Marriage is for those women who, instead of being admired by many men, prefer to be criticized by one.

-Katharine Hepburn

People use words as weapons, to defend themselves. It is common for people to attack with anger when they are afraid and to become insulting when they are hurt or jealous.

-Dr. Shirley Glass

The independent woman referenced in my title? Me.

Shirley Glass’s simple explanation (which I just read this past weekend at the beach) was the lightning bolt that suddenly illuminated an entire adult lifetime of pondering:

Why are men so controlling?

Am I a magnet for angry, imperious men?

Perhaps I have some deep-seated Freudian attraction for intolerant, demanding guys?

Well, actually, NO!

I’ve managed to make them look this way!

One of the most common human biases is the Fundamental Attribution Error, in which we hold one set of explanations for our own behaviors and a different set for the actions of others.

We see our own actions as reasonable, understandable responses to situations. But we tend to interpret the actions of others as indicators of deep-rooted personality traits or character flaws.

Let’s say I get angry. I experience my anger as a reaction to something that happened or something someone did. I feel that I am angry for some reason.

But if my partner gets angry, I might judge him to be an angry guy, or to have an anger problem.

Glass’s words hit home. I don’t have some fatal attraction for touchy, demanding, irritable men; my own behavior has often made men act that way!!!

I can be very fierce and inflexible. Often I flaunt my self-sufficiency, in ways that wind up not being kind. I’m quick to point out how easily I could pick up and move on. I’m proud of myself, and sometimes I’m too loud and abrasive about that. Sometimes my message, I can take care of myself! comes out sounding like I don’t need you!

And I’m willing to bet that my hero, Katharine Hepburn, might sometimes have had a similar effect. Super-independent, tough and head-strong, I can imagine Hepburn’s attitudes and actions often aroused fear, hurt and jealousy in men, which they might then have expressed to her in the forms of insult and criticism.

Here’s the feminist Vivian Gornick, similarly taking stock of the role her own strong personality and unbending values have played in her relationships:

The reality was that I was alone not because of my politics but because I did not know how to live in a decent way with another human being. In the name of equality I tormented every man who’d ever loved me until he left me: I called them on everything, never let anything go, held them up to accountability in ways that wearied us both. There was, of course, more than a grain of truth in everything I said, but those grains, no matter how numerous, need not have become the sandpile that crushed the life out of love.

Let me be clear: I’m NOT saying that independent women can’t make relationships work, or that strong women might have a tougher-than-average time with relationships.

And I’m definitely NOT making a statement about women, as opposed to men. Certainly there are just as many men who do not know how to live in a decent way with another human being, and who torment and let nothing go and crush the life out of love.

My point is that I’m THRILLED to discover and let go of my Fundamental Attribution Errors

  • I’m DELIGHTED to stop fretting over imagined character flaws in my partner, which it turns out don’t exist.
  • I’m RELIEVED to think that, by being more careful with my own behaviors and more sensitive in the ways I communicate, I might not arouse anger, insult and criticism.
  • I WANT to continue being powerful and independent, but I want to quit crossing the line into being a rigid, defensive, insensitive bully!
  • I am EXCITED and HEARTENED to believe that the way to increase my partner’s respect and tenderness, and decrease belittling and criticism, is for me to be truly strong and independent enough to also be kind and flexible.
  • I NEED to give…to yield…to let some things go…to stop mentally pigeon-holing my partner into an artificial set of simplistic character traits and personality limitations, and instead to accept him as I accept myself, with tolerance and appreciation for his complexity and his humanity…

[femimist images at the Pompidou Centre, Paris]