Men are a strange bunch. We’ll fight each other to the death over a patch of land. We’ll go to the mat over an imagined insult. Sometimes we brawl just for fun. But we do not enjoy conflict with women. Any relationship therapist can tell you that men tend to retreat from arguments, leaving women frustrated and isolated, and leaving relationship problems unresolved. It may be the single most common complaint from women about the men in their lives.
Dr. Helen Smith, a psychologist and blogger, has noticed that men are taking their vanishing act to a new level. In her new book, Men On Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream – and Why It Matters, she writes that men are withdrawing on a societal level. Western culture, she believes, has become unjust and hostile toward men. She wastes no time getting to the point of her book:
"…If we as women allow injustice to men today, who knows what will happen to us tomorrow?… My actual audience is the man who knows that something in today’s twenty-first century is amiss. He can’t put his finger on it exactly but feels deeply that modern society has turned its back on the average male.
"All around you, you hear the question 'Where have all the good men gone?' But you know instinctively that it’s the wrong question. The right one is 'Why have all the good men gone on strike?'"
She believes men are subconsciously boycotting their lack of reproductive rights, biased family courts, oppressive double-standards at universities, belittling of men in general, and hostility toward family men in particular – all of which are pushing men toward solitary lives.
She begins with what she calls the marriage strike. While women have increasingly reported that they desire a good marriage, men are dropping out at an alarming rate. 18 percent of men ages 40-44 with less than four years of college have never married. That’s up six percent over the last 25 years. Men who graduate college are also marrying less: 84 percent, which is a nine-point drop since 1980. She blames family courts that are stacked against men, as well as a general societal condescension. (Consider the spate of recent books with titles like Are Men Necessary? and The End of Men and the Rise of Women.)
Dr. Smith offers plenty of horror stories that would make any man hesitate to marry. For instance:
"I met a woman that I was sure was my soul mate…. All this changed when I lost my high paying job through downsizing.… I went to work immediately and had two jobs, but still only made about 80% of my old income. My wife gave me a year and then began sleeping with a man, who hadn’t lost his job, in my bed while I was at work. She left with him, taking almost all of my savings and anything else she could carry.… The adultery doesn’t seem to matter to the court and she got essentially everything.…"
Initially it seemed to me that the book relied too heavily on that type of anecdotal evidence. That is, until I recalled my own difficulties gathering data about men. Psychology researchers seem only marginally interested in the mental health of men, and most seem to begin with the assumption that men are predators, drunks, and abusers.
For example, there is a line of research suggesting that men become depressed when they act too much like men. Accordingly, foregoing male nature is the path to happiness.* That’s precisely the type of problem Dr. Smith has written about. Men are treated as second-class citizens by the social sciences, a state of affairs that undoubtedly steered her toward anecdotal evidence, using plenty of hard data to round out her thesis whenever possible. I can hardly blame her for that, given the relative paucity of information about the inner worlds of men.
I think we could rightfully call Dr. Smith a feminist. She wants equality between the sexes, but she is none too happy with the turn that feminism has taken:
"Women’s groups follow a double standard: When women lag behind men, that is an injustice that must be aggressively targeted. But when men are lagging behind women, that is a triumph of equity to be celebrated."
With Men On Strike, Helen Smith has started an important discussion. In relationships, men tend to retreat when they feel destined to lose. That’s bad for romance. Dr. Smith is describing the same retreating behavior writ large, and that’s bad for all of us. Luckily, she offers a plan for both men and women to ameliorate the problem.
It’s an important book. Read it. You may disagree with her ideas, but it’s hard to disagree with the trends Dr. Smith exposes. And ultimately, you cannot argue with men who aren’t there.
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*See, for example, Rice, S., B. Fallon, and M. Bambling. 2011. “Men and Depression: The Impact of Masculine Role Norms Throughout the Lifespan.” The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist 28: 133-144. The authors contend that “conformity to masculine norms” is associated with increased depression and other problems. There’s undoubtedly some truth to that, and there is certainly value in measuring and describing it. The problem is that members my profession rarely explore acceptance-based approaches to male mental health problems. The answer is almost always that we must constrain maleness and replace it with the feminine ideal. I suspect my profession would rightfully reject the idea that depressed women should act more like men.
Full disclosure: Dr. Helen is a friend, but I paid for the book and was not asked to review it. This post originally appeared at ironshrink.com.