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How Male Neglect of Self-Care Affects Their Partners

Cultural misconceptions can make self-care hard for men.

Key points

  • Men’s neglect of their health doesn’t just harm them; it imposes unrecognized burdens on their partners.
  • Men face several all-or-nothing misconceptions about self-care which hinder their health and relationships.
  • 'Relational' self-care helps men see their health as interconnected with their family and societal roles.
VECTOR FUN/Shutterstock
Source: VECTOR FUN/Shutterstock

We often think about the personal benefits of self-care and miss how taking care of ourselves (or not!) can profoundly impact our partners. Imagine a man named Michael, in his early fifties, whose life is marked by years of neglecting his health. He's a hard worker and a provider, yet he bypasses routine medical checkups, dismisses growing fatigue as a mere side effect of aging, and treats his worsening breathlessness with disdain rather than concern. Over the years, his diet has leaned heavily on convenience—fast food and late-night drinks while he scrolls on his phone.

Michael’s partner, Emma, watches this slow decline with increasing worry. She has suggested doctor visits, offered to cook healthier meals, and even proposed evening walks together, but her concerns are met with defensiveness. As Michael's health inevitably declines, culminating in a diabetes diagnosis that he tries to ignore, the burden of managing his health care shifts onto Emma's shoulders.

Michael represents the quintessential man who lets his ailing health and deteriorating attitude become his partner’s problem. Michael’s maladaptive and self-centered self-concept not only perpetuates traditional gender roles, but also places a significant, often unrecognized, burden on women. Because men are statistically less likely to engage in regular health check-ups and seek psychological help, women tend to be disproportionately affected by men ignoring self-care.

Self-Neglect and Caregiver Burnout

Ella, a reader, recently highlighted this critical aspect of self-neglect, bringing to light the emotional and physical toll it places on those who step into (or are forced into) the role of caretakers. She highlighted the many wives, sisters, and female friends who suffer from "caregiver burnout," a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion from taking care of their male partners.

This phenomenon of self-neglect, rooted in cultural norms around masculinity and broader social expectations, can arise for many reasons, including mental illness, poverty, and isolation from family and friends. Older adults may be unable to care for their basic needs, including personal hygiene and appropriate clothing, due to medical conditions or other disability. While such forms of self-neglect carry severe public health implications, there is a more subtle form of neglect that begins with younger men: defensiveness and reluctance to address issues that will eventually turn into problems for their partner.

What Blocks Men From Taking Care of Themselves?

As I’ve written in other articles, there is nothing inherently gendered about caring for one's self. Despite highly feminized consumerist notions of self-care, it is not a sign of weakness but rather a courageous act of showing one’s true self, with all its complexities and imperfections. There is a critical need to shift how men perceive and practice self-care. However, many men still feel trapped in false dichotomies that can hinder their willingness to adopt healthier behaviors.

Here are three common all-or-nothing misconceptions that exacerbate men’s unwillingness to address their health concerns:

  • Strength vs. Vulnerability: There's a prevalent belief that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness, particularly in men. This dichotomy can make it difficult for men to seek help or express emotional needs, under the misapprehension that to be strong, one must be entirely self-reliant and impervious to emotional distress. This black-and-white thinking overlooks the reality that true strength often involves recognizing when help is needed and that vulnerability can enhance resilience and deepen relationships.
  • Success vs. Self-Indulgence: Some men may equate taking time for self-care with being self-indulgent, believing that every moment must be dedicated to working or productive activities to achieve success. This perspective fails to recognize that self-care is an investment in one’s capacity to maintain productivity and achieve long-term success. Regular self-care practices, such as adequate rest, exercise, and leisure activities, are crucial for sustaining one’s health and ensuring longevity that extends success beyond the realm of work and into the realm of relationships.
  • Stoicism vs. Emotional Expression: Often, men encounter a false choice between maintaining a traditional masculine identity and expressing emotions or engaging in activities perceived as less manly, like yoga or mindfulness. This either-or thinking can prevent men from engaging in a range of health-promoting activities that benefit mental and physical health. When Self-Care Becomes a Relationship Problem

Transcending False Dichotomies: Making Self-Care Relational

Addressing these attitude blocks that cause men to foreclose on self-care requires a dual approach: promoting self-care among those most likely to neglect it while teaching men to think about self-care from a relational perspective.

For some men, barriers such as homophobia and misogyny may deter them from practicing self-care. For other men, the tired tropes of toxic masculinity that Michael represents are not the main barrier: zero-sum thinking creates trade-offs that fail to see the larger picture of how their actions impact their partner. Such men recognize the importance of caring for their health and well-being but might feel conflicted by the burdens and pressures of being providers.

The key to overcoming this barrier is to embed self-care within a paradigm that relationship therapist Terry Real calls “relational consciousness,” where our interdependence with our partners and family is front and center. Thinking relationally helps men see the interconnectedness of self-care with their roles in family and society. It’s not you or me; it’s “MWe (Me + We),” a term coined by neuroscientist Daniel Siegel to represent how we don’t have to choose between oneness and individuality. We can have both.

While there will always be real trade-offs in terms of time and resources—who cares for the kids when you’re exercising, or who buys and prepares dinner when you need some "me" time?—relational self-care prevents the cycle of neglect where one person's health burdens their partners and damages the relationship.

Relational self-care is not merely a personal responsibility; it is an ethical imperative with significant implications for loved ones. As society continues to grapple with gender norms and health equity, it is imperative to prioritize comprehensive strategies that support men in taking responsibility for their well-being, if not for themselves, for their partners and families.

Facebook image: voronaman/Shutterstock


Pavlou, M. P., & Lachs, M. S. (2008). Self-neglect in older adults: a primer for clinicians. Journal of general internal medicine, 23(11), 1841–1846.

Real, T., (2022). Us: Getting Past You & Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. United States: Harmony/Rodale

Siegel, D. J. (2022). IntraConnected: MWe (Me + We) as the Integration of Self, Identity, and Belonging (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). United States: W. W. Norton.

National Alliance for Caregiving. (2020). Caregiving in the U.S. 2020. AARP.

Kazemi, A., Azimian, J., Mafi, M., Allen, K. A., & Motalebi, S. A. (2021). Caregiver burden and coping strategies in caregivers of older patients with stroke. BMC psychology, 9(1), 51.

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