Ask any woman who's either had a troubled relationship with a man, "drama kings" are out there. But as Dalma Heyn writes in her latest book "Drama Kings: The Men Who Drive Strong Women Crazy," women aren't sitting around and taking it anymore. They are realizing they can have a much more fulfilling life on their own as a single woman. And this type of thinking represents a huge shift in a society that has previously cast women first and foremost in the role of wife and mother, says Heyn, who is also the author of "The Erotic Silence of the American Wife" and "Marriage Shock."
As Heyn describes in the book's preface, the "fatal flaw" of a Drama King is that while he appears to have so many desirable qualities that draw the woman to him in the first place, he can't give her what she wants. For example, his "boyish charm" might really be a "arrested development" or his "refreshing laid-backness" turns out to be "an inability to connect." After leaving these toxic men, women become stronger and realize what they really want in life and how to get it.
Below is the first chapter of "Drama Kings."
Chapter One: All the Kings' Women
Love me in full being.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Love Poems
Maureen Fisher says she has it all.
At thirty-eight, she is healthy, the mother of an adored teenage son, Timothy, and the marketing director of the biggest sports equipment store in Florida. She and Timothy live in a small house forty minutes from Tampa. Timothy's father, Maureen's ex-husband, Christopher, lives close by, popping over several times a week when Maureen works late so Timothy won't be alone. Maureen's relationship with Christopher is good, now that their divorce is well behind them and Timothy's well-being is their only concern. She has three dear, close friends; a Tibetan terrier; and aging parents she is happy to support.
Has it all? Let's see: Did she forget to mention a man?
No, she didn't forget. Maureen knows she doesn't fit the picture of the woman she was supposed to have become at her age, complete with the lifetime husband, or lifetime partner, or a potential one, or at least someone. Yet there is no one on the horizon, and she is as content as can be. She's not even looking.
I only began to recognize that I'm truly happy -- maybe even happiest -- without a guy when I did some serious thinking about what's right for me. I had to deconstruct all the myths about women's happiness; challenge all the assumptions, the promises, the dreams laid out for me by my family, my friends, even the stories I grew up on. I had to learn to read those newspaper items -- "Distraught Woman Can't Find Man!" "Unmarried Woman Shoots Self!" Because not to have a man at thirty-eight means I don't have the one thing I've been told all my life is the only thing. So for that part of me that was taught I'm not a full human being without this "other half," it's like having a missing psychic limb. But that's programming, not my own reaction, and I'm not manipulated anymore.
I've been with a slew of goofy guys, and I didn't want to stay with any of them. Some were appealing, some tyrannical, and some just ridiculous; some were fun and sexy and wild; and some were not so good for Timothy. I went through sadness, weirdness, desperation, until it hit me like a slap: I don't have to try so hard to be in a relationship! I don't have to suffer for a man! I live wonderfully without any of them!
I'm not saying forever on this -- I love men, I love sex. I love being in love. But I've found the notion of one man way more appealing than the reality of being with any of the men I've been out with.
Tracy, at thirty, feels enormous pressure to marry a man she's dated for almost a year but who she nevertheless believes is "clueless" about her. She's a loan officer for a commercial bank in Topeka; he's a musician a few years younger. All her friends are either already married or about to be. She says it takes everything she's got to ward off the onslaught of advice about how best to transform Dan -- the "pretty crazy" guy she "sort of" loves -- into husband material.
I hear about having relationship talks, playing hard to get, giving him ultimatums, dumping him outright -- the thing is, it's all like Republicans talking to Democrats: See, I don't want what they want. I don't want to bludgeon him into understanding me any more than I want him bludgeoning me into understanding him.
I'm in the most conservative business in the world in a very conservative town. I wear little navy suits to work and pumps with clear panty hose. Dan looks like Nick Nolte in one of his drunk-driving mug shots, with the hair, the wild eyes, the dissolute bit. But here's the thing. He calls and says, "Hey! Let's go hiking today," or wakes me up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday after a gig with, "I fixed our bikes. Let's go for a ride." I love that. We don't talk much, except about practical stuff -- the amount of air in the tires, the best conditions for hiking. He expresses his emotions through his guitar and physical activity.
And her emotions?
Tracy enjoys wrestling with her own complicated, contradictory feelings "all by myself" -- another thing that confounds her friends.
