Why men leave
If men are cheating on their partners like never before, it's because they demand much more from relationships. And why not, says TONY PARSONS, they're just emulating women's own expectations
Sunday 21 February 1999
Some of these men - the adulterous husbands, cheating boyfriends, absent fathers - are irredeemable scum, overgrown adolescents incapable of placing anything above their own satisfaction. But - whisper it - not all of them. Some are merely looking for something they have yet to find. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the bad guys from the regular ones.
There is a cruel and simple truth about the misery modern man so frequently leaves in his wake. There is a reason - it might not be a good reason, but it is a reason nonetheless - for all those broken homes, broken hearts and broken lives. The reason is men expect more from relationships than they ever did in the past.
Over the past 10 years or so, one of the great philosophical questions has been whether women can have it all. The possibility of achieving that complex balancing act of good career/ happy home has concerned women greatly - not in a dry, theoretical sense, but in the day-to-day slog of real life.
Countless women have attempted to do the job, build the loving relationship, have the children - and maintain it all, simultaneously. And I would hazard a guess that every one has concluded that "having it all" knackers you out. Women have worked out that having it all is more likely to induce a state of permanent fatigue than happiness. But the male of the species has not evolved at quite the same speed, which is why, these days, it is far more likely to be men who dream of the grand passion. And the happy home. The work. The play. The stability. The sex.
If anything, men have a greater sense of entitlement than women. There was a time, back in my father's day, when a man would have been happy to spend a lifetime providing for his family, when bringing home the bacon would have been reward enough for giving up the perks of singledom. No longer. