She's awesome, he's a big question mark - how does it work?
September 18, 2009 11:21 PM   Subscribe

How do guys deal with a (hetero) significant other that's, purely and simply, more awesome than they are?

Watching dynamics at a party tonight, I was looking at the relationships between a few of the couples. Most of the people at the party were very athletic, very outgoing, and very intelligent, which is a bit of an odd social grouping. Some of the spouses or significant others of intelligent, athletic women were neither, but still didn't seem to be (for lack of a better word) unmanned or out of place.

As an example, one of the women runs(/bikes/swims) ironman endurance races, has a doctorate, and is in general the life of the party. There is absolutely nothing that stands out about the guy. He's a great guy at all, but he's a socially awkward nerd that isn't particularly accomplished in anything. Yet their relationship doesn't seem unbalanced towards the male or female side in any way, and it doesn't seem like she "wears the pants" so to speak.

That made me curious: in a society where men traditionally are the heads of the family, how do relationships work and balance themselves when it's not particularly clear who fulfills what role, or if there even are traditional roles?
posted by SpecialK to Human Relations (39 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
What you saw at a party is not likely to be totally indicative of what their relationship is like between them. If he's an introvert, he almost certainly behaves very differently with her than with a crowd.
posted by fatbird at 11:28 PM on September 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

If you rate people only by their accomplishments and talents, then the balance would indeed seem to be off - but luckily for all of us, we're not just the sum total of what we get and do. Relationships fail often when one party can't escape that rating system. I'm guessing that these "lesser" people are awesome in their own right, in a way you can't recognize.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:29 PM on September 18, 2009 [21 favorites]

Is it that surprising that you know more about the good qualities of the extrovert in the relationship?
posted by ODiV at 11:30 PM on September 18, 2009 [37 favorites]

Did you ever hear that opposites attract? The apparent disparity you noticed might be just that simple.
posted by Cranberry at 11:34 PM on September 18, 2009

Holy assumptions, Batman! Maybe people like to be in relationships where they feel like power and roles are shared equally?
posted by so_gracefully at 11:43 PM on September 18, 2009

I have a close example.

My sister is outgoing, flamboyant, smart, funny, and attractive. She's also a busy attorney and relatively successful. Her husband is a reserved, quiet sort who rarely says much.

In their case, it works because he loves doing things that keep the homefront running while she's working her ass off. He takes care of the kids, fixes things around the house, cooks, and generally acts as the stable edifice to her insane schedule. He also does incredibly sweet things for her on a regular basis, and after she's had an insane amount of work to do, or a stressful eighteen hour work day, that means the world to her.

And once you spend enough time around him, you realize he's a man of few words, but those words are usually very funny.

They complement each other.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:50 PM on September 18, 2009 [9 favorites]

Snap judgements on couple dynamics or the deeper characteristics of people you don't know rarely pan out.
posted by smoke at 11:53 PM on September 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

People in healthy, loving relationships gravitate toward each other on the basis of personal qualities as much as (if not more) than outer trappings, such as accomplishments or status. Someone who seems like a big nothing to you may in fact be a marvelously warm, insightful, compassionate, witty, sexy, talented, loyal man to his significant other, completely regardless of the fact that he fails to live up to your narrow social criteria.
posted by scody at 11:57 PM on September 18, 2009 [12 favorites]

In that couple, her hobbies are ironman competitions, but maybe his hobbies are more low-key. I like to read. We can't all be triathletes; it would be boring. Also, a degree doesn't necessarily equal intelligence nor a lack of a degree spell a lack of intelligence or accomplishment.

There's likely a ton of things you're not seeing.
posted by cmgonzalez at 12:01 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you could define "awesome" in this context, I could give you some answers...

about yourself. You don't know any of these people well enough to draw conclusions about them.

Hint: maybe that awesome woman knows something about her husband that you don't.
posted by mmoncur at 12:05 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

From my perspective, it sounds like you're relying on a couple of faulty assumptions about human behavior:

* Many of us don't perform well in a party situation. The husband could be a totally different person if you spoke to him in a different context.
* Many of us don't place a lot of importance in accomplishments. When I'm looking for a soulmate, I'm more concerned about a sense of humor, compassion towards small animals, a taste for cilantro.
* Human relationships and personalities are never pure or simple.

