Radical Agony Aunts: “I don’t respect my passive boyfriend”

By Radical Agony Aunts

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

My dilemma is that I am a total hypocrite when it comes to what I seemingly want from a partner. I find men who match certain gendered roles set aside for men attractive; I find physically brawny men attractive, men who are good at DIY, who can find their way about, who are smart, confident, competent and will debate etc.

I have a very lovely and sweet and feminist boyfriend (who is also gorgeous), yet I sometimes don’t respect him because he can be quite passive and doesn’t really participate in debates, so sometimes I wonder if he is smart enough for me. I can be quite dismissive of him and can accuse him of being a bit useless. He isn’t physically muscley and doesn’t do DIY and is crap at reading maps, doesn’t make decisions quickly, so I feel I have to take control ALL of the time and sometimes that is tiresome. I am a strong personality and I am definitely the dominant partner in the relationship and it saddens and worries me that I don’t respect him because of this.

I should be happy that he doesn’t expect me to do the cooking, shopping and cleaning, or expect that it should automatically be him that drives etc. I would be maddened by an alpha male who expected me to follow gender roles assigned to me as a woman – the nurturing little wifey etc. so as much as I know I am being totally hypocritical I can’t help it. How can I stop being a hypocrite and also stop being a bit of a bully to him? Why do I have this internal need for him to be smarter than me for me to respect him?

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Strong Personality,

So let me get this straight: you don’t respect your boyfriend, you feel he isn’t smart enough for you, you tell him he’s useless, you’re dismissive of him and you are more attracted to his complete opposite in terms of personality and physical type. Believe me, these are not words I say very often – but poor man!

But you know you’re treating him badly; that’s why you’ve written to us. Of course relationships have their ups and downs, and things may get better between you. But when you stop respecting someone, as you say you have, it’s a big deal. If you look at your partner and find your lip curling instead of your heart swelling, is there a way forward? I can’t tell from your letter whether your boyfriend has changed or whether he was never your type. Either way, are DIY and map reading really so important to you? Or are you (and I apologise for the phrase) just not that into him and looking for any reason why he’s not right for you? I think you need to consider whether the two of you have a future.

Like you, I’ve been out with men who looked good on paper – right-on types who wouldn’t hurt a fly, nice to their mums, good listeners, eager to please. In principle, my ideal men. In theory, a perfect match. In practice, kinda boring. We agreed on everything – but how was I going to develop my own thinking and my own view of the world without anyone challenging my opinions? Being with a good listener is great, but if we can’t learn from each other it’s bound to feel sterile. It’s a hard lesson that no amount of “looks good on paper” or 90% match from a computer algorithm is a guarantee that there will be a spark.

You give a pretty detailed description of the kind of man you find attractive, so I’m wondering if you’ve already met someone else who fits your ideal profile. You ask if it’s possible to hold feminist views and still be attracted to alpha male types. My very definite answer is: well, that all depends. If someone is an alpha sexually and that’s what you’re after, then of course – we are excited by what excites us, politics or no politics. The same goes for decisive personalities.

However if  someone’s view of alpha is insisting we play traditional female roles in everyday life, regardless of our own needs and desires, then we have to accept that they are a hindrance to us leading a feminist life and make our choices accordingly. That may be something you have to negotiate in a future partnership.

You use the word hypocrite three times in your letter and it’s a harsh word to use about yourself. I wouldn’t call you a hypocrite. But it is heartless to keep your boyfriend around when you seem to despise him, and it’s doing you no good either. If you really can’t respect who he is, then you need to take action. It’s nice when someone else takes responsibility for decisions, but sometimes you’ve just got to Do It Yourself.

Personal agony aunt

Political agony aunt

Dear Strong Personality,

Your question comes from the heart, and the sincerity in the expression of a deeply felt quandary is irrefutable. But when you ask how you can stop being a “hypocrite,” you introduce a term that is deeply unsuitable to the complexities of human relationships, especially sexual and romantic ones. Posed in such terms, the answer is simple: either change your desire or change your boyfriend.

The framing of your question, however, makes it difficult for the first to happen anytime soon. You talk about your desires as if they exist independently of you – as if such desires and tendencies had been offloaded onto your person, and could not be removed from you without some fundamental loss of personality. But to think about desires in such terms is to abstract them from the real situations and relations in which they develop and are expressed.

Even your self is presented here as if it were another person, fully formed and implacable. “I”, in your letter, operates almost in the third person. The same goes for the qualities that you attribute to your partner. You wonder if he “is” smart enough for you. But intelligence, so conceived, is an abstraction; and so is the lack of it. Intelligence arises in situations, and situations either release or stultify it. If desire could be so easily satisfied by items on a checklist (brawny, good at DIY, smart, confident, competent, good debater, etc.) then you ought to have no trouble upgrading. But we are not consumers when it comes to romance and love; desire is not so satisfiable.

You may not be attracted to your boyfriend. However, I don’t think this is due to his inability to read a map, or his lack of muscles. The negative checklist (passivity, lack of debating skills, indecisiveness) is as implausible as the positive one.

What would happen if you reconceptualise your boyfriend’s passivity as a form of agency, one that has developed over many years, and that has led him to his current situation of being partnered with a “strong” personality? Could you try to understand his map-reading incompetence, similarly, as a capacity – a decision taken early in life, in a specific situation, to organise the mind around one set of coordinates (for example, temporal ones) rather than another (spatial)? What happens if you approach his refusal to debate as motivated by intelligence rather than its absence?

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