How Capitalism Turns Intimate Relationships into a Battleground

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.

Domestic Violence

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.

Powerlessness Corrupts

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.

Susan Rosenthal is a socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Power and Powerlessness (2006). She recently launched ReMarx Publishing. She can be reached through her web site or by email: susan@susanrosenthal.com. Read other articles by Susan.

24 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Jeremy Wells said on August 25th, 2007 at 11:42pm #

    The most obvious effect of capitalism on men, especially more noticeable in the last 30 years of declining capitalism in the U.S., is the inability of men to make a serious “living wage”. Especially if the man is not a college graduate, is from a working class family, without “connections,” etc. and is faced with trying to raise a family (one or two children.)
    Time and energy is spent trying to work overtime, extra jobs, with vacations sacrificed for the extra money. The time necessary to maintain relationships with the spouse and children is gone as years go rapidly by. Credit card debt piles up and is ultimately impossible to pay off.
    It is not just “difficult” to survive economically. For many it is impossible to make “ends meet”. The unresolveable economic stress causes inevitable arguments and finally divorce.
    Millions of jobs have gone to China. As new technologies have replaced old. The transistion to computer technology was almost impossible for many older skilled workers in trades that took years to learn. Suddenly, economically speaking, these workers were back on square one economically.
    Impossible economic situations ultimately cause divorce. Remarriage is out of the question if the economic condition is unchangeable.

  2. David Holmes said on August 26th, 2007 at 11:02am #

    After years of being falsely arrested for domestic violence by a bipolar pyschotic alcholic women who was always believed by the police I finally left her. I personally know of two other women who play the law this way. Women have been taught to call the cops for revenge, out of anger, and a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with abuse. Something has to change, it’s so damn unfair. She more than once had me locked up so she could be with her boyfriend. I absolutely don’t trust women.

  3. Ron Horn said on August 26th, 2007 at 12:26pm #

    I think this and other articles on this website are helping to add balance to the issue of male-female relationship problems. It has always bothered me to hear the phrase, “women and children”, as if women and children naturally belong in the same category. But that is, in fact, the way our patriarchal culture has viewed women, mostly as children, or adult females who lack the ability to take care of themselves, to have their own values, and opinions, etc. Of course, the history of capitalism has made women dependent to a great extent on men. Significant progress has been made to accommodate women as equals economically, and I think that the system can continue to accommodate women as equals. Meanwhile many people have not caught up with these changes, and as a result, still see women as victims almost automatically. I’ve seen some women use this to their advantage. It’s patriarchy, which predates capitalism, that I think accounts for the lag in thinking realistically about male-female relationship issues. Even if we manage to overturn capitalism, we still will need to deal with patriarchal issues.

  4. Susan Rosenthal said on August 26th, 2007 at 1:28pm #

    As a physician, I have been immersed in the problems of men, women, children and families for more than 30 years. I have come to realize that ALL of these problems are the result of capitalist social relations.

    A separate theory of patriarchy is not needed. Patrirachy assumes that all men have an interest in oppressing all women. This is not true. The majority of men are ground down by the same system that oppresses women. And a minority of rich, privileged women are raised up by the same system that keeps their sisters down.

    The theory of patriarchy is an obstacle to building unity against capitalism. It’s time we discarded it.

    Susan Rosenthal

  5. Deadbeat said on August 26th, 2007 at 2:59pm #

    This is why I believe in advocating universal welfare. The system allowed by ex-wife to use the children as tools of aggrandizement, repression, and exploitation. Ms. Rosenthal is absolutely correct that the problem are the results of capitalist social relations. There is no “battle of the sexes”. That is rhetoric designed to divide and conquer everyone and to keep parasitic lawyers and other henchmen employed.

    Unfortunately the ruling class has many “tools” to weaken solidarity. Racism being a long standing one. The only solution is awareness and education to these social forces so that we can adjust our behavior and interaction toward each other while at the same time challenging the system that oppresses all of us.

  6. Deadbeat said on August 26th, 2007 at 3:04pm #

    Thank you Ms. Rosenthal for an excellent analysis. IMO this is an issue that gets very little attention and has very little discussion on the left.

