"Someone to Watch Over Me"
Geoffrey Miller (1) suggests that feminist accusations of men controlling women agree with many evolutionary findings about male behavior including the manipulation of food access, spouse-monitoring, sperm competition, vaginal plugs, and rape. The distal causes of male control (exclusive access to her eggs) appear evident, yet there is more to the tale. Enough, perhaps, to suggest that enabler females (or males!) have greater clout than is first apparent.
There are at least 3 streams of information to consider:
First, my client, Pete. He was in his mid-40s, had quickly lost 10 pounds, had fine tremors and difficulty making decisions, and claimed not to have slept for 5 days ... ever since his whimpering wife sent him back to his mother's to live. He was as shocked about his loss of self assurance as he was about her action; he would do anything, anything to be allowed back home with her and his teenaged sons. He even came to counseling and took medication to buffer his panic, temper and critical nature, his tangled mix of mania and ADHD. He was by no means the only husband to be so miserable and had hit one of the few walls that gain a manic's attention. Still, the incongruity bothered me. Pete was ordinarily assertive, fit, a successful tradesman; his wife passive, whining, overweight, and inert. His sons neared adulthood. Why panic?
Second, I was fortunate to meet a series of 3-4 yr olds referred to me over the past year. There are about 10 of them with a mix of oppositional, domineering behaviors. The average member of this troop lied, stacked cards or sneaked extra turns to win games, hollered "How could you do this to me!" when informed of a little sister enroute, assaulted peers in day care, needed relatively little sleep, displayed tantrums after every "No," and dominated the household to the extent of driving parents to pay me significant money for advice. Most of these sprouting Saddams also had separation anxiety, crying and clinging to mom when she dropped them at daycare or school, or tried to leave them with a sitter. Princess MacBeths likewise clung to mom at night and often complained sufficiently to pull mom to their own bed at night. They showed far milder reactions to dad's absences. (2, 3)
Third, a quote by Suomi (1997) about rhesus monkeys riveted me. "...high-reactive infants, reared by unusually nurturant attachment figures, are remarkably precocious socially and typically rise to the top of their group's dominance hierarchy." The quote startled me because I studied rhesus monkeys in a lab during graduate school. They routinely opened their jaws wide and displayed canines an inch or more in length, stared eye to eye, or kicked against the side of their cage walls, sometimes dropping to a crouch and hurling themselves against the metal siding, impacting with all four feet. Their apparent targets could be another male rhesus in the next cage or one of us sappy graduate students. These dominance behaviors were likely aggravated by being caged (or by being subjects in operant conditioning studies); still, I recall a photograph taken somewhere in an African plain. There were a half dozen baboons on the march, a rhesus - one quarter their size - in their midst, his tail stiffly elevated, the self-appointed pack leader.(4)
It's worth repeating. "...high-reactive infants, reared by unusually nurturant attachment figures are remarkably precocious socially and typically rise to the top of their group's dominance hierarchy."
I know a lot of Suomi's mothers. It's also possible to view Pete as a sun spotted edition of the 4 year olds. This trio of observations suggests that the female enabler (of two species!) can be more powerful than the male, even on a day to day basis, and that she can live comfortably without him more easily than he can without her (or she can with him). She can probably replace him more easily than the reverse.(5)
Aside from my troop of preschoolers, there are many, many anecdotal examples of these relationships and across a range of ages.
a) Julius, 13 yo, harangued his mother into buying only the best sneakers or shirts, into letting him wear only what he wanted to school, and into changing schools whenever he came into contact with an authoritarian teacher. Mom, herself, could be highly oppositional to anyone who expected Julius to behave. He carefully monitored her location despite his macho style. He ignored directions and called her names until she gave him the edict, "Go live with your dad."
b) George (10 yo) became "weirded out" (and so did his sister) whenever he is left in a strange room. He was restless, anxious, and expected creepy people or evil spirits to appear. In familiar settings, he was generally arrogant and in his parents' words, "always told us what to do." His mother hoped that I could get his friends and teachers to tolerate him as she did. She was adamant that he has been prejudged. I was not to bury little Caesar but to guard him.
