A few weeks ago, psychologist Randi Gunther discussed the fact that women still initiate the majority of divorces, even after men dutifully followed women into the new millennium.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We men learned how to change diapers and cook risotto. We learned to watch for barely perceptible nods of approval before opening doors for women. We even learned to manscape, for goodness sake.
Women were supposed to be happy with the new variety of men. Yet they are divorcing us just like they divorced our insensitive forefathers. Professor Gad Saad reported that American woman initiate 69% of divorces; the most recent British statistic is 72%.
Dr. Gunther, who specializes in repairing relationships, described some of the unhappily divorced men she meets in her office:
“I am currently dealing with several of these great husbands. They are, across the board, respectful, quality, caring, devoted, cherishing, authentic, and supportive guys whose wives have left them for a different kind of man.”
Who is this “different kind of man,” and why do women quit their marriages to pursue him? Dr. Gunther continues:
“The women I have treated who have left their husbands for more ‘masculine’ men believed that their new relationships would be able to both excite and nurture them.”
Clearly, this new stud is virile. He’s exciting. He possesses something that the “perfect” husband does not.
Dr. Gunther didn’t say it, but I will: it sounds as if many of today’s perfect, sensitive, cherishing men are… how shall I put this… boring.
Who can blame women for being bored with men these days? Far too many of us have lost our masculine fortitude. That fortitude has nothing to do with being dominant or avoiding vacuum cleaners. It’s a product of solid values and strong backbones.
Let me tell you about Jen and Steve, a young married couple I knew. By the time I met them, Jen had come to dislike almost everything about Steve. She was irritated by the way he talked. She disliked his lack of ambition. She hated the way he hid in the basement and smoked pot.
Most of all, she loathed his obsequious behavior toward her. He tried desperately to please her and insulate himself from her disapproval, but his effort had a paradoxical effect. It irritated her. She felt as if she had mistakenly married a sad and docile eunuch.
It hadn’t always been that way. When they first met, she was attracted to his jovial, gregarious nature. He wasn’t pursuing any particular passion in life, but he was motivated and eager to please. His bosses praised him, and his rent was always on time. Jen liked those qualities.
But after a few years of marriage, Steve was simply not the spirited man he had once been, and Jen’s hostility toward him was born of loneliness. Jen would frequently goad him into arguments in the hopes of rousing a spark of life, but invariably Steve would bend to her will and slink away. That only left her feeling more isolated.
Privately, he complained that she was impossible to please. “She gripes about everything. I just can’t win.” He was blind to the fact that his efforts to please her had created a perverse cycle of disappointment.
From my vantage point, it seemed that Steve had never defined what was important to him. He was motivated but directionless. His ship was propelled aimlessly by the ever-changing winds of other people’s desires.
Since he had never practiced defining or defending his own values, he was unable to constructively negotiate differences of opinion. In effect, an important piece of his vocabulary was missing. He lacked the words to describe his own motivations.
That vocabulary is vital in a marriage. Steve was essentially useless when normal relationship friction arose with Jen. And he had no toolbox for negotiating when their desires inevitably diverged, so he simply acquiesced. Ironically, this made Jen deeply unsatisfied. This strong woman had never intended to marry an insecure man.
Things began to change after Steve engaged in some diligent soul-searching. He began unearthing his values and his ambitions. He put words to his own joys and dissatisfactions.
Eventually, he emerged from the basement and stopped cowering from Jen’s disapproval. He even gave up marijuana, which had served to insulate him from the emptiness of their marriage. He starting taking charge of his life, pursuing an important professional goal and vowing to improve his relationship with Jen.
Finally, something astonishing happened on a Saturday morning when Jen instructed him to accompany her to a baby shower: he declined. “No thanks,” he said. “I’m going golfing. Give my best to the mother.”
That’s when Steve and Jen began to rediscover the joy they had known in the early days of their marriage. He was present again. She was grateful that his vibrance and ambition had returned, and she couldn’t care less if he attended baby showers.
