Sunday, November 26, 2006

College Roomates Versus Spouses Who are "Like Roommates" (with belated Thanksgiving note)

The Saturday edition of the Washington Post ran an article on the growing frequency and nastiness of college dorm roommate squabbles. Among some of the article's findings:
  • Roommate conflicts are increasingly being brought to the attention of college student affairs staff.
  • There are more instances of parents injecting themselves into the argument.
  • Conflicts are spilling over onto the internet in the form of hostile instant messages, derogatory weblog postings, and negative content on social networking websites.
  • The inflammatory actions are usually small matters.
  • The problem seems to be more prevalent between female roommates.

The following article excerpt offers an example of the kinds of conflicts that erupt and serves up some speculation over why this might be more prevalent among women (emphasis is mine).

Michal-Ann Newman, a junior and resident assistant for 42 young women at Howard University, shakes her head. "That stuff makes my job a whole lot harder," she says. "Last year, two of my girls had an altercation in the kitchen about a boy. One put a message on Facebook calling the other one all kinds of names. So Number 2 posted a message on her Facebook page. Then Number 1 went to Burn Book. . . . They started writing about each other's family issues. . . . As usual, they didn't speak to each other about any of it."

Newman finally heard about the feud from a dean who had been called by a parent of one of the students. "That's female conflict for you," she sighs. "Little things can wecome big things."

That's partly because unlike guys, who tend to blow up and then be done with it, girls avoid conflict but continue to nurse a grudge that may metastasize into more grudges or even irreconcilable differences.

Broad brushstrokes aside, the paragraphs above made me think about the genre of blog which involves a frustrated husband venting about an domineering, sexually unavailable wife. In fact the first month's worth of postings on this blog would fall under this rubric.

One of the complaints among such bloggers is that their marriages have degenerated to the point where they are more like roommates than spouses.

Moreover, when these guys deal with their wives, they tend to take the passive rather than the assertive route. They are, in the words of therapist Robert Glover, suffering from Nice Guy Syndrome. Indeed, Glover lists these behaviors as symptoms:

  • He is the relative who lets his wife run the show.
  • He is the guy who frustrates his wife because he is so afraid of conflict that nothing ever gets resolved.

Is it any surprise that college roommate squabble dynamics play themselves out on the frustrated guy blogs?

Many of the posts are complaints about a wife's annoying behaviors. Lots of times it's small things. Instead of other family members, these bloggers get their validation from a of group sympathetic female readers who provide a steady flow of uncritical affirmations.

Labeling the petty roommate proxy war as a female problem, as suggested by the article, is unfair to women and misses the point. The real issue is passivity (maybe even passive aggressiveness). Instead of emplying levelheaded assertiveness by calmly communicating and enforcing boundaries, passive personalities take the easy way out and opt for short term, fake peace by pretending the conflict doesn't exist.

I think these men do themselves great harm, show disrespect for their wives, and set bad examples for their children when they engage in this behavior.

As for the causes, I can't be completely certain. I don't buy the handwaving argument presented in the article about the increase in amount of private space in the home. If that were the case, I don't think we'd see these kinds of dramas being played out in suburbia by married adults who have way more square feet per person than a typical dorm room.

To quote Julia Grey's essay on heroism, which is linked from this blog's masthead:

You are looking at your wife as if she and her emotions are chess pieces you could move around on a board of your devising if you just knew the rules of the game or the "tricks" to try. But the answer is that you don't "move your wife out of her comfort zone," you move yourself out of YOURS.

Your comfort zone is the one where you"avoid conflict at all costs."

Maybe in some part of yourself you LIKE being a quiet, self-righteous sufferer, clutching your virtue to your bosom and resentfully telling yourself how your spouse is so awful to you, how her behavior or personality limits you so fatally, how she makes it just impossible for you to...(fill in the blank).

You break the marital routine by breaking your own routines, especially the routines inside your head, the main one being the childish fantasy that if the other person could just straighten up and fly right --"flying right" defined as behaving in consonance with your pleasure -- you would finally be happy in your life. Meanwhile, YOU don't have to do squat. You can wash your lily-pure hands of the whole thing and sit back, secure in the knowledge that The Problem of the Marriage is the other person and their failings.

Reading Schnarch, Glover, Grey, and several other anonymous netizens saved me from being just another whining husband. Thanks to them, I have stepped out of my comfort zone and started the path to personal growth, realizing that there will be pain and no guarantees of success. It's a scary place to be. The anxiety has taken its toll, but I am grateful to all of them for having persuaded me to take the journey. It wasn't a gift that I asked for, but it is certainly one I needed.

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