Don’t get me wrong. I love men.
As a young rock and roll groupie I loved lots of men. But over a lifetime of studying men from every angle, I have noticed a very common behavioural peculiarity.
Men tend to do the opposite of what I want them to do.
If I ask them to be faithful, they cheat on me. If I ask them to pick up wet towels, they leave wet clothes on the floor beside the wet towels. If I ask them to pick up a bottle of Shiraz on the way home from work, they arrive with Chardonnay!
It sounds like nit-picking but over time these small acts of rebellion dressed up as forgetfulness or stupidity begin to drive a woman insane. Literally. It’s the ‘leaving-the-toilet-seat-up-on-purpose’ syndrome.
Now, there is science to back up my claim that many men suffer from the disorder known to behavioural scientists as ‘oppositional defiance disorder’.
It’s commonly diagnosed during childhood but I’ve been witnessing it in the significant men in my life for years. And as a professional dispute resolution practitioner, I’m starting to notice it in the office as well.
Jerry Seinfeld once made the claim that ‘men are really nothing more than extremely advanced dogs’ and jokes aside, science has proven that he’s kind of right. Those small acts of defiance against a wife/partner are the result of early programming.
It’s a form of passive aggression. A sneaky way of ‘paying back’ the controlling mother figure.
In the US, three scientists by the names of Baker, Chartrand and Fitzsimons (the latter two being a married couple) conducted a study which determined that many men subconsciously rebel against any request or demand by the one person they perceive as ‘controlling’ or the replacement for a dominant parent from childhood.
In the study, participants were asked to list the significant people in their life and rate them on a scale from submissive to controlling. When given simple requests, the psychologists flashed name cards that were undetectable to the subjects.
It showed that the men in the study subconsciously resisted and indeed often did the exact opposite of requests by the person they most identified as controlling. In many cases this was the wife, sometimes a female boss.
Although this phenomenon was witnessed occurring in both men and women it was overwhelmingly more common in men.
This is passive aggression under the microscope.
In my dispute resolution sessions with couples, passive aggression underlies almost every problem with communication that is vital to a healthy relationship. Key warning signs are…
1. A reluctance or failure to keep promises.
2. Sabotaging the efforts of others.
3. Blaming others for personal failures.
4. Feeling underappreciated despite not doing their fair share.
5. Agreeing to tasks and then postponing them or doing an inadequate job so that someone else has to fix/complete them.
6. Cannot handle any form of criticism.
7. Has difficulty buying gifts for people.
8. When confronted accuses the other person of ‘being crazy’ or ‘acting crazy’.
The passive aggressive is usually a male and has often come from a household with an absent (physically or emotionally) father and a dominant mother. He is often an only child or a youngest child.
He was brought up to believe that it was unacceptable to display anger and therefore his only outlet for natural anger was repressed and learns to sneak out in unpredictable ways.
The passive aggressive husband is almost always seen by the world as the archetypal ‘nice guy’. And beside these nice guys is often a frazzled woman who is going mad.
The psychology books have labelled this disorder as ‘crazy-making’. I have dubbed it ‘bitch-making’ and often see the passive aggression appear long before the controlling, bitchiness.
Strong, assertive women are the norm these days and many men are struggling to know how to deal with them. Of course this gender challenge works both ways.
If we want our men to be emotionally available and say what they mean, we must allow them to safely express themselves.
Too often, we don’t.
Passive aggression stems from a fear of confrontation and men who have this tendency are attracted to strong women.
Of course, the Oedipal thing was bound to rear its head eventually. Damn you Freud! Men with controlling mothers tend to marry women they can manipulate into a similar role and women reared by ‘nice guy’ Dads who backed down to their wives, tend also to marry emotional blue-prints of their fathers.
The gentle, soft blokes who never raise their voice and can only be mean in sweet little bursts of sarcasm that are covered up with ‘But I was only joking’ end up with those women who have absolutely no problem expressing their own anger and do so with aplomb.
So if you are a crazy bitch within a relationship, take heed.
Before popping Xanax or joining anger management therapy, look at that smiling, fellow who ordered the family take-away pizzas on the first day of your new diet and realise that perhaps the angriest one is the one everyone least suspects.
The Incredible Hulk is the poster boy for passive aggression. Common celebrity couples displaying this syndrome might be Margaret Thatcher and what’s-his-name. Gladys and Abner from Bewitched. David and Maddie from Moonlighting. Charles and Diana (that one was a double-whammy). Cheating is the ultimate form of passive aggression!
While the Baker, Chartrand and Fitzsimons study does nothing to suggest ways of eradicating this problem, it lets the crazy bitches in such relationships realise that they are not going mad, that their man is not just a complete idiot and that there is indeed some fundamental sociology at work that is bigger than both of them.
So Freud, in the end, comes out on top again. We often really do marry our fathers.
And it can drive us just as nutty as it did our mothers.
*Nikki McWatters has had a varied career, from film and television acting to teaching to legal counselling. She lives in Queensland with her husband and children. One Way or Another: The Story of a Girl Who Loved Rock Stars is her first book. It was shortlisted for the Emerging Author Award in the former Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and is published by Black Inc.