Men, Women, and Chivalry

I’m reading a captivating book right now called Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I plan to review this next week so for now I’ll just say briefly that it’s a mystery/suspense tale about an accomplished 50-something woman who finds herself on trial as an accomplice to a murder.

More than just a mystery, though, Apple Tree Yard is about what it means to be a woman – a successful woman – especially at midlife. How independent and strong are we, and how much do we need from our men? More specifically, this is a story about crimes against women, and here I define crime broadly whether it is infidelity, estrangement, professional intimidation, rape, or physical abuse. And most strikingly, it is a story told in the context of husbands and sons and colleagues and lovers.

Reading the book I started to think about the role of protection in our partnerships with men. For women in heterosexual relationships, how much do we expect to be protected? How much responsibility are we placing on our men to shield and guard us and to be our shelter?

The protagonist, Yvonne, becomes the victim of a crime but she doesn’t tell her husband or her closest girlfriend. Instead, she tells the lover with whom she has recently started an affair. She calls him every time she feels unsafe or whenever something triggers a painful memory, and he responds as any protective man would – by listening, yes, but also by offering more physical and concrete protection.

I couldn’t help putting myself in Yvonne’s position. I know whom I would go to if anything like that ever happened to me. Even without making the mental effort I immediately visualized the scene. I would be crying, maybe hyperventilating, and I would need to be enveloped inside the protection of my husband. I am grateful that I have someone whom I can collapse into in this way.

Do we still expect chivalry from the men in our lives? For all my independence and earning power, there is a significant part of me that is very dependent on Max. I feel lost when he’s away. I feel safer when he is driving. I’m more comforted when he’s sleeping beside me. Though we are equals as parents and business partners, that quieter, more invisible side of me feels like a little girl sometimes, not unlike the way I felt around my parents growing up. A girlfriend once attributed this to my lack of independence until I reminded her that I had once moved to a foreign country on my own and have pretty much steered my own life since childhood and made my own money since junior high. No, it is not that. It is not about being weak. I want to think that it is about love, and it is about being a woman in the sense that, as equal as we may be in brains or capability, we will always be more vulnerable physically.

In the end, I know that love brings out our most basic instincts to protect whether we are women or men. Women, with their maternal instincts, are fierce in this sense. I have seen this in myself. Seeing my child get hurt unjustly has brought out an assertiveness in me that I never before exercised. And in quieter, more unseen ways, in the absence of any real danger, I have been protective of my husband as well. It happens in the way I speak about him to others and in the way I implore him about things like driving too fast or running when it’s too hot. It happens every time I move on from a fight and put things behind me. It happens each day that we are together and I commit to loving him. While love motivates us to protect, it is also love – ordinary, unheroic – that is our protection, the shield of security that envelopes us.

Image courtesy

My heart swells every time I watch this scene: Count Laszlo de Almásy walks 3 days to try and get help for the dying Katharine Clifton in The English Patient. Image Courtesy:


22 thoughts on “Men, Women, and Chivalry

  1. Lovely post! This sounds like a fascinating book. “It is not about being weak. I want to think that it is about love, and it is about being a woman in the sense that, as equal as we may be in brains or capability, we will always be more vulnerable physically.” Yes. I’ve felt really conflicted about these two seemingly opposing emotions in myself: the desire to be independent and seen as “equal,” and the comfort of being cared for, fussed over, and protected. They’re not mutually exclusive. I think you’re right that care and protection is a sign of love–as long as it doesn’t become controlling.

    • Yes – I don’t believe they’re mutually exclusive either. As I was writing this post (which I really struggled with…first scheduling it to publish on Thursday and then taking it down, for fear I might come across as a damsel in distress….) I kept thinking how primitive it is, maybe, to still want or need this chivalric kind of protection…but then maybe there is nothing wrong with it. We can be strong and still dependent, or as Naomi says below, interdependent. I strongly believe that our men need us too and depend on us for comfort and security.

