Sometimes we’re attracted to a partner because of his childlike qualities; mothering him appeals to us. All too often, however, women who were once taken with their husband’s “boyish charm” complain that they cannot stand living with an overgrown child. Certainly there are times illness is one when we have to be a “mother” to our husbands and they have to be a “fathe” to us. But too many of us play the “mothering” role virtually all the time, and it is not a very sexy role for either husband or wife.
“The moment Larry walks in the door, he pulls this hangdog look on me,” Martha, a young housewife, told me. “And that look says, I’ve had a terrible day. Take care of me. I really don’t mind bringing him a drink or rubbing his shoulders, but after about five days in a row, I feel like screaming, Shape up! I’ve been a mother all day. I don’t want a wimp. I want a man! I want romance! Just once I’d like him to walk in the door, take me in his arms and give me a passionate kiss. Instead, I get a peck and that look.
“Later, at eleven o’clock on the button, he says, “Let’s go to bed,” but I can’t switch that fast from being his mother to being his lover. Sex feels like one more duty I have to perform like doing his shirts and running errands and getting the car repaired.”
Interestingly, her husband, Larry, described their roles similarly, but he had a very different perspective on them: “Coming home is like stepping into enemy territory,” he said. “Martha immediately tells me, “Wipe your feet” and “Hang up your coat” and “Dinner will be ready in exactly fifteen minutes” She’s my mother all over again. Here I’ve been running a business all day and when I come home I’m treated like I’m not passionate enough. Who can be a passionate lover when he’s seven years old?”
Martha and Larry had unwittingly collaborated in sustaining their roles as mother and child. The very structure of marriage prepares us to see our wives as mothers and our husbands as fathers. The identification is a natural one, because the only other wife and husband we ever saw at close quarters were our own mothers and fathers. And when we create our own families, we become the mothers of our children; our husbands, their fathers. The custom of calling our in laws “Mother” and “Dad” further reduces our marriage to a nonsexual relationship: If we both call her “Mother,” then we must be brother and sister, not husband and wife. And brothers and sisters, like children and parents, must not turn on to one another.
Sometimes, though, it’s the wife who takes on the role of child. In traditional homes especially, the husband all too often slips into the role of father to his spouse. He makes and manages the money, just as Dad used to; he most connected with the “outside” world; he’s the one who has to be pleased and placated, who dishes out words of approval and disapproval.
“Somehow I always manage to fall into the trap of being Bill’s fawning, overeager little girl,” said Marilyn, a 30-year-old homemaker. “I’m always showing him something I’ve done and then waiting to see if he’s going to b critical or not. Usually he’s critical.”
Marilyn had come to see me because her orgasms had become less and less frequent. “ When we make love, I sometimes feel like I can’t breathe,” she said. “I feel Bill is smothering me. I just want sex to be over so I’ll able to breathe again.”
Marilyn’s husband, Bill, a government attorney, told me the other side of Marilyn’s “little girl” story: “She’s always depressed. She’s always saying,” I can’t get anything done? or “I’m getting fat,? and I’m supposed to hug her and say, “No, you look great, Honey.” But after awhile I just turn off and turn away. I mean if someone tells you often enough that she’s losing her looks, you start to believe her. I get tired of being Big Daddy who has to cheer her up and handle her with care. I can’t tell you how much I long for a confident, sexual woman who thinks she’s beautiful “ a woman who can take the rough and tumble of some real sexy sex instead of this delicate stuff that Marilyn wants. I’m beginning to feel like a baby-sitter.”
Marilyn and Bill, like Martha and Larry, have locked themselves into a parent-child relationship and, consequently, a failing sex life. A wife who always acts like a man’s mother will often find that her husband acts like an inhibited, undemonstrative and certainly unromantic child in bed; and a man who routinely treats his wife like his mother will frequently find that she is losing sexual interest in him. Likewise, a man who acts like his wife’s father is soon apt to find her a reluctant, nervous lover, just as a wife who repeatedly asks her husband to assume the role of father may find him drifting into sexual disinterest and apathy.
Roles die hard and, inevitably, we play parent to our spouse at least some of the time. But it is only one of many roles we assume. How can we avoid overplaying our part, and make the crucial transition back to being each other’s lover?