Men Aren’t Entitled to Women's Time or Affection. But It's a Hard Lesson to Learn
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About a year after I graduated from college, I met the woman I was going to marry. I didn't know it at first, but the feeling slowly grew within me, until one day – around year two – I looked up and didn't see "my girlfriend", but the person with whom I was destined to spend the rest of my life. Somewhere along the way, she felt it also, and we began to replace "I" with "we" in sentences, like, "When we finally buy a house." One day I commented that I hoped any child of mine would be blessed with a strong chin, and she said, "It absolutely will – look at our chins."
I still knew that I was going to marry her the day she called me and told me that she didn't want to see me anymore.
I still knew I was going to marry her when I called her a dozen times after our last tearful goodbye. And when I emailed her a dozen more times after that. And when I had flowers delivered. And when I sent a few last text messages.
Eventually, after aborting a plan involving plane tickets and a surprise reunion that I was sure would have fixed it all, I got the message – but not before I'd convinced myself that it was her fault I'd been behaving like a maniac stalker. She was the one who turned her back on me without explanation, I told myself. She was the one who ended a four-year relationship with just a two-minute phone call on New Year's Eve. She was the one who refused to give me at least the closure that I deserved.
In recent months, it's been hard to escape the spectacle of other men talking about what they deserve – and what women have supposedly taken from them. In May there were the grisly Isla Vista killings, perpetrated by Elliot Rodger, who called his violence a "day of retribution" for the women who had rejected him. There is increased talk of "men's rights" forums, websites predicated on the serious belief that men are greatly disadvantaged by women's empowerment. Last month, a speaker at a men's rights conference in Michigan postulated that feminism was leading to a future without love.
Elsewhere, there's the less ominous and more omnipresent discussion, online and in pop culture at large, of things like the "friendzone", a term coined a decade ago on Friends to describe a scenario in which a man is attracted to a woman who only seeks a platonic relationship with him. Women tend to call that kind of partnering "friendship" – but, to many men, "friendship" doesn't capture the degradation they apparently feel at the prospect of spending time or being emotionally intimate with women who are uninterested in having romantic relationships with them.
Complex magazine recently published "15 Dudes Stuck in the Friendzone on the Internet", a slideshow of 15 social-media pictures of guys living out the "horrible experience" that is being friendzoned. Unrequited love can indeed be a hurtful, horrible experience. But the slideshow doesn't show that. Rather, the young men it depicts are shown laughing, exchanging gifts, hugging and goofing off with various young women, apparently their friends. To look at the photos – even satirically – and see "horrible" experiences, you have to think it's horrible to see a man interacting with a woman when the end result won't be them fucking. You have to see a non-romantic relationship with a woman as a kind of purgatory, a place of suffering to be begged and bartered out of en route the bedroom.
Sometimes that begging happens via private channels (like text messaging or emails), where at least only two people – the sender and the recipient – are intended to bear witness to the depressing, often oppressive display. Other people opt for more deliberately public methods.
Last November, tech consultant Jeff Reifman invented the term "cutoff culture" for his Medium piece "Shining the Light on Cutoff Culture". Though ostensibly the article sought to end the unheralded scourge of people refusing to talk with their ex-lovers, it mostly read like an entitled plea for attention from Reifman to his ex, "Emma", who had abruptly ended their four-month love affair two and a half years prior to its publication.
While it may be socially acceptable to cut off communication with our exes, we're not always cognizant of the impacts on ourselves and our former partners. When we cut off, we may do so from anger but often we may be avoiding feelings of discomfort. Furthermore, if the person being cut off has trauma in their background, the psychological impacts can be devastating.
By "we", naturally, Reifman meant Emma.
The article – all 3,800 words of it – later continued, "Sometimes we cut off because we're trying to get the person to do something we feel too vulnerable to ask them to do; for instance, we actually want them to apologize, but we're afraid to ask. It can be difficult to experience the vulnerability of asking for anything from an ex; cutoff is easier than the possibility of rejection."