I don't need to share my ambivalence or investigate his. I don't need to beat ambiguity and doubt into submission -- I can live with it. I don't require Dan to understand my messy psyche. Who says a man is supposed to understand me? Who says a man and woman can't get enough from each other by having fun together? And who says I have to marry or have children?
Well, she concedes quickly with a grin, pretty much everyone. But that's their problem, she believes. "I love kids, but I may not want one of my own." So when friends ask her when she's going to get serious, she tells them she's very serious -- just not about turning this good-enough-for-the-moment Drama King into Mr. Right. She's done three things that help, she says. "One, I broke out of the mold that says love is forever. Two, I broke out of the mold that says I'm supposed to be pushing marriage on any bachelor I find. And three, I broke out of the mold that says being alone is being lonely."
She wants, these days, to have fun. Her old craving for what she calls a love twin, a soul mate, feels regressive to her now, "like something I hunger for when I'm feeling the weakest and the most needy, a throwback to a time when there was no such thing for women as a life of one's own." Her desire for a soul mate is most intense, in other words, when it's an attempted shortcut to, or substitute for, a soul of her own.
She lives in the moment and has learned to love doing things by herself. She knows she's with a Drama King and accepts it for now.
There are things I can't stand about our relationship, and others that I may never get again: He's sort of a lunatic -- not sort-of; really a lunatic -- and I put up with a lot of unprocessed stuff from him, a lot of narcissism and aggression. But then, sex is great; he's a passionate guy. And unlike every other man I've met, he likes me exactly the way I am -- and I'm a moody, cranky, bossy thing. He doesn't call me selfish for putting myself first in my life, and he doesn't attack me for sounding -- as I often do, I'm told -- like it's my way or the highway.
Tracy sums up what feels new to her about herself. "I'm the real me. I don't do what I'm told; I do what I feel. And my life has taken off. I don't need a man. And not needing Dan has freed me to ... want him."
Anabel has been married and divorced and remarried and divorced -- from the same man. Now, at forty-four, she has gone out with "every conceivable kind of maniac" and continues to do so with gusto, convinced that "that's what's out there." She loved being married, "or else I wouldn't have tried so hard with Frank," her on-again-off-again ex-husband. As for wedlock again, though, she's in no hurry "to get back on that horse. When people say, 'What a pity you're not married; you'd make someone a great wife,' I tell them that my greatness as a wife isn't the point. That 'someone's' greatness as a husband is." She sees no man in her troupe of Drama Kings that qualify. Still, she's always up for a relationship that is -- she rolls her eyes heavenward -- "healthy" and "normal."
And this, she says, is the problem.
The healthier I get, the more self-sufficient and contented I am that way, the more I seem to attract the world's wackos. There was Tom, the most commitment-phobic yet most desperately needy-but-God-forbid-he-admit-it kind of guy, who kept saying how uncomplicated he was but kept falling asleep at dinner and going home by 8:30. There was Harry, the chef, who made me feel I was too inept to go near my own cutting board with a knife in my hand. There was Jon, who came over at noon every day for a month, whether invited or not. Wouldn't stay. Just deposited his white van, which looked disturbingly like O.J. Simpson's, in my driveway at lunchtime for a nooner. Come to think of it, he even looked like a young O.J."
Anabel, who says she identifies with a slew of pop-culture heroines -- from Carrie in Sex and the City to Donna Moss in The West Wing to Grace in Will and Grace -- is a dermatologist in Houston. She's considering coming out with her own makeup line, and Estée Lauder is interested already. She has three black Labs and two Siamese cats. Attractive men, she says, are always welcome into her menagerie -- for lunch or whatever -- but will never replace it.
What I can't get over is that the more stable and confident I become, the more content with my own life, the more I'm open to something new and healthy and positive and equal in a relationship -- the lack of neediness men have long claimed they want, after all -- the more the men seem to regress and try to drag me back to some old dynamic I thought we were all through with. Then, when these bizarre relationships end, I keep going forward, growing stronger and stronger -- but the men keep going backward in time! So there I am, suddenly, feeling like on the one hand I'm Xena, Warrior Princess, but once in a relationship, I'm like Anna with the King of Siam, expected to bow lower than he does.
