Parental fighting effects on boys

Parents fight and boys observe

The boy in the picture is watching his father, his first example of what a man is, and what he is to someday become. He sees his hero emasculated in bits and parts, in subtle ways - certain facial expressions, sighs and rolling eyes - punctuated by phrases of disdain or resentfulness.

Yes, fathers say hurtful things to mothers too, but this time, his eyes are all on Dad at the receiving end.

He doesn't know that word, "emasculate" or even the word, "masculinity," can't really imagine what it feels like to his father, but senses there's something very wrong above and beyond the fact that it's clearly an argument the adults are having. He's seen plenty of arguments at school - bullies and drama abound there. This is different from all that because it's mysterious and confusing, and because it will be his destiny as a man, too.

What if the discontent in relationships today isn't only about whether today's men and women are doing things right or wrong, but what they've witnessed in the generation before, in their own childhood?

The boy notices something similar on television, but this time there's canned applause in the background which is even more confusing in a way - it's a comedy, or a cartoon where stumblebum Homer Simpson is the "man of the household." He's idiotic and foolish, and that's what a man is. By contrast, cool-headed Marge takes charge. She's the real head of the household and everyone, including little boys, know it.

He might be up late at night and the TV is showing a romantic comedy where a man is avoiding the woman who wants him to wise up and get married. The character trips and falls, and loses his home and his friends, his job and his dignity, until finally, he learns a hard lesson - he finally "wakes up" to how wonderful the woman pursuing him is, and starts doing what she has wanted him to do all along.

It ends with a nice wedding and a lot of photos in still-frame.

He shuts off the TV and notices that there are some similarities between the TV drama and that of Mom and Dad - his mother certainly does want his father to do certain things, and is annoyed when he doesn't, or doesn't do them right. But there's something very different from the TV drama, versus real life as a little, first-hand observer of marriage - which is that there is clearly no happy ending in sight.

In fact, in his little brain, you can almost see the neurons starting to make a connection between ideas and emotions that will be carried along as he grows toward being the man he is destined to become:

Marriage = Pain

I say that not to assert that marriage is not just as painful for many women, but because the subject of Suzanne Venker's recent blog post on Fox called "The War on Men" mentions men in the title, not women, and that little boys do grow into men someday:

She asks why men are doing what they do with regard to marriage. Could they have made the simple, unconscious connection that for them, marriage will likely = pain?

Let's wonder together what's on the minds of men - who were once boys - on the topic of marriage.

Venker received quite a bit of harsh criticism, hater comments even.


Exceptions Don't Make the Rule

Venker's post was surprisingly brief, but not surprisingly casual. It was a BLOG post, not a doctoral dissertation. Remember that this is only a blog too.

She started with a real research finding - correction, only a poll - from the Pew Research Center that states since 1997, there has been a decline in male opinion that marriage is important to their lives - from 35 to 29%, while for women in the same demographic of 18-34 years old, the importance of marriage in their lives rose from 28 to 37%.

This is certainly notable, but is it surprising? Not to many men.

Perhaps we could have instead begun by looking at the percentage of male subscribers to bridal magazines and the percentage of wedding planners who are male. Could it be natural that the topic of marriage is just not that much on men's radar? Could it possibly be that the statistics are perfectly fine with men in the poll, and to them, not a crisis?

What set off so many critics of Venker's casual observations of a notable, but to many men, not an earth-shattering statistic? 

She had labeled women "angry and defensive."

Which are notable characteristics of angry, defensive people - certainly not all women, but perhaps true only of those who wrote her with such hostility.

The real cause of this stir - beyond the obvious pain that exists between men and women, and in many marriages - is that boundaries have substantially blurred between journalism and journal-writing, and between science and opinion.

This, like hers, is once again, just a blog.

Awash in information of all types and with various levels of credibility - we the readers may not know how to process it all, or where to file it in our heads. Should we even have to label a blog, "credible?" It's someone's opinion, and opinions are not facts. They're personal expression hopefully worth having a civil dialogue about.

Yet if we are going to read or write something that's about science or sociology, then on either side of the page we'll have to come to grips with this - that an average of human behavior is not the same as its distribution over a spectrum of diverse individuals.

