Relationship conflicts are a universal source of pain and confusion. I frequently counsel couples in distress where the woman is angry and the man is depressed. The woman cannot understand why the man won’t fix the problems in the relationship. The man feels inadequate. Nothing he does is good enough. The woman cannot understand how any man could feel inadequate, because men are supposed to be superior beings. In her mind, he has simply stopped caring about her.
The vulnerability of men is one of society’s best-kept secrets. Men are expected to provide and protect and solve all problems. They aren’t supposed to feel needy, vulnerable or inadequate like women. Yet, in some ways, men are more vulnerable than women.
As early as five years of age, males are more likely than females to kill themselves. This difference increases through life. By age 22, men are six times more likely and by age 85 fifteen times more likely to kill themselves. When a relationship breaks up, the man is 11 times more likely than the woman to commit suicide.
Capitalism demands that men be tough to compete and endure hardship, while denying them the emotional support necessary for genuine inner strength.
To “toughen” males, society directs an astonishing level of violence against them. The most sensitive parts of their bodies are singled out for attack. Parents are pressured to circumcise infant sons in the first week of life, a traumatic procedure that is commonly performed without anesthetic. The same surgery done on female infants (removing the skin around the clitoris) is illegal in North America and generally condemned as cruel and mutilating.
More than 13 percent of boys have experienced assaults directed at their genitals, and 10 percent of boys have been kicked in the groin before junior high school. Boys subjected to physical violence are prohibited from expressing pain. In films, a man being kicked in the groin is typically presented as comical, despite the excruciating pain of such trauma.
Laughing at someone’s pain is a sign of dissociation, and both girls and boys learn to deny male vulnerability from an early age. One woman found herself laughing while reading a description of a woman battering her husband until she realized that if the roles were reversed she would be “screaming bloody murder.”
The Vulnerability of Men
Sexist stereotypes depict real men as strong and powerful, not victims. To be a victim is to be without power, like a woman, and the most important thing for a man is to not be a woman.
Taunts like “Don’t be a cry-baby” and “Don’t be a girl” shame boys for feeling scared or hurt. The expectation that even very young boys should be tough causes them to be separated from their mothers much earlier than girls. While sons need their fathers’ affection, fathers consider it their duty to toughen their sons to help them succeed in life. Fathers have learned to suppress their emotions, and they expect their sons to do the same.
While males are discouraged from expressing “women’s” emotions (hurt, need, fear), anger is seen as a manly emotion because of its power. Consequently, boys learn to respond with anger, even rage, when they feel vulnerable or detect vulnerability in other males. Homophobic bullying is a common way for boys and men to bolster their masculine identity.
During school initiation rituals, violence against male students is condoned as “character building.” At Columbine High School, site of the 1999 shooting massacre, sports initiation rituals included senior wrestlers twisting the nipples of newcomers until they turned purple and older tennis players slamming hard volleys into the backsides of younger ones.
Sports train young men to hurt others, and to risk being hurt, in order to win. When a head-injury prevention video was developed for hockey players aged nine to ten, 22 of 34 minor-league coaches refused to show the video because they thought it would “make players think they will hurt other players on the ice” and “decrease competitive success in the game.”
Recreational play is transformed into war-games where there is no gain without pain, preferably the other guy’s pain. More than one young athlete has been killed or permanently crippled by assaults committed in the course of “the game.”
Crushing expectations combine with a lack of emotional support to create an inner despair that many men cannot communicate in words. Instead, they withdraw from intimate relationships, drink to excess, strike out in rage and kill themselves.
Much has been written about how the female role is profitable for capitalism. Women provide unpaid labor in the home to raise the next generation, and they are also paid lower wages outside the home. The male role also serves capitalism. Huge profits flow from shaming male workers to compete to produce more, to accept oppressive conditions (“only wimps complain”), and to serve as cannon fodder for imperial wars.
When you hear the phrase “domestic violence” or “spouse abuse,” you probably picture a man assaulting a woman. During the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement drew needed attention to the problem of domestic violence. However, the feminist wing of the movement attributed family violence to “male power.” As a result, violence perpetrated by women is typically dismissed as self-defense and the fact that women are more likely to maltreat and abuse children is swept under the carpet.
While there is more awareness of female-perpetrated violence today, it continues to be underestimated for several reasons. Women are more likely to report spousal violence than men who are ashamed to admit they were assaulted by women. The belief that males are naturally more violent has caused most research to examine male perpetrators and female victims. Most studies do not distinguish between minor assaults, perpetrated by both men and women, and serious assaults that are more commonly perpetrated by men. These factors combine to give the mistaken impression that domestic violence is always serious, if not life threatening, and that women attack men only in self-defense.
In reality, domestic violence does not result from any “battle of the sexes” because same-sex relationships are equally afflicted. Men in relationships with men are battered as often as women in relationships with men. And between 17 and 45 percent of lesbians report being the victim of at least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a female partner.
I have provided medical treatment for battered women, abused men, and adults of both sexes who were maltreated in childhood by mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. It doesn’t help to argue whether men or women are more responsible for domestic violence. All victims deserve support, and all perpetrators need treatment. The overriding need is to eliminate the social roots of family violence.
Stress and shame drive interpersonal violence. Stress escalates when people feel trapped in relationships they would rather leave. Women’s low pay keeps them financially dependent on men, especially when they have children. The State insists that men support women and children regardless of their ability to do so. People who feel trapped are more likely to attack one another. Not surprisingly, domestic violence increases as income levels fall.
Shame is the intensely painful feeling of believing one’s self to be unworthy or unacceptable, a loser. The primary source of shame is the social hierarchy that divides people into a few winners and many more losers. The lower down the pyramid you stand, the harder it is to feel good about yourself.
Intolerable shame transforms into rage that can be directed at one’s self or someone else. Rage and shame can re-enforce each other in a downward spiral of violence.
Those most likely to injure their partners are not the ones who feel most powerful, but the ones who feel most powerless. Abusive men are more likely to feel like failures, to be unemployed or intermittently employed and to have less than high-school education. Their desire for complete control over the partner is directly related to their sense of unworthiness and fear of loss.
On the surface, wife battering looks like a display of male power. In reality, most men who batter feel extremely dependent and deeply ashamed of their dependence. Female batterers experience the same inner conflict. A “battering cycle” can result when shame at feeling unworthy builds to an explosion of rage that drives the partner away. The terror of being abandoned leads to acts of contrition to draw the partner back. The return of the partner revives the fear of being rejected, and anger builds again. These people are at their partners’ throats one minute and at their knees the next.
Men are most likely to murder their partners when they feel least powerful, when the partner leaves or threatens to leave. Those who kill their partners often kill themselves at the same time. Such tragedies do not result from male power but from powerless rage.
Capitalism creates an impossible bind for both sexes. Because meeting human needs would cut into profits, people are deprived of what they need and then shamed for feeling needy. The more difficult life is, the more we expect love to compensate us. Of course, it cannot. As needs go unmet, resentment builds, and we punish our loved ones for failing us, as fail they must.
By putting profits before people, capitalism transforms our most intimate relationships into a battleground. We must stop fighting each other and start pulling together to demand what we all need and deserve.