c) Jared Jones (12 yo) made his younger sister do everything that he did, becoming extremely angry if she refused or simply played independently of him. (Fortunately, she was also something of a pistol and defended herself very well.) Their parents did the practical thing and scheduled them often to be in separate universes, giving each of them a territory and individual adult attention. He also called his parents and other adults by their first name.
d) Hank (40 yo) had a volatile temper and was beaten often by his equally volatile father. Hank remembered escaping to his grandmother's house where he had a sense of someone "being on my side." (Hank's wife came to me for help with anxiety and depression; Mr. Bluster naturally followed along, coming to trust me because his wife got better. My gosh, we guys can be such puppies!)
e) Pat was vigilant and suspicious of me in our first meetings. She had many many questions and a like number of personal second opinions to my recommendations. Full cooperation appeared once she believed I was her child's ally. Thus, a therapist can be seen as mom's ally for protecting the kid rather than changing him. I sometimes caution parents that schools do not always appreciate my involvement. I put it bluntly, "They don't like me over there." The parents often react, "Great!" There are gains, immediate and delayed; and perhaps causes, proximal and distal. The immediate pay off for little alpha is that he/she recruits someone to look after him, to repair the holes he rips in the social fabric and to care for him when he is sick. Thus, his physical well-being and position in the hierarchy are somewhat better protected and, as noted by Suomi (1977), improved. (Reactive rhesus without a nurturant mother or aunt appear to have a greater risk of injury in times of stress, they are less likely than average monkeys to be hurt in low stress conditions.) These same mechanisms may underlie his adult dependence on an enabler, less equal than a formal ally. His tools to motivate his team include both his own behaviors (anxiety, panic, helplessness, anger, spite, threats, bargaining, immediate or delayed retaliation) and the mother's adaptive systems that react to those displays.
However, what is the gain for the enabler? For the aunt or grand mother? For Pete's whimpering wife? And, what are her tools, the reciprocal tactics that synergistically, symbiotically mesh with those of her child or husband? (See separate posting on manic females.) The immediate gains for the adult enabler who is a partner might include protection, greater economic resources (shelter, warmth), mutual grooming, sexual and social companionship, and an alliance with someone who fills the gaps in her own psychological adaptations.
As for domineering children, the mothers talk about helping their child to grow up, to have friends, and to ensure that he won't be like his father. This may be self deception since mom was once attracted to the father. I do know mothers who despise their husband and idolize their sons all while complaining that the boy acts "just like his father." As for friends, I sometimes think that women screen males on the basis of the male's capacity to form and maintain alliances. Loner guys are usually less attractive and many of us lose friends when separating from our wives just as we originally got those friends when we married. They seemed to have been lurking in the hope chest and go back to it when our union dissolves. Mothers may also be so tuned to familial alliances that they become upset when he pursues economic alliances instead.
Mom's immediate, positive motivations are tied to traits of her child, to his/her liveliness, physical strength, stamina, high verbal output, and assured manner in her presence. A healthy, lively, "manic" child can likely function as a supernormal releaser, driving the mother harder than a more average child. Anxious lively kid more apt to live and have a greater choice of mates as adult. His anxiety could make him more careful of his partner, therefore, raising odds that his offspring will have a mother. (Or that he will have offspring!) Living manic kid larger, more healthy, livelier ... all sensory buttons for SNS & for mate selection. (6)
She becomes more certain of her own importance through her impact on her child's comfort and assertion. Her immediate aversive incentives may include relief to whatever discomfort she feels when her child complains or is excluded. Just as there are different systems in the infant's brain that respond to vocal quality, there are likely complimentary systems in the mother's brain, perhaps elaborated from childhood mechanisms, that respond to infant and child distress signals that the child can use for imposing escape, avoidance, or punishment contingencies on his mother.(7)
Her tools (counter measures) for defending her own interests against a child or a husband may include building alliances (enlisting friends and families, forming political networks whether for baby sitting or for alternate shelter for herself), driving male sexual selection (so that the guys pay homeostatic costs derived from being larger and more aggressive), limiting sexual access, sharing things they gather, handling the money, managing the nest, manipulating his fears and eliciting jealousy (by the slightest smile at his rival, sending herself flowers, etc.), criticizing him into impotence, whining (interacts strongly with noise distractibility in males), and playing helpless. The most powerful female card is language. The average male is hopelessly overpowered by an average female; there are laws against his using his strengths (muscles) against her but laws and rules are extended expressions of her needs and linguistic skills. Because such are protective largely of female interests, there are no rules and no arrests for nagging. (Consider a GSR study of males imagining varied female tactics, watch the needle jump with whines & screeches.)