In other words, interpretations of polling numbers aren't meant to be a personal affront to any particular individual.

The "average" male behavior or female behavior may not even have an individual who even falls on that average. There will always be lucky or unlucky "outliers" on either side of an average - depending on what, in your personal opinion, is "lucky." Maybe some men who avoid marriage don't consider themselves outcasts of society, but instead, lucky.

That is, unless and until they find a relationship that makes it feel far better to be married than single. Let's also not forget that by subtracting from 100, a whopping 63 percent of women age 18-34 in the poll feel that marriage is not one of the most important concerns in their own lives.

Venker wondered aloud about such taboo, personal, subjective impressions of these polling stats as, "Could women be at fault for the declining interest in marriage by men?" And in her anecdote describing a "subculture of men" as saying they aren't interested in marriage because "women aren't women anymore," it's pretty likely that more than a few female readers took her curiosity personally, not statistically.

Averages do say something useful about a population, but for those offended exceptions to the rule - outliers to the average, exceptions do not make rules.

You just might be, or could become, exceptional. So don't let these statistics alarm you. You're an individual and very possibly, the rules don't apply to you. And that's the only thing that could win a "War on Men" if it even exists, by transcending the very idea it exists.

We need to not forget some things about men and women if we want to rise above opinion blogging or anonymous haters, to actually try something new...

...some ideas that you might like, might make common sense, or maybe not. It's just a blog. But I think they're worth remembering:

  • Men love women, and women love men. It only takes one to find happiness.
  • We probably do need each other to feel completely fulfilled, even if we don't like to admit that.
  • All relationships are voluntary, at all times - we don't "owe" strangers anything, and we don't "own" each other even once we are long term intimates.
  • Relationships are a dance for two, not one - so we can't buy one, own one, nor do we "deserve" one as we deserve equal pay, equal rights, or freedom of speech. We have to join them and participate in them...
  • ...which involves learning the needs and language of that willing other, accepting our differences as a power of diversity in navigating life, TOGETHER.
  • So if you want someone to like you, you probably have to treat them nice.
  • And if you want someone to commit to you for life, you probably have to give them some clear evidence that the married life will be far better for their happiness, their success, and their sense of identity than remaining single.

Maybe you already know this and intuitively do this as an individual. The men Venker was quoting out of her experience as an author and consultant were probably not talking about specific women, but about the cultural messages to men that surround them these days.

It will be individual women who will transcend any "War on Men" - real or contrived - to find happiness just by remembering these simple things.

Venker used the perhaps not so politically correct word, "femininity" to describe this - that set of instincts and behaviors in a woman that the men she's known are wondering about. Whatever "femininity" is, it seems to be something the men in question miss, or need, or want, if they are to be convinced that marriage is a good idea.

Instead of seeing...

Marriage as a Used Car

Venker notices some features of how the genders sometimes communicate to each other in our culture, when she pulls out the "woman good/man bad" card.

Maybe you recognize it here or there in magazines, television and film. It's hard to put a statistic on its prevalence but it does exist enough to be quite noticeable to many men. Contrary to Venker's assertion that much of our cultural messaging has "pissed men off" - many of us feel it's just annoying, narcissistic, and out of touch with what men instinctually know themselves to be.

As one man put it in a teleseminar with me recently, "Yeah, when they start talking that condescending way - that men are abnormal or wrong for being men - that's when I tune out."

He didn't say this angrily, or defensively. Just that it's uninteresting at best, unattractive at worst, and as an individual, he has the free will to walk away from the conversation.

If extrapolated onward far enough, he will walk away from marriage, too. Did I mention he's an extraordinarily happy, successful pilot, empathic, secure, strong, intelligent, respectful, well spoken and good at Tango? Pretty "marriageable" to use the phrase in the Venker blog.

Does the experience of some men -  who hear derogatory comments about masculinity in general - constitute a "War on Men?" I think that's a bit extreme, but it certainly is a misguided cultural message to tell men they are abnormal simply because they don't flock to the legal agreement called marriage. Misguided at least if we'd like them to find long term love that's equally satisfying to both genders.

