her son's life. And friends to whom someone has lent money in the past are likely to assume that he'll lend them money in the future. Likewise, your fiancé, despite your magical appearance in his life, is likely to remain the same generous, money-lending (and perhaps needy) person he was before you materialized all sparkly before him.

So I would say that it's certainly OK for you to be upset about this. It's always OK to be upset. Being upset is just the beginning. It's what you do about it that counts.

I would suggest you do two general things: Examine your expectations in order to make them explicit, and then examine your social interactions and your inner workings, in order to discover in more detail what is going on. This is not easy. It takes a lot of work.

As to your explicit expectations: Which things are OK and which things are not OK? Can he never lend money to anyone? Should you always discuss the transaction before he lends money? Is there a dollar amount over which it must be discussed? Don't just say, "It should be obvious, he should know." Spell it out. If nothing else, this exercise will demonstrate to you just how complex an issue it is.

As to your social interactions, when you meet a woman on the street whom he knows, and he greets her, and she greets him, and you feel excluded, what is he doing or not doing? Does he fail to make the proper gesture? What gesture would suffice? If she does not address you, is he to insist that she do so? If you and she have already met, and she does not give you the kind of greeting you require, what then is his move? Should he say to her, "Hey! Say hello to Lioness, you she-wolf!" or, more suavely, "I'm sure you know my fiancée, Lioness." Then he gestures to you, perhaps touches you and brings you into the circle. In that instance, it seems to be a matter of manners.

But it may be more than a matter of public manners. In his lending money to women, does there appear to be some secret intimacy? Do you sense that he is getting some kind of emotional satisfaction out of being generous and compliant? Do you sense that women are using him? Perhaps it shames you to see your fiancée being taken advantage of, and -- worse yet -- enjoying being taken advantage of.

Also try to examine your expectations of him in a more general way. You mentioned, for instance, that his failures in these other areas causes you to question his ability to protect your family. That the male should act as guardian of the family is a very deep, ancient cultural idea, and one with intense erotic power. But as a practical requirement for husbands it is withering away in our culture, both as women gain power and as life becomes safer and more insulated from natural predators. Not all people agree today that the man's role is to protect the woman and the family. Some believe the linkage between the role of protector and the role of dominator is too strong -- that presuming that a man must protect his woman leads to the presumption that he gets to tell her what to do. So they believe the role of protection should be shared equally. Also, much of modern, middle-class life is lived in quiet suburbs and planned communities, safer than the farm, the prairie and the ghetto, far from the howling of wolves and the firing of 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistols. So in some social classes the armed, physically strong and aggressive man is becoming evolutionarily superfluous, more fetish than necessity, like a French maid or a shirtless blacksmith. Sad, I know. Some traditions die hard.

But the presumption of female weakness behind your expectation of his protection is no joke; it's a serious impediment to many women's happiness. And it cuts two ways, as you will find as you pursue your career. In the lobby of the building, it justifies the man's opening the door for you; in the boardroom, it justifies his shutting the door in your face. That is what women have been trying to change for over a generation, and the gradations of meaning -- what is protection and what is domination, and, further, what is sexy domination and what is gross brutality? -- continue to cause intense confusion in courtship. What constitutes strength, and what constitutes condescension? What is recognition of strength and independence in the other, and what is rude, uncaring neglect?

As you examine your expectations in detail, you may make some startling discoveries. You may find that you secretly harbor a romantic fantasy in which the ideal husband is like a god who commands awesome power over other people; he can make them do anything. To discover that your actual intended husband cannot even refuse to lend people money may be a shock. It may also be a shock to realize that even though you are a grown woman and college educated, you still treasure a young girl's fairy tales, and you still dream of a man you can idolize as you idolized your father.

So you've got a lot of stuff to think about. Meanwhile, if there is still a bevy of chorus girls surrounding your fiancé every time you step out the door, he should tell them all to go home and drink some milk. But if it's an occasional less-than-warm glance from an ex-girlfriend that's getting to you, maybe you're just living in the real world.

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