I was once very shy at parties because sometimes I'd feel like people were secretly appraising me. I've since decided that this is their problem, not mine.
posted by yaymukund at 12:16 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

You would probably have a similar impression about me and my girlfriend if you'd meet us. She's sort of a professional networker in international relations, strikingly beautiful, working on her second degree, while I'm some tech guy who doesn't say much and is overweight and underdressed.

I'd say it works mainly because while I don't care about most people and their opinions and ways of life, I very much care about her. There are many things that create the balance that you wouldn't be able to observe in a party setting. You wouldn't know about our conversations, about the ease we make decisions together, how we can just be ourselves with each other.
posted by dhoe at 12:38 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

It sounds like people who are very humble or talk very little about themselves would fall completely off your radar.
posted by thisperon at 1:45 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: SpecialK's observations aren't about snap judgements and assumptions, guys. It's an honest and open question, and he isn't being stupid to ask it. I can see how these types of relationships might appear unbalanced to an outside eye, but I can explain how my relationship with my s.o. works in spite of that appearance.

I am driven, competitive, well-read, creative, and goal-oriented. Those are things I consider as postives in myself, and things I hope others will notice about me in social situations. My s.o. is really NOT any of those things. On a bad day, in private, all of my positive qualities can mutate me into being an obsessive, stubborn know-it-all stressball with a monster to-do list. Imagine me on a bad day with a partner who is just like me? We'd slaughter each other. And then pout.

Competition (physical, mental, inter-personal) never makes it onto my s.o.'s radar. His brain is just not wired that way. This makes him singularly able to defuse me without pitting himself against me- we are foils for one another's personalities. He can make me step back from my stressball self and put things into perspective like no one else. This makes him precious to me.

It works because the focus of the relationship is completely deflected away from the question of who is more awesome.
posted by alight at 1:56 AM on September 19, 2009 [11 favorites]

Those socially inept, boring, nonathletic, nonacademic dudes? Are holy terrors in bed.

/best answer
posted by SassHat at 2:14 AM on September 19, 2009 [13 favorites]

My partner is not particularly witty or outgoing at parties, and although I'm also an introvert, I probably make a much better first impression than he does. On paper I'm probably also much more 'accomplished', if you want to put it like that. I'm definitely better dressed, and I guess most people would think I'm quite a bit better looking (for what that's worth).

One of the things I love most about him is great his love of animals and children, and the amazing patience and compassion that he shows for them. That would not be at all apparent at your average social gathering, yet for me it's one of the most amazing things about him.

As others have said, relationships don't (necessarily) fail or succeed on the strength of characteristics that are obvious to the casual observer.
posted by different at 2:23 AM on September 19, 2009

Best answer: To have a better go at answering the question: I think that my SO deals with the more obvious 'imbalances' (if you want to call them that; I don't see them that way) in our relationship, like, for example, the fact that I make way more money than he does, without any problems because he was lucky enough to be brought up with an innate sense of his own self-worth. Wish I had been, ha! He is completely secure in his abilities, and doesn't see himself as being 'less' than I am in any way. I don't see it that way either (obviously), but it's clear that some others do. That doesn't matter to either or us.
posted by different at 2:27 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Hint: maybe that awesome woman knows something about her husband that you don't.

for example:

Those socially inept, boring, nonathletic, nonacademic dudes? Are holy terrors in bed.

There's also the fact that when one partner is a high achiever it's not uncommon for them to be leaning heavily on someone who makes everything they do possible. "Behind every great man..." needs to be updated for these modern times.
posted by rodgerd at 2:44 AM on September 19, 2009 [7 favorites]

Two high-achieving extroverts in the same relationship can cause a level of competition which can be unhealthy.

Sometimes, when you're a highly intelligent, talkative woman (I can't really speak to athletic but I can see it also applying), you don't want to come home to a someone with whom you're going to have intense debates about politics. I'm guessing the athletes probably don't want to be comparing times or how many crunches each did that morning.