Some men have told me that it's pretty common when socializing to be asked by a woman if he's ever been married. When they say, "no," it annoys them if the response of the woman is one of suspicion or disapproval. Per the polling numbers, women appear to like the idea of marriage more than men do. To the minds of the men, it makes perfect sense why they haven't married - they haven't found someone yet who makes them feel that life would be better married. And things are quite good as they are for now.

We need to have some boundaries around what we prefer versus what other people prefer. Good boundaries are the same mechanism that make all relationships voluntary, all the time. So when it's  a problem that we don't see eye to eye instead of something to be curious about, discuss and negotiate, that's a red flag on what marriage would be like with that person.

To get others to voluntarily take interest in what we want, we have to recognize that they may like different things than we do. We need to give them those things to win their hearts.

We need to make each other happy, even while coming from a place of different tastes and preferences.

Yes, marriage has been a lofty institution - a traditional bedrock of society, and even economies. Yet at street level, and to the normal, natural male mind, being told you're bad or wrong for not embracing that proposition does the opposite of attracting one to the concept.

When actually disapproved of or held in suspicion for not being married, Venker's men might not feel much different from having the experience of being sneered at or criticized by a used car salesperson whose car you didn't buy.

Which is your right. It's your money, and your life. And you just aren't going to buy a car you don't trust.

You walk off the lot annoyed, or even offended, and the sad part is that you still don't have the car you need.

You aren't happy, the salesperson isn't happy, and nobody has a car to drive.

So we just aren't going anywhere.

A Translation Guide to "Man-language"

Men are supposed to get on bended knee to do the proposing. But before that they tend to do a lot more proposing of a trip to the bedroom than to the altar. Some might say that women ought to do an equal amount of proposing marriage if things are to be fair and equal between us, but that would certainly fly in the face of what really happens at street level, in real lives...

I met a jeweler recently at a social function, and overheard him talking about a new kind of product he'd gotten into his stock - engagement rings for males. I was keenly interested in hearing about the sales statistics, at which he muttered, "Well it's been about a year and I haven't sold any..."

In fact if you added up the total number of times that males propose sex as opposed to marriage, there will probably be a clear winner. And that's because women are the bottom-line decision-makers about sex. Sex has to feel "right" and "safe" for a woman to allow, participate, and enjoy it.

Could it be that men feel the same way about marriage? It has to be "right" and "safe." If that were true, then it would give women an automatic method of translating man-language regarding marriage.

When women talk about marriage, and wonder what the man thinks, just substitute it out for the word "sex" and however you would feel about the new wording, that's exactly how he feels about marriage.

For example:

"We've been together for awhile now. Isn't it time we've gotten married sex?"

That's what gets communicated to the man, emotionally.

The Man feels: That's kind of pushy, uncomfortable, and unsafe, not right. I'm the one who will approach you about it.

"I'm not happy with this marriage sex."

Man: Well that really hurts. I am who I am and it sounds like you want someone other than me. Which would have been good to know before we got married, not after.

"Why haven't you ever married had sex?"

Man: Well, that's kind of invasive and personal, isn't it? How rude...

"Why don't you grow up, and finally get married have sex?"

Man: Don't be my mom. I didn't ask you for advice.

"Once we're married we've had sex, everything will be wonderful."

Man: Oh sure it will be. Tell me another good one...

(And years later...)

"Now that we're married we've had sex, you need to stick to your vows and keep doing the things that make a good marriage sex."

Man: Well I thought we'd collaborate about that depending on our changing needs. That sounds arbitrary. Where are my needs and autonomy about those choices?

Men may not be highly vocal about their emotional experiences, but they do have emotions too. This might be one way of imagining how some of the language you say, hits our emotions.

Empowered Men Empower Women, and Empowered Women Empower Men

Men and women are equal.

Men are passionate about women all the more because of our differences, not because we are the same.

Men know women are powerful, and we don' t mind that one bit.

Men love women. It empowers us that you are empowered.

Unless, that is, when you disempower us in order to feel empowered.

In an era of empowerment, it seems that so very many people who want to feel empowered need to make others feel disempowered in order to accomplish that.

We need to remember that being empowered does not disempower others.

So it is not such a bad thing that there are words like "femininity" or "masculinity" - which are just synonyms for feeling empowered within your own gender and identity.

