The Caveman: That Elusive “Unevolved” Partner
After spending 20+ years with someone who would rather pass a kidney stone than do the dishes (let alone clean the toilet bowl!), thinks he’s doing me a favor by folding his underwear, and believes he does everything around the home because he’s on garbage duty, I consider myself somewhat of an authority on the Caveman (i.e. the unhelpful partner). Yet, I’d be hard-pressed to pick one in a line-up. And for one very good reason: On the surface, the Caveman is indistinguishable from his contemporaries—the modern, cooperative partner, the oblivious “you-should-have-asked mate”, the reluctant helper, or even the infamous lazy husband (although DNA-wise, I’m pretty sure the Caveman is 100% related to the latter).
Most of the time, only experience (and months/years of common life) will allow you to ascertain whether your partner is a Caveman. Often, the Caveman’s true self will lay dormant until kids come along! One day you think you’ve found the perfect life partner. The next you realize you’ve condemned yourself to a life of solitary scrubbing and child raising. Just like that.
Note to readers: It’s not that we (the Caveman’s partners) are completely blind; it’s just that we’re pretty good at unconsciously ignoring the obvious hints (believe it or not, many of us are actually programmed to)! Not to mention the fact that the Caveman is pretty good at lying low until he gets what he wants—consciously or unconsciously.
So, “How do you ID the Caveman?” you ask. Over the years, I’ve compiled a long list of identifying traits (which I’m saving for another time), but there are three major signs you want to be on the lookout for:
Sign #1: The Caveman will hardly ever help around the house (and never of his own accord)
Now, we all know “help” is the wrong term here, but that’s how the Caveman sees it. To him, doing his fair share (or even a fraction of it) around the house and contributing to housework and parenting duties is doing you a favor. In truth, why should he help when you’re intentionally saddling yourself with work? Yes, you’ve read that right: All those things you do… You do them because you want to! Nobody asked you to do them. Actually, you don’t even have to do them at all!!! At least, that’s what I hear repeatedly from my Caveman. I’m sure you do too.
To evade household chores and parenting duties, the Caveman typically relies on three key strategies:
- AVOIDANCE: Most times, the Caveman will find ways not to participate altogether. He may conveniently disappear (or simply fail to be around in the first place), volunteer his time somewhere else, pretend he’s busy, urgently handle more “pressing/important” matters, etc. Yep! The Caveman is to household chores what the bullfighter is to the bull: A hard-to-pin target! A couple of years after our second child was born, my Caveman went as far as leaving his job and opening his own business (without sharing his plans with me, BTW) to have an excuse not to be around. I kid you not. Extreme, I know, but think about it: How much time do you spend on household chores and parenting duties (on top of your full-time job, when you have one) while your partner has the perfect, sometimes most noble excuse to let you do it all by yourself? I’m not saying all overachievers, business owners, traveling professionals and volunteer [fill the blank] have chosen that path as an excuse not to do their fair share around the home, but there’s enough evidence pointing that way to make you wonder—at least in my case.
- PRETEXTS: Many times, the Caveman will come up with “clever” excuses not to help. Often (and not surprisingly), he will claim that you are responsible for his inability to help. E.g.: You never taught him to change a diaper; you never explained what setting to wash towels on; you never mentioned when your mortgage is due (yes, he will dare!); you didn’t write down specific-enough instructions for microwave warming; the cleaning products you buy are confusing, etc. If he can’t use you as an excuse, he’ll get creative. Whatever it takes! The Caveman will never be short of excuses, and his ingenuity will have no limit—and no shame. I know a Caveman who never changed his daughters’ diapers (or bathed them, or changed them, or took them to the restroom) because “it wouldn’t have been proper”!
- AAA (ATTITUDE, ANIMOSITY, ANGER): At times, and especially when tired, stressed or feeling cornered, the Caveman may display a serious attitude, scorn, or plain animosity/anger toward you. His goal? Make you feel like you’re the one creating problems in your relationship—an undue hardship for him—and, eventually, make you stop asking altogether*. My Caveman will often throw out phrases such as “I don’t know where you find so much stuff to wash!”, “You can’t stand to see me rest for a minute, can you?”, “There’s no life with you!” or equally entertaining protests carefully designed to make me feel bad. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the threat of spending even more time away from home, or heavily dropped hints about the meagerness of child support.
*Note to readers: If you’re wondering why I stick around, that will be the subject of another post. But if you’re reading this blog in the first place, chances are you’re probably in the same boat… So keep reading.
Sign #2: The Caveman is self-centered
Whether you call it “self-centeredness”, “self-service”, or plain “selfishness”, to the Caveman, everything is about him. Personally, I blame it on a targeted lack of empathy—although narcissism is not completely out of the question either. But simply put: The Caveman can’t put himself in anyone’s shoes—least of all yours. It’s not that he has no clue you’re doing everything around the house (and more!) and carry the full weight of the mental load(1). It’s just that since he has dissociated himself from it all, “it” has no value to him whatsoever.
That mentality can lead to behaviors that can put a serious strain on your relationship and family life—not to mention, make you question your sanity for insisting on making things work (by yourself).
A few examples:
- The Caveman can spend hours at the gym (while you clean the house and/or do the groceries, with a little one literally glued to your leg), and return home not only to mention that he’s too exhausted to help put the groceries away, but to throw in your face he doesn’t understand why you’re so pooped.
