The Stiff Upper Lip: A Man's Condition and A Woman's Burden

It's a sight many of us are familiar with: a politician who has committed a misdeed, holding a press conference to explain his behavior. And who do we often see standing behind him during his moment of confession? His wife.

Inevitably, in the days after a politician's confession, we see columnists deride him for forcing his wife to stand beside him during his moment of disgrace -- the politician is often chastised for encouraging his partner to keep a "stiff upper lip."

Keeping a stiff upper lip is about abstaining from displaying emotion, especially in times of great adversity. But to me, the concept of the stiff upper lip, as it applies to relationships between men and women, has a much broader definition and bigger consequences.

There is no doubt that we encourage men to keep a stiff upper lip when it comes to dealing with their vulnerability and emotions. In keeping silent about their struggles and emotions, are they also demanding their female partners to do the same?

Just like the wives of disgraced politicians, women from all walks of life, as a way to accommodate their partners, are staying silent and refraining from expressing their own desires, opinions and ideas. They do this when the men in their lives find their voice to be inconvenient, when the men in their lives don't want their female partners addressing or confronting their misdeeds and when the men in their lives want to put up walls to protect themselves from vulnerability or topics that make them feel uncomfortable.

So many women, even those in "healthy" relationships, are forced to walk on eggshells around certain issues. They keep quiet because they are abiding by the rules on how to keep their male partner happy, "rules" that dictate which topics can or can't be discussed in their relationships.

These rules are created over time, and determine which topics or issues women are not to talk about with their male partners -- now, or ever. Women face push back about what they want to talk about when they bring up a topic and then hear a response like, "You know I hate talking about..." And soon, that topic or issue goes into the "things he hates talking about folder." Think they're going to bring that issue up again? Or bring it up with comfort? Nope.

But this idea of a stiff upper lip isn't just about a women feeling like she can't vocalize her thoughts; it's also related to how women manage their relationships with men, on both the romantic and platonic levels. Keeping a stiff upper lip is about how women move about the day within the relationship, how they address issues, how and when women bring up concerns and in what tone they address these issues to their men partners, friends, colleagues.

I see this behavior as a consequence of men behaving like squirrels: they inch closer and closer to you and just as you want to get comfortable with them, any rapid movement on your part sends them scurrying up the tree. Better watch out! Don't say anything too emotionally taxing! Oh no! You said too much... you scared the poor little guy away!

Holly, 34, dated a man who made it very clear that his decompression time after work was a priority. He wanted to grab a beer, hang out in the backyard and be left alone... to be free of stress.

"I wish I had that luxury. I was in the kitchen making dinner after my hard day of work, longing for attention and communication. I never knew if he was going to be in a bad mood or a good mood when he came home. If I tried to talk to him, he would typically shut down and tell me we'd talk about whatever I wanted to discuss later. He couldn't handle any 'extra stress.'"

I've always found this sort of wall that men put up in these situations to be ridiculous and laughable. If Holly had put up the same boundaries that her boyfriend did, she would be accused of being a cold bitch. If she wanted to withdraw for hours, after work on the weekends, she would be seen as unsupportive and a bad girlfriend.

"Our conversations and discussions were always on his terms and his time. When I was cooking and he was outside, I felt frustrated and alone. I felt so disconnected from him, like I was the only participant in the relationship. I never really felt comfortable in our home... I always felt like it was his house and I was just a guest."

Holly is saying that she never felt comfortable in their relationship, that she was just a guest star in the life of a man who expected her to dispose of herself and to dispose any issues, things that were fundamentally important to her.

So why didn't she speak up? Why was Holly left staying silent while her boyfriend controlled every element of their relationship. Why did she keep a stiff upper lip?

"I guess I never said anything because I was walking on eggshells and I didn't want to risk getting a negative reaction from him. I had somehow convinced myself that this was normal behavior because he was hard working and was so exhausted at the end of the day that he deserved the right to act this way."

Her response reminds me of something I often hear from women: they constantly find themselves making excuses about their partners to themselves to their kids and to their friends. They will say things like, "He's so stressed out at work," or "It's hard for him because (insert some childhood issue here)."

