by Diana Walters
As I flipped through hundreds of cable channels, I stumbled across an old movie, “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. I remembered watching it as an impressionable teenager in the 1960s. It was an entertaining romantic comedy, much like other movies my sister and I enjoyed — offering lessons on how to navigate future relationships with men.
Clark Gable labeled Claudette “brat” when he met her. It fit. She was as petulant, silly, and spoiled as a twelve-year-old princess. And helpless too.
Mr. Gable portrayed the take-charge hero. At one point he swept Claudette into his arms and carried her across a puddle, preventing her from muddying her dainty feet. In another scene, he spanked her for childish behavior. Eventually Colbert became properly submissive to Gable, ensuring a happily-ever-after ending. “It’s so romantic,” I sighed. “I want to marry someone who will take care of me like that.”
Those old scripts were filled with mixed messages. Men were expected to be uncommunicative and stoic. They were gruff and domineering, yet tender when the weaker sex was in trouble. They took charge, yet their women often manipulated them, using trickery and tears to get what they wanted. They were expected to be immature. More importantly, they were supposed to please their men — to wear what they liked, cook their favorite foods, and be available and willing to please them in bed. My mother’s submissiveness didn’t bely those expectations.
With images of Clark Gable dancing through my dreams, I married at nineteen. I was thrilled at the prospect of becoming the heroine of my personal romance and was prepared to play the role of compliant, child-like bride who needed a man to guide her through life. Jim would take charge of family decisions, of course, but he could be swayed by my tears. He would open doors for me, change lightbulbs, and perform other traditionally male chores. I would lean on him for guidance as I carried out my housewifely role.
Unfortunately, Jim had not watched romantic movies and refused to play his part. His mother had been widowed early and was an independent, no-nonsense kind of woman. He didn’t understand my need for approval and soon tired of my asking his opinions about minutia. His non-answers frustrated me. How could I please him if I didn’t know what he liked?
“What would you like for dinner, honey?”
“I don’t care.”
“Should I buy the red dress or the blue for the party?”
“Whichever you like best.”
“But I want to make you happy!”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Jim also thought I should handle household chores like changing lightbulbs—and even taking out the trash. “But that’s the man’s job,” I pouted.
He didn’t hold the car door open or carry me across puddles either. I was frequently disillusioned by his refusal to be the proper male lead in my story.
When Jim opened a café-tavern and began spending long hours getting established, I was left to manage the household. Making decisions terrified me, but when I asked for advice, he impatiently dismissed me. “Call around to find a refrigerator repairman. I’m busy.”
Reluctantly, I began paying the bills, changing lightbulbs, and even learned how to replace batteries in the smoke detector. When the trash piled up and it became apparent he wasn’t going to remove it, I hauled it to the street. I contacted repairmen when necessary and called the phone company when there was a fee I didn’t understand. Making decisions gradually became easier, and I felt proud of my growing independence.
Jim often worked late and didn’t come home for dinner, so I planned the meals without consulting him. When I shopped, I no longer asked his opinion. One day I cut off my long auburn hair without asking permission. He objected to that, but I thought, “I like it short, and it’s my hair, so he doesn’t get a vote.”
We had children, and I was comfortable making decisions about their welfare. We owned only one car, so when they needed to go to the doctor or to school programs, I arranged transportation. I handled discipline and attended parent-teacher conferences without Jim. When the kids were old enough to be left on their own after school, I looked for part-time employment. I wanted to buy a car, so I wouldn’t have to rely on Jim or family members for transportation.
Having an automobile and employment opened my eyes to other possibilities. I decided I wanted a real career not just a job, and I enrolled in several college classes to explore my options.
By then, Jim’s business was going well, and he hired more employees. Suddenly he had some free time and wanted to spend it with me. “College is a waste of money,” he said. “You don’t need a career. We’ve got money in the bank, and the way things are going, I’ll be able to retire early. We can just sit back and relax and enjoy life, maybe go lay on the beach somewhere.”
Retire? I was just beginning to live. Spend every day with him? We hadn’t spent much time together in recent years, but when we did, I rarely enjoyed it. Besides, I didn’t want to relax. I had goals. I intended on doing something with my life—like pursuing a career in social work. That would require years of education. I realized his vision for the future wasn’t the same as mine.
My original script had changed. The silly girl who was filled with unrealistic romantic fantasies had become an independent, ambitious woman. Jim and I had nothing in common any more—maybe we never had.
Then I made the biggest decision of my life: I asked for a divorce.
We don’t usually thank the people who force us to change. We never thank the teacher who criticizes our work and makes us resolve, “I’ll show you.” We don’t appreciate the boss who mistreats us, triggering a different career path. And we don’t say thank you to husbands who refuse to play Clark Gable to our Claudette Colbert, compelling us to change our life script.
But if I see Jim again, I’ll thank him for making me into the person I was meant to be—for forcing me to cross puddles on my own.
Photo by Дионис Сердюков via Pexels