- The Caveman can—without a second thought—leave you at home with the flu and toddler twins trailing after you to go relax with his fellow Cavemen because “he had a tough week”.
- The Caveman can eat out (without the courtesy of letting you know, and preferably on a night you’ve cooked a three-course dinner) and come home only to declare he’s not hungry and that you didn’t have to cook.
- The Caveman can answer “Junior is sick. We spent the afternoon at the ER.” with “Wow. That’s bad. My car needs new tires.”—without being fazed by it for a second!
- The Caveman will have no issue stopping by the supermarket to get what he wants (beer, snacks, etc.), but it will never occur to him to take the shopping list with him. Too bad for you if you’re out of diapers!
- The Caveman can make plans for himself without consulting you (or checking the family calendar), and still try to make you feel like you’re a malevolent witch whose one and only goal in life is to ruin his.
In that regard, the Caveman differs quite a bit from his peers (i.e. the “you-should-have-asked mate”, the reluctant helper, or even the lazy husband)… His lack of empathy [toward you] and primal-need-driven personality (the Caveman rests when he’s tired, decompresses—preferably with fellow Cavemen—when he’s stressed, eats when he’s hungry, etc.) make him the epitome of the “unevolved” partner.
It may seem like a small point of difference, but it’s a significant one when it comes to improving your relationship (not to mention your life), because an “unevolved” partner will hardly ever see your side of the story. Typically, he will be willing to work on “fixing your relationship” only to the extent that it will fix you, i.e. the nagging wife. Attending couple therapy (if willing to at all) will be about improving you and your behavior toward him, with the ultimate goal of improving his life. Most likely, he won’t be hearing (let alone heeding) any advice having to do with changing his behavior. Again, if something is not to his direct benefit, it will have no value.
Sign #3: The Caveman has an excuse for everything (and it’s always someone else’s fault)
- The spill on the floor? The living room looking like a war zone? “The kids did it! Why do I have fix it?”
- Dirty socks on the coffee table? Beer caps all around the house? “I don’t know what you’re talking about… I always pick up after myself! You probably planted them there to make me look bad!”
- Missed doctor’s appointment? “You didn’t remind me!”
- Dirty dishes in the dishwasher? “You didn’t tell me to turn it on!”
- No dinner waiting for you after a late work meeting? “You didn’t mention you wanted us to save you anything!”
- Kids stranded at school? “You know I head to the gym on autopilot after work! It’s unfair of you to expect me to remember to pick them up when I never do!”
- Trash lying next to the door—for days? “Why do I have to do it? You’re raising lazy children!”
- Sunday-morning dishes sitting in the sink all day? “They needed to soak!” or “They’re not mine!”
- Realizing the egg carton in the fridge is empty in the middle of making cookies? “Honestly, in this family, a man can’t even make himself a snack without being blamed for something!”
The above list (made of real-life examples—sigh) could go on and on. Any argument with the Caveman about anything that should have been/wasn’t/needs to be done feels like an argument with a teenager or a four year old. There’s simply no winning it!
I wish I could credit the Caveman with being a crafty manipulator, but he’s not—at least not consciously. Whether he believes that you don’t really need help, that housework and parenting are your birthright responsibilities, that he’s done enough for his family by going to work, or a combination of the three, the Caveman genuinely believes in the excuses he puts forth. In all probability, he also believes he’s doing everything (or at least, more than he should) around the house, and that he’s “the” involved parent (even though he’s never attended a doctor’s appointment or birthday party, and couldn’t tell you Junior’s teacher’s name for the life of him).
And regardless of how you handle things, the result is likely always the same: You keep doing everything around the house (and more!), your Caveman keeps doing less (and implicitly demanding more), and your life is a never-ending cycle of toil and conflict.
The solution? Well…
If you’ve already ascertained that your partner is a Caveman, have already tried everything (including couple therapy) to no avail, and are wondering if there’s a way (other than separation, that is) out of grueling work, stress, exhaustion and conflict, there may yet be hope. I’ve spent months/years working on reforming my Caveman and our relationship—although I’ll be honest, it’s still a work in progress. In the process, I’ve tested what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do to make your life better. It’s not foolproof, and it may not apply to all Cavemen (or all relationships), but if I manage to make it work with my Caveman, trust me: You can too!
Alternatively, if you’re starting on your life journey and you’re suspecting that you may have picked a Caveman as a life partner, ask yourself the following questions: Does your partner always put himself/herself first? Does he/she often blame outside circumstances/people/you for his/her actions (or inability to act)? Is he/she reluctant to lend a hand with chores or participate in anything not fun to him? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you may want to consider investigating further before making a long-term commitment. Some things get worse with time; the Caveman’s behavior is one of them—especially if left unchecked.
Personally, if I could go back in time and take with me the experience of the past two decades, there’s one thing I learned from my Caveman that I would definitely put into practice: Avoidance.
Until next time.
(1) There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “mental load”, mainly thanks to the work of French artist and engaged feminist Emma. The mental load is the burden that many partners carry besides their share of parenting and household duties, i.e. organizing, reminding and planning everything else. [Male] Cavemen tends to believe the mental load is a feminist myth. No surprise there.