Men and Gray Divorce

It’s  no secret that midlife or “gray” divorce is skyrocketing at the same time the overall divorce rate is declining.  In addition, according to the AARP, 66 percent of these divorces — which have doubled since 1990 — are initiated by women.  But the numbers, without any narrative, are just numbers. They don’t tell us why so many women, seemingly in droves, are making this heartbreakingly difficult decision at this stage in life.  Nor do they explain why women do better socially and emotionally in their post gray divorce lives.  A survey prepared by a prominent psychologist tried  to find out more. Hundreds of women post gray divorce took the survey and told their stories. Over 50% indicated emotional abuse as the main reason for initiating the divorce.  However, the question is, “Is this number higher for gray divorce?”  The findings of the survey are contradicted by a research paper in an established scientific journal which reported that, “older females reported experiencing less emotional abuse than older males. Overall, emotional abuse was more common in younger participants. “

How do we explain the stark differences between the therapist’s survey and the research article.  One possibility is that men feel more shame from emotional abuse and therefore in a survey format would less likely admit to or initiate divorce based on that abuse.  However, if emotional abuse is not the driving factor for the increasing gray divorce rate what  else is going on?  One might reasonably conclude that the pandemic has put additional strain on the gray couple.  For the most part gray couples have been married for a considerable time period and are most likely empty nesters.  Couples experiencing the empty nest have to readjust to the fact that the day to day raising of children is often a diversion from examining their needs and how the relationship is meeting those needs.  Adding to the problem is the issue of how the pandemic isolates couples from the workplace, social activities, recreation pursuits and their extended families.  The isolation forces a gray couple to look to each other, almost exclusively, for fulfillment.  This exclusivity highlights the fault lines in their relationship and can lead to the decision to separate.

The differences between how men and women fare post gray divorce again reveals the social isolation and depression that men, especially in middle age, experience.   One explanation is that in most marriages women usually take care of the social calendar.  Often couple socializing is based more on the women’s friendships rather than the friendship between the men.  Post divorce, the women continue their friendships while the men have less of a connection.  Many women in middle age experience a new sense of freedom when they divorce later in life.  They often feel like their needs and ambitions have been constrained by traditional marital roles – raising kids, household chores, deference to their spouse’s careers – and see post divorce as an opportunity to grow and fully express themselves.  Men in middle age have usually peeked in their careers and look to maintenance and easing of stress which is often incompatible with what their wives are needing.  This probably accounts for the fact that so many men who seek out men’s groups are in the process of divorce or are recently divorced.  The group provides the much needed connections to maintain mental health and provides a forum for forming new friendships.  It is indeed unfortunate that so many men, especially after a break up in marriage or a relationship, are unaware of the power of men’s work and slide into depression, substance abuse and suicide. 

Look to the next blog to explore why women initiate divorce far more often than men.

Rethinking The Marlboro Man

In the early 1950’s the Philip Morris Tobacco Company was attempting to figure out a method of attracting men to smoke filter tip cigarettes because there was a mistaken belief that the filter tip would lower the toxicity of cigarettes and the demand for them would increase. Their leading filter tip brand, Marlboro, was very popular with women.  Therefore, they needed to figure out how they could get men to buy Marlboro’s.  Their adverting agency came up with idea of the “Marlboro Man.”  The images initially featured rugged men portrayed in a variety of roles but later primarily featured a seasoned cowboy or cowboys in picturesque wild terrain.  The campaign was hugely successful and Marlboro sales to men grew exponentially. To further understand the true meaning of the Marlboro man, the following excerpt from a research paper contrasting the Michelangelo sculpture David with the Marlboro man is quite instructive.

