The Hidden Lives of Men
For each man kills the thing he loves.
There are many stories by women about why they leave their husbands, partners, or lovers, but few by men who head for the exits. Are they not getting the attention they want? Are they simply tired of, bored with, or frustrated by their partners and want to trade them in—as if shopping for a car—for a newer, shinier model? Are they filled with so much anger, frustration, or confusion about their relationships, or other parts of their lives, that they don’t know what else to do but leave? Maybe they’re hoping to find a new woman to save them, or they’re chasing a lost childhood. Many are clueless about where their emotions come from and how they work—they understand the effect but not the cause—and how important their childhood is to the man and intimate partner they ultimately become.
Their confusion also comes from mixed messages they receive from women. On the one hand, men are often chided for not being emotional or sensitive enough, but they also hear that emotions are a woman’s domain and that men can’t possibly understand their complexity or compete with women in this arena. So men think, with linear male logic, why bother becoming something, or attempt to master a skill, they can’t possibly succeed at?
For men, falling in love seems relatively straightforward. It usually starts with physical attraction and/or infatuation, followed by an emotional connection, then attachment, openness, and trust and, as the relationship matures, companionship, a sense of responsibility, and dependency. Falling out of love is usually more gradual, complex, and unsettling, not just for its painful impact but because of the subtle, dimly understood reasons behind it. The thief who steals love away is sometimes another being who lives inside us. Often he is the child we once were and then abandoned prematurely. The thief is also the incessant voice of our masculinity, and our passive willingness to accept traditional male stereotypes. It is as well the “binge and purge” values of popular culture; the struggle to find healthy role models; the conscious and unconscious behavior of our female partners; and, not least, the difference between how men and women learn, think, and communicate.
The ten stories here offer different insights on why men struggle with love. One insight, hardly groundbreaking but still important, is that the nest and its boundaries send a mixed message to a man almost from the beginning. On the one hand, there is the idea of “growing up” and “settling down” and having a family—a primary definition of masculinity. On the other, most men, at some level, are inherently uncomfortable in a committed relationship. They think or fantasize about whether they chose the right partner, and isn’t it too bad that they have to settle for just one woman because no one partner can satisfy a man on every level. Men tend to want it all, even if they’re afraid to say so out loud, or admit that, practically speaking, the goal is impossible. The irony is that when their relationships run into trouble, men, rather than leave, often stay—out of convenience or habit, fear of the unknown, the sense that quitting means failure, or the belief that somehow they can fix the problem. The underlying assumption behind all four reasons—ubiquitous in male culture—is that a man must always feel in control of his own world.
In any relationship, as early infatuation gives way to the daily routine and compromises of living together, men dwell specifically on the limitations on their sexual freedom. What a woman may happily define as “security” and “comfort” often comes without the consent of a man’s hormones. Perhaps he understood the theory of giving up his freedom before entering the relationship, but reality is another matter. For many, suppressing their attraction to other women comes at the price of finding fault with their partners or themselves, retreating into passive-aggressive behaviors, or wanting to escape from their relationships whenever possible. Men like this may simply not be emotionally ready for a serious commitment, but even when they are ready, their hormonal and psychological makeup mean a need for exploration and a certain amount of freedom.
As hoary a stereotype as it may be, this is the basic definition of a hunter-gatherer. This does not imply a license to pursue other intimate relationships, but it does mean finding healthy outlets for independence, self-assertion, and emotional fulfillment: a world without women. Exclusive male enclaves can mean anything from car clubs, investment groups, sports, Rotary meetings, prayer groups, breakfast clubs, or just time alone for thinking or reading. In J. R. Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar, his adolescence and manhood are largely shaped by the company of men who gather in a bar to drink, to vent, and to be honest about their feelings, whether or not they are politically correct. The theme is men respecting and caring for other men. It is also about being unintimidated, deflecting judgment, and burying your pain, including that caused by women, before it buries you.
