Women talk more when going to the bathroom with a girlfriend than most men do, and while men may yearn for those types of conversations, they rarely have them.
When I married my wife, I leaned on her for my entire emotional support. She was my everything. But being someone's everything can be too much. No one wants to be defined only as a part of someone else.
Barbie Was Ken’s “Everything”
In the explosively popular, satirical movie Barbie, Ken struggles with this question: Who am I without Barbie? Barbie is “Barbie” but Ken is only a part of “Barbie and Ken.” Barbie was Ken’s everything. Ken sings, “Doesn’t seem to matter what I do / I’m always number two.”
Ken wanted more. He briefly snatches up a powerful new identity in a society where men hold the power. Like many men, Ken came to confuse vulnerability with weakness. He recovers when he discovers that being Ken is “Kenough.”
When men share their feelings, it’s most often with a woman, a someone for everything: a wife, a mother, or a lover. When they lose that someone, they feel left with nothing, and depression sets in.
It is commonly said that, after losing a spouse, women grieve, and men replace. Older widowed men are much more likely to remarry than older widowed women, and they do it more quickly. The less social support they have, the more likely men are to remarry.1 Widowed men are at a higher risk of developing symptoms of chronic depression because of no social support, loss of identity, and lack of purpose. Men are responsible for 75 percent of deaths by suicide.
Men’s social support circles are shrinking: Over the last 30 years, they have experienced a much sharper decline in support than women, and many don’t have any support.2
The Need for Slow Time
Men build relationships into their 30s and then personal and professional demands pull them away from them. As men enter their 40s, they become siloed by family life. With maximum value placed on success at work, going to the gym, and being a good dad, little time remains for "slow time" with buddies. But that is what men need the most.
The biggest hurdle to friendships is time. It takes 90 hours with someone before you consider them a real friend and 200 hours to become “close.”3 This time pressure doesn’t affect men alone. How can one ask for a night out with the boys when they recognize that their spouse is overburdened?
In midlife, men may wonder, Do I want to spend the last half of my life the way I have spent the first half of it? Many men feel this existential dread in their 40s. They are trying to climb the career ladder and handle parenting with no time to sit and chat around a campfire in the woods. Men may begin to long for retirement. They see that older people are happier because many stresses have been resolved.
Men Do Stuff
The stereotype has long been that women talk, and men do stuff. What men don't tend to do is sit around and share their deepest feelings. Talking about emotions may feel like betraying their masculinity.
Men find it easier to talk about their favorite NFL team than to admit they’re struggling with erectile dysfunction or being passed over for a promotion at work. They don’t know to whom it is safe to speak about these things, and they often don’t have the words to do it.
Like Ken, men are wrestling with the question, “What makes a modern man?”
This question never came up when Barbie dolls were introduced in the late 1950s. Being a man then was primal: courage, honor, strength, competence, and competing successfully against other men. The trophy for competing successfully was that you got the girl. Men were expected to support, protect, and sacrifice for their families. "Real" men camouflaged their sensitivity.
The Evolution of Manliness
Around fifty years ago, the definition of being a good dad began to change. Providing for and protecting families was not enough. As women entered the work force in greater numbers, they became overburdened with work and family, and they correctly expected their spouses to share in managing the home. Good dads began changing diapers and driving kids to soccer practice.
Both men and women are confronted with trying to balance work and personal lives. Work along with daddy or mommy duty sometimes seems like all they have. Adding the burden of becoming someone’s everything is too much.
Men struggle to accommodate to this world. While the old ways of being a man are now sometimes considered "toxic," a new definition of manliness eludes us. Is accommodating too effeminate? Is being more refined too “woke?”
I’m not sure women know what they want men to be, either. Women may tell men to “man up,” but many become dissatisfied when men actually do.
Men tend to do rather than feel. Whereas women favor one-to-one interactions, men’s friendships flourish in doing stuff together. They bond side-by-side during shared, intense experiences: joining the military, going out for a beer or to a football game, playing poker or dominoes.
The rise in militia organizations may partly reflect a wish to reassert once-traditional values and resuscitate earlier definitions of masculinity. Some of the growth of these organizations may be less about politics than about a need for men to do stuff together.
Women generally have found establishing intimacy to be easier. They are able to bond face-to-face. They maintain eye contact, lean forward, smile, and touch. They remain focused on each other, reading emotions, and they signal they are listening. For men, eye contact may instead signal competition or aggression. Observing the other’s emotion is not a high priority for men, and they often avoid eye contact that reveals micro-expressions of emotion.
Male Friendships Must Become a Priority
Men’s friendships need to be valued in the same way that marriage and career are. Men need to clock quality, judgment-free time together without partners or children. I know that some may respond to this advice by thinking, Men already have more privilege than women; now you want them to have more? I answer, Yes, if you’re tired of being someone’s everything. Yes, if you care about men’s mental health.
At the end of Barbie, I wondered, Did Ken turn back to Barbie to be his someone for everything?