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Why Men Fall Apart When the Wife Goes Out of Town

When the wives are away, the Wife Guys will play

Part of the experience of being a Wife Guy — that they really oughta better prepare you for — is your old lady not being there every second of every day. Sometimes, she might have to go out of town for a work trip or bachelorette weekend, and you’ll have to carry on without her. While she’s gone, well, you’re essentially a wife guy without a wife, which can be confusing. 

Does this mean that for this window of time, you’re just a guy? What if dinner could be a party-size bag of Doritos and a six-pack? What if you stay up all night playing Fortnite, taking bong rips and jerking off? Should you get even crazier? Call up your old buddies and go on a bender? Is that okay?

It’s a wild ride for a Wife Guy gone wild. Being unmarried won’t keep you safe either; this bewildering circumstance can strike Girlfriend Guys, too. Any hetero male in a relationship is at risk of finding himself mysteriously untethered to his woman, like a puppet who’s lost his string, suddenly expected to walk around on his own like a real live person. 

On Twitter, if you search “girlfriend out of town,” the tweets read like a meme, with parodies of dudes in relationships getting into big trouble when the ball and chain is away. 

On the subreddit r/starterpacks, there’s a Wife Is Outta Town Starter Pack, which includes everything a manchild needs for a dream night-in: bourbon on the rocks, pizza delivery, video games, basketball shorts and jerk-off supplies, captioned with the Wife-Guy own “‘Gonna stay up LATE tonight!’ (blacks out on couch at 7 p.m.).” The more than 700-comment thread consists of guys expressing how seen they feel, discussing masturbation tactics (such as the pros and cons of being a “dry guy”) and waxing nostalgic about how good it feels to be a man all by his lonesome.

Wife is outta town Starter Pack from starterpacks

It seems, then, that the “my wife’s outta town” guy only knows two modes of existing: 1) single dirtbag who can barely function; or 2) upstanding man in a relationship — with no in-between. 

Of course, it’s fine to take a night for yourself where you eat crap for dinner and only talk to the dog. It’s not like you’re out cheating, or doing drugs and lying about it, which would suggest bigger issues in the relationship. But the longing to abandon all standards when you’re alone suggests that in some of these cases, men are substituting being in a relationship for personal growth. If your self-concept is tied to what kind of partner you are, or are pretending to be — look at me, I’m acting like a good boyfriend, so that must mean I am a good dude — but you turn into a sentient garbage can the minute your lady’s not there to watch you, perhaps that good behavior was merely performative, motivated by sex, attention or keeping up appearances.  

Per Jim Seibold, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas, it’s a matter of inauthenticity. He says some men think, I’m going to do what I think I’m supposed to do in a relationship, because it’s what I’m supposed to do, but it doesn’t occur to me that it’s just a good thing to do. “The performative part [of ‘being a good guy’] may be well-intentioned,” he adds, “but the problem is there isn’t a lot of substance to it and that makes it much easier to backslide.”

It’s important to remember that your wife or girlfriend isn’t your therapist, your moral compass or your mom. You already have a mother; you should get a therapist; and a pretty big part of being a person in the world is figuring out your own moral code. “What’s helpful in these instances is for people to have a better understanding of why they do what they do and why it’s important, so they’re able to maintain consistency regardless of whether someone’s around to see them or not,” he suggests. 

One Wife Guy I’m pals with tells me he likes to get drunk and play Magic: The Gathering when his missus is away. But he explains that it’s less about regressing to a pre-wifed up version of himself and instead a way to spend some time on the hobbies and interests that they don’t share — i.e., “getting to do the dorky things that I like that I know would be a complete bad time for her. It’s the same as when I stay up late after she’s asleep so I can watch rock docs.”

Recently, when writer Sam Adler-Bell tweeted, “Girlfriend’s going out of town for a month, thinking of getting back into drugs. What’s good these days?” it inspired an amusing thread of online garbage heads replying that he should check out everything from nitrous to 2C-B, with only a smattering of girlfriend guys weighing in. While the tweet was facetious, Adler-Bell admits that he recognizes this type of male posturing in himself and in others, and sees it as an “emotionally inarticulate” way of communicating that he’s “anxious about this minor change in the architecture of my emotional life” and “I want my friends to know that and I hope they hang out with me.” 

“After she left, everyone started talking to me like a mental patient: ‘Sam, how are you doing? Is everything okay?’” he continues, before telling me that he recalls thinking, “Once she leaves I’m gonna have to face the real circumstances of my existence again and check back in with myself and see whether, in the absence of my partner, I still make sense to myself.” So far, he’s started playing D&D, spent more time on Twitter and slept in. 

Maintaining your autonomy when you’re in a committed partnership can be challenging. According to Bonnie Eaker Weill, a psychotherapist and author of Make Up, Don’t Break Up, “when you’re a couple, the most important thing is the balance between the ‘I’ and the ‘we.’” 

For the men who actually do go on a bender or cheat when their partner’s gone, Weill believes that the behavior stems from intimacy issues that developed during their coming of age, when they first experienced ambivalence about needing to break free from their mother, while still longing to preserve that attachment. “When a little boy grows up, he has to defy his mom to become masculine. It’s a rite of passage,” she explains. “When your wife or girlfriend goes away, this is your rite of passage to let loose and be free just the way you were when you tried to break away from your mom.” 

But it’s complicated. “Men don’t like disappointing women, just like they didn’t like to disappoint their mother,” says Weill. “They want to get their approval. So how do they get their approval and also do what they feel like doing? When they’re not there. It’s a way of avoiding conflict.”

Who wants their boyfriend/husband to treat them like their mother? Nobody. To avoid such a power dynamic as well as curb the repressed urge to act out and be a bad boy when the wife is away, Weill recommends communicating, setting boundaries and allowing your partner space. 

This especially plays out for couples in open relationships. “Jay,” who identifies as gender nonconforming, says that when their wife is out of town, they’re free to date other women. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, when you’re away this weekend, I’m going to go out with this person.’” And Jay says that while they do enjoy reverting to bachelor mode — eating mac ‘n cheese for dinner, drinking more and everything that goes with “that feeling of being single and out there again” — the fact that their wife gives them freedom to do so makes it so that “they don’t pine for it as much.” 

“The weekend alone offers the illusion of that wild single life we idealize and keep on a pedestal,” they say. “We don’t actually want to be single. We need the relationship we are in. But we have nostalgia.”

So the next weekend you’re alone, do some soul-searching, and think about what kind of guy you are, or want to be — with wife, but also, without wife. Instead of being a “my wife’s outta town” guy, you could be a guy who’s here, right now. And if you’re gonna act like a dirtbag, do it with loving acceptance of the trash that you are inside — not because you think you’re a virtuous man who deserves to backslide.