Men who are work and responsibility obsessed often feel guilty if they have too much free time or hang out with other men. They think that they are “doing nothing,” and that being unproductive is somehow unmasculine. In reality, “doing nothing” can be invaluable therapy. In the Manhasset bar where Moehringer centers his story, doing nothing but drinking means men running from their problems, looking for distractions, fantasizing about women, and being lost boys. Not all men are lost boys, but as Moehringer implies, many feel trapped or taken for granted. It’s often assumed by our culture that boys will grow up on their own to become men because, after all, manhood, unlike being a woman, is just not that complicated. As Moehringer finds out, it takes not just a nurturing mother but lots of men—the bar is his metaphor for a much larger and more diverse male universe—to grow a boy into a man. If men are honest, most will admit they need a private world where they are not judged or stereotyped by women, and give themselves permission to explore whatever needs exploring. They need space. They need a place to feel safe.
In most cases, if your relationship is healthy, it’s your partner who is your safe harbor, but even the best relationships don’t satisfy all needs. Psychologists have written on the necessity for men and women to keep growing emotionally outside of their primary relationships. In the last generation or two, women have learned the value of growth through independence, but men appear to be far less confident and adventurous, as if they don’t trust their instincts, have a fear of making a mistake, are afflicted with guilt, or think they will earn the disapproval of their partners if they become too independent. They rationalize that they don’t have time for such self-indulgence. Whether men restrict their own growth and freedom or they allow their partners to intimidate them, if opportunities for self-assertion and exploration are cut off, falling out of love may be the result.
Where does this male vulnerability and lack of confidence come from? In the opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s film, The Aviator, a preadolescent Howard Hughes is being given a bath by his beautiful Victorian mother. As she caresses his chest and arms with a bar of soap, we sense his vulnerability as well as their mutual adoration. His mother seems in total control of Hughes’s emotions, and what she is telling him—to be afraid of people who have typhus and cholera—is reinforced when she asks him to spell the word “quarantine.” After making sure he understands the danger of disease and germs, she adds, “you are not safe.” This may be a mother who has only the best of intentions—she just wants to keep her son alive—but the unintended consequence of her message is that Hughes develops a lifelong fear of not just germs and disease, but of failure at almost every level.
On the surface, Hughes’s adult life is a chronicle of one brazen accomplishment after another, as if to show the world and himself that he is a superhero. Ever the perfectionist, he is as hard on himself as on those around him. He also tries to be perfect in order to push away his fears. At his core, however, the dark message from his mother prevails. He is afraid—of germs, of losing his mind, of rejection by those he loves, of having his weaknesses exposed to the public—but he can’t make himself tell anyone. He tries to be confessional with his principal love interest, Kate Hepburn, who reminds us in some ways of his mother. But Hughes is never totally candid with her. He thinks his problems will ultimately go away because, after all, he is the genius and superhero who can conquer anything.
In the end, as in a Greek tragedy, Hughes’s fears destroy him. The bar of soap he carries in his pocket is more than evidence of an obsessive-compulsive disorder or germ phobia: it is an ironic message that his problems are internal. Like many men who are boxed in by their fears, Hughes feels alone in the universe. He can’t love any of the women he so badly wants to connect with. He is afraid they will abandon him because he thinks he isn’t worthy of their love. Overwhelmed by his fears, he retreats emotionally and physically from the world. In his heart he kills almost everything he has loved. Only the beautiful, shiny planes he designs and flies—objects that can never abandon him—seem safe for his affection.
The film’s depiction of Hughes is not unlike the lives of many of the men I interviewed. Rather than admit their fears, they preferred to hide behind their relationships, their bravado, their achievements, or other definitions of masculinity. Any display of weakness, any admission of confusion or unworthiness—not just for Hughes, but for a lot of men—are camouflaged by acts of reckless courage, indifference, anger, or denial. Any emotion that reflects vulnerability is the enemy. Anger in particular is used by men as a wall to hide their vulnerability.
Hughes’s life was not unlike the movies he made, which were essentially dramatizations of male fantasies. For a lot of men, day-to-day reality is an oppressive world—a place of stress, tedium, ambiguity, endless responsibility and accountability—a world of shadows more than light, and from which they long to escape, if only they knew how. Male fantasies, running the gamut from sexual to the urge to be a superhero, are fundamentally about needing to retreat from a male world that is tightly and unforgivingly restrictive—to a male world that is unfettered, without responsibility, and judgment-free.
