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The Psychoanalysis 3.0 Writing Group

The masculinity crisis, male malaise, and the challenge of becoming a good man

Looking at what's going on with straight men

By Gurmeet S. Kanwal, M.D.

You don't have to spend a hot summer afternoon watching Hangover Part 2 to know that something is happening with men in America. All you have to do is look around, talk to some of your single women friends, or the mothers in your neighborhood who are raising sons; listen in on a mens' group, or just watch the nightly news (the story of former Rep. Anthony Weiner being this week's poster boy for the masculinity crisis). 

You see it in how men are portrayed in the media; how they see themselves, and how they are seen by others. In fact,  the perception and image of heterosexual men in this country has never been as negative, de-idealized, and potentially harmful as it is now. And lots of men are feeling it.

Back in 1963, Betty Friedan defined women's unhappiness as ''the problem that has no name." She wrote, "... many American women were unhappy and did not know why".  Like she observed then, and I am seeing today in my clinical practice, men are unhappy and don't really know why.  

I'm not alone in noticing these changes. In 2008 Michael Kimmel published Guyland in which he wrote about today's young men, "These preternatural Peter Pans simply won't grow up, no matter what happens to them. ... They can't go back to Neanderthal masculinity; they can't move forward to embrace some sensitive new-age guydom. They're stuck where they are; in eternal boyhood. They cannot commit  — to their girlfriends, their jobs, or even to a purposeful life."

Along with hit movies and full-length books, male malaise has been hitting the magazine shelves as well:

The July/August 2010 Ideas Issue of the Atlantic had as it's cover an article by Hanna Rosin, titled provocatively, "The End of Men."  In the article she states, "Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history that is changing — and with shocking speed." She further reports, "men dominate just two of the fifteen job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer."

OK, so our dominance in the workplace is no longer assured. But at least we can be so at home in our role as fathers. Not so. Pamela Paul, also in the Atlantic wrote  "Are Fathers Necessary?" "The bad news for Dad", she writes, "is that despite common perception, there's nothing objectively essential about his contribution."

And the September 27, 2010 issue of Newsweek had as its cover an article by two men, Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil, titled, "Man Up", in which they go so far as to suggest the time is finally right for a "Men's Lib." The write, "It's clear that we've arrived at another crossroads — only today the prevailing codes of manhood have yet to adjust to the changing demands on men."

Male therapists are not immune to this malaise. According to a recent New York Times ("Need therapy? A good man is hard to find") front page report, men who need help are having a hard time finding male therapists to help them. As reported in the article, "Men earn only one in five of all master's degrees awarded in psychology." Also, the article reports David Moultrop, a psychotherapist, as saying, " that male viewpoint has been so devalued in the course of empowering little girls for the past 40 or 50 years that it is now all but lost in talk therapy."

Maybe there is something to that idea of "Men's Lib".  Women have had their advocacy movements, and the gay community has worked hard to overcome a multitude of social and professional prejudices about gay development. But who's looking at what's going on with straight men? Jeremy Adam Smith, a journalist who writes about parenting and fatherhood, published a book in 2009 called "The Daddy Shift". Of his book he writes, "At root this book represents a sustained effort to understand my own choices and feelings, which are very different from those of my father and grandfathers - indeed there is an aching chasm between the fathers of yesterday and today." 

Maybe men do need to gather for reasons of introspection in the face of change, instead of fighting to maintain an unsustainable status-quo, or gathering just to fight, or fight about fighting.

Furthermore, with profound change in the air, as it needs to be if our sons are going to do better than follow heterosexual male role models like Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwartznegger, or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, we need theories, including psychoanalytic theories, of manhood and male development that can answer and be sensitive to changing social needs. 

