Jan. 9, 2006— -- Women have been trying to unlock the secrets of the male mind for centuries. One man has attempted to decode the male brain and dispel some of the stereotypes that he considers myths. Neil Chethik, author of a new book called "VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment," explores the innermost thoughts and desires of the American guy and says that women will be surprised at what he has found.
Read an excerpt of the book below.
I was going through some dark times. All of a sudden, here came this girl. She was bubbling, extroverted. I got the enthusiasm.
-- Thirty-nine-year-old electrician
It began with the flash of an ankle.
On an unseasonably mild midwestern day in January 1989, Rob Reilly gathered up the dirty clothes in his apartment, stuffed them into a cloth bag, and hauled them through the student ghetto toward the local Laundromat. He was in a gloomy mood. In his first five months of graduate school, he'd already had his heart broken once. Then, just as things seemed promising with a second woman, she'd exposed a bigoted side that offended Rob. He'd determined to break it off with her this very night.
At thirty-two years of age, Rob was becoming "disappointed and discouraged, even pessimistic" about finding a woman to marry, he recalls. Approaching the Laundromat, "I was thinking: 'Maybe I'm just one of those guys who's destined to be alone. I'll become a career man.'"
This thought was particularly distressing because Rob had returned to school in part to find a life partner. After six years as an actor and waiter in New York City, he wanted stability. He'd even written down the attributes of a potential wife: She should be "smart, opinionated, independent, and sexy."
Was he expecting too much? Did he have what it took to attract such a woman? In part to take his mind off such questions, he had brought with him to the Laundromat his first draft of a letter to the governor of the state. Rob opposed capital punishment and planned to hone an anti-death-penalty argument while his clothes got clean.
The Laundromat was abuzz when Rob arrived, but he found a vacant washer and emptied his laundry bag. He plugged in the requisite number of quarters, then deposited himself on one of the anchored yellow plastic chairs that lined the room. Elbows on knees, he focused on the letter at hand.
A few minutes later, the ankle flashed into view. It was attached to the woman sitting two seats to his left. Wearing black pants and brown sandals, she crossed her left knee over her right to reveal, as Rob recalls, "several inches of leg, beginning just below the calf and narrowing to this perfect ankle. I've never been very interested in thin women, and this ankle wasn't thin. But it was the perfect shape...I caught it in my left periphery, and I thought to myself, 'Now that is nice. That is a really nice ankle.'"
For a few moments, Rob hovered over his letter, stealing occasional glances at the woman's lightly bouncing foot. Then, feigning interest in the status of his laundry, he glanced up to see the rest of the woman. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed, full-lipped, and broad-shouldered. His interest was in no way dampened.
Rob scoured his mind for something to say, but as is the case with many men, the fear of sounding trite asserted itself. A few minutes went by, and two children on plastic riding toys clambered across the floor in front of him. That's when Rob's first noncommittal words emerged. "Boy, those kids have a lot of energy," he said aloud. The woman didn't hesitate: "Actually, I wish I knew who the parents were." Then, gesturing toward the kids, she added, "They ought to have some limits on them."
Rob was intrigued by this response. But before he could say more, the woman was inquiring about his letter. Soon they were in a friendly debate over capital punishment. During the next forty-five minutes, with interruptions only for washer-to-dryer transitions, the two ranged over politics, education, feminism, and other topics. He learned that her name was Sandy, she was a teacher, a year older than he was, recently divorced, childless, and full of energy and opinions. He found her very stimulating.
Eventually, the bedspread Sandy had brought to the Laundromat was dry. She folded it and prepared to leave. Rob recalls, "A red light started flashing in my mind. I kept telling myself, 'Ask her out now, or forget it.'"
Finally, he summoned the courage: "Maybe we could go out and have a beer sometime."
Sandy replied: "Why not tonight?"
Within weeks of their meeting, Rob and Sandy were dating exclusively. Less than a year later, they exchanged vows in the home of a friend. Today, fifteen years into their marriage, the couple lives in a college town in the Southeast, raising two middle-school-aged children. As one might imagine from that initial meeting, their relationship has been both passionate and occasionally volatile. Through it all, however, the legacy of the Laundromat lives on. As Rob says: "It was there that I saw the essence of who she is. Yes, I thought she was beautiful. But it was her assertiveness, her intelligence, her energy that captured me."
There's little debate that a woman's physical appearance is a crucial factor in attracting a man. Influenced by his culture's focus on the female form, and by his biology too, the typical American man responds to physical cues: a tapered ankle, a narrow waist, shapely calves, silky skin over high cheekbones. Indeed, 55 percent of the men in the VoiceMale Survey said that they had initially been drawn to their future wife by some aspect of her looks.
This focus on physical attributes may have biological roots. Evolutionary psychologists remind us that the most basic drive of all creatures is to perpetuate their genetic line. Recent research indicates that women with thin waists and full hips -- attributes that men across cultures name as desirable -- are most likely to have successful pregnancies. Thus, a man's attraction to a curvaceous woman apparently gives him the best chance of healthy children to carry on his genes. (Similar studies indicate that women are initially drawn to tall men with strong builds, indicators of the man's ability to provide for the woman and her children.)
But biology is not destiny. Even in a culture where curves and cleavage are fully exploited by marketers, the vast majority of men marry women who are less than physically ideal. Numerous studies show that men, in fact, tend to approach women who are comparable to them in physical attractiveness. Rather than seeking to meet women of unattainable beauty, they tend to seek out the beauty in the women they meet. It turns out that this is a good strategy. According to the VoiceMale Survey, men who say they were initially attracted to their wife by her physical attributes alone are less satisfied in their marriages than those for whom personality was key.
"Most men would not consider my wife a ten," one forty-seven-year-old teacher told me. "She's a little bigger than average. But she has daggerlike eyes....She's always been attractive to me." Another man, who said that neither he nor his wife "would ever be mistaken for a model," added, "She has a smile that puts the sun to shame." Even for this man, however, physical attraction to his future wife "only opened the negotiations. It didn't close the deal." Rather, when a man is seeking a long-term relationship (as opposed to a short-term liaison), he tends to look beyond her physical attributes to a host of less tangible assets, including her attitude, bearing, and character.
Before we examine more closely what men say they look for in a potential wife, it's important to emphasize that men entertain the idea of marriage only when they're ready. And readiness is different for men of different eras. Among husbands I interviewed who married in the 1930s through the early 1960s, readiness tended to come when they had a job that would allow them to support a wife and family. Men who married in more recent years usually judged their readiness by their flagging interest in the singles scene. "One morning, I woke up next to a woman who could have been a Playboy model," one man told me, "and I didn't want her." That's when he realized that sex alone would not truly satisfy him, and that marriage might.