Picture our likely cradle days, when intense survival pressures shaped these patterns. Many women died in childbirth, making a capable female even more rare than is true today. Tough alphas had to behave more gently and manage alliances because of the stricter competition for access to a female. Even with our polished mate guarding skills, it is impossible to watch your woman constantly and still hunt or lay back and watch Greenbay. Be neglectful or cruel and she will be gone in 4 years. Separation anxiety (or fear of abandonment) ensures that he will adjust his behavior to suit his mate's demands. His fear is her tool, his fear is an extended phenotype of her needs, to use when she will or when he forces her to use it. (8) Often, these latter consequences no longer operate so obviously; thus, a modified form of "Mismatch" may also apply to the phenomenon of spouse abuse (9).
1) Miller, Geoffrey (1997) How mate choice shaped human nature: A review of sexual selection and human evolution. In Crawford C & Krebs D (Eds.) Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp 87-130.
2) A substantial portion of these children also have working mothers, thus spending long intervals in daycare. It's an easy leap to blame mom's job for the child's aberrations. I, too, want children with their mothers or with a small group of known, nurturant adults (primate "aunts," human grandmothers) for a good number of years just as was likely true in Africa. I also generally believe that hyper parents (or grandparents) often have hyper children (or grandchildren). There is correlational research that children left to institutions may become withdrawn or clinging as a function of placement age. The children that I've seen, however, are not clinging to strangers, to dad, or even to grandparents. These kids are often less domineering when with grandparents in mom's absence. However, some of them periodically develop a clinging relationship to an aide at daycare and mothers will use these relationships as a basis for leaving their child at a particular setting. (Institutionalized children were often indiscriminate in settings and targets for clinging.)
3) I also know adult males who are sleepless until their wife is in the door at night. Wife guarding, sperm competition, or separation anxiety? Probably not sperm competition since the Petes drop immediately to sleep when she arrives home. (Others of them cannot get to sleep until after having intercourse with her even if she has not been out of the home.) Of course, separation anxiety in either children or in adults could be viewed as a mechanism not only to ensure safety but also to insure existing resources against competitors (other children or other men).
4) Suomi S (1997) Nonverbal communication in nonhuman primates: Implications for the emergence of culture. In Segerstrale, U. & Molnar, P. (Eds.) Nonverbal Communication: Where Nature Meets Culture. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum. pp. 131-150. I sometimes share his observation with anxious moms who have determined children; it is another example of the close reciprocity possible between "cheaters" and "suckers." It gives moms a "reason" for their compliance to their child's directions as well as supporting the need for firm limits such as predictable time-outs. Several mothers remarked that their child does best with adults who are very firm but loving. Many of these same mothers take pride when their son dominates people outside of their home.
The dominance silliness applies to rhesus macaca mulatta; rhesus speciosa are friendly even to graduate students. Macaques attained marketing dominance, perhaps for commercial reasons, and led to decades of mutual primate hostilities.
5) There are, of course, some husbands who do not have anxiety attacks when their wife detaches. Most of these guys may have another female already in position. If so, the wife may correctly decide that "he doesn't love me any more," and get on with her depression while missing the possibility that his love for her was primarily self-serving even from the onset of courtship.
6) See other postings on how the physical traits of size and quickness may be effective signals regardless of correlated genetic sturdiness. The suggestion is that larger, livelier males also encounter more risks such that the less capable are injured or killed. Thus, stimuli that fight into the ethological of "supernormal releasers" have a key role in mate selection. Liveliness is a powerful factor. I recall a pet store with two display windows. Young ferrets wrestled in the one, young rabbits sat quietly in the other. The ferrets had 6 people watching them; the rabbits 2.
The "healthy, sexy son" explanation suggests that distal payoffs for the mother's genes are better if he is large, quick, intelligent, and acquisitive. These traits in a son make him attractive to egg bearers, raising the chances of his mother's genes to travel another generation. Her tactics shift as she gets older because she is less likely to have healthy sons. Unfit males generally do not mate (darned Y chromosome? or exclusively female choice?) whereas nearly any female will find a guy. Thus, an older mom will be more genetically successful if she pumps out daughters. The data followed the theory in this case. Dawkins, R. (1976, 1989) The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford.
