Will the Real Men Please Stand Up?
Timothy D. Evans, Ph. D.
The assumption of a “natural” masculine superiority has always been a threat to women and men alike.
Many men today have questions even doubts about their masculinity. Women are demanding that men change, but it’s not always clear what they want. They desire a strong man who will not control nor dominate them. While also wanting a sensitive man who is not weak and who will listen to them. Men are expected to be more tender, open, and vulnerable with a willingness to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Men do not want to be chauvinistic, but they also do not want to be wimps. Men often do not know where they stand in our rapid changing society. They can no longer count on traditional relationships with women. They are left with competing messages about what it means to be a man, without much guidance or understanding.
Many men wonder what has happened to their so-called “man’s world”. In the past, men could be dominate in business, sports, and politics. These were the remaining male activities, where men could enjoy their so called “man’s world”. However, women today, and rightly so, have made their way into these arenas, and are making a useful and needed contribution. Perhaps, this idea of a “man’s world” is a myth, whose exposer is long overdue. It does not mix well with the democratic belief in freedom and equality.
As women have gained more dignity, respect, and recognition in the past 50 years, men have stood still. They feel they have lost prestige and power. They are not as sure as they once were of their place as men.
For hundreds of years, it has been a “man’s world”. In the family, the husband has been the head of the household and would have the final word. He has been the sole provider and ruler. Backed by tradition and culture, his place has been safe and secure. He has felt like a “real” man in this authoritarian tradition. The women’s role was to assist and support the man’s decision. They were “dependent” and often felt trapped because the men controlled the money and therefore the power.
With women working in more than 50 percent of the families today, the men are no longer the sole provider and they have lost much of their so called “authority” and superiority to control women. Women are, finally, starting to get paid what they are worth, and even earn more than their husbands. Therefore, men can no longer count on feeling like a man through being the sole financial provider in the household which made them “superior” to women. They are no longer dominating and controlling women with money. Women are now self-sufficient and not trapped by financial restraints. Instead of relying on power and control, men must learn a new tradition based on mutual respect and dignity. This Democracy means a change in human relationships from the traditional form of superiority—inferiority, dominance, and submission— to a relationship of equality (Dreikurs, 1971).
Alfred Adler, over ninety years ago, addressed the role of men in a democratic society and what it means for a man to relate as an equal. By equal, Adler did not mean sameness but mutual respect and dignity for inherent differences. What he wrote is perhaps more relevant today than it was ninety years ago. (Adler, 1931) wrote:
“The task of father can be summed up in a few words. He must prove himself to be a good fellow human to his wife, to his children, and to society. He must meet in a good way the three problems of life-occupation, friendship, and love-and he must cooperate on an equal footing with his wife in the care and protection of the family. He should not forget that the woman’s part in the creation of the family life can never be surpassed. It is not his part to dethrone the mother, but to work with her (pp. 134-135).”
Adler (1931) continued to provide guidance on how a man could relate as an equal with his wife. He advised that a man should not use his economic position as a means of ruling the household. Adler stated that there should be no ruler in the family and every occasion for feelings of inequality should be avoided. He then warns that every man should know how our culture has overemphasized the privileged position of the man. The consequence of this position shows up in marriage. That when married, the wife is fearful of being dominated and put in an inferior position. He stated that a man must be aware that his wife is not in an inferior position because she is female, and she is equal to him in her support of the family and everyday life. If there is genuine cooperation in marriage, then there is a division of labor, with each task holding equal value. Who makes the money and to whom it should belong is not an issue. It belongs to everyone in the family and is not used as a means of control.
Men Need Help Not Blame and Shame
It is difficult for men to find guidance in our culture. Some men come into therapy because a wife or significant other has sent them in for their transgressions or to learn how to “communicate” better. Therapy can be used with men as a form of humiliation, blame, or retribution and not empathic understanding. We know that ridicule and humiliation create discouragement, not change. Equality cannot be established by one group pushing another group down.
Men need psychological understanding in terms of their lifestyle. In other words, the meaning they give to masculinity and understand how this effects their choices and behavior. Men have enough shame and anxiety in their lives without therapy increasing their negative view of self. A man’s behavior can create a lot of hurt, mistrust, confusion, and alienation. These actions are not excused however for things to improve, understanding and connection must occur. The solution does not lie in using the old labels. The labels we hear in therapy that men are liars, sex addicts, cheaters, angry, abusive, bad listeners, cannot be trusted, and need to be punished or humiliated (Perel, 2017). These labels and attitudes do not improve relationships, increase social interest, or create improved mental health. We have heard of therapists using lie detector tests with men to catch them cheating. One therapist in a marital session was scolding a man for having “anger issues.” Telling a man he has anger issues, is not helpful. Helping a man understand how he uses his anger to defeat, punish, control, and find useful ways to cooperate is helpful.