The Hazards of Masculinity
Masculinity was described to me by one man as a drive down a dark and endless highway, without road signs, rest stops, or any warning when serious danger is approaching and it’s time to turn around. Once you were on the highway, he thought, there was nothing you could do about it. That was your fate. You just kept driving until the car died, you were buried in a rock slide, or you were so lost there was no hope of reaching your destination, assuming you knew what that destination was in the first place. Men love fatalism—it’s one of their romantic streaks—perhaps because it relieves them of responsibility for making crucial choices, which they will be blamed for if things go wrong. Masculinity is both a problem and a solution for men. A problem because no one is quite sure how to define the term—something about ambition, leadership, and responsibility—and a solution because, despite a lack of clarity, it is a familiar and acceptable concept, a refuge, a place to hide. In The Tender Bar, the author learns from his hard-drinking mentors that every man has a mountain and a cave in his life—the mountain he is supposed to climb, and a cave, such as the bar, to hide in when he betrays, or has been betrayed by, his ambition.
The blueprint of masculinity, according to many psychologists, is embedded more deeply in our culture and in their DNA than men want to acknowledge. One problem for men is that not only do they have difficulty defining the “M” word, so do women. One young woman told me that masculinity meant having rugged good looks, acting like a gentleman, exhibiting confidence and independence, being competitive and successful, possessing the skills of a great lover, having courage, and being emotionally strong. When I suggested that no man I knew could deliver that Prince Charming package, she said that didn’t stop her from looking for her knight in shining armor. Somehow she expected more from men than she did of her own gender. But men may be even harder on themselves. Those I interviewed recited the following components of masculinity: having a beautiful woman who loves them; being athletic; being the breadwinner, problem solver, stoical leader, and fearless warrior; making (and keeping) lots of money; having power and authority, confidence, and a sense of humor; being rational and not overly emotional; being practical and expedient; independent, and selfsustaining; being competitive and successful and achieving on every level; being a sexual stud as well as an empathetic lover, a responsible and loving father, and a family’s provider and protector. Most of these are noble or idealized roles, and while no one claimed to have all these qualities, quite a few men said they thought they were supposed to have as many as possible. This is what they believed their culture, and women, expected of them. To be as close to perfect as possible was the masculine ideal, or at least not reveal your weaknesses and deficiencies. That men fall short of this goal, often dramatically—and how they feel about their failures—is just one of the secrets they don’t like to talk about.
Admitting that the various definitions of masculinity are often in conflict with one another is one way to start breaking through the silence of the male code. One man told me it was drummed into him as a boy that, when he grew up, he had to succeed in his profession. There was no other option, his father said, if he wanted to respect himself and win the respect of others. An attorney now, putting in sixty- to seventy-hour weeks, he’s had difficulty finding time to be a responsible husband and father—another definition of masculinity. When finally confronted by his partner, who demanded more of his affection and attention or else, he reluctantly agreed to a divorce rather than give up his career path or even cut down on his hours. While some women might also choose their careers over meeting family needs, I would guess the percentage pales in comparison to men. Several women told me they thought that most men define themselves by their work, but the majority of women—no matter how many hours they put in at their job—define themselves by what they do outside of work.
Just as lemmings charge blindly into the sea, men follow their primal definitions of masculinity with often unconscious devotion. It’s the dark side of the herd instinct: they’re too afraid not to follow. If a man has thought about it, however, he will tell you that wanting to be “a man” leads him down the slippery path of repressed emotions, deceit, frustration, and making difficult if not impossible choices. It can also lead to a fear and distrust of women. Some men I spoke with thought that it was easier being miserable on one level or another than to figure out a face-saving exit from their relationships without blowing their masculine cover. They had put themselves in a box, voluntarily, and closed the lid as if to prevent escape—but why? If it’s all right for women to be afraid or anxious, or to talk about their failures, or seek help from one another, and leave a relationship if necessary, why shouldn’t men do the same with equal confidence and openness? What is it about masculinity that forces men into a posture of stoic denial, or the pretense that no matter what the problem is, they can always tough it out or fix it? Why don’t men allow themselves to learn from women?