They're just words describing a kind of vitality, and a set of instincts unique to your gender.

Freud used a word, "libido" which has often been taken by the public ever since to mean something merely sexualized. To my understanding, it was originally more akin to a "life force" or "life essence" or even a "vitality."

Feeling alive.

Today we might instead use the word, "passion" - a word which does not just pertain to lust and the bedroom. It is also a feeling of being wonderfully alive, excited to wake up in the morning - a sense of existence.

There's so much focus on sex, sex technique, the "fifty ways to please your lover" and all that is so often depicted in the media as what we should find most important in romance.

Instead, it might just be this more internal, psychological use of that word, "passion," that some men are noticing is missing for them about the topic of marriage.

That they don't feel as impassioned by the prospect of how they might be treated in marriage, not just by a specific woman, but by our culture. Which is to say that marriage might not "masculinize" men as much as it once did - or offer them that "vitality of maleness" that is the empowerment called "masculinity" - the need to "feel alive." 

For men to passionately want and to vigorously pursue marriage - or anything else for that matter - it would have to offer them a feeling of masculinity. A boost in vitality, a joi de vive.

Courtship is Mutual Empowerment

There used to be another word that has fallen out of the western vernacular - "courtship."

Animals in the wild have mating rituals, and so do humans. We're animals too, but hopefully more "civilized" animals.

You can and will transcend the real or fictitious "War on Men" if you find that the following makes sense to you:

  • We need to drop the hostility and criticism of the other, the empowerment by way of disempowering the other.
  • Then realize that whatever it is that the words, "masculinity" or "femininity" really mean, we need to amplify those in the other if we are to find lasting love in each others' arms. We will only achieve that as individuals if we no longer fear the "empowerment" of the other gender.
  • Masculinity is a passion, an empowerment, a vitality unique to men, understood in their language. When men feel it, do it, and "be" it in the dance of human courtship, they are also offering something to women - an invitation to become more diverse and powerful as a couple than alone and single. That it is a better life to be two than one.
  • Femininity is a passion, an empowerment, a vitality unique to women, understood in their language. When women feel it - whatever it is - when they do it, and "be" it in the dance of courtship, they are offering that same invitation to men.

Men Feel Committed to Differently From How Women Do

Many men I have coached in dating and relationships have pointed out a distinction to me over the years on this too - that often, to their mindsets, marriage represents something a bit different from what we all really want psychologically - which is a commitment from, to, and with another person.

Marriage is after all, literally a legal contract. That's its most specific feature.

Meanwhile commitment is really what we want, or what must be present first for men to take that leap. Maybe that's why the men whom Venker encountered could be in her opinion, both anti-marriage, and at the same time, quite "marriageable."

In man-language, there are other words for "commitment." Teamwork, partnership, and joint, shared effort for men, often have a goal. You might even call that "victory." For marriage to make sense to our instincts as men, it needs to offer some external experience of "winning," and make us feel like "winners" in being a part of it.

The catch is that only the man can define what goals would make him personally feel that vitality. It needs to be a collaboration where both members of the couple find within their common goals, what will satisfy this "winner instinct" for him, and also satisfy her own passions for the experience of marriage.

When a man feels committed back to, he feels that he is a part of a team that has his goals in mind, and strives to win for the benefit of all. If there's really a War on Men, then men don't even feel invited to the game, let alone welcomed to play for a winning team.

Men feel commited back to when they feel appreciated, honored, and more like men. They feel all the more masculine for having found that one, special woman. The one they really do eagerly pursue to the altar.

It would then follow that for both men and women alike - if they would want love - then they're doing the opposite of what will lead to that when they bicker or criticize the other gender.

Clearly, plenty of people have managed to marry who otherwise really aren't so committed to each other. Some other people are committed to their relationship with the other, but haven't yet, or may never actually wed.

Marriage and commitment are not the same thing, but they do work well together when we start with more interest in the commitment itself. If we started to have some vigorous curiosity about what makes men feel committed to alongside what makes women feel committed to, we'd get somewhere.

