A fellow blogger had an interesting post over the weekend that involved the idea of people being emotionally “risk averse.” Her post was about the man whom she loves — a married man who has decided to stay with his wife but doesn’t want to let her go. She sympathizes with his plight. She feels bad that he is so torn. She understands and accepts his decision, as well as his waffling, even as she tries mightily to disengage herself and move on. She wrote of her lover being “risk averse” in assessing his marriage, their relationship, and the options before them.
I wrote a comment to her post and then decided that it was really worthy of a whole post of my own, because I think it’s a concept with which we frequently wrestle, in lots of relationship settings unrelated to infidelity. It seems to me that if someone cannot or will not make a choice related to a relationship, they are frequently labeled as being risk averse to a potentially difficult outcome.
It got me thinking: What do we really mean when we say someone is risk averse in an emotional setting? One professional hat that I wear is that of risk manager, so I fully understand and appreciate and value the concept of weighing costs and benefits, but I think we’ve begun to apply it as a pretty euphemism for a not-pretty behavior…
Remember Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind? Now, I understand Ashley… really I do. I’d probably be great friends with Ashley and spend hours in philosophical conversation with him. He’s basically a good guy and he has some interesting and poetic and romantic ideas. But there is a reason he is not the hero of the book. This is because, quite frankly, he is a pansy (yes, I know there’s a better word for it, but I’m going with “pansy”). He spends the whole book wringing his hands and saying variations of “Oh my, what shall I do?” while Rhett Butler…. well… Rhett Butler is a man of action, right? He doesn’t dither, he doesn’t over-analyze. He acts. And we swoon. Every. Freakin’. Time. That’s not to say Rhett isn’t complex, or tortured, or capable of being crazy in love, but just that he’s not an emotional coward.
And what of Scarlett? As strong as she is, she makes excuses for Ashley nearly the whole way through the book. She understands, she sympathizes, she tries to hold his pain for him. Until she finally realizes that it’s not that he’s loyal to Melanie; it’s not that he is such a great gentleman; it’s not that he’s smart; it’s that he’s too scared to do either the completely right thing or the completely wrong thing. So he dithers.
Today, we’d call Ashley Wilkes “risk averse.”
See my point? Now, I’m being kind of harsh here, I know, and I do honestly believe that “risk averse” can be appropriately applied in some emotional situations. When one has been terribly, terribly hurt, natural caution does (and should) emerge to make us much more calculated in our assessment of situations before we leap. But I’ve gradually realized that most people who call themselves risk averse have no greater reason for fear than most of us; they simply choose to hide behind it.
I have a friend who had her heart shattered a few months ago. She is, most definitely, risk averse right now. She is so wounded and cynical and frightened. But she has every reason to be… what happened to her was horrible and mean and she needs time to regain her confidence in assessing risk and her ability to take leaps of faith. And she will. This is a temporary, rational reaction to a very bad experience.
I’m also dating a man right now who falls into the risk averse category. Prior to his marriage, he was fearless (and I do mean fearless; I shudder at some of his stories). But his ex-wife is truly the stuff of a bad Lifetime movie… she is more deceitful and manipulative and calculating than I ever thought truly possible in real life; her diabolical schemes literally shock me. But he loved her. He sincerely, deeply loved her. Bought her whole Brooklyn Bridge, and paid dearly for it in every possible way. Five years after their divorce, he is still gun-shy. Normally, I’d say man-up and get over it, but the more I hear what she did to him and to men since him, the more amazed I am that he’s opening up to me at all. But he is. He’s trying. He doesn’t want to be paralyzed forever by his fears of repeating one awful mistake.
I suspect that some readers might argue that maybe some people are just naturally risk averse and don’t need a specific reason to exercise extreme caution in their emotional affairs. Perhaps. But to that argument I fire back: how is that different from emotional cowardice? Why do we grant this kind of emotional dithering a nice, almost-laudable label? What happened to the value of decisiveness? The idea of “strength of character”? The concept of facing a fear head-on and deciding that we must overcome it and we must do so without a guarantee? Show me an American hero — male or female — who was risk averse. Just one.
So, my point to my fellow blogger was that maybe before we grant someone the sympathetic title of “risk averse,” it might be interesting to ask ourselves why. Why is this person “risk averse”? How is this behavior different from sheer emotional cowardice? At what point does prudence become an excuse to wring our hands and say “Oh my, whatever will I do?”
I sincerely do not mean to be harsh toward those who are struggling through understanding their relationship or their capacity to be in that relationship. What I am taking issue with is the Ashley Wilkeses of this world, for whom ongoing, drawn-out indecisiveness causes pain for themselves and others, and even wreaks havoc with their own life. At some point, you’ve done enough thinking and it’s time to make a decision. Or, as my one guy friend likes to say: Grow a pair.
Because Ashley Wilkes was not risk averse. Ashley Wilkes was a pansy.