Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Was I Wrong to NOT Start a Fight?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have a question about whether men need to be “Able to protect their women”.

Quick backstory first – I was recently attending a wedding reception with a (fully platonic) female acquaintance when we stopped off at a nearby shop to get some supplies. I was already preoccupied with the prospect of seeing a longtime former crush (that had gone very sour) at said reception, so my thoughts were perhaps elsewhere when the following went down:

My friend was exiting the car when she lightly bumped my car door against the adjacent vehicle. The woman passenger in the other car reacted angrily, my friend smiled and said sorry, but for whatever reason Angry Passenger immediately flew off the handle even more. Maybe it was my Platonic Friend’s dressed up appearance (she had her hair did, makeup, posh accent etc.), maybe Angry Passenger was just in that kinda mood. Anyway.

Passenger carried on shouting, Friend started having to shout back, and for instinctual impulses I have yet to comprehend, I was frozen behind the steering wheel. Maybe my brain was too slow to cotton onto this turning nasty, maybe I’m just a cowardly sort, maybe I (rightly) felt that Platonic was perfectly capable of taking care of herself (she often describes herself as an ‘alpha female’). Passenger then got out of her car and tried to grab my car door, as if to haul Platonic out into the car park and start attacking her. Finally coming to my senses, I tried to get Platonic to shut the door so I could lock it and drive away. I think that’s what happened next – it’s all still a blur – but end result is we locked the door, reversed onto the road and sped away.

Once clear, Platonic went ballistic at me for not leaping to her defense the moment things went south. I had no answer. I can’t explain why I didn’t react – for the reasons above – but what I quickly spiraled into was a pretty dark mood as I mercilessly tore myself to shreds alongside the tongue-lashing Platonic was dishing out. All sorts of ugly thoughts filled my head – I was weak, cowardly, spineless, pathetic, I wouldn’t leap in front of a flying bullet for someone (to quote my man Morrissey).

Eventually the dust settled but I feel my relationship with Platonic has been irrevocably shifted by that incident. Why does this bother me? There’s no question of me trying to win her over – it’s a thankfully ‘safe’ friendship in that regard – it’s more her points hitting home about why I didn’t valiantly hulk out and wade in fists a’ flyin’. She recently brought this incident back up again and mentioned the telling phrase ‘women need to know their man can protect them’. This has caused me great personal conflict. Would I be the kind of guy who’d step up if my lady was threatened? Is that required behaviour? Do all women expect this kind of fearless, brazen protectiveness of their women in the face of any danger?

Platonic mentioned one friend’s boyfriend who ‘practically started crying’ when they were mugged a while ago, and how that didn’t seem to phase the girlfriend. But is that acceptable? Will the girl forever lose respect for her partner that can never be won back until an opportunity for some other feat of swashbuckling fortitude comes along, as if it’s a test he must succeed to prove he deserves his testosterone? 

So, in a nutshell, the question is thus – should me be expected to thoughtlessly risk life and limb to protect their loved ones, and is this a quality women universally expect in their men? And if the man fails to prove his mettle, will the woman’s opinion of him be forever damaged as a result?

Yours flexingly,

Zero To Hero

DEAR ZERO TO HERO: I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that that your question is going to prompt a lot of interesting conversations in the comments section.

There’re a couple different issues at play here, ZG.

Let’s start with how you reacted: you didn’t leap out of the car as soon as the passenger started yelling. This is actually good; the last thing you needed was to antagonize or provoke someone who’s already pissed off. Platonic yelling back, on the other hand, was a dumb move – the woman’s pissed off already, yelling at her’s just going to make things worse. Ever watch a cop handle a rowdy drunk? The smart ones stay calm, speak slowly and firmly; they keep control of the situation by being in control. Getting angry, yelling and making threats only serves to escalate the situation. So right off the bat, your friend f

ked up and just made a volatile situation worse.

Next: Passenger got out of the car and tried to haul your door open. Again: the worst thing you could do here is actually, y’know, get out of the car. You’re safe there, and it’s pretty obvious that Passenger isn’t looking to exchange phone numbers and insurance information to handle the door ding. Judging from your spelling and vernacular, you’re from the UK, so the odds that Passenger had a gun are pretty remote, but she could very well have had a knife, a bottle, or a bludgeon or other weapon. Whether she did or didn’t, you’re looking at a potential fight in the parking lot – again, something you would be wise to avoid unless necessary. So yeah, locking the car and driving off is the better idea. Calling the cops may well have been wiser still, but hey, s

t happens.

So let’s get this clear: you didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, you did the right thing: you got the f

k out of there.

Why did you freeze up? Well, it’s a fun bit of human physiology that when we’re in danger, our adrenal glands go into overdrive, spitting adrenaline into our systems and giving us extra strength and energy. You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. Thing is, that’s actually incomplete. It’s actually “fight, flight, fawn or freeze”.

If you’re not used to that sudden adrenaline dump what’s entirely more likely is that you’re going to freeze. After all, back when we were apes on the savannah, many of our predators were attracted to motion; freezing up is one way of trying to keep it from noticing you instead of the gazelle down the way. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily help when you’ve got 190 lbs of rage getting ready to slam the back of your favorite head into the pavement. Your body doesn’t size up whether you’re in a bar fight or you just heard a tiger in the grass behind you, it just reacts.