Men are caught in an on-going bind. They are presented with modern day images of the modern man, that require new emotional skills and behavior. In opposition, there are also the images that promote old stereotype definitions of masculinity, which are to be hard working, successful, competitive, emotionally tough, a decision maker, sexually assertive, stoic, winning at all costs, powerful, and often disrespectful towards women (Real, 1997). These confusing and conflicting messages end up giving men four directions.
The first direction is towards the traditional male image called performance-based esteem. These are the status driven men who overcompensate and over state their masculine traits. They rely on their job, wealth, success, and who they marry to validate their self-worth. If they lose their job, have an aging wife, or do not meet their financial goals they risk feeling “less than” or seeing them self as inferior. They view money as a report card. Women, like money, are ornaments used to validate their masculinity and therefore their self-worth.
Status seeking men must detachment from their fundamental self. Masculinity is equated with performance and toughness. Performance in career, finances, and sex. To achieve this, men are willing to give up emotional intimacy, love, vulnerability, connection, and cooperation. These attributes are seen as weak and feminine (Real, 2017).
Performance esteem is not a fixed variable. It fluctuates with careers and finances. Ultimately this means that when things go well at work a man can feel good about himself. On the other hand, if things go poorly, if he loses, or if he does not make enough money, his esteem as a person is threatened and he may feel worthless. These men pursue the hologram of success. As one man stated, “I just closed another deal and made four million dollars, why don’t I feel successful?” As if the money will take away his feelings of inadequacy, and that “success” is a feeling or a state of being. Instead, the four million dollars only got him in touch with his sense of inadequacy and not being enough. He understood very little of himself or his relationship with money (Twist, 2017).
Performance based esteem generates a lot of anxiety because these individuals are constantly under the threat of losing their status. Since their worth is based on external factors it can change at any moment. Performance-based esteem in relationships with the women they marry, often carries expectations that are impossible for a man to achieve in everyday life. Women may convey to these traditional male role models that they are to make them feel happy, special, and provide them with the material possessions they deserve.
The second direction for a man is to be a “sensitive and supportive man” with very little if any modeling on how to do this. Being supportive and sensitive operationalizes to being accommodating which results in an inability to problem solve. Accommodating is not problem solving. To accomplish this goal many men, give up and let the women decide and be in charge. This makes it easy for the men and the women believe that they are maintaining their independence and not being trapped in a marriage. These modern-day women are characterized as doing everything right. They tend to be overly responsible, want to succeed, and not be dependent on any man. High performance women find it impossible to compromise the standards they have set for themselves and others. Whatever they do, it must be the best, not almost perfect, but perfectly perfect. Men who live and work with such a person often give up wanting to cooperate. They realize there is no way they can measure up to their wife’s high standards. Consequently, they do nothing, and feel resentful of their wife’s “goodness of excellence.” The more responsible the wife becomes, the more irresponsible becomes the husband. The husband cannot do as well as his wife, so why try. He often escapes into his job and weekend sports. Leaving both husband and wife feeling neglected.
It is confusing because these men are capable and have responsible careers, such as a jet pilot or a heart surgeon but at home they become bobble heads and overly agreeable with everything. In other words, they mistakenly withdraw and become passive to get back at their wife’s control. They often make excellent parents, however regarding the marriage and the relationship they are indecisive, passive, and let their wives make all the decisions. The marriage lacks cooperation and tends to be more about asserting feelings and having one’s way. The theme of the marriage is the wife saying, “I will prevail” and the men saying “ok, I will let you”, and they become worthy competitors, versus a cooperative marriage.
The man’s passivity and the wife’s dominance create a marriage that lacks polarity, in other words lacks masculine and feminine traits. Polarity is the needed ingredient for sexual tension and desirability. The wives are wanting to gain dignity and respect, by taking on the male traits, and the men are so passive, that their relationship becomes androgenous resulting in a sexless union. The men work, take care of the kids, support their wires, and will do anything to maintain the peace and make life comfortable. The marriage is more about work and raising the children than having a together experience. Unfortunately, children and work are not the foundation for a family. The foundation of the family is based on the strength of the marriage. These marriage relationship are often described as emotionally paralleling. Meaning the couple live like roommates. They meet all their responsibilities and succeed at work, but they do not have an emotional and physical connection. It is never husband and wife, no one else, going out to have fun on a regular basis.