The quote of Venker's men that "Women aren't women anymore" is not an insult directed at an individual, but a man-language way of saying, "If you like men, and you prefer me specifically, not just as an individual, but as a man - if you make me feel excited and honored to be a man - then yes, I definitely feel like committing to you... And marriage is the way we can celebrate that."

The word "marriage" to Venker's males might translate in man-language not just as "pain" but as "labor" instead of "vitality." I once overheard an argument between a couple in my apartment building, which ended in the man shouting, "You treat me like an employer, not a wife!" Then he walked out and slammed the door behind him. The word really struck me - it wasn't "boss" - it was "employer." A stale, passionless word that fits in the same document file as "policies and procedures," "work agreements," and "legal department."

In this way too, marriage is legal but commitment is psychological - the real deal. The man in the argument did not feel "committed to" in the way men need to feel.

When we strive in the workplace to get ahead, we can "work hard," and "put our heads together" and place our "nose to the grindstone." We can be gender-neutral and politically correct to find success.

Not so in matters of the heart. Being a man, being a woman, masculinity and femininity do matter. In fact they drive what makes us successful in romance.

In courtship, a man and woman empower themselves, are empowered by the other, and as a couple are far more powerful than either one alone.

Marriage in that psychological state called commitment, truly mutual empowerment, and teamwork, then becomes a no-brainer. It's better than being single for both.

Our Parents Parents Knew How

My grandma also used that old word, "courtship."

Before she passed on - when I was still a little boy - she told me a story.

She had been a ballerina, and ran a small school of dance in Pittsburgh. She loved what she did and was in her element. She felt like she "had it all," and all was good, but one day it would get even better.

As she told the tale...

"A man walked in off the street, and said that he was determined to learn how to dance. He was the clumsiest Irishman I think I'd ever met."

So she took him on as a student, and although he never did learn the skill to any acceptable degree, they would eventually marry.

"He courted me," she said. And I didn't much know what she meant by that at the time. I do now, and it's missing from our culture. Looking back now, her description seems so fresh, new, and yet foreign to today's sensibilities.

"Well, he would take me out, and treat me like a lady," she said. "And you know, it was nice. I certainly appreciated that effort, clumsy as he was, and tripping over things all the time. I didn't mind because it wasn't long before I was in love with him. Especially for all that tripping - it was charming in a way... so eager to please me, he'd trip and knock things over all the more."

It seems she was nice to him, and he was nice to her.

"Oh I tried and tried, but I could never get him to stop dancing on two left feet," she said. "But I'll tell you this. I made him feel like a MILLION bucks!"

She giggled at the thought, there on her death bed. Then she stopped, with a sparkle in her eye.

"What, Grandma?" I said.

"Well... you know all those years... they were good..." she paused. "And would you believe I have a secret?"


"He thought he was such a great dancer. He was so proud of himself, wanting me to teach him things years and years after we were married," she said. "He wanted me to give him a pat on the head for how good he was on the ballroom floor, but you know... he just wasn't that good at it..."

"That's the secret?" I said.

"No... It's that all those years, I was always leading."

And she sighed.

"I never said anything," Grandma continued. "Or maybe he knew. It doesn't matter... It didn't need to be mentioned because we just loved each other so much, and that's what really mattered."

Then she shooed me away - to take a nap from which not long after, she would never awaken again.

I didn't see a lot of great examples of that kind of love, that courtship, in my own parents' lives. And many among the thousands of men I've had as clients share the same story.

Maybe it was the times in which our parents lived. Perhaps our times aren't faring much better.

There was once a time when we would actually value and seek out the elders of the village - two generations back. Maybe some of what we contend with today ought to cause us to turn to our grandparents for answers as people used to.

It's easy to forget that men love women and women love men when you're told they're at war...

Maybe we aren't really.

Maybe we could choose curiosity about each other's differences instead of hostility about what we don't understand in each other.

Maybe, as Grandma said, "It doesn't really matter, because we love each other so much."

We can't change society, but we can make choices as individuals as singles and together as couples.

So if the statistics bring you down, or make you grouchy, "Just hold your tongue," as Grandma said. And remember:

It only takes one great partner to find happiness.

The only wars that are winnable are the ones that couples take on together - as a team.

We don't have to change all of society to find that one person.

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