Why men will not be needing women
The old stereotypes are outdated. Modern males are learning to look after themselves and others
Friday 30 August 1996
This message was hammered home again this week by the Royal College of Nursing. Men who don't live with women, said the ladies with the lamps, slip into a downward and often fatal spiral of fags, booze and junk food.
We all know what they mean. The BBC's Men Behaving Badly provides weekly proof that we just can't look after ourselves without nanny, without big Dorothy to sort us out. We are all, it seems, babies at heart, bereft when not at the breast, in its absence taking comfort from whatever else we can stuff in our mouths, be it a lager can, a Marlboro or a Double Whopper with cheese. And, try as we do in our own clumsy fashion to find a substitute for Mother, we inevitably pay a high price for our loss of women: cirrhosis of the liver, lung cancer and heart disease.
It's a depressing picture of dependency, particularly when women themselves are busy saying they hardly need us anymore. They're leaving us, divorcing us and heaping abuse on us in what history may judge to be an extraordinary act of collective anger. And so, the myth goes, we are increasingly condemned to misery, a half-life of ill-health and unhappiness followed by an early death.
But do we really need women? I think not - at least not in many of the ways that these myths would have us believe. Without women, we do not have to turn into emotional cripples and inadequate orphans. Just as women today can enjoy the achievement and fulfilment of being whole in their own right without men, so is the converse true for many men.
We have in the past sub-contracted part of our lives to our female intimates. Without a woman to talk to many of us have had been unable to gain access to our feelings, to our emotional depths. Women have fed us, cared for us, mediated a social world for us, whether it is by sending Christmas cards to Aunt Beryl or getting to know the neighbours.
We have seen our fathers shrink with age as a result of abdicating personal responsibility for these aspects of life. They were used to expressing and defining themselves through work, sport and, perhaps, sex. The rest of life was left to women. Then the work went, the sport became physically difficult and the sex wasn't so good. And so our fathers became half-dead, living with women who were still full of life but stuck with men in whose infantilisation they had colluded but whom they also held in disdain. It was a poisonous brew for men and women.
It is not one from which many younger men, such as myself (I am 35), wish to sip. We want to live full lives. That means being able to take care of ourselves. We can cook, make a home, nurture others. We even send Christmas cards to Aunt Beryl. We are ready and willing to be good fathers. The images of Men Behaving Badly are amusing, but they do not chime with life as we lead it.
Most important, we have ceased to be emotional pygmies. Plenty of my male contemporaries, myself included, have been through lengthy periods of psychotherapy and counselling. Why? The reasons are many, inevitably related to different familial experiences. But what we all have in common is a sense of being ill-prepared for the modern world, of not wanting to turn into our fathers, alienated and isolated. And we don't want the co-dependent relationships that our fathers have had with our mothers, which can become so soured in later life.
Men are also getting together to talk, recognising that we have to communicate with each other at a deeper level. Though now married with a child on the way, I know I must maintain intimate male friendships and not let them atrophy amid the busyness of life.
All this isn't easy. Psychologists will tell you that it is developmentally more complicated for males than females to learn how to nurture both themselves and others. These are traditionally the skills of motherhood. A girl can internalise them since her mother is her role model. A boy's task, in contrast, is to separate and differentiate himself from his mother. That is why, perhaps, so many men are learning these all-important skills later in life, in counselling situations away from family.
Nevertheless, men are changing, probably more quickly than ever in history, even if it remains easy to find numerous examples of our more antiquated models. We are part of a longstanding and seemingly unstoppable process in which social groups are breaking down into their individual members, a process in which women have forged well ahead of men. Such change demands greater personal self-sufficiency and less reliance on the opposite sex.
This is not a misogynist's charter. The fact that men leading social change need women less than their fathers did is not an act of aggression. It is a decision to become full rather than half-dead people. As such, it is as important and valid as has been women's struggle to overcome discrimination in the workplace.
The fact that we will need women less does not mean that we will love them less or enjoy being with them less. In many ways, the skills that younger men are learning will make men and women better companions. But it should also mean that when our partners die or leave us, we will not just light up, head for the boozer and put one foot in the grave.
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