The third group of men is made up of the of 20- to 30-year-old males. This younger group of men have decided to not even attempt to solve the problem of love and marriage. They avoid relationships with women, which include dating and marriage. They withdraw from the task of intimacy and retreat into their male dungeons playing video games, movies, and hanging out with other male friends who also feel defeated with their inability to be “manly” enough to be in a relationship with a woman. This younger group of men have often observed the stress and unhappiness their fathers created by pursuing performance-based esteem often ending in failure and divorce. Dating is confusing in terms of the roles and rules surrounding sex. It is easier for this group of men to simply avoid the task of intimacy and find comfort in their manly activities which are video games, podcasts, and fantasy baseball. They go underground and like to be unnoticed. They do enough to get by and place a high value on maintaining their freedom and creative interest. Unlike their fathers, who were overly ambitious and overly worked, these men want to avoid getting “trapped” with the responsibilities their father’s had with their careers, marriage, and parenting.
Finally, there is a fourth and more hopeful alternative for men today. One that has evolved with the idea of social equality. This newer healthier man can be a gentle man in a modern society, where there is cooperation and shared decision making. Relationships are based on horizontal movement not vertical movement. Vertical striving is competitive, and individuals are viewed as being above or below. Life is about winning and being right. Whereas horizontal movement is about cooperating as social equals, and everyone participates in the division of labor with equal footing.
This new modern man can learn that what really counts is being a worthwhile human being in a human world. They do not have to prove or defend themselves as men. They do not have to be always strong, powerful, and overly responsible. Admitting defeat, making mistakes, and failing, are not a “less than” position but a part of being human and living life. As worthwhile human beings, they can be both strong and tender and still feel manly. They can lose and not feel shame. They do not have to apologize and fear losing their “man card” if they enjoy a movie such as, White Christmas or reading a book of poetry. There is worth in being ordinary. They simply function, contribute, and move in a positive direction.
“Real” men today are comfortable working and living with women as equal partners. They have learned that sharing responsibility is much more therapeutic for the family than the heavy responsibility and control assumed by men in the past. These modern men define cooperation as a shared division of labor that is necessary and a requirement for community living. They are at peace with themselves and others as they prepare for life as men.
As men, they accept and celebrate their masculinity with no shame, guilt, or apology attached. This including their sexuality. They can recognize and treat women as equals in terms of dignity and respect. There is no competition as to who the superior sex is or putting the other gender down. Cooperation is valued over competition. Everyone is given a vote, and all the votes carry the same weight. These modern men have given up on having to prove themselves through performance-based esteem, competition, and over stating their masculinity in other destructive manners. They do not challenge aggressive unreasonable individuals. Instead of using their power in a crisis, the modern man thinks his way out of a crisis.
Healthy men enjoy life and accept others who think and act different from them. They are not out to defeat and win every interaction from the office, home, to driving down main street. They are problem solvers who attempt to work out differences and have the courage to walk away from a situation before it turns into an argument and increases the difficulty. They are at peace within themselves and enjoy the important people in their lives, parents, children, friends, and sexual partners. Healthy men view their sexuality as something they are born with and is used to connect, enjoy, and bring pleasure throughout their life span.
Overall, this modern man is a good fellow human to his wife, children, and society. He meets the three problems of life-occupation, friendship, and love. He has a cooperate attitude and wants to be on an equal footing with his wife in the care and protection of the family. He shares in the division of labor and no one job gives him more status or power over his wife. It is his job to work with her as social equals. Most of all, he uses every occasion to increase feelings of equality and understands that even though the past culture has overemphasized the privilege position of the man, he wants to avoid any inequality. Meaning, no one gender is above or below the other.
Adler, A. (1931). What life should mean to you. New York: G. P. Putnan’s Sons.
Dreikurs, R. (1971). Social equality the challenge of today. Chicago: Alfred Adler Institute.
Perel, E. (2017). The state of affairs. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.
Real, T. (2017). The long shadow of patriarchy. Psychotherapy Network, October, 35-43.
Real, T. (1997). I don’t want to talk about it. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Twist, L. (2017). The soul of money. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.