Money, power, status? EMILY HOURICAN finds out that women stay with SLEAZY MEN for very different reasons …
When I was in my late teens and working in some menial capacity at a grown-up party, I watched a woman maintain, by what seemed to me a superhuman effort of will, a carefully bland conversation with her neighbour on a sofa, while on the other side of the room her husband was being roared at by an outraged lady he had made a pass at. With steely determination, this woman held on to her careful oblivion, even while all the rest of us wondered how in hell she could choose to sit this out. Later, I was told that she had been doing this for 20 years; deliberately, determinedly not seeing what was under her nose.
In the post-Weinstein, #metoo world, the news that there are sleazy men out there is hardly news. They appear on our television screens at red carpet events, but also in our workplaces, at parties we go to, even among our friends and acquaintances. They behave in ways that are, variously, embarrassing, infuriating and downright disgusting. They exist in all walks of life. But they don’t exist in isolation. They have friends and networks. They also, often, have wives or girlfriends. And this is where it all gets very thorny.
We’ve all seen women slide out of a room where their significant other is being called out on some kind of creepiness, or play deaf where his jokes edge from risqué to offensive. With antennae long honed, they quickly discern that something is up, and they duck.
In a parallel situation, where the man was drunk and clumsy, or belligerent, someone would doubtless whisper in his wife’s ear that she might want to have a word with him, and all would be well. But once his transgressions involve sleaze, we all freeze. We’re mortified, for her, but we say nothing, and she says nothing, and he obviously says nothing, and the whole thing turns into a strange kind of group-denial. Georgina Chapman, Weinstein’s soon-to-be-ex wife, apparently frequently apologised for his “verbally rough behaviour,” but maintains that she knew nothing of any alleged sexual misconduct.
Why not read him the riot act? Why not insist he apologise to the other woman, and then go home? Why not speak up and call it for what it is – creepy behaviour which makes others uncomfortable – or worse – and flush out the elephant in the room? Why not leave?
These women are very often bright, beautiful, perfectly assertive in all other areas of their lives. And so, why? And how? How does she end up with him? Why does she let him away with it? Why does she stay with him? After all, beyond all the euphemistic parsing of layers and levels of bad behaviour, we are essentially talking about women being humiliated by the men they are committed to.
Jerry Hall once said of Mick Jagger – a philanderer, we note, rather than a sleaze – that, “there is nothing more humiliating than loving him so much that you forgive the infidelities”.
The personal toll of refusing to acknowledge what is happening, of downplaying and dissembling, doesn’t go away because you choose not to see it; if anything, it festers. Sam Owen, relationships coach, psychologist, and author of Resilient Me: How To Worry Less and Achieve More, says of this kind of mental sleight-of-hand: “It erodes self-esteem and can make a woman anxious or depressed. She subconsciously knows there is something she needs to address. Over time, this will keep her in a state of fight-or-flight which in the long-term can make her foggy-headed and even angry without really knowing why.
“There can be a number of reasons or motivations for why these women sit silently by,” says Owens. “Firstly, the woman may have low self-esteem and so feel this is all she is worth and accept it as her fate. She may, therefore, choose to focus on her partner’s other good points and endeavour to block out or explain away his bad points. It is also more prevalent for women with low self-esteem to compare a poor relationship now with a worse relationship from the past and think that because by comparison it is better, it is good enough for her, even when it isn’t and it is making her miserable deep down.” And where the man is particularly successful or powerful, “she may be motivated to stay because she wants the perks that come with staying with him, for example, financial or status gains. If that motivation is greater than the motivation to be in a loving, healthy romantic relationship, the reasons to stay have a bigger sway.”
But surely the kind of woman who attracts rich and powerful men in the first place would be able to get another, equally rich and powerful, but not a creep, if she wanted to? Maybe, but often it’s not that easy. “She may be denying his faults because of the fear of confronting the reality and its implications. Some fear the unknown to the point where they would, at least for now, rather stay because it’s familiar and, therefore, feels more comfortable and less scary than leaving, even if they want to deep down.”
And this, perhaps, is the point. The behaviour these women are silently condoning – lending credibility and social standing to a man who doesn’t deserve it, simply by being with him and staying quiet – can be more than just embarrassing. In fact, it can edge into emotional abuse, so much less visible but also more common than physical abuse. The conditioning that goes with it isn’t done overnight. It’s a slow and gradual erosion of self-esteem and worth. Often angry denials make women question the evidence of their own eyes.
As Annie Lavin, relationship coach and lecturer in psychology, points out, the oblivion isn’t always wilful. Sometimes, it’s carefully orchestrated for them. “It is entirely possible to expect anyone displaying characteristics similar to Weinstein’s, for example, to live a dual existence and deceive others.” These kinds of individuals do not have the ability to create real intimacy with anyone, keeping everyone, including their partners, at an emotional distance. “Partners of narcissists,” she says, “are at the mercy of much game-playing, manipulation and abuse. They must be offered the same compassion as every other victim.”
The silent, squirming almost-aquiescence that allows men to be a bit creepy, a lot creepy, or downright criminal, because the woman on the receiving end is afraid, or doesn’t want to make a scene, brings me back to that party and that man’s wife, talking banalities in order to avoid seeing a truth she can’t yet handle.
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