How I Fell for an ‘I’m the Man’ Man

How I Fell for an ‘I’m the Man’ Man

My new guy and I were lying next to each other, half-covered by bedsheets, the afternoon sun warming my feet. We had been dating for about a month.

“I’m the man,” he said. “I should be in charge of the money.”

“Right,” I said, feeling a jolt of anxiety. As a partner at a financial consulting firm, I thought: “I’m in charge of the money every day.”

But I reasoned that he and I weren’t going to be sharing a checking account anytime soon, so why end things prematurely? Besides, in the context of our conversation, he wasn’t even referring to me but to his ex-wife; they had been driven apart by financial disagreements. This put some distance between his words and me, or so I told myself.

I didn’t normally go for guys who said things like, “I’m the man.” I usually fell for men who didn’t argue when I said it was my turn to pay for dinner. These men noticed my intelligence before my looks, or at least they said they did.

But in my post-divorce haze, I found myself falling for a different kind of man.

As his words lingered, I felt a combination of shock and curiosity, as if encountering a species previously thought extinct. I knew there were men who believed they should be in charge of money. The shock came from encountering one who readily admitted it.

But he already had made clear he believed in traditional gender roles. With sex, too, he had said, “I’m the man. I want to lead.”

I found his bluntness surprising but also alluring. He was confident in his desires.

Since my ex-husband had divorced me the previous year, I had been reconsidering what I thought I knew about relationships. And my previous belief in a relationship of equals seemed painfully naïve.

My ex called himself a feminist, but in our marriage that seemed to mean he felt fine about me dramatically out-earning him, fine about spending my income freely on luxuries, and fine about me covering the mortgage, the private school tuition for our children and the rest of our financial commitments. (At the time, he was building a small retail business from which he took no salary.)

This experience should have led me to dump any guy who claimed it was a man’s job to manage a couple’s money, but here it was having the opposite effect. I craved a man who sought to take financial responsibility for his family, even if I didn’t need it.

After my fantasy of a partnership of equals had failed to materialize, I seemed to want to replace it with a fantasy of paternalistic protection.

The men I’d previously dated thought of themselves as staunch feminists — in hindsight, frustratingly so, at least in the sense that they were too inclined to defer to me (under the guise of respecting me) to ever take charge, either financially or sexually. I can’t blame them; the pattern of choosing men too reticent to arouse me had been mine.

I had interrogated the last man I dated on his Democratic bona fides before agreeing to meet for coffee. But with my new guy, I found myself quietly acquiescing as he told me his voting history shouldn’t matter. (I took this to mean his voting history was the opposite of mine.)

After paying for coffee that first evening, he carefully aligned the bottom of the receipt with his credit card, then wrapped it around tightly before placing the card back in his wallet (my ex would have scrunched up the receipt and tossed it in the nearest trash can). Watching the care he took with this mundane task, I knew I wanted him.

A week later, we played chess in an ice-cream parlor. I sensed that losing would dampen his ardor, so I left my king open to attack, letting him checkmate me twice. As we left, he took my hand and pulled me closer.

Lying in his bed before falling asleep, I felt guilty about the chess games. They were like fake orgasms, untruthful actions giving the man an exaggerated view of his talents. But these games didn’t hide sexual dissatisfaction; they hid my intelligence, turning me into someone he would feel a need to protect.

He often cooked for us in the kitchen he had remodeled himself (despite a career in data analytics, not construction). The walls of my kitchen were still marked with the rough outlines of the cabinetry my ex had wrested off years earlier in his aborted attempt at an upgrade.

Sitting with a glass of wine, admiring my new guy’s cooking and handiwork, I was tempted to minimize the implications of his beliefs on gender roles. I pondered him being in charge of the money. Unlike my ex, he was frugal, believing a car was for transportation, not luxury. His home was outfitted with charming furniture he had made himself.

But he wasn’t cheap when it came to me. He paid when we ate out; I never even offered, in part because I knew doing so would displease him, but also because I relished feeling cared for. He was fiscally responsible, generous and trustworthy.

So I told myself there was nothing wrong with the man being in charge of the money as long as he made good decisions. At the same time, I found myself becoming guarded around my new guy, evading his questions and hiding things I thought he wouldn’t like. When he asked if I ever went to church, I said no — but failed to mention I was Jewish. I never lied about my career, though I didn’t tell him the whole truth either. He knew I was an actuary but not that I was a partner at the firm.

Despite my evasiveness, I knew what I loved about him. A few years earlier, a dog had attacked his son. He fought off the dog, but his son was left with stitches and difficulty sleeping. He sued the neighbor who owned the dog, getting a sizable contribution to his son’s college fund, and the neighbor moved away.

Given the choice between a man who said all the right things about supporting a strong woman and a man who shielded his child from a vicious dog with his bare hands, I chose the latter. Not that the two are mutually exclusive.

In the end, though, he didn’t choose me.

He was smart enough, first of all, to see through my deceptions: the restraint during chess and the lack of candor about my career. There were other things he may have spotted too, like the mezuza on my door frame or the chess strategy books on my shelves.

And I think he must have realized I earned more than he did. When he expressed frustration that he hadn’t been able to save for his children’s college costs, I said nothing. And when he asked me about alimony and child support, I answered truthfully: I didn’t receive any.

When I made the mistake of mentioning work, he finally asked enough questions to find my career history online. It was aggressive enough (on his part) and evasive enough (on my part) for us both to feel like it was the beginning of the end.

A few hours later, I lay next to him, noticing the swarthiness of his arms against my pale skin. I told him a story about sex with my ex-husband.

“You initiated?” he said, mildly incredulous.

His other beliefs I had sensed and anticipated, but given our sexual compatibility, I hadn’t expected him to believe a woman shouldn’t initiate sex.

When I next saw him, he was sullen and withdrawn. I mentioned my cabinetry problems, as if to say, “See, I don’t earn more than you. I can’t even afford a normal kitchen.”

It was a last-ditch effort to turn myself into the person I thought he wanted and also the person I wanted to be: a woman who needed to be protected. Or perhaps, more accurately, a woman who wanted to feel protected, whether she needed it or not. My attempt was halfhearted though; I knew the endeavor was doomed.

After we had sex, he said he couldn’t stay over, though he had no plans for the morning. The next day, by text, I ended it, which is what he wanted me to do.

It seemed like an obvious decision, but I surprised myself by bursting into tears. What he had offered — strength, protection and generosity — were things I had been looking for without even knowing it. That’s the thing about gender roles. They can meet a need you were afraid to acknowledge, and they can take it all away when you don’t conform.

Eventually, I hired someone for the cabinetry work. It was expensive, but that’s O.K. It’s my kitchen, and I’m in charge of the money.

Susan Forray works as an actuary in Milwaukee, Wis.

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