Moreover, that adrenal dump has other effects that seem counterproductive at the time. Your throat constricts, so it’s hard to speak or yell. You’re suddenly paying attention to so much sensory input (“WAIT. DID I JUST HEAR A TIGER? WHERE DID THAT SOUND COME FROM? I DON’T SEE ANYTHING. IS IT BEHIND ME?”) that you’re easily overloaded by sensation. Martial artists, firefighters, EMTs, soldiers and cops – anyone who deals with fights or crisis situations really – have to train extensively to overcome that freeze response. They drill over and over again so that their response – block, dodge, charge into the fire, draw their nightstick or gun, etc. – becomes muscle memory and they can move on automatic until they’re more in control. They train in order to get used to the adrenaline response and to be able to direct it as needed. So you’re not  a coward, ZtH; you’re human, same as everyone else and you had a perfectly human reaction to a f

ked up situation.

Now as for your friend ripping into you – that s

t’s pretty much uncalled for. Things went south because Platonic made things worse. By getting pissed off and yelling at the woman in the other car, she escalated a situation that maybe could have been defused if she’d kept calm. This wasn’t a sudden and unavoidable ambush – a mugger stepping out from the shadows, say. This is her getting mad at you because you didn’t valiantly offer to beat someone up in a situation she created. In other words: in her twisted-ass world, she’s expecting YOU to be the heavy when her mouth starts writing checks HER ass can’t cash.

The truth of the matter is that you DID come to her defense: you got her the f

k out of there before things could get worse. That’s the best thing you could have done. Picking an unnecessary fight would have ended with people getting hurt (quite likely you two) and the bonus possibility of assault charges and an ASBO for everybody. If she doesn’t appreciate that, then she’s a goddamn idiot.

Why did she go ballistic at you afterwards? Well, likely because after you guys got away, she realized she was terrified and lashed out at you because she’s angry about being scared. Easier to blame you for not magically making things better – presumably by staving some rando’s head in – than to admit a) she f

ked up and b) she’s almost peeing herself in fear. She keeps at it because from the sounds of things, she’s the sort of person who can’t stand having been seen in a moment of weakness and now she’s trying to put it all on you.

Now, the reason why this is bothering you because you’re feeling emasculated. I don’t blame you. The idea that men are supposed to be macho, chest-thumping, two-fisted tough guys is pretty well embedded in the culture. We all like to think we’re action heroes waiting for the right moment, but we never really know how we’re going to react to imminent danger until it happens. And when it did happen… you froze. So instead of having that action-hero, crouching moron-hidden badass moment you always imagined, you ended up unable to move and it feels like you’ve been tested and you failed.

Except… you didn’t. You kept her safe despite her best efforts and got out of there unharmed. But that’s not what you picture John McClain or Peter Parker or Frank Dux to have done, and thus you’re feeling weak.

But you know what? It happens to all of us. There was a point when my last moments on this Earth were very nearly me in the back of a car screaming like a little girl while an elephant was charging straight at us.

Your a

hole friend giving you constant s

t and telling you how unmanly you are isn’t helping. How do you handle this feeling? Well to start with, tell your friend to shut the hell up already. She claims to be mad at you for not hauling her ass in the way she wanted out of a fire she started. In reality, she’s upset because she was scared and you saw her – a self-proclaimed alpha female – in a moment of weakness and fear. So this is her problem, not yours.

Now, I would recommend studying martial arts. Not, mind you, because you need to learn how to be Billy Bad-Ass, but because it will teach you discipline. It’ll help you get a feeling of control back without feeling as though you need to throw down to do it. It’ll help you get used to moments of panic and adrenaline dumps so that you can handle them the next time you’re in a crisis situation. It’ll help you learn how and when to react on instinct. And – importantly – a good martial arts teacher will teach you that the best fights are the ones you avoid. Just like you did this time.

Does every woman need her man to be Batman, waiting to pounce on those who would do her harm? No, not really. In fact, in my social circles, most of the women would be insulted by the idea that they couldn’t save their own damn selves if the need arose; guard their backs, sure but don’t assume that they need or want a protector. Being able to protect your friends and loved ones is an attraction switch for some women but it’s not the switch, nor is it universal. After all, your friend even mentions a guy who broke down during a mugging and his girlfriend wasn’t phased or disgusted by him.

Should you be willing to spring to action with violence? Probably not, to be perfectly honest. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that violence is NEVER the answer, it’s also not always the right or best answer. Women don’t expect their significant others to be super-heroes. Being able to keep your head in a chaotic or dangerous situation – even if you’re practically soaked in fear-pee – is much more attractive than some meathead who wades in, fists a’flailin’ whenever somebody shoots their mouth off.

Women don’t need a Big Moose to beat some fools. They want someone who can keep their head in a crisis situation and do not just the right thing but the SMART thing. And more often than not: the smart thing is getting the hell out of there instead of escalating things and possibly making it worse.

Good luck

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