Theresa Ukpo was sitting in the passenger seat of her date’s car, trying to figure out what she did wrong. She was out with a guy she’d been seeing regularly for three months. It was the kind of night that required stilettos, and things had been going well — until his car got a flat tire.
He had pulled over on the side of the road and called AAA. It was dark and late; she didn’t feel safe. It would take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours for AAA to show up. They could continue to wait, or she could just change the tire and they could be on their way in about 20 minutes, tops. “I figured if I can, why not do?” Ukpo said by phone of the date she first wrote about on the blog Madame Noire. “I don’t subscribe to this idea that because I’m a woman, I have to play this damsel in distress thing.”
It’s at this point in the story that Andrew Smiler, communications director at the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and the expert I called to discuss the fragility of the male ego, began chuckling. He knew where the tale was headed — and why. Like me, he’s heard countless stories like Ukpo’s, where confident, well-intentioned women are trying to help, but a dating disaster ensues. For clarity, I asked him, “What exactly is so funny?”
Smiler laughs again and explains: “We give people some really messed-up messages about gender roles. Even in the early 21st century, we have this supposedly egalitarian culture, and guys are taught that they should never show weakness or ignorance or inability to do a task. And in various ways they should ‘wear the pants’ in the relationship.”
This is probably what Ukpo’s date thought. She volunteered to change his tire so they wouldn’t have to wait. He didn’t believe she could, so he stood over her holding the light while she squatted and did what he thought was the impossible. He barely spoke to her the entire ride to her home, and she hasn’t heard from him since he dropped her off.
Ukpo wasn’t sure what she had done wrong. “My first inkling was that he was intimidated that I changed his tire,” she says. “Or maybe he thought I was being stubborn about not wanting to wait for AAA.”
When she asked her male friends what she did wrong, if anything, the answer was unanimous: She emasculated him.
In other words, the male ego — which Smiler defines as a shorthand for determining “whether or not a guy thinks he measures up or is masculine or macho enough — strikes again. Its pesky existence is the bane of a dating woman’s existence and the culprit of countless dating and relationship disasters. Managing it is like walking through a minefield. One misstep, and BOOM! there went your potential for a relationship. The fear of encountering the male ego’s wrath results in the muting of opinionated women, helplessness in otherwise take-charge types and second-guessing among the otherwise confident.
Given that the ego issue is all in a guy’s head, it sounds like a problem that he should have to work out with himself, but unfortunately that duty often falls to the women in his life. Why? Andrea Syrtash, relationship expert and author of “He’s Just Not Your Type (And That’s a Good Thing),” says guys with fragile egos haven’t been properly socialized to manage themselves. “Men are conditioned to be strong, to not show vulnerability because it’s a sign of weakness, and not encouraged to share what they’re feeling or be communicative,” Syrtash explains. “The ‘fragile male ego‘ comes from being misunderstood.”
When encountering such an ego, she suggests that women in the early stages of a dating run for the hills to avoid it. But for those who have more time invested, she recommends countering it by building confidence. “Women don’t always realize that although your man may be strong and silent and doesn’t share his feelings, he still needs to hear that he’s doing a good job, that he’s contributing well, that you respect him, that you appreciate him. That kind of approval goes a long way in a relationship,” Syrtash says.
She advises guys to take a moment to check in with themselves. “If you’re feeling insecure, ask yourself, ‘Is she trying to belittle me? Is she disrespecting me? Or am I just a little embarrassed that I didn’t know how to do that?’ ” Syrtash says.
Ukpo’s is an example of a heterosexual relationship, but men are men whether they’re in a hetero relationship or same-sex one. Two men in a relationship could both have ego issues. Syrtash’s and Smiler’s advice to do a self-check and to open up to a partner still works.
Smiler, who is also the author of “Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy,” even suggests that men take it a step further and be honest about their shortcomings by flatly admitting to their partner that they feel embarrassed or insecure. This opens an opportunity for their partner to provide emotional support and build the relationship. “Emotional support is one of the big reasons that people get into and stay in romantic relationships,” says Smiler. “If you don’t show your partner any of those weak spots, then your partner can’t have your back. So it’s kind of taking a risk, but it’s probably one that’s going to pay off.”