  7. DV Professional said on August 27th, 2007 at 7:35am #

    Finally, an article about men and domestic violence that isn’t conservative propaganda! As a feminist domestic violence professional who has transcended the dichotomies of biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation, I appreciate this power-conscious analysis of gender roles and domestic violence. Knowing that DV in LGBT communities occurs at the same rate as in heterosexual couples is peculiarly accepted among domestic violence professionals without questioning the “male power” models used to understand DV. While our patriarchal history could weigh heavily on the fact that mostly women experienced violence (which also explains why the DV movement was begun by women for women and is thus inherently biased), the answer may not be so simple.

    While I’m not holding my breath for the powerlessness theory to take hold, I will definitely keep it in mind in my quest for a gender-neutral (yet gender-cognizant) theory of domestic violence.

  8. Chris said on August 27th, 2007 at 5:26pm #

    I guess you don’t have to think or write clearly to get a medical degree. This article has no central thesis (despite the promise of the title) or hard evidence for what are basically just one woman’s opinions. Yes men suffer from the ridiculous ways we have developed our social structures, but they are the beneficiaries of the outrageous imbalance of power in this society. They make up the vast majority of legislators, decision- and opinion-makers, and CEOs in this country. Men are the purpetrators of well over 90% of sexual and physical abuse. Men commit suicide at a higher rate, true, and they kill their female partners and ex-partners at an obscene rate, too. Sad that men are oppressed by the shitty societal systems and institutions, but just look at who has been in power for thousands of years creating and maintaining those institutions and systems. What’s truly ironic is that it takes a woman to write this article because only a woman has enough compassion to give a shit what happens to men and boys as a group – most men don’t give a damn unless it’s their very own precious ass getting kicked.

  9. Deadbeat said on August 27th, 2007 at 7:43pm #

    Oh really Chris? Tell that to an African America MAN or a native American MAN or an Asian MAN or a Latino MAN or even a white working man or white homeless man.

    I also guess you never read the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy that actually formed the basis for the U.S. Constitution whereby women played a large role in the Iroquois society and women played large roles in native societies that were unfortunately conquered by the Europeans.

    Your remarks reflect that same kind of misanthropic ignorance and stereotypes that exacerbates division that has IMO resulted in silence on the left on this issue.

    Unlike race, sex is NOT a social construct but absolute biology and by using patriarchy, the ruling class, as the author states turn our most initmate desire for being against us.

    Patriarchy enables working class men to believe they have the same interest as the ruling class men. Feminism also has done the same to women giving them the opiate of capitalist bourgeois and blame shifting. Ironically this has resulted for the most part people looking to the very system (courts) that repress us for “solutions”.

    It is very easy to blame an entire group but to blame an entire “sex” means that boys upon birth are part of the ruling class. An absurd notion.

    What’s truly ironic is that it takes a woman to write this article because only a woman has enough compassion to give a shit what happens to men and boys as a group – most men don’t give a damn unless it’s their very own precious ass getting kicked.

    There are articles written by men that express the aforementioned concerns however what makes this article important is that it is written with an analysis of capitalism’s influence on men as a group. Many articles written by “men” groups are reactionary and doesn’t offer any analysis of capitalism. Liberals who write articles tend to reject any options by men who have been victimized and feminist tend to be dismissive and cynical. Such attitudes prolongs the notion of “the battle of the sexes” which is intended to instill distrust and the rejection of solidarity. That is what is disappointing about your sentiments and reaction to the author’s analysis.

  10. Jack said on August 27th, 2007 at 10:42pm #

    Stop infant genital mutilation!

  11. Nick Theophilou said on August 28th, 2007 at 12:36am #

    In my experience counselling men over the last 5 years, in groups and individually I have always I began to realise that violence is an expression of powerless, and that men are by and large conditioned into a narrow expression of their emotional life. Having said that i have also seen mens’ hunger to be more fully human; to express themselves more fully as human beings, and are happier for it. I have also seen that it is easy to revert to old ways of being, so that, what i am trying to say is that working at this fuller life is one that people need to work at.

    My own efforts to help men in this regard is a film (see: http://www.fathersandsons.com.au) i made to demysitify mens groups which, I believe, can help men develop the softer emotions they experience, and be supported in the process. Many men have said they go home ‘quieter’, more ready to be available to the support their partners can give, and they are also more capable of giving that support. But again, it requires work.

    I have also seen many women with the ‘stellar careers’ begin to show the same attributes we have come to expect from the traditional male: stress, anger, and certainly little or no overt emotion like weeping.

    As for the divisiveness perpetrated by the ‘battle of the sexes’, enough said.

    Thank you Susan Rosenthal for the article. I will pass it on.