It's sad and laughable that Holly's boyfriend and men like him are being excused. It's a privilege children get, not the privileges an adult man in his early 40's should get or deserve.

Of course, these women had better not use these same excuses when it comes explaining their actions. God forbid they bring up a childhood issue that prevents them from doing something. God forbid they have a hard day at work or a taxing day as a mom.

"Now, when he needed to vent or discuss his problems, he expected my full attention and advice. I always gave this to him because I think I was constantly starving for his attention and affection, so I would grab onto anything that I could."

Sarah, who is 28, has been dating the same guy since college and has since found herself backed into the corner when it comes to expressing her voice. She was warned about her boyfriend by friends; they had all heard he was demanding and selfish. On their third date he told her about all the "crazy" women he had dated up to that point and how they didn't understand him.

Sarah wanted to be the different one, the one who wasn't "crazy," the one who got him, who understood him. Her boyfriend was a catch on paper, so she was willing to compromise, she was going to be the understanding one.

Soon, she learned what it all meant. Her boyfriend saw her when he wanted to, there was never a mutual discussion about convenient timing. Over the years he would schedule vacations with friends without consulting her. He rarely asked for her opinion. After dating for for five years, he took a job that would require him (them) to move 500 miles away and Sarah was barely involved in the decision-making. She was going to be different, she was the supportive one.

And of course there was a raft of untouchable topics: Don't talk to him about anything stressful after work, on the weekends, at night or first thing the morning -- this doesn't leave much time in the day. And topics which were deemed "stressful" would always change, to meet the issue he wanted to avoid at that particular moment.

"I just thought the care-taking, compromise, support in relationships was allowing him to have his issues, to do these things, to accommodate him. But I realized it wasn't about allowing him to do anything or giving to our relationship as a whole, it was just about shutting myself up and making him more comfortable."

Women like Holly and Sarah, through the habit of accommodating and comforting of the men in their lives, were keeping stiff upper lips, even when it's the last thing they truly wanted to do. In giving room to the men in their lives, they were simultaneously giving room to this broader cultural phenomenon.

Despite their unhappiness, why do women like Holly and Sarah stay in these relationships?

The main reason: hope. Maybe today will be different, maybe today he can just let go, they tell themselves. Maybe today I can stop walking on eggshells.

And you know what? Sometimes he does.

And just as these women pull away, out comes the best part of their partners, the one they've been waiting for. And then they live off that version of him, despite it's short appearance, for as long as possible, wishing and hoping it will come back again.

While women can think they are making an investment in the relationship by staying silent and accommodating the needs of their partners, the truth is any man who expects the woman he purports to love to live in a confined emotional space of his choosing doesn't see anything that their women partners are doing as a compromise.

These men don't look upon the actions of a stiff upper lip with deep gratitude. They expect it. They think, "It's what she should be doing for me." It's about pure male ego and entitlement in a culture that does nothing but encourage men to demand and demand that women bend to their will.

Holly learned this lesson at the end of her relationship. After a difficult Christmas holiday, Holly finally spoke up for herself and told her boyfriend that she expected him to respect her emotional needs. She then received an email from her boyfriend in which he derided everything she had ever done for him/them in their relationship.

All her efforts over the years to give him the room she thought he needed, all the times when she would be desperate for emotional attention and affection but would stay silent, all those egg shells she walked over, meant nothing to him. In his mind, it's what she should be doing anyway.

Holly's boyfriend didn't keep note of what she had done -- it was never enough, never appreciated. It was what was expected of her and his gift in return was to demand more and deride what she had already given him.

And what did she have left to show for all this effort? Nothing.

Now, as she moves beyond that relationship, she takes a simple approach for the future, "I will never give up everything again."

A stiff upper lip isn't admirable or honorable, it's just a tragic commentary on how we teach men not to share and how we teach women that the danger of sharing is the risk of pushing the man they love away.

And none of this is about compromise.

Because there is a big difference between healthy compromise and compromising yourself.


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