My husband and I have one recurring fight.
Okay, we have several recurring fights. But my personal favorite — and the one we’ve had more than usual as Valentine’s Day approaches — is the one about how I don’t make it clear enough to the platonic men in my life that they are not, in fact, secretly “The Guy.”
“You make men feel way more special than you realize,” my husband, Pat Dixon, tells me after I complained to him about a long and impassioned string of texts with a male friend that I initiated after hearing that my friend’s famous boss was going around town making very public displays of bad behavior.
Except for the fact that the tone of our “friendly” exchange, all intimate and filled with secrets, came off far differently. At one point, my buddy — after complaining about how he never had sex with his wife anymore (which hello, red flag) — made a funny cutting remark about his boss being akin to King Joffrey.
“That. Is. Genius,” I texted back.
Pat looked at me incredulously as he read this exchange, and shook his head, dumbfounded.
“This guy’s in a sexless marriage, which he’s telling you about by the way, and do you know what you just gave him by calling him a genius? Validation. A high. Something to live for. He’s been in the desert for years looking for water. That’s exactly what his wife isn’t giving him. He’s desperate for that.”
Sure enough, this male friend of mine was still thirsty hours later, and he emailed me around 2 a.m. a “gentle sleepy reminder” about how we needed to get together soon and I better email him with dates and mustn’t forget this time, okay, really, did I promise?
“I’m not writing back,” I told Pat and proudly clicked delete.
The anatomy of a “The Guy” fight is quite simple:
Phase One: A male acquaintance finds a reason to check in.
It’s a small overture, seemingly harmless (the same way that exchanging a phone number because you might theoretically do “business” later is completely understandable).
The male acquaintance could be an ex, a Harry to your Sally, or just an old co-worker you used to share coffee breaks with for a little too long. He’s known you longer so he thinks he knows you better. He thinks he’s special, different. He calls you by your last name with a T-ball-coach level of intimacy, saying things like, “Come on, Stadtmiller. Is this dude really good for you?” He suggests otherness, implicating your partner as The New Guy while believing his jacket will always be hanging over a chair somewhere in your brain.
Phase Two: You get together with the old friend.
You engage this guy in some way by following up on the catch-up drinks, the unnecessary, vaguely work-related meeting, or the party invite. Afterward, you relate what happened. Your partner expresses some mixture of low-level disgust/disbelief, and you defensively explain, “What? It was innocent. You’re being paranoid.” Except, as my husband says: “Women don’t understand men. What the guy is getting out of it and what you’re getting out of it are two completely different things.”
Phase Three: The fight itself.
You say what you think of your male friendship. He says what he thinks of it. In my case, often, the more I talk, the more I realize I never really put a critical eye to most of my male friendships in the first place.
Phase Four: The aftermath.
Suddenly it all comes together. I relate the parts of the conversation I had previously left out because, well, who needs to go into all of that. The confession that his relationship is souring. How he wishes he could find a woman more like me. How we have a “special connection.”
The fights I have with Pat are not about men who are propositioning me for sex or overtly being inappropriate. These are largely platonic exchanges — little baby-size ego-stroking exercises that on a subliminal level make the guy believe he’s The Guy.
“Trust me,” my guy tells me about other non-The Guy-guys. “Every guy thinks he is The Guy.”
And that’s where “The Guy” Dysmorphia happens in the first place: Men have a much higher entitlement complex and a much lower threshold for regret.
I also find a certain kind of assumptive entitlement in women — the kind of chick who when you ask her what time it is, answers, “I have a boyfriend o’clock.” I’ve never wanted to be this chick. So I overcompensate. And a lot of guys take the fleeting attention that I give with a big winning smile and a chipper attitude as foreplay to our great love affair.
I know I’ve been blissfully unaware. I recently apologized to a friend who was out with her boyfriend at a strip club with me for a press event, when I, good-time girl that I am, let a stripper finger me as the two of them watched uncomfortably.
“Yeah so, I’ve kind of realized that wasn’t appropriate,” I stammered. “I’m so sorry. What a shitty cocktease The Sister Code disaster I was.”
You’ve got to start somewhere.
As for Pat, he has become more empathetic toward my tendency to people-please because he’s seen how much easier it is for men to cut off a woman’s interest than it is for a woman to cut off a man’s.
“I want women to say about me, ‘That’s a guy who really loves his wife,’” Pat says. “I want the two of us to be giving each other all that heat. Because that’s what happens when you don’t give it to others. You keep it in your pocket, and you bring it home.”
And I see him put this into practice. There have been a few times when one of his female friends does some big pussy-waving routine in his general direction. She smiles at him and touches too much. She tries to one-up me. She says she’s heard so much about me when he’s talked to her one time. She really loves his act.
So Pat purposefully ignores or is nothing more than cordial to the woman in question while he gives me the attention, holds my hand, and looks devoted and happy. It makes some of these chicks really pissed, and it’s kind of hilarious.
You may still wonder, though: How can catching up with an old friend be harmful? I mean, jeez, should men and women just never be friends? Of course not. But let’s look at the reality of these situations. There is clearly a certain category of friendship that you stop keeping warm when you truly commit to another person.
Relationship expert John Gottman writes about how an “emotional affair” starts “innocently enough, but then grows into something very dangerous” and can result in what he calls “The Cheater’s Cascade.”
That’s because, for men, proposing a generic catch-up is about testing the waters or just getting the ego juice that comes from knowing: There’s still a chance with this chick. I still got it. Who’s The Guy? I’m The Guy.
Women, meanwhile, often refuse to admit to themselves that the potential for sex, no matter how remote, may have actually played a part in stoking the friendship to begin with — because yum, sexual tension, right?
(The first rule of Sexual Tension Club? You do not talk about Sexual Tension Club.)
So how do you know if a guy is good-friend material or falls into this more troublesome murky category? Easy. Would you be comfortable with your partner seeing and hearing all your communication? Would you be willing to hand over the keys to the kingdom (Facebook, phone, etc.) and letting him read how you responded? Did you call your platonic male friend “honey”? Did you “xoxo”? Do you use a lot of heart and dolphin emoji? These are all questions that will give you the answer that in your heart you probably already know.
Dangerous platonic friendships are like pornography. You know it when you see it.
For my part, I’m actively more aware of “The Guy” Syndrome now than ever. Recently, some dude cracked a passing joke: “When things don’t work out with Pat, give me a call.”
We both laughed. It wasn’t a big deal.
Only this time, I didn’t hesitate. I stood up, walked away, and focused my stare on Pat.
“Oh, they’ll work out. He is definitely The Guy.”