“However, the greatest similarity between the David and the Marlboro Man is the philosophical ideas they symbolize. Via the chosen particulars, strong profile, the masculine hands, the man of action (as both inner thought and outer action), the Marlboro Man symbolizes the universal in man: reason, independence, efficacy, and egoism. Like the David, the Marlboro Man controls and is at home in an intelligible universe, comprehending reality and acting in accordance with it. Fronting the essential facts of life, the Marlboro Man purposely exists as his own end, doing what must be done. An imitation and perfection of nature, the completion of the nature of man, the potential as abstraction in form, man as he could be, more handsome than any particular man, more real than the real, the Marlboro Man symbolizes the same meta-ethical, aesthetic and political ideas as the David. The Marlboro Man stands tall on the billboards of the world as the Aristotelian aesthetic ideal, symbolizing reason, independence, efficacy, egoism and explicitly or implicitly, republican liberty (Exhibit 8). In Aristotelian fundamentals, the Marlboro Man is a 20th century David.” In current popular culture the Marlboro Man is often referred to as a  symbol of the “real man” stereotype of hyper masculinity.  The Marlboro type man is seen as a man confined to the man code limiting his emotional life and forced to live a limited masculinity that negatively affects his well being and his attitudes towards women. However, if we examine the traits associated with the Marlboro Man stereotype we see some very positive aspects of masculinity.  Taking action is embedded in the Warrior archetype.  Again, in the light a man of action who does not use his warrior to bully or utilize excessive violence is highly desirable.  Reason -comprehending reality – is the behavior associated with the King archetype and in the light is the thoughtful deliberating aspect of masculinity.  Not sure what the problem with independence is as long as it is not taken to  the extremes of isolation.  An independent man takes responsibility for his actions without blaming others for mistakes and misfortune.  Efficacy, getting things done quickly, can also be seen as a positive trait of masculinity.   Men tend to be result oriented fixers.  As long as a man does not become so hyper focused that he ignores the bigger picture resolving a problem expeditiously is a good thing.   I do agree that egoism is not a positive trait that the real man should endorse and not necessary ingredient for a positive real man role model.

What we need is a new and renamed Marlboro Man that represents the best of masculinity without abandoning the notion that there is much benefit to aspiring to be a “Real Man.”  I welcome blog readers to suggest a new image and name to replace the Marlboro Man. 

Not Really

Another new book or article, by a women, talking about boys and masculinity.  As reported on CNN online,  Emma Brown’s new book, “To Raise A Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, and the Hidden Struggles of American Boyhood,” reveals that dismantling rigid concepts of masculinity is the next step toward true social progress on gender.

Her main premise is the often repeated trope that  rigid gender norms for boys and men put their own health at risk and that makes it hard for boys and men to ask for physical or mental help.

Brown goes on to state that, “Another problem is isolation. Many boys are forced to disown their desire for emotional intimacy. One of the most memorable conversations I had was with a 50-year-old man who woke up in middle age and realized he didn’t really have any friends — no one he could connect with emotionally.”

She also claims that research has found links between boys who believe they must live up to standards about being “real” boys or men and those at a greater risk for perpetrating sexual violence against women.

Let me begin with debunking her main premise about rigid gender norms.  Yes, there are some men who do not take proper care of themselves for both mental and physical health related issues.  Frankly, I believe that this might be true for a few boomer men and those men who inhabit the fringe hyper masculine world.  The truth is that for the vast majority of men among the younger generations, according to counselors at post secondary schools, they seem not to hesitate in seeking help for depression, anxiety and trauma related issues.  In addition, there is no evidence for the notion that society at large promulgates the message that boys don’t cry.  Again, I’m sure there are a few parents and old school athletic coaches who do deliver this message but certainly it rarely appears in the mainstream media and from the pop culture icons.

Brown’s argument that boys are forced to disown emotional intimacy does not ring true based on my personal experience and the many men I have interacted with in 25 years of facilitating men’s groups.  Men openly talk about the close friendships they had as boys, teens and through young adulthood.  What they miss is the opportunity to continue those types of relationships once they are actively pursuing careers and participating in family life.  The issue of adult male loneliness is not a product of a constrained masculinity but part of a bigger problem of social isolation in our modern society that has affected men more than women.  Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” underscored how the collapse of the American community has had a profound impact on increasing male isolation.

Particularly infuriating was her claim that research links how a “real men” attitude leads to a greater risk for perpetrating sexual violence against women.  When I checked the research she relied on I found the following. “Thus, the men who adhere strongly to these particular hegemonic masculinity (i.e., antifemininity, sexual dominance masculine norms may feel compelled to be sexually aggressive and/or coercive toward an intimate partner in order to maintain their need for dominance within their intimate relationship. ”  In other words the data showed toxic masculinity attitudes which are far different than the vague real men perspective is the link to truly misogynistic behavior.  As I have frequently blogged, being a real man in the light of masculinity is a far cry from the toxic masculine world.

I find it increasing troubling that rehashing the no longer valid  message that we continue to constrain boys and men from being fully actualized is leading to misconceptions about gender roles rather than clarifying the discussion of how to achieve a gender equal not a gender neutral society. 

Men More Like Wome, Women More Like Men?

