Infantilize: Treat (someone) as a child or in a way that denies their maturity in age or experience.
In “Does he want a ‘mommy’?” we discussed how some men want a woman who will take care of them. Let’s talk about the flip side — women who treat the midlife man they’re dating (or married to) like a child.
Perhaps she doesn’t do it all the time, but sometimes — occasionally — she questions his judgment, or treats him like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He may be successful at work, making important decisions, yet in their relationship she sometimes second guesses or criticizes his decisions.
If you’re the one doing it, you’re not usually aware you are. And when it is pointed out, a common rationale is, “I’m just trying to help.” Maybe you have evidence (at least to you) that he hasn’t made good decisions in this area in the past, or you generalize that men don’t make good choices around this (e.g., appearance or decorating), or you have some experience from the last man/men you’ve been with who have not done this particular thing well.
I’m not proud to admit that I have some experience infantilizing a man or two (and probably more). I have all sorts of justifications for why I question his past, present or future decision. And yes, I usually defend my egregious behavior with the aforementioned, “I’m just trying to help.” I was convinced I was, although the outcome, of course, was 180 degrees from helpful.
Here’s a recent example. My sweetie wanted to buy a pair of swim trunks as we planned to relax in the hotel hot tub that evening. I was to accompany him, erroneously believing he wanted my input. At the first store, he chose a pair labeled “large” and said “This should fit.” My ex wore a large and he weighs 50 lbs less than Mr. Romantic. I suggested, “Let’s hold it up to your waist and see if it will work.” I did and it was definitely too small, as was an XL. We went to another store.
This time the trunks were tagged with waist sizes. He grabbed one labeled with his measurement and said, “This will do” and started toward the cashier. I suggested, “Don’t you want to try it on?” He said, “No. This is my size.” Feeling that since just moments ago he thought he was a large and clearly wasn’t, and knowing he’d lost a large amount of weight recently, perhaps he was a little fuzzy on his current size. I held up the chosen trunks to his waist and they, too, didn’t look like they’d fit. “I really think you should try them on,” I said, thinking I was being helpful.
Now you, astute reader, already know that this was not received as helpful. It was heard as bossy, mothering, condescending, and yes, infantilizing. He glared at me. Then he stomped towards the fitting room. A few minutes later he beelined past me when I asked if they fit. Back at the swim suit rack he grabbed another pair and marched toward the cashier, with nary a word to me. (See “The first fight” for lessons from this encounter.)
He later explained that if he bought the wrong size, he would just return them or buy another pair. My attitude was 1) that would be a waste of money as swim suits aren’t usually returnable, 2) we drove an hour to this store from our seaside resort and it would be doubtful we’d return that evening if they didn’t fit, and 3) if he didn’t have trunks that fit, he couldn’t accompany me to the hot tub, which would be less fun.
Serendipitously, a month later his 22-year-old daughter had a nearly identical experience with her boyfriend. They were swim trunk shopping and he grabbed a pair. She suggested (insisted?) he try them on, and he was incensed that she thought he didn’t know what size he wore.
Now some of this is chocked up to women’s experience trying on clothes and having the same size fit completely differently from one manufacturer to another. Because of this, women nearly always try on clothing before purchasing, and wouldn’t think of buying a swim suit before trying it on, no matter how psychically painful. Also, when women shop together it’s commonplace to try on something and get the other’s opinion, often helpfully points out it pulls over the rump, or the color makes you look jaundiced. Men have a very different experience of shopping, it seems.
This example helps us understand why women treat men in ways that men interpret as condescending. (I know men also infantilize women, but we will save that for another discussion.) And perhaps it’s just part of Venus and Mars and we should all just reread John Gray’s classic book.
While not all patronizing behavior is designed to “help,” some of it is. The other justification women use to explain why they treat a man like a child is that he is acting childlike! A pal recently shared that her 50ish date refused to put on his seat belt. Men I’ve dated have behaved in ways reminiscent of adolescence. If they are going to act like a child, it is hard to resist treating them like one! But of course, they are men and know the consequences of their actions, so why would we take it upon ourselves to try to suggest their behavior is immature?
Because we’re trying to help!
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