Maybe you want to come home to someone who's warm, attentive, a good listener. Someone who isn't trying to one-up you or constantly prove how smart they are. And that person is just as valuable and awesome as you are. Possibly more so--getting a fascinating conversation out of somebody you know can have a conversation with a brick wall is a lot less meaningful than having a conversation with somebody you know doesn't say a peep around strangers, but is so comfortable with you personally that they've opened up and said just one meaningful thing.

But I don't think of that as myself wanting to be the more 'dominant' partner. I just think of myself as the loudmouth!
posted by larkspur at 3:18 AM on September 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Good relationships are ones in which both parties are mutually satisfied and growing. IMO, everything else is window dressing. Asymmetry is the rule; pick a category and you'll seldom see perfect coincidence between mates, or friends. The range of human talents and characteristics is enormous, and many skills are not always on display, or even easily displayable, and especially so during a short interval. Persistence, for instance. Judgment, kindness, compassion, reasoning, playfulness, long term memory, math skills, obscure content, ballroom dancing, long distance running, artistic skills, ability to snag the most awesome mates... the list is endless.

[ Alas, sitting as I do at the utmost pinnacle of human development, I often ponder how my wife, or for that matter, the other 6.4 billion of my inferiors unlucky enough to share life's stage with me due to the vagaries of pure chance manage to make it through the day, faced as they are with the inevitable comparisons. (Often, I'll charitably screw up something I am doing as a sop to the bruised egos I sense everywhere. When you are at the top, you can afford to be generous. ) Bill Cosby summed it up nicely for me when he said, "It's lonely at the top. But it sure was crowded at the bottom!". ]
posted by FauxScot at 4:49 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

A couple's visible dispariy of income, education and attractiveness, well that's a minefield discussed to little profit on MeFi...

But I would say that the pairing of outgoing with reserved, or (somewhat similar) lovably-egocentric with apparently-modest, is totally common ... the rule and not the exception, I'd (anecdotally) argue. This is one of those areas where opposites really do attract, when, of course, in most things, it's similarities.
posted by MattD at 6:22 AM on September 19, 2009

How do relationships work and balance themselves.

I don't think they ever do. What couple ever concerns themselves with balancing each other out, like a checkbook?
posted by trotter at 6:30 AM on September 19, 2009

I'll provide an example of two longtime friends of mine: she is CEO of a major media company, is super friendly, and knows exactly how to handle every social situation. He is a psychologist with multiple degrees, but says very, very little when in groups. He's even fallen asleep at social settings such as a wedding. He doesn't pay much attention to his clothing; she dresses very smartly (partly because she has to for work). One could assume that they are not equally matched, yet when he speaks, it is only the most discerning, cutting or astute remark. And their marriage is rock solid.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:42 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

If he was a wildly successful athlete / businessperson and she was a stay-at-home mom, would you even be asking this question?

If not, please realize that gender equality isn't just about letting women have jobs.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:46 AM on September 19, 2009 [30 favorites]

How do relationships work and balance themselves? Some do, and some don't. When you find the right combination between two works. When you encounter the wrong doesn't. And those combinations are infinite. There isn't a formula for this. A tall dark and handsome beach bum with a hot temper, no ambition and an affinity for cats may get on great with a chubby and cute socialite who prefers riding horses after spending two hours a day doing yoga. Sometimes it just works. Surely, sociologists have found that people of similar socio-economic-ethnic background has a higher likelyhood of getting along, but just did he end up with her?
posted by jasondigitized at 6:49 AM on September 19, 2009

Are you sure that, as an apparently heterosexual male, you're in a position to judge the awesomeness of other heterosexual men, particularly in terms of appearance?

That made me curious: in a society where men traditionally are the heads of the family, how do relationships work and balance themselves when it's not particularly clear who fulfills what role, or if there even are traditional roles?

Every couple is different, and every couple has to work things out for themselves. There are relationships where either the man or the woman "wears the pants"--and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as both partners are happy and fulfilled.