  2. I love when you say “While love motivates us to protect, it is also love – ordinary, unheroic – that is our protection, the shield of security that envelopes us.”. I think that is just right! I am like you, I feel more safe and comfortable when my husband is around, not so vulnerable. But I don’t know why. I always thought it was because I was a big chicken (ha!), but this post, which is causing me to actually think it through, makes me think that it’s normal to want someone else around to lean on, whether it’s a spouse, parent, sibling, or friend. And, even though we feel like we’re doing all the leaning, maybe our spouse/relatives/friends are leaning on us just as much in their own ways and for their own reasons.

    And I love “Seeing my child get hurt unjustly has brought out an assertiveness in me that I never before exercised”. I have also experienced this. Normally I am pretty quiet and avoid confrontation, but I have surprised myself several times when the issues I have had to deal with have involved my children. Even I can be assertive when I need to be!

    I can’t wait to hear more about this book!

    • I love your comment, Naomi! YES – I really think our loved ones are leaning on us too, and even though our way of protecting may not be overt – we’re not superheroes with capes – we are a safe haven for our family and friends. My close male friends often said that they felt more comfortable confiding in women. I imagine that we provide a much-needed place of comfort for our men, a place they perhaps cannot find in their male friendships.

      I guess the survival of our species depends on the assertiveness of mothers!

      I finished the book late last night and I can’t wait to write about it. It has really stayed with me.

  3. Love the English Patient – have to check out this book:) Great Post – really made me think about what I need from the men as well as the women in my life and who is the keeper of my secrets. Happy Weekend!

  4. I LOVE that scene from the English Patient. I was just bawling for probably the last 20 minutes of that movie. Probably my favorite corny love film out of all of them. (And yes, I do mean it ranks above Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany’s for me).

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this subject, but I can’t help but think that the feeling you described—wanting to be protected but also wanting to protect—is an aspect of many close relationships, and doesn’t necessary have anything to do with gender/sex. Husbands have traditionally been cast into that role, but I think it’s a loving sentiment that can be shared between any two people, really. I feel that way toward my sister, for example. And that versatility makes me even more fond of that particular emotion. 🙂

    • I totally agree with you, and tried to express that in my final paragraph but it may not have come out clearly enough 😦 Thank you for mentioning the love between siblings, as I think that is a perfect example of when one would feel protective! I only have one child, but I have been touched to see other children, the way they take care of younger siblings. I don’t know how good of a big sister I was to my brother, but now as adults I am definitely very protective, even though my sibling is a man. But he’s younger so I am still treating him like I need to hold his hand, ha ha.

      I’m glad you also love that scene from The English Patient. Just looking at the photo again after all these years brought tears to my eyes 😉

  5. I did feel very protected by my husband. Since him though I’ve never met any men chivalrous enough to be like this with me and sort of gave up on the idea. The feeling of being protected would have been my ideal when I was younger/still going out with men. But I think my experiences disillusioned me – some men I met did not want to feel that I needed them. And others I feel needed me to need them too much and wanted almost to stop me from developing and growing into my own person…

    • Your perspective is interesting, Denise. Yes, I think it might be an ‘ideal’ for some people but certainly not every man is going to feel comfortable with that role nor will they all embrace it. In the end as has been echoed in the comments, it all comes down to love – we feel protective when we love, whether we are men or women or even children. So lacking that sense of protectiveness may reflect something else that is missing.

      • I think I will probably step back from that protectiveness whenever I start another relationship – I am nervous in case other people see it the wrong way. I always thought it must be true because I felt that way when I loved. Now I am not sure whether it was not so in my last relationship because it was not really love, or whether my overprotectiveness contributed to the failure of my last relationship. Complicated!

  6. I think I depend on my husband for emotional protection. We are still working on communicating about that, ha ha, but I’m not as worried about the physical. I guess when there are strange noises in the middle of the night I send him out there to check on things first, but for me it is an emotional thing. I like to drive!

  7. You make some fantastic points in this post. I think people see me as incredibly independent but I do like being looked after in our relationship. I think you are right it is being in love that lets you be honest to yourself that reaction. I loved the book too, like you I couldn’t help but put my feet in Yvonne’s shoes!

    • Thanks for your comment! I think that we can be independent but still feel comfortable in being nurtured. I’m glad to hear that you also read and loved the book! I just posted a review of it today 🙂

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