In other words, according to Reifman, a person who decides to not speak to an ex – or, in Emma's case, not continue for years to rehash a short relationship and its end – is exposing a fault in themselves. Emma didn't want to not speak to him, Reifman asks his readers to see, she wanted something of him that she wasn't strong enough to ask him for. Her silence, he decided, wasn't only a desire to not speak to him, but one of her weaknesses.
A clearly exhausted Emma did send him a note, though, reading, in part, "Apparently, what I want seems irrelevant to you." But not even that was enough to deter Reifman's efforts to get his ex to give him the contact, conversation and emotional engagement he felt he deserved. Instead, he shrugged it off, calling it "ironic", considering that "what I wanted had long been irrelevant to her".
"Cutoff culture", "the friendzone": these are just neologisms used by men to mask or soften the reality that they have been – and have the right to be – rejected by women. They're attitudes stemming from the assumption that men are owed something by women. Guys in the friendzone should be expecting sex for their kindness; otherwise what's the point of hanging out with girls? Men whose exes broke up with them and then cut them off deserve explanations as to why, as detailed as they want, for as long as they want them – regardless of the fact that their frightening post-breakup behavior should be explanation enough. And when they're not busy making up new words to describe their interactions with women, men with these hangups are giving existing words new meaning: "stalking" becomes "tenacity"; "pathetic public wailing" becomes a "romantic gesture"; the intense desire to not be rejected is actually the intense feeling of love.
Of course, the men who think they're being brave in the name of love rarely stop to consider who that "bravery" may hurt, because begging for sex or a relationship despite a woman's expressed wishes is a beloved staple of pop culture. Consider the 80s favorite Say Anything …, in which John Cusack's character, Lloyd – immediately after getting dumped – pesters his ex with non-stop phone calls before showing up at her house and blasting loud music outside her window from a boombox held above his head. Many people would find this kind of behavior creepy and unacceptable in real life, but we all know how the story ends in Hollywood: Lloyd finally "won" the girl back, because his annoying, stalkery antics helped prove he deserved his prize.
It should go without saying that women aren't carnival prizes to be won. But just like with lots of things that should go without saying, it needs to be said, as there still seems to be some debate as to whether women are autonomous humans with the right to give as much or as little of themselves to people as they want. It should go without saying that there's no outside arbiter of who "deserves" which woman, or of what one "deserves" to receive from a woman, because women get to decide for themselves. Indeed, it should go without saying, and yet ...
Beware bros trying to inform you what they "deserve". A hurt man can be a handful – but a hurt man inspired by the conviction that he's owed something can be dangerous. For proof of this, look no further than Elliot Rodger, who will forever serve as a reminder that the phrase "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" is wildly inaccurate in one quite obvious way. And while the Elliot Rodgers of the world are, blessedly, anomalies, quite common are those men among us who use romance or business or sexual liberation or comedy or art to buttress their entitlement.
The gendered entitlement of criminals – rapists, domestic abusers, murderers – is almost always universally condemned as unacceptable throughout polite society (at least in 2014), as is the era of dowries and legal spousal rape, when women were considered the literal property of the men in their lives. But those men whose actions exhibit in softer – sometimes even socially acceptable – ways their belief that women should pay them deference (or at least quietly tolerate their varied hostilities) face much less opprobrium.
This is how men get away with bludgeoning the joy that is friendship into the unrecognizable "friendzone" – a place where it's actually humiliating to be friends with a woman. This is how Jeff Reifman gets to decide that he should receive in perpetuity the attention of his ex, let alone make the concern-trolling argument that it's unhealthy for her to do otherwise. This is how men around the world are indulged after they reach the conclusion that it's perfectly reasonable to look at a strange woman on the street and tell her she'd be prettier if she smiled. This is what leads men to believe that they're owed anything from women – whether that be a smile, an explanation, kindness, love, appreciation, time, a hug ... or even a single lousy text message.
These days, after several years apart, my ex – the one I was once certain I would marry – does actually text me on occasion, usually to wish me a happy birthday. It's a nice gesture of friendship, and one I no longer believe that I "deserve". She never owed me anything, and what needed fixing back then wasn't her or us: it was me. I know now that all the wailing over what I was due in the wake of our relationship was just an attempt to ignore my own shortcomings – the flailings of a man realizing that she was gone forever, and that he would have to live with himself.