What convinces her that she's gaining strength and going forward after these "bizarre" relationships end?
Well, I'm successful, for one thing. And I feel better after each guy. I have more fun, incrementally. I constantly shed old stuff and feel cleaner, leaner, clearer. Even if I feel punched in the stomach for a few days and take to my bed over a weekend or two, I'm not devastated, not at my core. I feel like those cartoon characters who fall head first into the pavement, get smashed flat, then jump right up, shake themselves off, and go zooming into the next adventure.
Look: I just bought a house! I love it and I'm proud of myself and I love my weird life and I don't care that I'm house poor and without a guy. I don't see myself as failing, you see, but as succeeding. I don't see the end of a relationship as some moral deficiency on my part. I'm getting the hang of love's ... temporariness. I've grown big time in terms of how I relate to men. In college, in the dorms, I mothered the guys and picked up their stupid socks and tried to help them grow up. Now I don't. If I decide to see a guy, I take him as he is. And if he lives like a slob or behaves like a child, I don't go there. And if he's altogether horrible, I let him go.
What you're hearing here is a cosmic change in women's attitudes toward relationships. If I had heard one woman speak the way Maureen, Tracy, and Anabel do when I was researching my last book, I would have thought I was in another country. Back then, in the mid-1990s, I heard women tell stories of the unassailable centrality of their intimate relationships, an importance that dwarfed everything else in their lives. I did not hear anyone say she believed that moving through a succession of temporary, imperfect relationships might be a good thing. Women spoke of turning themselves inside out to make even the least satisfying pairings function, obsessing over loves that often limped painfully toward the elusive "forever" they swore to attain -- because to not reach it would have left them with a sense of failure, despair, and loneliness. They sometimes spent their entire adult lives in unions in which they felt afraid to speak honestly, dissembling for years, for lifetimes, because their deepest feelings did not fit what they were told they "should" be.
In the mid-'90s, I listened to women who struggled to bring their true selves with them into intimate relationships; who were unable to negotiate the desperate impasses they experienced with their men but nevertheless clung to relationships to avoid the loneliness and stigma of being alone. The last thing I could then imagine was women feeling sanguine about impermanence; upbeat about being plunged into a bewildering and chaotic mating climate; buoyant when giving up on a guy or even being "dumped" by him; increasingly finding strength and joy within themselves and in their friendships, their homes, and their careers -- and not dependent on an intimate relationship for those qualities.
Suddenly, I'm hearing women speak of growing stronger through relationships, even the ones that end; of finding themselves afterward feeling okay, hopeful, and even ebullient -- and game for more. I'm not hearing about "failed" relationships or long-lasting devastation when relationships are over but about successful adventures, meaningful -- if oddball -- experiences; relationships that, even as they lurch, founder, and sink, leave the woman feeling freer, savvier, and more self-aware.
This is not to say a woman doesn't crave relationships or remain pain-free when they end -- only that she increasingly doesn't wholly depend on them, as her mother or even her older sister might have, for her self-esteem, identity, or solvency. Even as the culture continues instilling a fear in her that each man may be her last, urging that she push to land him any way she can, she sees her divorced mother dating, her workaholic father dating, her widowed grandparents dating --so she doesn't believe it. She is one of the eighty-six million single adults who may soon define the country's new majority, so she has company in imagining life, even if temporarily, on her own. She is willing to hold out longer for the kind of relationship she wants -- that, or go it alone.
Whereas I once heard denial about divorce -- young women whose parents had divorced nevertheless insisting it could never happen to them -- I now hear a more clearheaded understanding of the new meaning of forever. And where I once heard fantasies of being rescued financially and emotionally, I now hear anything but. In fact, I hear the opposite: a growing fear of having to emotionally and financially rescue men. Where I once heard open despair about the disappearance of courtship -- with its comforting, well-worn cultural rituals and milestones that led clearly to marriage --I now hear about resilience and courage in the face of its loss. As Gloria Steinem, whose voice has so often presaged that of the next generation, puts it:
I used to indulge in magical thinking when problems seemed insurmountable. Often, this focused on men, for they seemed to me the only ones with power to intercede with the gods. Now it has been so long since I fantasized a magical rescue that I can barely remember the intensity of that longing. Instead, I feel my own strength, take pleasure in the company of mortals, and no longer believe in gods. Except those in each of us.
