‘Most men don’t have a life. What they have is an act. What we call our self is a mask we clamp on our faces every morning and don’t drop until we fall asleep at night.’
(Steve Biddulph, ‘Manhood’)
Men seem to be in trouble. British men are now more than three times more likely than women to commit suicide - the main cause of death for men under the age of 35.
The journalistic explanations produced to explain this gender gap are usually based on the idea of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ – that men are suffering from the loss of their traditional roles as head of the household and main breadwinner. In other words, women’s liberation is the cause of men’s problems.
I don’t find this reasoning very convincing. It doesn't account for the fact that the gender gap is largely caused by women's suicide rate having halved over the last three decades, while men's has risen slightly. It also appears to be a form of 'victim narrative' - with men cast as the victims of feminism, which strikes me as neither true nor helpful.
I should make a disclosure of interest here – I am a man. I am also married to a woman and have a 12 year-old daughter. I want to be in an equal, mutually supportive marriage, and I want my daughter to grow into adulthood without being harassed or having her aspirations crushed. I have benefited from the greater flexibility of gender roles through being able to stay at home to care for both my children when they were very young. I also want to acknowledge that there are many ways of being a man, and these observations almost certainly don’t apply to all of them. As a straight, White man I am reflecting on those aspects of manhood that I know from experience, which may be very different for gay or Black men.
I don’t believe that we need to blame women for men’s distress. Although changing gender roles and employment patterns are undoubtedly stressful for some men, those changes can also have very positive outcomes for men as well as women. What is it that makes the difference?
For men, just as for women, it is the quality of our relationships with others that largely determines how resilient we are to stress, how well we adapt to major life changes, and how happy and healthy we are. The main difference between men and women is that men are far less likely to have close and supportive relationships with friends or relatives.
Men grow up with a pattern of communicating with others that is largely about competition for status and emotional defensiveness. As boys, and as adults, we rarely develop friendships based on openness and acceptance. Women often have female friends or close relatives who will encourage them to talk about what is going on in their lives. Men are very often entirely dependent on their partner for emotional intimacy, and many women complain that their male partners ‘won’t talk’ even to them. When a man’s relationship with his partner breaks down, he discovers too late that there is no one else he can talk to. It is this social and emotional isolation that is killing men.
When the poverty of men’s relationships is acknowledged (usually by women), there often seems to be an assumption that it is somehow inherent in men’s make-up, that there is something intrinsically lacking in men’s emotional capacities. I have frequently heard comments from women, including Quakers, to the effect that men are somehow emotionally disabled, immature and unreliable. These prejudiced statements are evidently regarded as acceptable among Friends, in a way that similar comments about ethnic minorities, or women, are not.
I don’t believe that men’s emotional isolation is inherent in our nature. It is a result of particular experiences in a particular kind of society, which limit our opportunities to develop open and mutually supportive friendships. Men, just as much as women, have an inherent capacity for friendship, openness and mutual support with friends and relatives of both sexes.
Women are often assumed to be naturally ‘good at relationships’, but the modern women’s movement also had to confront the ways that a deeply unequal society isolated women from each other, making them compete with each other for male approval. Changing this required efforts to create a new culture of mutual solidarity, enabling women to make more life-giving choices and to resist attempts to suppress their independence and dignity. Groups of women had to begin to talk openly and non-judgementally about their experiences, supporting each other to make changes in their lives and relationships.
Men in our society have not done this. Many men have no male friendships that go any deeper than superficial work conversations or competitive banter, so they remain stuck in patterns of relationship that trap them in emotional isolation.
Membership of a religious community such as a Quaker Meeting can offer an opportunity for men to relearn habits of friendship in a context that supports openness, trust and integrity. Through Sheffield Meeting, for the first time in my life I have a group of male friends, aged from 20s to 70s, who can be open with each other about our real lives, real experiences and difficulties. These are friendships based on honest communication about the things that actually matter to us, rather than the tiresome point-scoring that often passes for social conversation between men.
This experience is sufficient evidence for me to disprove any idea of the inherent emotional inadequacy or abusiveness of men. Yet it seems to be difficult for many people to acknowledge the reality of sexism and the oppression of women without demonising men as ‘the problem’. The assumption that men are inherently violent, neglectful, irresponsible and immature has become widespread in our culture. This undermines trust in young men’s capacity for growing into mature adulthood. It is also reflected in a confrontational family court system that tends to exclude divorced men from their children’s lives.
A Quaker perspective on movements for social justice offers the insight that situations of inequality are harmful to everyone, including those who appear to be privileged by the system. The liberation of women, of gay and Black people is also liberating for those in positions of power, helping to free us all from the false and dehumanising relationships created by social inequality.
The harm done to women by sexism, violence and inequality needs to be recognised and remedied. The harm done to men by our false position in relation to women and each other, including limited male stereotypes and chronic loneliness, also needs to be recognised for change to happen, and we have to do this ourselves, rather than relying on our wives or girlfriends to do all the emotional work for us. We need to engage in a mutual liberation from an age-old system of gender inequality that is damaging to the humanity and spiritual maturity of everyone. We can recognise the ‘powers’ of sexual inequality that need to be challenged and overturned, without turning either men or women into enemy images.
The liberation of women is an opportunity for men to abandon our compulsive competitiveness and remake our relationships with women and with each other. For many men this is literally a matter of life or death, because the loneliness and emptiness of a life without real friendship is killing them. I believe that men can change, with each other’s help, and that we can raise our sons to be unafraid of giving and receiving real friendship. My ten year-old son gives me hope for this. He told us recently that there are boys he plays with school, but he has only one real friend - 'because I can tell him about my feelings’. This is the kind of friendship that all boys and men need, and that might even save our lives.
I would very much like to hear from other men about your experiences of friendship, or of isolation. Do you have real friendships in your Meeting or elsewhere? Is your experience similar to, or very different from what I have described here?