Pragmatism vs. Romance, Then
The “middle of the road” doctrine was one of the most fundamental principles of ancient Chinese philosophy. Growing up, with the exception of being expected to excel academically, my generation was taught the importance of being modest, keeping a low profile, and not wanting too much of a good thing. The theory applied to every aspect of life, from work to social, and had paramount influence on how one chose a life partner. A man usually emphasized looks, age and domestic skills, and a woman put a man’s family background, education and career path above appearance and personality. I still remember how shocked I was when reading a Sunday Los Angeles Times wedding announcement of a young American woman with a master’s degree working for Unilever marrying a serviceman with only a high school diploma. A marriage like that was, and still is, unfathomable in China.
In the West where people have enjoyed steadily rising living standard, romance is still valued. Both young men and women put a premium, at least initially, on physical attractiveness, with chemistry and compatibility rounding up the top three.
Pragmatism vs. Romance, Now
As societies evolve, traditional way of life is giving way to new reality. In countries where a woman’s primary role was producing children and being servile, the rapid economic development and social uncertainties practically demand a woman be productive and self-sufficient. Whereas a man in the past focused on his bride’s youth and looks, the current male generation pays far more attention to her education, income potential, and most importantly, her ability to help his career. Their courtship is almost transaction-based, and the prevalent culture’s deep-rooted pragmatism, while always strong, has taken on a modern urgency in direct response to economical unpredictability, social upheaval, and people’s general underlying survival instinct.
The West’s feminists and pop culture have during the last few decades popped up the notion of “having-it-all,” whatever it means, and encouraged women not to settle. The international bestseller “Lean In” causes an average working woman to think that if she works at it, she too can have a thriving career, and a nurturing husband who is equally successful in his own right, supports her career choices, and shares equitable household chores and child-rearing duties. In other word, a modern man must play a number of roles: provider, friend, lover, child care technician, business partner. I myself find it astonishing for a woman to think that she can find a man capable of performing all these functions, and a woman disillusioned enough to think that she can is setting herself up for disappointment. While Ms. Sheryl Sandberg has my deepest sympathy for the tragic loss of her husband, it’s a social experiment of gigantic order to see when, or if, she can find another man who will replicate what her late husband did for her.
As if things were not complicated enough: as a young woman gets older, her needs in a man changes regardless of her marital status. If her partner’s capacities do not evolve accordingly overtime, it’s evitable for a gap to develop and grow between what the woman wants and needs and what the man is willing or able to provide. If we breakdown the demographics of these women, an even more startling phenomenon emerges: when a middle class woman grows her professional circle and climbs up the socioeconomic ladder, when her investment in her education and career starts to pay off, she will find herself becoming more appealing to her contemporary men, who grow more appreciative of women who possess the life experience, maturity and confidence that they once did not value as much. Interestingly enough, the difference between what Eastern and Western men want at this stage becomes almost negligible, as mature men appear to be more universally attracted to women of their intellectual and professional equals.
The Money Divide
I will not speculate what women of the upper echelon do to deal with the gap, and I can only point to anecdotes. Ethel Kennedy was reported to have gone on dates after Bobby was assassinated. When she realized none of these men could match what Bobby offered, she never re-married. Peggy Guggenheim decided to just sleep with men after two failed marriages, and she was able to find 1,000 of them. This is another area where the rich have us beat: have you ever heard of any working class woman pulling off that feat?
While a wealthy woman makes a relatively easy decision to either give up or simply ratchet up sex partners, a middle-class woman with her new-found popularity has rather limited options:
a. Find a way for her man to fulfill her needs
This can be a daunting task akin to trying to teach an old dog new tricks, and is known to cause frictions and resentment. No man likes to face his inadequacies, perceived or real. Few women have the patience, strong will, or diplomatic skills to “change a man.” Even fewer men have the desire or humility to improve.
b. If option “a” does not work, her choices include:
iii.Filling her needs in a different man
Note neither “i” nor “ii” is desirable. Giving up may lead to frustration, anger and depression. Leaving can have adverse emotional, financial or logistical consequences. “iii” takes more courage and requires resources most woman are not equipped with. Before Anna Karenina throws herself in front a freight train, Jinlian Pan, the most infamous adulteress in the Chinese history met her violent end and her story serving up as a cautionary tale was told and retold in traditional and new media of all sorts imaginable. Pan was in a forced marriage to an ugly midget. Humiliated after her handsome, brawny, valiant brother-in-law Song Wu rejected her advance, she sought comfort in a flamboyant playboy rumored to have the most advanced sexual prowess. They conspired to poison her midget husband, and Song Wu exacted revenge by cutting her head off and disemboweling her organs as a sacrifice to his dead brother. Since the quaint notion of a man being everything for his wife is deeply rooted in our culture, most people still find it appalling that a woman dares to think outside of her box (no pun intended). My current dentist once shared her practice with her also dentist husband, who had a ski accident and has been confined to a wheelchair for the last five years. A few weeks ago, she saw me when I went in for a routine cleaning, and told me in front of her staff that her therapy sessions with her psychiatrist had not helped at all. She was a beautiful, accomplished woman, and I immediately realized that the elephant in the room was that she was sexually frustrated and had no outlet.
Again, the dilemma seems to stem from the socioeconomic divide: while rich men are open to having just a strictly physical encounter, average men are much more reluctant to be just an f* buddy. Samantha Jones, the character who embodies sex in the seminal pilot episode of “Sex and the City,” declares: “This is the first time in the history of Manhattan that women have had as much money and power as men plus the equal luxury of treating men like sex objects.” And her friend Miranda Hobbes points out: “Yeah, except men in this city fail on both counts. I mean, they don’t wanna be in a relationship with you but as soon as you only want them for sex they don’t like it. All of a sudden they can’t perform the way they’re supposed to!” Maybe because both men and women realize that whoever is capable of separating emotion from the sex act has the upper hand, and neither wants to relinquish the power, or forgo the ego of self-importance by being considered just a sex partner.
Some suggest that Peggy Guggenheim was a role model for women, and I don’t really think she set out to be one intentionally. She was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, and she was not afraid of going after it. Fortunately for her, she had all the resources and none of the inhibitions to accomplish that. The rest of us? Not that lucky.