7) Fernald A. (1992) Human maternal vocalizations as biologically relevant signals: An evolutionary perspective. In Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford, pp 391-428.
8) Domineering males deteriorate sharply when they are dumped even by the enablers they recruited. Their deterioration has immediate gains ("He really needs me, yep, I'll stay.") but delayed risks given that their sweetie was originally attracted to their gruff, strong manner. Crying and whimpering appear inconsistent with Symons-Buss standards. Even in younger children, the overlap of anxiety and domineering behavior seems inconsistent. It could be that anxiety is one more tactic to attract resources, particularly while you are temporarily smaller or weaker than your siblings. It seems to work for the tough guys at any age.
It's possible to "see these effects everywhere." I know several teen age arrogant types who can do their own homework provided that mom is somewhere in sight in the kitchen. Harry at 9 years startled his psychiatrist by rooting through mom's purse without asking permission. Desipramine held him for a while, Zoloft aggravated the grandiosity, Ritalin did little. He settled, did his work, and carried groceries for mom after starting risperidone. Willie, a 40 yo tough guy "had" to call his wife after stopping here @ 7:40am on his way to work after sniffing coke the night before. He relaxed during our therapy session but didn't do so completely until he spoke with Cindy. A person with panic attacks will cling to someone in middle of the night for relaxation.
Hollywood has also noticed the phenomena. In "Eddie" a defiant basketball player complained to his female coach, "I can't believe you told my mother." He subsequently was far more cooperative. A host on a local radio station remarked, "Some of these guys will lead cops on a high speed chase but always mind their mothers. Put their mothers in the patrol cars" I believe a character in "Pal Joey" asked, "Why is it that when a man has problems with a woman, the first thing he looks for is another woman?"
The lack of an enabler is a recurrent problem in alcoholism. "God" is an important element in AA treatment programs. God is perhaps an ultimate enabler, providing a mix of toughness and protection. Religiosity is often a symptom of bipolar disorder. I remember several female manic, "children of alcholics" who handled anxiety by "giving it to God." They also had a ritual of having someone else open their Bible and, with eyes closed, pick a verse to help make a risky decision. A rigorous behaviorist would liken the payoffs to a variable interval schedule of reinforcement and there are sufficient cognitive tactics in believers to get them past long intervals of no reinforcement or of negative outcomes from a scriptural hint.
You may need to treat some manics by finding an assertive enabler (tough but caring). An "alpha" therapist can become an essential prop for a powerless manic who exhibits dysthymia. Such a relationship should evolve until the dysthymic takes the leader role and the therapist slides into "back up." Contingent caring is a powerful tool despite our loyalty to noncontingent acceptance. (There are rumors that Rogers backed down a bit when he got a larger caseload in a Veterans Center.) Some data suggest that a key factor in recovery from alcoholism is the presence of an active but determined family. Again, the "tough but loving" morph of a reciprocity contract. Put the trained spouse back into harness and the drinker gets better.
Parents sometimes do these things instinctively. Martha set up her enabler son with a manic girl. His past choices were customarily bipolar types with drug and alcohol problems. Annie, Martha's young coworker, is a clone of Martha, productive, respected, high energy, proud, and looking for a connection. Annie called him for the first date.
Role switches are certainly possible. George was critical of his wife but flirtatious with other women for a decade. Ruth "flipped" one day and stopped waiting on him, started going out with her friends, and making him do things for hmself. He angered, then trembled. He then adopted the tactic of minimizing his disagreements with her in order not to elicit her departure. Their roles reversed quickly from a 20 year pattern. Kelly and Hank (classic manics) have dated for several decades, each of them keeping to their own ambitions. Hank eventually dropped her; Kelly then lost sleep and weight, responding badly to benzodiazepines and SSRIs until he called her. She quickly agreed to schedule 3 short dates per week and to reserve Saturdays for him. She then put a couple pounds back on and glowed; he complained that she was a little too close.
Some manics have "back-up" crews to avoid emotional blackmail or dependency on a single partner.
9) Nesse R & Williams G (1995) Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine. NY: Vintage.