Lets start with a little history so we can see how far theory has progressed. The classical psychoanalytic model of male development first formulated a 100 years ago (Freud first used the term oedipal complex in 1910) goes something like this: Up until the Oedipal phase boys and girls are pretty much the same, fascinated with discovering oral and anal functions, while aware only of the presence of their mother. Then around three to five years of age boys begin to have sexual desires towards their mothers, only to discover that any such sexual impulse will be met with the threat of castration by the father.  Thus the boy decides to give up his sexual interest in the mother, dis-identify with all things feminine, and instead identify with the aggressor/father. It is this fear driven identification with the father that transforms the boy into a man. This was the story of Manhood as formulated by Freud in the 20th century as a model for the healthy, normal, inevitably heterosexual male.  

Thus men were seen as the product and perpetrators of fear and aggression, and hungry for power and possession (did you see the recent Time magazine cover: "Sex. Lies. Arrogance. What makes powerful men act like pigs").  While there are plenty of men who fit into and even take advantage of this image, it is this kind overly simplistic view of male development that has caused problems understanding the psychology not only of heterosexual and homosexual men, but also of women. Not to mention licensing boorish behavior.

However, over the last several decades psychoanalytic theory has grown and developed, removing the shackles of old phallo-centric aggression-based models of male development. Here is a summary of some ways psychoanalyts think today about male development, thoughts that can be useful in helping us change the experience and identity of men in the emerging world: 

1. Development is now seen as taking place in the relationship between the developing male child and the unconscious feelings, motives, and experiences of his parents. We've moved away from the Phallocentric/Oedipal/aggression-based trajectory of male development towards a relationship-based model in which what is most important is how parent and child each experience the experience of the other, i.e., it is an "inter-subjective" model of male development. Boys grow to become men by taking in the conscious and unconscious relationship experiences they have with both parents, and not just the sexual and aggressive tensions of an Oedipal triangle. Both parents are actively and unconsciously involved in the development of this masculinity.

2. The idea that dis-identifying from one's mother is the core experience of male development has been rejected. For example, Richard  Reichbart, in a 2006 article titled "On Men Crying: Lear's Agony,  wrote "In my judgment, the dis-identification concept is too simple an approach to a complex process, and it is certainly wrong with regard to normal development. It speaks rather to a pathological development that occurs when a boy with an insecure attachment to his mother attempts to separate from her."

3. Gender identity development is no longer thought to be a linear, continuous process. Many aspects of maleness may precede the oedipal phase.

4. There is not one masculinity but multiple masculinities, based not only in individual uniqueness, but also in race, sexual orientation, culture, degree of genderedness, and so on.The phrase "man up" now loses its aggressive and shaming meaning since there are so many ways to be a man.

5. And lastly, in contrast to Freud's famous quote, "anatomy is destiny" (no, not the death metal album by Exhumed), psychoanalysts now believe anatomy is not destiny. What we are learning, but have still not learned to cherish unashamedly, is that "masculinity" and "femininity" exist in every individual. And the individual and collective consequences of "masculinity" and "femininity" existing in everyone have yet to be fully felt.

Hopefully, transition has begun; like a moment in a therapeutic process when the patient feels even more confused, perhaps angry and depressed, maybe despairing, because the old defensive anchors have been pulled up, and the ships are adrift with only a vague notion of a shore still out of sight. Perhaps there is the possibility for a new Manhood, one where men (even heterosexual men) can enjoy a more multidimensional emotionality without embarrassment, a multiplicity of relational expressions without shame, a more flexible self definition without panic, and a freedom to communicate without the need to withdraw. 

So this Fathers' Day, lets give our fathers (and sons) a gift . Lets take a step away from defining ourselves against shame. Lets not pretend that we don't like cooking, but we love to barbecue.


About the Author:
Gurmeet S. Kanwal, M.D., is Supervising Psychoanalyst and Teaching Faculty at The William Alanson White Institute, and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. He is past president of the William Alanson White Psychoanalytic Society. Originally from India, he is in private practice in NYC and Westchester.

© 2011Gurmeet S. Kanwal, All Rights Reserved 







About the Author

The Psychoanalysis 3.0 Writing Group is a network of forward-thinking psychoanalytic writers organized by Todd Essig, Ph.D. of the William Alanson White Institute.