Dear Abby Screws Up

george clooney

George Clooney

It all depends doesn’t it girls?

DEAR ABBY: My wife and I are retired. Everything was great until about six months ago, when things radically changed.

The issue is I stopped shaving every day. I did it when I was working, but I don’t feel the need to do it now. My wife strongly disapproves. She claims my unkempt appearance is a direct, negative reflection on her. I feel it reflects only on me.

I have told her I will shave prior to any social engagement we both attend, as well as public events like civic club, etc. The guys I play cards with also go unshaven.

My wife has threatened to cancel card games with friends, cancel our weekend trip to her brother’s birthday celebration, cancel our upcoming European river cruise, refuses to kiss me and said some things I can’t repeat. Is there anything I can do to appease this lady I love dearly? — LAID BACK IN MICHIGAN

DEAR LAID BACK: One thing comes to mind — you could shave.

This one really hit a nerve with me.  Of course it’s filtered through my own personal experiences with pathologically obsessive-compulsive and overly controlling people and institutions.   And in that context Abby’s answer seems trite and overly simplistic. I think it obviously has more to do with control than it does with shaving.  This appears to be an insecure wife trying to maintain the status quo at home, and failing in her efforts to do so feels threatened.  I have had personal experience with this very same issue.  And I have been on both sides of the argument. We tend to think of this as primarily man on woman abuse, but it often manifests itself as woman on man abuse too (abuse is abuse and is not gender specific). 

I was a very controlling husband in my first marriage, to the point where in today’s world it would be considered abusive.  Not physically abusive, but certainly psychologically and emotionally abusive.  It is a terrible way to be, and it’s even worse for the victim—in this case my wife.  The root cause of my controlling attitude and abusive behavior was deep-seated personal insecurity, and although there were more than a few reasons for that insecurity my behavior was still unacceptable.  I was attempting to control every aspect of my immediate environment to feel both safe and protected; paradoxically it had quite the opposite effect, and eventually my marriage blew up amidst chaos and turmoil.  Today there is an abundance of help available, but back in those days real men didn’t seek out or avail themselves of psychological counseling.

So Karma being what it is the payback came many years later, but this time the roles were reversed—even though the end result was the same:  Another failed marriage ending in the midst of chaos and turmoil.  The cycles of cause and effect continue to permeate our lives and relationships.  A pathological compulsion to control and criticize is not healthy, and it will make you and others miserable.  My mistake this time around was not being assertive enough early enough, and not staking out my personal boundaries.  I had allowed the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction, because of my prior history and behavior.  The net result, of course, is that I became an enabler of   that very same pathological behavior, but this time to my own detriment.  Shouldn’t somebody be teaching us this stuff in school?

Back to the Dear Abby letter writer.  Retirement is yet another of life’s transition points, and it can pose a real challenge to the status quo and to personal relationships in particular. Retirement per se doesn’t always end a marriage,  but it can bring long festering resentments to the forefront. However, life’s transition points will often push critical issues to the tipping point, and maybe that’s the point of having transition points in one’s life—to make the necessary course corrections for a happier and more satisfying life.

The wife in this instance complains that the husband’s appearance negatively reflects on her.  That sounds personal to me.  Canceling social engagements, complaining, criticizing and withholding emotional contact all sound and look like vindictive actions to bring her husband to heel.  I don’t think it has anything to do with facial hair, I think it is entirely about control.  Facial hair is just the pretext.  In my case I worked almost fifty years before retirement, and had to conform to other people’s expectations during that time.  Much of that time was spent in the military and commercial banking where expectations were high and rigid.  At age fifty I started to exert my independence, I cut my hair to a buzz cut and grew a beard (it was short and kept neatly trimmed).  But in those days bank Vice Presidents didn’t sport short hair and beards, but by today’s standards it’s almost de rigueur.  My wife hated it, and communicated that often in our private conversations.  Today most, or at least many, young men sport 2 or 3 days worth of short beard growth, even at work—I myself prefer a beard or no beard as opposed to a few days stubble.  But the point is it is now socially acceptable.

Retirement is all about enjoying your hard-won freedom and saying goodbye to the many, often inane, societal and corporate constraints.  Rediscovering yourself and even reinventing yourself if need be.  Pursuing activities and interests long overlooked, and exploring new ways of doing things.  It’s okay to wear an ‘Old Man’ ponytail or to even get a tattoo or earring.  Those are expressions of freedom.  If the wife in this instance doesn’t ease up with the criticisms, complaints and control she may find herself alone with no stubbly beard to contend with.  And frankly I think that is probably the real issue here, her fear that her husband is changing—and she is losing control of the situation.

His accommodations to her complaints are reasonable, too reasonable in my estimation, and if she can’t accept them I think she will lose him.  I think she’s probably already lost him if he’s frustrated enough to write Dear Abby.  In my case I accommodated way too long, and in the end it was for naught.  She controlled the situation right up to the point where there was no longer a situation left to control.  I’m not whining, I’m just saying (in the male vernacular) that it took me too long to grow a pair.  After fifty years of being controlled by others, I now relish my freedom to be in control of myself (and sometimes that includes being out of control).  As we Baby Boomers age, folks like Dear Abby will have to rethink their own perspectives and perceptions, and maybe not resort to easy trite answers to questions both deep and complex.

Abby, it’s not about the facial hair, it’s about:  Freedom, control, insecurity, fear and myriad other complex human emotions.  BTW, this holds true for women too.  Don’t put up with overly controlling men.  Verbal, emotional and psychological abuse (not to mention physical abuse) is unacceptable behavior by either gender.  And if you suffer from, and are afflicted with, these kinds of behaviors yourself seek help, otherwise those who love you the most (husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends) will leave you just to survive and preserve their sanity.  

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2 responses to “Dear Abby Screws Up

  1. “I love your beard!” said no one to me, ever. But I don’t care. I grew in a few years ago, in my mid-40s, just as my facial hair began to turn gray. It just suits me. Did I do it to define my features, to look rebellious or rugged? Or was it a manifestation of some midlife crisis? It was certainly cheaper than a red convertible.

  2. Most of the time I have a full beard trimmed short, at other times a ‘Biker-stache’ like the Harley guys sport. And once in a great while I will revert back to my old Wall Street conservative banker mustache. It’s fun and keeps me entertained.

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