It would be funny if it weren't so painful. "It's probably the real cause of half of all divorces," according to Sam Margulies, a divorce mediator in Greensboro, North Carolina, and author of several books on the subject of marital breakups. The changes in women's lives -- their roles, ambitions, opportunities -- have been considered from every angle. But men's lives have changed too, in ways that are more confusing, more contradictory and often less welcome. Men did not ask to have their roles redefined. Now, they're looking for an instruction manual complete with fine print -- and a translator's guide as well.
"Very few women could compare their lives to their mothers" and say, "We look pretty similar," says Steven Nock, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who has studied what marriage means to men. "Women have so many dramatically different options in their lives. But where are men taking their cues about what it means to be a husband or a father? There is much less discussion in our society about that."
The guidelines for being a good husband used to be simple: provide, protect, maybe trim the hedges now and then. Now wives still want all that in a mate -- and more. Today's wife wants a confidante and soul mate as well.
The requirements changed with no warning, and many husbands feel blindsided. Most men were raised with the idea that making it in the outside world is how you score points at home. For many women that also still holds true.
It's not as though they want men to be less goal-oriented or less interested in money. They're asking for a breadwinner and a best friend.
But the skills needed to be a successful soldier or CEO are literally antithetical to the caring-sharing sort. Success and even heroism are still measured by a man's ability to compartmentalize, desensitize, act decisively and sacrifice himself. "The essence of masculinity is that what it takes to get love makes us distant from love," says Warren Farrell, San Diego based author of Why Men Earn More and Why Men Are the Way They Are. "That is the male dilemma in a nutshell."
"Men are beside themselves," Farrell continues. "There is a fundamental contradiction: If [a man] is successful at work he has really prepared himself to be unsuccessful at home. He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't."
Marriage changes everything. Most men accept that and even welcome the transition. Men recognize that marriage requires compromise and sacrifice -- but their beliefs about what's most important are surprisingly traditional, and not necessarily in line with women's beliefs. In his sociological research, Nock followed more than 6,000 young men for decades, gathering data on their social lives, careers and habits. His conclusion is that most men undergo a profound personal transformation when they marry. It is a passage into manhood in an era when the very definition of manhood is in flux. "Marriage changes men because it is the venue in which adult masculinity is developed and sustained," he writes in Marriage in Men's Lives.
A married man works longer hours, moves up the career ladder faster and earns more money than his single peers. He spends more time with his relatives. He donates less to charity; he spends less time hanging out with his buddies and more time in formal social organizations like business and civic associations.
A husband even thinks differently. "The way men view the world and their place in it changes in the act of marrying," says Nock. "Marriage makes people more conventional. If they are religious, they become more devout.
They acquire the trappings of property owners, which makes them more conservative. They're less likely to engage in risky or deviant behaviors.
Entering into this traditional arrangement has the effect of making men more traditional. A wedding is more than an expression of love; it's a public declaration that a man plans to abide by a set of social expectations about male adulthood. The seriousness with which men approach marriage and the lengths they are willing to go in order to be better husbands are some of the best evidence we have that men take commitment seriously and are willing to do what is expected of them to make marriage work.
But there's a catch. Nock believes that since he conducted his research in the 1990s, women's expectations have expanded to include greater intimacy.
While conducting his research, he says, "I was focused more on ordinary expectations." He believes that emotional expectations may now be the most central part of marriage.
"Even a generation ago, if a man was a good breadwinner and he had no profoundly negative attributes, if every night he came home, had a martini and watched TV all night, then went to bed, he was fine," says marriage and family therapist Terry Real, author of How Do I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. Now the job description has been expanded to include listening and that least measurable of skills, empathizing. Today, simply not cheating on your wife or beating your kids doesn't make you a good husband and father.
Real says he counsels a lot of men who would prefer the bullet-point version of how-to-achieve-intimacy-now. "I say to them, 'She wants you to be more relationship-skilled than you were raised to be. You're a smart guy -- this isn't rocket science.'" But for a lot of husbands trying to rise to the demands of their 21st-century wives, the lessons of intimacy are worse than rocket science. They're poetry.
When husbands realize what their wives are asking for, the reaction isn't "'I didn't know that you wanted that, too,'" says Margulies. "It's more like 'I don't understand what the hell you're talking about.'" It's not a question of miscommunication, of Mars and Venus. It's a matter of new specifications, of women wanting something more than a traditional husband who, by definition, was removed and even remote. "In a nutshell, women want their husbands to act like girlfriends," Margulies says.
"I wish it were that simple," says Nock. "I don't think we can say, 'Okay, men, here's what you need to do to become better husbands.'" A lot of men would prefer such clear coordinates -- even if it meant acting like a girlfriend.
While the conflicted desires of women have created some of this tension, society sends its own mixed signals. Time and feminism have chipped away at the granite facade of traditional masculinity, but old monuments don't fall easily. The last presidential election, after all, was in part a referendum on what kind of father or husband we want for our country. And did not the simple, stubborn, somewhat unintelligible fellow with the apparently traditional marriage best the more nuanced, flexible, loquacious gent with the strong, independent wife? John Kerry was chastised for windsurfing on Nantucket while George Bush was off whacking weeds in the hot Texas sun.