As Goldberg, Real, and Pittman all point out in their books, most men, until they reach a crisis—such as losing their jobs or marriages, becoming seriously ill, or being humiliated by scandal—will never seek outside help or even hint something is seriously amiss. If a critical mass of desperation is reached, however, the real problem begins. For some, experiencing a serious failure is a crisis because it means they’ve flunked some test of masculinity. Worse, they may be exposed to the world and don’t know how to deal with gossip and slander. All they feel is pain and confusion. Because too many men have never fully developed or understood their emotions, too often they have no resources to draw on, no safety net, no knowledge of how to heal themselves. Women often turn to each other in a crisis while men stand alone because it is the “manly” or heroic thing to do. But behind their stoicism they feel backed into a corner. Cynicism, running away, shutting down emotionally, rage, depression, paranoia, drugs, alcohol, or even suicide become tempting escapes.
That women have at their disposal a deeper level of self- intimacy—something to fall back on when a relationship crashes or tragedy enters their lives—may be one reason their rates of suicide are significantly lower than men’s. Statistically, a far higher number of women than men attempt suicide, but their efforts are nowhere near as successful. This might mean that women know how to “send a message” while still surviving. When men try to kill themselves, it’s almost always by violent means and almost always successful. That violence and a sense of failed masculinity are inextricably linked should not be a surprise. When you fail as a man, and you don’t know how to heal or forgive yourself, or ask for help, some act of self- destruction may be inevitable. One man told me why he thought his father had committed sucide: he was so filled with rage—not just at himself, but at his deceased stepfather, who had emotionally and physically abused him—that his suicide was revenge against a ghost.
Men have no shortage of ghosts and demons in their lives. Like Howard Hughes in The Aviator, many appear confident and in control to their families and the outside world, yet because of unresolved childhood or adolescent traumas they have substantial fear or abandonment issues. Some men admitted to me that they were so sensitive to rejection, they had a latent fear that the women they fell in love with might ultimately turn against them, or simply change and become a stranger. Sometimes this reflected their insecure relationships with their mothers. No matter its source, insecurity is bred in a popular culture where “weeding out” and “moving on” have become more acceptable choices than tolerance, forgiveness, and the hard task of working through problems.
Our fear of abandonment is nothing new. In the Bible, Job, a good man who was afflicted with one stroke of bad fortune after another, felt deserted by God. In The Aviator, because Hughes had a dysfunctional connection to his mother, his descent into madness was fed in part by repeated rejections from women. That men can go mad if they don’t find love is not an exaggeration, but losing love may be even more painful. The adage that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” would be disputed by a lot of men.
While they rarely admit it, most men do not deal well with pain, emotional or physical. Neurologically, they are simply not equipped in the same way women are. In the film Million Dollar Baby, one of the themes is how the two main characters cope with the pain of isolation and abandonment. The trainer, Frankie, and his protégée boxer, Maggie, gravitate to each other from pasts filled with rejection. The love and respect they find for one another—he becomes her father figure and she becomes his surrogate daughter—are ultimately tested by a tragic accident in the ring. Physical suffering, especially for Maggie, is not easy, but the emotional pain for each of the characters is what is most devastating. “Girlie, tough ain’t enough,” Frankie says to Maggie at the start of the film, but by the end of the story we know that girlie tough is a lot more formidable than male tough. Maggie can handle her suffering. Her death is noble because she’s found her redemption—she knows who she is, and she did what she wanted with her life—while Frankie remains passive and tormented. He may be a Catholic buried in the ritual of suffering, but first and foremost he is a man struggling with his emotions. Frankie blames himself for both causing Maggie’s ring accident and not finding a way to save her afterward, a typical male response when life spins out of control: not only must a man be the problem solver, but should he fail, he has violated the male code and now must be saved himself. Seeking redemption, Frankie sends himself into exile, yet there is nothing in the film to suggest he’ll ever find it.