In his desperation to avoid disapproval, Steve had become, as he put it, a pandering milquetoast. What healthy person—male or female—wants to be hitched to that?
Pandering is a natural trap for men because we find joy and meaning in serving women. The drive to impress is quite literally imprinted on male DNA. But there’s a fine line between living-to-serve and living-in-fear-of-disapproval. I’m afraid that many men have confused normal, healthy dissent with a failure to serve. They feel ineffectual and they withdraw.
Withdrawal is a common male behavior in relationships, but it’s beginning to seem that entire groups of men are withdrawing from women in general. Dr. Helen Smith has documented the male exodus from institutions like marriage and higher education. I think these men are retreating from the sense that nothing they do is good enough, and women will forever be unhappy with them. They’re propelled even further by a small, but vocal, contingent of women who provide a steady stream of anger and disapproval.
(There are also plenty of male malcontents who fuel discord between the genders. My advice: let’s not allow the perpetual grumps on either side to lead the discussion.)
Back to Dr. Gunther. She has zeroed in on the question that I believe many men are struggling with:
“How do they hold on to their vulnerability and capacity to nurture, and blend it with the strength and power required of a self-respecting leader of men?”
In other words, how can these men be all things to all people? To my mind, the answer is crystal clear: it can’t be done, and it is a counterproductive goal. Just ask Steve.
Men should not strive to stay out of trouble. We should strive to be the best men we can be. Only then are we worthy of women’s love. We shouldn’t complain if women are unenthusiastic about our lack of direction. We certainly shouldn’t cry victim if our spiritual listlessness drives them to the arms of men who pilot their own ships—or at least appear to do so.
I am not suggesting that Dr. Gunther’s patients are rudderless, or that they deserved to be divorced. Clearly they are well-intentioned men undeserving of such pain. But perhaps men, in general, should explore the possibility that unmoderated accommodation eventually damages relationships. Maybe Steve can teach us a couple of things.
First is the importance of a solid emotional vocabulary. Without it, a man cannot articulate the values by which he lives, nor can he communicate on matters of wellbeing with those who he loves and serves.
The greatest men in history have possessed the ability to convey their internal experiences. Douglass MacArthur’s farewell speech to West Point comes to mind. Few of us will attain that level of fluency, but we don’t need to. All that’s required is a basic verbal toolbox—the same skills that Steve developed. Without that, men lack one of the most important tools for aligning behavior with values. They end up self-destructing in the proverbial basement.
Some of us are reluctant to study this skill because we’ve been taught to avoid emotional topics. Supposedly, it’s effeminate to put words to our inner sensibilities. But, really, what’s more masculine: avoiding your problems and blaming others because you “just can’t win?” Or honing a basic skill and tackling issues head-on?
Second, according to the Book of Steve, every man needs to understand his own values, and those values must drive his behavior. It’s not for me to say what a man’s values should be, but only that he must possess and protect them if he hopes to succeed in relationships. That means men must be willing to say to women, I will walk to the ends of the earth if it brings you happiness. I will adopt new behaviors if it eases your burden and feeds our love. But I cannot relinquish my masculinity or my purpose.
Men who disregard their values and cower from disapproval live in a spiritual vacuum. Relationships cannot thrive in such a space. We owe it to our loved ones to offer the best of ourselves, and we can’t blame women for abandoning us if we were never present in the first place.
A brief addendum on 9/20/14: Just to clarify, there is nothing problematic about being a caring, sensitive guy. Heck, I’m caring and sensitive on alternate Tuesdays, when I’m not scaring children and stealing parking spaces from the elderly. Degree of sensitivity is really not the point. Sensitive and caring guys can have strong values that they’re willing to fight for—often even more so that guys who look tough—and a sensitive guy with strong values would seem to be the ideal. It’s the absence of values, or the unwillingness to defend them, that leads to problems in relationships.