"What's so ludicrous about windsurfing?" asks Real. "It's effete -- which is another way of saying it's feminine." Yet guys are forced to contend with such inane stereotypes. (Have you ever tried windsurfing? It's about as easy as riding a shark.)
Worst of all, women are often complicit in the stereotyping. If a single woman goes to a party, says Farrell, her friends don't push her toward the sensitive schoolteacher -- they urge her to chat up the banker. "People don't say, 'Look at that man, he's really listening to a woman, asking her questions and drawing her out,'" says Farrell. "You don't get introductions like that, even though you would be introducing the woman to the type of man who would be a wonderful husband and father. Instead the host will say, 'That fellow is an intern at Mt. Sinai Hospital.'"
So we end up with men wary of the shifting rules of marriage, wondering what's in it for them. The weary white-collar salaryman, having worked his 60-hour week while making time for his daughter's piano recital, may well wonder about the poetry lessons his wife is threatening him with. Suddenly an evening of video games or ESPN doesn't sound so bad, even if it means eating a TV dinner. Hungry-Man meals have gotten a lot better over the years -- and they're still nicely compartmentalized, with clear bullet-point instructions on the back of the box.
For the most part, our parents and grandparents did not worry much about the emotional content of marriage. My parents lived through the Great Depression and the second World War. When their marriage ended in divorce in the 1960s, I doubt either of them thought, "If only we had achieved greater intimacy!" It's not that they were stronger or better than we are today, or that our demands and complaints aren't legitimate. The lack of emotional connection certainly killed many marriages, and the right to personal fulfillment was part of what drove the women's movement -- which in turn changed marriage for the better.
But on the communication score, most men are still playing catch-up with women. To care about someone else's feelings you have to be in touch with your own, and getting in touch with your feelings is not something we've been raised to think of as essential, or even admirable. Collectively, we don't have a lot of positive examples of an open, questioning, emotional hero. Hamlet, who was certainly introspective, was neither husband nor father; he died, quite conveniently, before facing either of those hurdles.
"It's not so much that men can't provide the emotional support that women want as that men and women define emotional support differently," according to Nock. "As marriages become more focused on emotion and happiness, men and women are defining closeness in somewhat different terms." For men, actual physical proximity is often as good as intimacy ("I'm here, aren't I?"), while women want something more demonstrative.
Just look at how men and women communicate with members of their own gender.
I have seen my wife sit down knee-to-knee with one of her close friends and unload, with no preamble or pretext of doing anything else besides perhaps drinking a glass of wine or cup of tea. Guys, for the most part, need some distraction in order to talk about feelings.
Two summers ago, while visiting some old friends in France (and how is that for effete?), my wife marveled at how my longtime pal Randy and I reconnected after not seeing each other for years. We sat knee-to-knee as well -- with our iBooks linked, swapping music files. But what she did not hear was us comparing notes on aging -- his mother had passed away, mine was ailing -- or our marriages, topics we would not have easily broached otherwise.
It's as though men need something to do with their hands.
Having established that some men are willing to try to meet women halfway, it's safe to ask what women can do for men. Sex is seriously underrated as a passport to that communicative country a lot of wives want to explore. While some women seem to resent the fact that their husbands want them, and want to be wanted back, the very act (as opposed to talk) allows a lot of men to be more emotionally available. And it, too, gives us something to do with our hands.
"The complaints I hear from men are about their spouses not taking their sexual needs seriously enough," says Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York and author of Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life. "Men become vulnerable when they are sexually engaged. Maybe if women didn't feel demeaned or objectified by male sexuality they wouldn't have to push it away so much. They could start to feel it as more of a form of communication." He acknowledges that many women may see it as more work -- but isn't that what they're asking of their men? Sex is one area where men and women can explore differences without yielding their individual identities.
"One thing that has to happen in a couple is that each one has to make room for the other's desire," says Epstein, "which is different from the way you experience it. You can approach it but never totally understand it."
Women can cut men a bit of slack, and try to empathize with these rough creatures (remember Beauty and the Beast?) rather than change them. They can also adjust their expectations. As Farrell says, "If you expect a man to be a killer and be home on time for dinner, you will end up feeling depressed about your partnership."
After all, men have quickly become masters at another kind of intimacy: fatherhood. Many contemporary fathers feel that they are an upgrade from the previous version. Warm, loving, generous fathers are lionized in the culture rather than scorned, points out Terry Real. "The current generation of men is much better as fathers than their fathers were," he says, "but it's not clear to me that we're much better husbands than our fathers were." The difference is that much less risk is involved in being vulnerable or intimate with your child than there is with your mate. The relationship of parent and child is not that of equals, and while we may have a lot of expectations of our children, we generally don't look to them for complete emotional fulfillment.
Truth be known, most men want the same thing from their mates that their wives are looking for in their husbands. They want to be understood by them, even if it means understanding themselves first. There is plenty of evidence that men want and need marriage as much as women do and are willing to learn new dance steps. Just put them in bullet points, and let us lead sometimes.
Sean Elder's essay "The Lock Box" appeared in The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood and Freedom (William Morrow, 2004).