When a man fails in his relationship, he too looks for redemption. Initially, out of anger, he may fault his partner for the breakup. But in the end he points a finger at himself. He wonders what he did wrong and what he can do about it. It can be argued that women are less likely to accuse themselves of making a mistake, but when they do, they are more forgiving of themselves, or they seek out friends to support and exonerate them. Otherwise, many women tend to blame men, and why not? It is not difficult to jump on the bandwagon of male- bashing if men are already in the driver’s seat. Why are men so passive about accepting blame, and perceive themselves as screwups? Why do they find it so difficult to forgive themselves? Perhaps digging for the reasons is just too complicated. A common scene in movies and books is the repentant male bearing flowers, asking forgiveness of his partner for an argument that was surely his fault. Even if he doesn’t believe he was in the wrong, this ritual of atonement is so expected and ingrained in popular culture that not to observe it would only bring more recriminations. Asking forgiveness is the quickest, easiest way to end the conflict and move on. If men are anything, they are practical and expedient.
There may, however, be a very fundamental reason why men beat themselves up. If no one is going to offer support or forgive them (unlike women, men do not usually rally around another man in trouble; instead, they isolate him or, sometimes, like predators, join in the attack), they have to atone by themselves. The more mea culpas, the better. The fact that a man doesn’t understand what went wrong in his relationship doesn’t mitigate self-blame. If anything, his ignorance only makes him feel more guilty. For a lot of men, any kind of failure is their fault because they are taught from childhood to excel and succeed. Failure is just not part of the male code. When it happens, a man thinks he has somehow let himself down, or let down someone he loves, or believes he has disappointed his childhood caregivers.
Feelings of inferiority were not uncommon in even the most achievement-oriented men I interviewed. I often found that the more they relied on acquisition and displays of material success as proof of their happiness, the deeper were their feelings of inadequacy. Inadequacy, I was told more than once, is what turns achievers into overachievers. Of course, feelings of pain, deprivation, and inferiority also spawn magical creativity. One has only to survey any field of writers and artists to know that from deep internal conflict and a need to assert themselves can come works of inestimable beauty and new perspectives.
No matter the outcome, the need to prove oneself is an aspect of masculinity that usually starts in adolescence. Determined to “become a man,” teenagers will often set impossibly high standards for themselves. As they experience the inevitable failures of trying to measure up, they devise intricate, ingenious schemes to be judged a success by their peers, and particularly by girls. Young males learn to be cover-up artists, even con artists, at this hypercompetitive, hypersensitive age. “Winning” a girl over by artifice and deceit is condoned because without a girlfriend many boys feel stigmatized. It’s the kind of stigma that sometimes leads to isolation and depression, so lies, or stretching the truth, are easy to rationalize. More than being a sports star or having money or being blessed with good looks, having a girl on his arm can mean the ultimate peer approval for a young man.
Behind his “victory,” however, an adolescent often has a nagging feeling that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, that he’s a fake, and that at any moment his doubts and duplicity will be exposed to the world. Many men carry this fear and self-doubt into their adult lives, their professions, and their relationships, no matter how successful they try to appear. In terms of nurturing, approval, and acceptance, what these men didn’t get from their families as boys and adolescents, they often want from their adult partner, or from popular culture. If they can just lose a little more weight, get that promotion, buy that cool car, live in a great neighborhood . . . surely their insecurities will melt away. The irony is that our culture, instead of bestowing the unconditional acceptance and approval that men (and women) want, offers instead more judgment, insecurity, criticism, rejection, and false hopes than even the most dysfunctional family could possibly devise.
Emperors of Denial
Like my friend who thought he had fallen out of love, a man can feel woefully inadequate when things go wrong and he tries to repair his relationship. He often has no clue where to start, or what the healing process is all about. Healing presupposes an understanding of emotions. As almost every child psychologist recognizes, male children and adolescents are generally not encouraged to indulge their emotions. (This was less true in the seventies and eighties, when the women’s movement was having a more positive impact on male culture by encouraging families to sensitize and nurture boys.) Today, young men, starting as early as grade school, are encouraged to win, succeed, and achieve. That attitude includes, eventually, a successful adult relationship, even if males aren’t always taught what relationship success means, especially from a woman’s point of view. Indeed, one reason men fail at keeping their relationships together is they were never taught by their mothers, aunts, sisters, or grandmothers to relate to a woman in a day-to-day intimate context. What do women like to talk about with men? What do they like to hear from men? What are their romantic expectations and where do they come from? How do women communicate their deepest needs and how can men pick up those cues and signals? In particular, how do women communicate and deal with conflict, because rarely is it a linear confrontation. The ability of women to process and communicate what they want is often taken for granted by them. What comes naturally to women has to be learned somewhere, somehow, by men.