The loss of what love used to be, or might have been, is more than compensated by women's sense of having done vital internal work to build themselves, theirselves -- work that will serve them in their next relationships. They don't, in other words, feel stuck in this place of pain or loss; they move past it quickly. Something deep in the culture and deep in women has shifted -- and it's an extraordinary, evolutionary shift. The man-centric view of the world has been realigned by today's women, and the effect of men's displacement from it is as revolutionary as when Copernicus squashed the notion that the Earth was flat. It happened so quickly. The stories I used to hear from women in the 1980s, 1990s, and even a few years ago were so often about understanding, reforming, revamping, or redeeming men. I don't mean simply that love was important to them. Women valued relationships over themselves -- as if, I sometimes thought, having a relationship with a man, any relationship, was felt to be crucial to an intact self, prerequisite to it. Hanging on to a Drama King, no matter how unhappy he made her, no matter how paltry his emotional and financial offering, was more important than being happy.
As Wendy, married at twenty-two and startled by her husband's increasing disengagement, put it a year ago, "His stonewalling makes me feel unvalued. It makes me feel unloved. So I try to make him talk instead of hiding out, but he only shuts up more -- a response that only makes me feel worse."
Until recently, their stories featured an old, familiar dilemma: While men felt the pressure to be strong providers or else be accused of being failures, women felt the pressure to be selfless nurturers -- relationship "experts" responsible for the well-being of a couple and fixing whatever ailed it --or else be accused of being failures at the one job they were supposed to do "naturally." Men felt uncomfortably bound to the workplace and women to their relationships -- regardless of how much they might have wished that they could share both. If this setup left women powerless in the world, it left men relationally inept, devoid of the skills to connect with the women they loved. If women couldn't single-handedly break through to their isolated, conquering heroes, the men became angry, bereft, guilty, and more isolated. As Connie, a woman who appeared in both of my previous books, recently recalled:
I could not make him, the man who supposedly loved me, understand me. He could not hear me. Hey, he couldn't even listen to me. Or wouldn't; I never could tell. He was a lawyer, and I swear, unless I spoke in lawyerese -- cited numbers to prove my argument, revealed statistics to back up an idea -- he didn't believe me! I became mute as a wastebasket.
Not so today. Connie has since left her lawyer, one of the more tyrannical types of Drama Kings. Now, she talks her head off to a man who wants to understand, a man who is listening, hearing, responding, and trying his best to develop the skills to be as fully inside the relationship as she is. She couldn't have it any other way.
Or take Wendy, who said about her new marriage in my first book:
When do I start being myself? When does this relationship start to be as intimate and easy and happy as it promised to be? When does Ben start talking to me a lot, the way all the men I've known always did? It took a year for me to get it through my head that this was it.
This was it, and it was her life; it was everything.
Wendy left her marriage at age forty, surprising everyone - -including Ben, her shut-down, emotion-avoidant Drama King. She is now happily single, running the trust and estates division of the bank at which she's worked for twenty years. She is closer, now, to her two grown children. She says, as if to reassure me, that it's possible she would consider sharing her home with someone again but that she's in no hurry because she's happier than she's ever been.
I'd spent years hearing stories about the transformation of women into wives, and now I was hearing about the transformation of wives into women. And their stepping stones? Drama Kings.
I watch this sea change in awe. We've gone from the time when women placed relationships, no matter how bad, first above all else, to a time when they express surprise and joy at odd-shaped, unscripted lives in which they feel complete even without an overweening love interest. That women today are on another beat, led by a drummer from a wild new rhythm section that's quite different from the one that used to move them, is borne out by research. Girls have powered ahead startlingly. Girls are surpassing boys at every level in undergraduate and graduate schools. Women, who became the majority of American college students more than twenty years ago, now make up fifty-seven percent of college students. According to Newsweek, they also get more out of college: They're more likely to study abroad, join in activities like community service, and seek counseling for problems. They are less likely to transfer, drop out, or even commit suicide than their male college classmates. As recently as the 1970s, men tended to "marry down" educationally; today, with women who receive bachelor's and master's degrees surpassing the number of men who do -- a trend presumed to continue, according to the National Center for Education Statistics -- wives may soon routinely be more highly educated than their mates. This trend, according to Elaina Rose, PhD, associate professor of economics at the University of Washington in Seattle, also reverses what's called hypergamy, in which the most highly educated women were left most often without husbands. Today, according to Dr. Rose, "the rate at which men marry up is about equal to the rate at which women marry up."