  12. Jerry said on August 28th, 2007 at 5:51am #

    A truly ground-breaking look at the MYTH of male power is Warren Farrell’s book, “The Myth of Male Power.”

    Examples of his work are at: http://tinyurl.com/2z2sza

  13. CH said on August 28th, 2007 at 6:11am #

    Male babies aren’t anesthetized when they’re circumcised? Ouch! I used to work in a hospital and saw a baby boy (not just any baby, but one born prematurely) being circumcised once. I assumed he was anesthetized. I guess I was wrong.

    The image of the circumcised penis is so prevalent in the media that one can forget that many of the world’s males aren’t circumcised.

  14. Jordan said on August 28th, 2007 at 12:25pm #

    So….exactly what system are you advocating?

    Communism? Yeah, that turned out really well. Especially in North Korea.

    Socialism? That tends to really depend on the character of the nation and whether that nation is willing to accept the communalism that is inherent in socialism. And the United States is not such a nation. We have never accepted socialist principles here. Good luck changing it.

    Face it. Capitalism is the most successful economic system in the history of the world. And I don’t see any of you “dissidents” who sit atop mountains of privilege with full bellies doing anything besides bitch. Unlike people like Muhammad Yunus, who is actually alleviating poverty in Bangladesh. And you know how? Capitalism.

    “This is the verdict of history. In just two short centuries, capitalism has lifted men’s living standards to heights undreamed of in the pre-capitalist era. Often forgotten today is that Western Europe, prior to the capitalist revolution of the late Eighteenth Century, suffering under the political yoke of the feudal aristocracy, was the equivalent of a Third World country – wracked by famine, recurrent plague, and the most unspeakable poverty. But no longer.

    When was the last time a famine occurred in any capitalist nation – whether in Western Europe, North America or Asia? The United States has never suffered a famine in its history. Capitalism has created abundance unmatched in human history, enabling hundreds of millions to live better today than all the kings of yesterday. ”

    -The Bernstein Declaration

  15. Kim Petersen said on August 28th, 2007 at 2:30pm #

    Jordan. Merely asserting that “Capitalism is the most successful economic system in the history of the world” is thoroughly uncompelling. Capitalism is a failure everywhere; or would you care to state where capitalism is a success?

  16. Deadbeat said on August 28th, 2007 at 4:52pm #

    I agree with Kim. I’m sure the 2 billion people living on less than $2.00/day would disagree with Jordan’s fantasy assessment of capitalism.

  17. James Cameron said on August 29th, 2007 at 8:00am #

    It really is refreshing (and unusual) to see the left speaking up for men.

    How many times have we heard the left trot out tired mantra that men run the world? The implication being, of course, that individual men deserve no sympathy or help, regardless of the circumstances.

    It is true that the world is run by a small number of men, but men do not run the world. Most men are poor and powerless, just like most women.

    And, now that almost two thirds of college graduates are women, the power balance is swinging very much in women’s favor, particularly on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. In fact, in many major U.S. cities, young women now outearn young men.

    These trends are even more pronounced in minority communities. Feminism has focused for years on the complaints of upper middle class white women who resent the relative success of their male peers. In the process, it has painted all men, no matter how poor and powerless, as oppressors and all women, no matter how wealthy and powerful as “disadvantaged” and oppressed.

    No wonder that ordinary working class men appear to be increasingly swinging right, even to the point of voting against their own economic interests.

  18. Mike McNiven said on September 1st, 2007 at 2:14pm #

    Please see an example of a life harmed by the structured violence of capitalism:

    http://www.nasrinparvaz.com/Synopsis.htm

  19. Kevan Giffen said on April 9th, 2008 at 11:25pm #

    “This is the verdict of history. In just two short centuries, capitalism has lifted men’s living standards to heights undreamed of in the pre-capitalist era. Often forgotten today is that Western Europe, prior to the capitalist revolution of the late Eighteenth Century, suffering under the political yoke of the feudal aristocracy, was the equivalent of a Third World country – wracked by famine, recurrent plague, and the most unspeakable poverty. But no longer.

    When was the last time a famine occurred in any capitalist nation – whether in Western Europe, North America or Asia? The United States has never suffered a famine in its history. Capitalism has created abundance unmatched in human history, enabling hundreds of millions to live better today than all the kings of yesterday. ”

    The west stands so high on the shoulders of the third world.