If his relationship fails, no matter whose fault it is, a man’s entire world can come to a grinding halt. Feeling dejected and isolated, he may, like some men in this book, finally see a therapist and be given a strategy to unravel the mysteries that overwhelm him. Left to his own devices, however, anger, guilt, and frustration usually take over. Most men, rather than seek help or even admit their pain and unhappiness, will joke about their “confinement” and doubts about having chosen the right partner. If they do find the courage to confront their partners, they prefer an instant, linear, and rational solution—a traditional masculine approach to problem solving. To struggle with nuance, introspection, and the multiple dimensions of “emotional reasoning”—the ability to integrate emotion into the reasoning process, and to be aware of the emotional consequences of any action—is perceived by most men as a waste of time. The truth is not that it’s a waste of time, it’s that men are simply not good at it. “Emotional reasoning,” is a skill that women seem born with but men have to learn. Until they do, when they run into a relationship storm, they significantly lessen their chances of getting back to calm waters.
Without the flexibility, relating skills, and patience to solve problems, many men just give up when things get too tough. They would rather walk out the door or dive into their private ocean of anger and guilt than be scrutinized and judged by their partners. Women give up on their relationships too—more often than men, according to most psychologists—but with a lot more thoughtfulness and less emotion than men bring to this process. The irony is that women are the emotional gender but can be coolly rational under fire, while men are supposed to be objective and in control but easily collapse when their emotions take over. They have difficulty connecting head to heart in any efficient way. For women, “emotional reasoning” may be a skill honed from centuries of survival. In medieval times, when men from a village went off to war, only to be killed in combat, their widows knew that to survive, and for the survival of their children, they had to adapt to a new man. There was little time for grieving, only for clearheaded thinking. Perhaps this is why today when a woman abandons her relationship there is little stigma. She’s seen as liberating herself, or doing what it takes to survive, or what’s best for her children. On the other hand, when men flee they are often labeled as irresponsible and cowardly. Women, hurt and angry at being abandoned, often use a man’s definition of his masculinity against him. If he was supposed to be the protector and provider, they say, he failed not just his partner but himself.
But are men really failures? Are they so irresponsible or negligent? Perhaps the deck has been stacked against them and they don’t even know it, or they don’t know what to do about it. The truth is that a man who does not understand or feel comfortable with himself, was never nurtured as a child, never learned to trust and value his emotions, or never acquired socialization skills, especially conflict resolution, will almost inevitably wilt under the responsibility of a relationship or a family. He may not necessarily run away, but neither will he find deep satisfaction or meaning in his most intimate relationship. Men, who tend to define their relationships more by their actions (for example, “making a living” or “being a responsible husband and father”) than their emotions, will often live with their unhappiness and confusion, sometimes unaware there even is a problem until their partners tell them. Too many men are the emperors of ignorance and denial.
This is not to say that men don’t have emotional triggers, or that they’re clueless, or that they can’t fall out of love because they never fell in love in the first place, as some women asserted. Men have a different point of view. Many feel they are often driven out of love by their partners’ behaviors. Among the men I spoke with, living with a controlling women was love’s principal assassin. Men might be equally guilty of trying to control, but their efforts are rarely as sophisticated, subtle, or pervasive; they are not as embedded in their gender “language” as they are for women. Possessing a wide range of emotions, women have the ability to turn their feelings on and off, and jump from one to another, in the blink of an eye. Their control might come through interference, judgment, inducing guilt or shame in a partner, setting and changing rules, or withholding affection—some of which can be conveyed in a tone of voice, a hand gesture, a hurt glance, or a pregnant silence. Few men have such range or abilities. They are simply not wired that way. Yet many women are unconscious of what they do and the effect they have on their partners. That they can be intimidating to men comes as a surprise to them. Their self-image is so positive, and they are so supportive of one another, they think, how can strong men possibly be intimidated by caring women?
Excerpted from Why Men Fall Out of Love by Michael French. Copyright © 2007 by Michael French. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.