I have often balked at the notion that a modern liberated man is one who has embraced his feminine side. The feminine side is usually defined as being more in touch with one’s emotional life and a greater empathy towards others.  The notion that a man who feels a sense of pride and comfort in his masculinity needs to more like a women creates dissonance with his masculine identity and might stifle his personal growth.  Can men learn to  acquire a deeper understanding of their emotional lives along with a greater ability to understand the emotions of others – Emotional Intelligence (EQ)?  They certainly can, especially if we do not label the higher EQ as being feminine.  It is essential to not label the male tendency to quickly fix a problem as a negative trait implying that men lack compassion.  Men just need to do a better job of displaying empathy by listening and validating before they seek solutions.  Some might wrongly label a man with a high EQ as being more feminine instead of concluding that he has become a more successful person. 

On the female side, women are being advised to be more masculine when it comes to assertiveness.  The traits and characteristics that we typically associate with effective leadership endorse stereotypically masculine attributes like assertiveness, ambition, and competition.  An Amazon search of books on female assertiveness came up with over 20 titles including the controversial “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. It appears that the message is that women need to be more like men to achieve their career goals and be proprely compensated.  I will assume that most women would be turned off by the idea that they had to behave more like men.  Again, the assumption that honing in on a particular characteristic to be a more successful person is linked to a gender stereotype.

Personal growth should have little to do with gender labels.  Men as a group would do better if they refined their masculine energy to be more aware of their emotional intelligence.  Women as a group would do better if they were more assertive in the workplace and in relationship.  Both genders can be more fulfilled in their life’s journey without resorting to the concept that they need to be either more masculine or more feminine. 

Confusion

A recent quote from a female journalist, “Today’s boys are being raised in the middle of the biggest redefinition of male gender roles in recent history. ” She continued,  “Should I (a boy) be kind and sensitive or distant and aloof when trying to win a partner over?”   When I started to read the quote I was pleased to see the acknowledgement that boys are being raised in the middle of the biggest redefinition of male gender roles.  However, after reading the second part I started to laugh. The dilemma of whether women prefer the nice guy to the bad boy has been grappled with men of all ages for decades.  Nice guys who respected women and were good listeners were often bewildered when a women they were courting told them they were great friends but then sought romance from the charming scoundrel. Some women seem to outgrow their attraction to the so called “bad boy” after being burned and then look for the nice guy who has been waiting patiently in the wings. 

The additional dilemma for today’s boys is far more confusing than the nice guy vs. the bad boy scenario.  The role models that help shape gender identity for boys has become extremely disparate.  About 40% of boys are being raised in homes without a father limiting their ability to experience male role models on a daily basis. LGBTQ advocates have garnered considerable publicity for gender non-conformity as a socially acceptable lifestyle.  On the other extreme social media has provided forums for men on the toxic masculinity spectrum who advocate patriarchy and a mythological man code.  In addition, there are  parents who are pushing gender neutrality to the point of not identifying the gender of their child in order to allow the child to pick a gender.  No wonder boys are increasing confused about their masculinity.

Educators and parents need to pay more attention to the struggle that boys are facing.  As I have blogged on numerous occasions, boys and young men are falling behind girls and young women in every measure of emotional, vocational and academic achievement.  Schools should provide curriculum and instruction for boys on the societal value of the best of masculinity while altering teaching methods that are more suited to male energy.   Some years ago, with sponsorship from my men’s group,  I was able to conduct workshops with teachers on how they can better tailor their teaching styles for boys.   They were well received.  

It appears that the “metoo” movement and the focus on diversity, albeit important, have put the issues of losing our boys to the back burner.  Can we really afford to neglect 50% of our population.  We are capable of advancing both agendas.

Role Model

In my review of the articles concerning caregiving it was mentioned that there are insufficient examples in the media of men fulfilling a caregiving role.  The problem might be in the narrow definition of male caregiving rather than a lack of examples.   While broadcasting  the end of Super Bowl celebrations the camera turned to the behavior shown in the following image of Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ lineman, Ryan Jensen and his son.   

As a football player the 6’4″,  320 lb. center is known as a fierce competitor and is the highest paid center in the league.  He plays the game utilizing his physical skills in a game that epitomizes controlled violence.   For those of you who do not like football because of the violent nature of the game, at least accept the fact that the violence is governed by rules and all of the participants are there by choice. 

What has Ryan modeled for his son?   On one hand his son saw his father, the warrior,  throughout the course of the game physically attempt to overpower his opponents according to the rules.   On the other hand, at the end of the game Ryan allowed his young son to push him over and to engage in a loving physical interaction.  Ryan’s uniquely male fathering behavior demonstrates his compassion for his son while empowering his son’s confidence and sense of physical intimacy.  In addition the interaction was on display for millions of the TV audience to see.  Imagery that exemplifies  masculine caregiving affirming the best of masculinity. 