When I started my master's program, one of my SO's friends asked if it made him feel insecure to have a girlfriend who was more educated than he was. My significant answered "of course not," because he wants to be with someone who is fulfilled and happy and challenged.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:23 AM on September 19, 2009

Some people's hidden talent is that they are simply wonderful to be around.
posted by hermitosis at 9:08 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Only halfway through responses, but I'm going to jump out and say here: I'm not being superficial about him or her, as I actually know both fairly well and am pretty good friends with the guy (who is, as many have pointed out, of few words.) I could have written a page describing each, but for the sake of brevity, I tried to illustrate it with a brief example.

My question was a bit more related to how similar relationships got started in the first place, and how they grow and function in a more traditional, conservative and male-dominated society.
posted by SpecialK at 10:13 AM on September 19, 2009

I'm a reasonably smart, accomplished person in a relationship with another smart, accomplished person. As an extreme introvert, when I get dropped in large groups of people I tend to shy away like a skittish pony while my lady often engages people, telling stories and jokes. This has led to people in the past jumping to conclusions about our relationship and, in general, making faulty assumptions.

What I'd say is that trying to suss out a couple's relationship based on a three hour party is at best a fool's errand. There is so much that goes into a relationship behind the scenes on such a variety of levels, that trying to pick up on such things based on a handful of external indicators will never fully explain what makes two people click.

As for your question of how relationships work and balance themselves out if the man isn't the head of the family? Well, they work by both people being committed to the other person and contributing to the health and the growth of each other, while trying to do things that keep themselves happy as well.
posted by jaybeans at 10:31 AM on September 19, 2009

That type of relationship can start in a variety of ways, that's not really the important bit. The thing to focus on is that the people simply care more about the other person in the relationship and their emotional and practical needs than what society thinks.
posted by jaybeans at 10:41 AM on September 19, 2009

SpecialK: "My question was a bit more related to how similar relationships got started in the first place, and how they grow and function in a more traditional, conservative and male-dominated society."

They get started when two people meet, and at least one of them is interested in getting to know the other better and both are open to the possibility of starting a relationship. They grow and function when both people determine that they're more interested in spending time with one another than they are in what "society" thinks of them.

Perhaps things would be more difficult for such a couple in a society where women are prohibited by law from being dominant in many areas of society. Luckily, most of us in the western world don't live in such societies, so we're welcome to tell people who don't agree with the way we conduct our personal or professional lives to mind their own business.
posted by decathecting at 10:44 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wish I could favorite Scody's comment more than once.

in a society where men traditionally are the heads of the family, how do relationships work and balance themselves when it's not particularly clear who fulfills what role, or if there even are traditional roles?

I'm not sure there was ever a time when men were usually the emotional heads of the family.

I don't mean to seem personally critical, but you seem to have some wacky ideas about people and relationships. The roles that exist in relationships are determined by the people in them; the more supportive partner doesn't need to be the woman, the more outwardly successful partner doesn't need to be the man.

Also, and I'm going out on a limb here, I suspect that as a man, you're probably seeing perceived vulnerabilities in relationships that include a woman you may desire. You're thinking, Why is she with THAT loser? So are you asking this because you really want to understand how someone else's relationship works, or because you want to feel justified in thinking that she could do better?
posted by clockzero at 10:54 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

This is an excellent question that is often asked more bluntly:

"What is that hottie (hubba hubba) doing with him?"

Considering the first quality you described in the woman was "athletic" before intelligent and outgoing, I think you were graciously tip-toeing around the physical attractiveness dichtomy that all of us notice in certain couples.

With that said, scody's answer is dead on...looks (among "outer trappings") don't matter as much for women when selecting men.
posted by teg4rvn at 12:28 PM on September 19, 2009

I think successful women can sometimes develop relationships with men that may, on the outside at least, look less successful and dynamic is precisely because these men DON'T buy into the "Man as Head of Household/Gender Roles" bullshit that you seem to be implying is your normal mindset here.

I'm not saying that mindset doesn't exist in society. It most certainly does. So if a highly successful woman (looks, career, athletics, whatever) finds a guy who can see beyond that and treat her as an equal human being and work the relationship out with her based on what works for them and not based on stupid societal assumptions...well, that's worth its weight in GOLD.