There are now twice as many women ages twenty to thirty-four in the work force as there were in 1970, and their financial assets are expected to rise dramatically in the coming years. Surveys vary as to how many men now have women partners who are the sole breadwinners, but some say as many as one in five. Although women still make seventy-six cents to men's dollar, a huge percentage of wealth is in women's hands: Forty-three percent of Americans with more than $500,000 in assets are women. The annual income in households headed by women grew twenty-nine percent from 1993 to 2000 -- the biggest jump among all households. The Securities Industry Association estimates that 220,000 women head households with incomes of more than $100,000, a number expected to double by 2010, when they'll control more than $1 trillion in assets.
Not only are female high achievers everywhere, but single men expect it. The strong woman is everywhere researchers look. "Today's woman can run, swim, and skate faster than any man of a few decades ago, and the gap that does exist may soon close," writes Barbara Ehrenreich, who goes on to point out in Newsweek that women also seem to be more resistant to fatigue and can outlast men in physical endurance races. In the sheer longevity race, women win by seven years. Women surpass all previous assumptions about their mental as well as physical capacities and now live up to dictionary definitions of the word strong -- both the Merriam-Webster Dictionary's "those who wield force, authority, or influence" and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary's "those who are able to withstand great force or opposition; not easily damaged or overcome."
In all areas - -physical, emotional, educational, athletic, psychological, and spiritual -- women triumph, because women today have more power than ever before over their own lives and therefore over their relationships. As renowned psychoanalyst Ethel Person, MD, speaks of it, "To possess personal power is to be truly in possession of the self, to be able to use oneself as the instrument of one's own plans." To which I would add, the instrument of one's own pleasure as well. "When we possess [personal power]," she goes on to say, "we feel sure of ourselves; when we exercise it, we feel a kind of high."
These women do feel a kind of high, for what this has meant in their relationships is a shift that would be unrecognizable to their grandparents. Women have gone from a primary need to please men -- for fear that if they didn't, they'd be left alone and destitute -- to a desire to explore on their own, have fun, experience life. Seeing love through their own eyes rather than seeing themselves through others' more critical eyes, they can now search not just for a suitable match but for someone who will please them.
One of the themes in my earlier books is the confusion modern middle-class women felt not only between selflessness and selfishness but also between pleasing and pleasure, for ours was a culture that urged them not only to please or else lose but also to believe that pleasing others was women's pleasure. In my interviews in the 1980s and 1990s, women actually conflated the two words and, more to the point, judged themselves harshly for finally teasing them apart and for choosing wanting for themselves over giving to others. "What more could you possibly want?" the question went, the one in their heads, the one society asked, "when you already have everything a woman should want?" This internalized conundrum kept them from knowing, let alone voicing and pursuing, their true desires. When they considered getting their happiness in ways more direct than by giving, they had visions not of happy independence but of loss of love.
Women don't isolate pleasure from power, as if they were different worlds, but tend to unite the two. They see power as something that includes pleasure -- in fact, for the women I've spoken with, pleasure is power. Delighting in work, love, home, colleagues, children, lovers, and themselves, with time for all -- that's power. Rather than thinking of power as something one person gains at the expense of another, or a relationship in which one has it and one doesn't, women think of it as something shared.
But two people can't share power if one doesn't want to.
I've heard some wildly romantic, sexy, soulful stories about Drama Kings: After all, these are often attractive men who really do sweep women off their feet. Antiheroes they may be, but who says they aren't sometimes more initially thrilling than heroes? How exciting they are! -- for a time. Some of them are the stuff of our entire notion of love. Think of literature without Heathcliff -- "Rough as a saw-edge and hard as whinstone. The less you meddle with him, the better." (No, Cathy wouldn't meddle for long, but she did lament, "Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.") Think of poetry without Lord Byron, whom Lady Caroline Lamb declared "mad, bad and dangerous to know" or film without Rhett Butler -- King of Drama Kings -- who, when he met Scarlett, "grinned maliciously as a tomcat, and again his eyes went over her, in a gaze totally devoid of the deference she was accustomed to."