Caregiving Men

Is this title an oxymoron?  Some writers, always women, conclude that the facts bear out that men who take on caregiving are in the minority and that the main reason is cultural norms and a lack of models of men who choose to take on a major portion of childcare, housework and related activities.  One writer points to the “creaky old idea that caregiving — for a spouse, parent or child — just doesn’t come naturally to men.”  Is it really a creaky old idea?  Partially so, but other data suggests that it is not that simple.  Over three-quarters of American fathers are back to work two weeks after their baby arrives, and only seven percent of all stay-at-home parents are men.  We know some of this is because paternity leave is shorter for men but studies show that in Scandinavian countries with generous paternity leave men tend to want to come back to work much sooner than their female partners.  A somewhat tongue in cheek comment from former CNN host, Piers Morgan, when questioned on the subject of men and caregiving said, “most dads don’t want to do paid paternity leave because it isn’t the most exciting gig in town.”

The issue then becomes whether or not women take on the lion’s share of caregiving because of  reasons beyond the “creaky old ideas.”  The fact is that women generally are more nurturing than men and the reason is for that goes far deeper than patriarchy and historical male dominance.   Women read verbal and non-verbal emotional cues better than men and this leads to having greater empathy than men.  Nurturing, the essence of childcare for infants and toddlers, is the byproduct of empathy and the bonding hormone oxytocin which is released for women during childbirth and breast feeding.  For most women nurturing young children can be quite fulfilling despite the more tedious demands of childcare.  For most men they feel enormously loving and protective of their infant children and feel the pressure of what it means to provide for their new family. The most thoughtful men will help with diaper changing but frankly do not find the day to day maintenance of an infant as satisfying as their female partner.  Therefore, unless there is a significant economic advantage for the family, women will choose the primary caregiving role and not resent that choice.  Obviously, their male partner’s willingness to help out as much as possible is certainly welcome and ultimately will lead to a more satisfying family experience for all parties, including the child. 

Tough Guy

The recent siege and violence at the Capitol Building, perpetrated by mostly men, has again created a media storm about male dominance and the tough guy stereotype.  The question to consider: Is acting like a tough guy always a negative behavior?  It is a fact that a mob of male outlaws acted violently and made verbal threats against government officials and were encouraged to “be strong and get tough” by certain mostly male elected political figures and their media recognized supporters.  I suppose that these perpetrators think of themselves as “tough guys” and are reinforced in that perception by their compatriots who cheered from home while watching the assault of the Capitol on their  tv screens.  My concern is that the descriptor “tough guy” should not by itself be viewed as a negative aspect of masculinity.

The dictionary definition of tough is a good starting point – “strong enough to withstand adverse conditions” and “able to endure hardship or pain.”  Other descriptors of tough include resiliency and having grit which focus on bouncing back and learning from adversity.  It appears that the word tough is not associated with negative behavior.  What makes a tough guy a thug is not that he is tough but how he utilizes his toughness to achieve a particular goal.  Utilizing the framework of the four archetypes of masculinity the question to be asked is whether one’s warrior is acting in the light or the shadow as directed by the goals and plans of his king?  A warrior using his toughness in the shadow is a violent man or bully while a warrior acting in the light is often a hero.    

We often  associate toughness with firefighters, soldiers in combat and high performing athletes.   However, we should not fail to recognize the toughness of  health care workers who have been in the front lines dealing with the pandemic.  Many have worked extra shifts, been exposed to highly contagious environments and still show up for work each day.  How about the toughness of wounded veterans and others with a physical disability who despite their prosthetics compete in Paralympics and go to work every day.  Think of  the toughness of Dr. Ugur Sahin.  He co-founded BioNTech and worked day and night alongside his wife in developing a vaccine in record time utilizing research findings of their earlier work on RNA. 

My point is that you don’t need a bulletproof vest, camouflage clothing and a loud mouth to be a tough guy.   In fact this type of seemingly tough behavior is in the shadow of masculinity and only tarnishes the really tough guys who we admire and depend on in our everyday lives. 

Dads Under Attack

The changes in family life that have resulted from the pandemic have led to a renewed attack on Dad’s not doing their fair share of childcare, domestic work and emotional labor at home.

According to a recent media story, the pandemic has certainly made things much harder for working moms, but according to the reporter this is hardly a new problem. When American women who have male partners work outside the home, they also do 65% of the child care, while men take on 35% — and these numbers haven’t changed in 20 years, clinical psychologist Darcy Lockman notes in her 2019 book “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers and the Myth of Equal Partnership.”  In addition, it was also reported that, “Women also tend to take on the largely invisible burden of what freelance journalist Gemma Hartley calls the emotional labor in our homes in her 2018 book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward.” Emotional labor is defined as tasks like arranging child care, scheduling doctors’ appointments and play dates, buying presents, upending our own schedules when things go wrong, and  reminding our male partners what they’ve promised to do..