...and hey, jokes aside, I think that attitude (treating women like equal humans outside of preconceived gender roles) CAN and DOES transfer to the bedroom and most certainly can make these "lesser" guys better in bed.
posted by Bueller at 12:42 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a personality type system by way of Eastern Europe called Socionics which argues that the most complementary and easiest match will be with someone who has strengths that you genuinely need and admire but do not have, and vice versa. The theory calls these kinds of relations dual or complementary relationships.

So as an example, and extravert-introvert dual relationship will have each partner naturally comfortable with different "zones of responsibility", so they aren't competing with each other, yet psychologically comfortable being close. Since you asked how such relationships even get started, this is from a Socionics article on duality, on extrovert-introvert (although there are other dimensions as well)"

Adding new "food" (new material, situations, or facets) to the relationship. Expanding the relationship. Calling the other up and actively showing interest (in the beginning of the relationship).

Keeping inventory of what ground has been covered in the relationship. Processing the relationship. Accepting others' invitations (in the beginning of the relationship)."

Here is how two partners similar to your friends might work together (just an example based on two of my own friends who are similar in some ways):

She is a high achiever with many ambitions, while he helps calm pressures and foresee potential pitfalls so they can be worked around in order to achieve goals. He is strategic and plotting, but she has the diplomacy and persuasiveness that can help navigate business negotiations, disputes with co-workers, or parties. He needs someone active and positive to keep him from falling into a social and professional rut, while he helps her focus her energies on strategies that will really be effective and he exists as a calm, stable influence in their home.
posted by Danila at 6:19 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of my former SO's was a serious introvert. I have literally hundreds of friends. I can walk into a busy room, pick out a stranger I want to talk to, and start a conversation. I have a sexy job title; she did not.

When I describe her to my newer girlfriends, they often state that they are intimidated by her. I describe her in terms of all she was, not what she was at any given moment in time. She was: a professional artist, a house renovator, a construction company owner, an EMT, a medical illustrator, a med tech, and the manager of a lab, plus a brilliant dancer, embroiderer, and partner. She didn't scuba dive, nor teach bonzai to disabled vets; aside from that....

Public personae are poor indicators of real depth.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:36 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

One other possibility to consider is that most women desire real equality in their intimate relationships, but sadly, we live in a society that makes it extremely difficult to achieve this. In a society in which men accrue all sorts of unearned advantages based solely on their sex, there is already a certain power imbalance to contend with in an M-F relationship right out of the gate.

Small wonder, then, that some women who are ranked highly using conventional measures of social status might be inclined to mate with men who would not rank as highly as they would using those same conventional measures. It increases the chances that there will be a balance of power in the relationship.

Ultimately, though, I think it comes down to what scody said. In loving relationships, personal qualities - warmth, emotional availability, insight, passion, etc. - are more important than outer trappings of any kind, including power.
posted by velvet winter at 7:25 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised by most of these answers because like teg4rvn above, I have heard (and said) "What is she doing with him?" dozens if not hundreds of times. Along with the fact that we don't always get an accurate picture of someone from meeting them at a party, we've got to factor in sexism.

Speaking generally, women are expected to do everything that men do, plus take care of domestic life and look good doing it. There is enormous pressure on women to achieve in multiple realms (domestic, sexual, career, social) simultaneously.

At the same time, women are subjected to constant and loud messages that we should settle for whatever man we can get.

I think you have the sense that high achieving, conventionally attractive, socially skilled women often pair up with men who are not as competent in these same areas because you are right. Women are told to be perfect, and to snag any man we can get. And a lot of the time we do what we're told.
posted by serazin at 9:04 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think that women who can do things (athletic things, professional things, awesome things) for themselves don't necessarily need their husbands to do those things a) for them or b) for themselves.

And I think that women who are super-assertive and extroverted are unlikely to seek partnerships with men who are super-assertive and extroverted, because that's often too much assertiveness and extroversion for one relationship.

And I think that heterosexual men who are super-assertive and extroverted, in our sexist society, are often guys who have bought into the whole "Masters of the Universe" shtick, and those guys generally want trophy wives, not equal partners.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:24 PM on September 19, 2009

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