Part of our attraction to Drama Kings is that they live in our collective unconscious (think Othello, Don Giovanni, King Lear, for starters -- or even modern entries, like Big in Sex and the City) -- for aren't stormy, jealous, unreliable, brooding, good-timin', evasive, or impenetrable men the ones we grew up believing were "romantic"? Weren't they what surrounded us? Well, Drama Kings can be all that and more. Their instinct, after all, is the same as all men's: to love women; to want love, pleasure, and happiness. They just can't pull it off. And they know it. So they act as if they can, for as long as they can.
Drama Kings, alas, cannot share power, because they are too afraid of losing it. In their schema, if one person has it, another does not -- and they don't want to be the latter. They cannot share the parts of themselves that intimacy requires. Their inner lives, their particular wounds, family dynamics, and psychologies, might give us some insight into why they feel compelled to act as they do. But frankly, as interesting as their psyches are to examine, they needn't concern us here. I believe that we've all spent too long analyzing and justifying Drama Kings' behavior. We've blamed their mothers, their fathers, their hormones; blamed their fragile masculinity, television, the school system, and everything else. We've examined their brains, their libidos, their vulnerabilities, their fears, their fantasies, their unexpressed childhood traumas. We've noticed that when they're depressed, they don't seek help. We've noticed that they become murderous and suicidal when their lovers leave them. We've kept hidden our knowledge of their unexpressed dependency on us. We've pretended not to see their fragility and their shame. We've protected them. We've become Women Who Understand Too Much -- and I don't want to be one of them, nor do I encourage you to be.
For it's not Drama Kings' experience of the world I'm interested in here; it's strong women's experience of them. It's not Drama Kings' psyches I want to explore but how women's psyches develop while loving them. It's not whether Drama Kings will ever learn; it's what women are learning from them.
The women in this book speak less about one man forever than of a succession of men over time -- men who may not last long but whose lessons in love are lasting. About half of the women I spoke with began dating before they were sixteen and, in keeping with the national average, had their first experience of sexual intercourse when they were seventeen. Some married at twenty-eight -- again, the national average -- and some didn't. Either way, they had at least a decade of sexual and relational experimentation. Journalist and social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, PhD, has observed that early adult love relationships have come to resemble early career development, a "high-turnover but low-commitment pattern" of "instructive, memorable, but short-term arrangements."
The women I interviewed spoke cheerfully, gamely, and humorously, if ruefully, not of a Mr. Right but of a festival of Mr. Wrongs -- of Drama Kings -- much as they would catalog the learning opportunities in a succession of jobs they were thrilled to have had, but only for a while. Freud's infamous question, "Women, what do they want?" which he believed was shrouded in darkness, is being answered without hesitation by women who easily enumerate it: to be themselves; to be complete; to have interesting, productive lives; to be in thriving relationships that suit them as well as their men and their children; to be the agents of their own pleasure. Increasingly, they want all of the above. A woman may now choose to live alone or with a man, a woman, or a family -- in or out of wedlock. She may have a child or not, in wedlock or not, through the usual method of conception or not. She may raise a child alone or in a biological family or in a "family" she chooses: with one man or one woman or a friend or a parent or with a group of friends. She may, if she's not ready for or undecided about having a child, freeze her eggs and push her biological clock forward into her forties or even later. (According to the Rutgers Marriage Project's "State of Our Unions," young girls have become less traditional in their views about legitimate lifestyles, increasingly accepting either living on their own or cohabiting. Even more than boys, today's teenage girls accept single motherhood as a way to live, calling out-of-wedlock childbearing a worthwhile lifestyle.)
She may well live with or marry a man younger than she -- particularly, according to the Current Population Survey, if it's her second marriage. Or she may not marry, and she may not live with anyone. If she does wish to marry, she can designate a pal clergy for a day to conduct the ceremony. There's no consensus on how she should conduct herself. Whatever choice she makes, regardless of whether some people disapprove or whether it's the option she would choose in the best of all possible worlds, she will rarely lose her job or her friends or her honor because of her choice. She will not be, as she once would surely have been, hurled to the margins of society. All that is over.
The change took hundreds of years -- and less than a decade.