 Are men really that selfish and indifferent to the efforts of our female partners when it comes to domestic responsibilities?   I am certain that we can find some men who truly are deaf to their partners needs and view a women’s role, regardless of whether or not she is working outside the home, as totally responsible for managing the kids and the needs of the household.   However, my life experiences and my many years facilitating men’s groups leads me to believe that chauvinistic behavior is more the exception rather than the rule especially for the current generation of males who are becoming fathers.  For example, during my years as a school principal in a middle class suburban community, there were just as many fathers as mothers who attended back to school night and teacher/parent conferences.

The other issue that is avoided by the quoted female journalists is choice.   As I have often blogged, gender roles are not shaped solely by current societal norms.  Females tend to have more nurturing energy than males which leads to the need to be intimately involved with young children.  I don’t think even the most liberated father has been able to breast feed his young child.  In my community, which has tons of organized youth sports there is no shortage of fathers attending games, practices and coaching.  Do the accusers of male neglect count these efforts from fathers?   In addition, does the data on doing domestic chores include the time men mow the lawn, do home repairs and maintain the family cars?

I certainly realize that gender roles -especially for women – have changed substantially and this requires both men and women to better communicate with each other in negotiating the responsibilities  of family life.   However, this must be done with respect for gender strengths and without the presumption that men are inherently indifferent to the needs of their partners and families.

Mixed Message

When I saw the advertisement on CNN for an episode of “This Is Life” hosted by Lisa Ling dealing with an intervention for adolescent boys I was eager to watch. I recorded the show and when I was ready to watch it I sat down with my note pad to hopefully learn and gain new insights into a question that has troubled me for some time – “Are we losing our boys?”  The program began with a recitation of the familiar statistics about the appalling increase in suicides among young men between 15 to 24, the alarming rate of school dropout for boys and the increase in poor grades and involvement with the criminal justice system for adolescent boys and young men. Lisa then interviewed a college counselor who talked about the growing number of male students coming forward seeking help for depression and anxiety. He rightly focused on  the fact that there is no template for how young men become men and their confusion about what it means to be a man.  Lisa and he also discussed the harmful impact of video gaming on the socialization and mental health of young men. Unfortunately,  when speaking about how to address the problems of young men the counselor offered the overly simplistic explanation that boys are taught not to cry and that the phrase, “man up” is toxic to healthy masculinity. As I have explored in previous blogs, the real men don’t cry mantra is largely a relic of a previous generation.  Today we see that male celebrities and  current and aspiring athletic superstars are quite comfortable crying in public.  As an example, I was watching a portion of the recent NBA draft and when a particular athlete was chosen and the camera flashed to his home and family the young men often shed tears.  As to the “man up” notion, I have frankly explored the virtues of manning up in certain circumstances.   Obviously it can be overdone and harmful to tell a young boy to ignore his feelings completely and just man up.   However,  we can certainly teach and model that one can be in touch with feelings but make a decision not to emote at a particular time for the good of the situation.

The next segment of the show focused on a program called “Weekend Wilderness Camp” where a group of grown men volunteers host a group of troubled adolescent boys for an intensive wilderness and male initiation weekend.  The boys are signed up by their parents and many are far from eager to attend.  During the 36 hour encounter the boys go through a combination of boot camp type physical challenges and group circles to talk about pain and how to deal with it in a less self destructive manner.  The boys are supervised and supported by the adult volunteers and at the end of the experience participate in an exercise to simulate their initiation into manhood.  In addition, and in my opinion the most significant part of the program, is the requirement for the parents of the boys to participate in a workshop stressing communication skills and ways to respond to the behaviors of their troubled teens.  Although I have no disagreement with the principles and good will of the volunteers I wonder about sustainability.   How much carryover is there after the weekend experience?   The show did not indicate that there is any follow up with the boys and their families as to what changes have occurred.   Based on my work with behavior and emotionally challenged boys one intervention is not sufficient.   These boys, and frankly all boys and young men, would benefit from participating in group work that emphasized what it means to live in the best of masculinity and to teach boys to trust and be vulnerable to each other.  Schools and existing volunteer men’s groups should prepare a best of masculinity curriculum and encourage boys – especially teens and preteens – to actively participate in on-going groups with trained  adult men as facilitators.  Let’s also not forget to continue to help parents best meet the challenges of parenting our boys and young men so that their sons can evolve to practicde the best of masculinity.