  20. Susan Rosenthal said on April 11th, 2008 at 4:07am #

    Kevin,

    What men are you talking about? Surely not the 60 percent of the U.S. workforce who make less than $15 an hour. Surely not the 2 million incarcerated in U.S. jails. Surely not the millions of aboriginal societies and African slaves who were exterminated and crushed to pave the way for capitalist “development.”

    The age of capitalist has been the bloodiest, most barbaric epic in human history: the Nazi Genocide, atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fire bombing of Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg.

    The British empire imposed famine on Ireland and India. Today, the U.S. empire imposes famine on Iraq and, with Israel, on Palestine. And in the heart of world capitalism, America’s Second Harvest provides emergency food aid to 23 million hungry Americans every year, including 9 million children and 3 million seniors. And, every year, this number grows.

    It’s true that capitalism has made possible an abundance unmatched in human history. And if it were shared, we could have paradise on earth. Instead, we live in hell.

    To maintain their wealth and power, a tiny elite impose misery on an incomprehensible scale. Wake up and smell the barbarism. We cannot change what we refuse to acknowledge.

  21. Kevan Giffen said on April 17th, 2008 at 2:34am #

    Susan,

    I was replying to the erroneous statements made by Jordan. I put them in quotations and replied to them saying “The West stand so high on the shoulders of the third world”. I wasn’t defending capitalism.

    It’s not just the “elite” few that “impose misery on an incomprehensible scale”. We endorse their actions with our inaction. We are equally guilty…

  22. Susan Rosenthal said on April 17th, 2008 at 6:52am #

    When you quote a right-wing statement, without making it very clear that you do not support it, then the reader can reasonably assume that you do.

    I disagree with your statement, “we endorse their actions with our inaction. We are equally guilty…” We cannot equate the slave, who has not yet found the courage to rebel, with the slave-master.

    The inaction of the majority results from divide-and-rule policies that instill fear and despair (see my book, POWER and Powerlessness). We can overcome this paralysis by understanding that the majority do not benefit from the current system and have a common interest in replacing it. More than understanding, we need to act, visibly and publicly.

    Everyone out for the May 1st demonstrations!

  23. Kevan Giffen said on April 18th, 2008 at 7:09am #

    We can’t play the innocent victims. We know what is going on and yet we still pay our taxes. Fear and despair aren’t an excuse. Do you not think the Bolsheviks were afraid? Every intelligent, well informed person in this country is as guilty as the next because we have not demanded that George Bush be impeached and a number of other things. You can come up with all the excuses you want, but the fact of the matter is that we are too lazy to do what should be done… So, I don’t really see why anyone thinks they have the right to judge the so-called “elite” when we are all just as guilty… We are all “elite” because we are all Americans. By merely existing, we are despots. Oppressing and exploiting. Unless of course, you are homeless and live in a dumpster eating from the gutter. The clothes we buy, the food we eat, etc. I work for Starbucks, a corporation that exploits coffee bean farmers left and right. I know this and still work there… Why? Because I need money to survive. This makes me a despot. Same thing can be applied to paying taxes, buying clothes, food, or other careers and jobs, etc.

    So, go to your petty demonstration that nobody cares about, that’s not going to make the New York Times, that’s not going to be on the evening news, and that nobody is going to notice.

    The second amendment exists for a reason. It was put in place for a specific reason. It is demanded of us to return this country to “We The People” instead of “We The Oligarchs”, but we aren’t going to do that are we? It wouldn’t be the “evolved”, “enlightened”, or “liberal” thing to do… Violence is the only thing that gets our attention. It’s the only thing we understand. Have fun at your demonstration, though. I’m sure it will make a huge impact on this country.

  24. Susan Rosenthal said on April 18th, 2008 at 10:22am #

    Kevan,
    You express such pessimism, cynicism and despair. I’m not surprised. If everyone is the problem, then there is no solution to the miseries of capitalism.

    A Starbucks worker cannot be equated with the corporation, because the worker does not set policy. The corporation exploits the farmer AND the worker.

    Sadly, you have been convinced that you are an equal partner in exploiting coffee bean farmers. This delusion maintains your exploitation. RESIST!

    I wrote POWER and POWERLESSNESS to explain why the majority put up with a system that oppresses them and to provide hope for the future.

    The May 1st demonstrations won’t change the world. They will change US. They will break down our isolation and the fear that goes with it. As we build solidarity with one another, we become a force that CAN change the world.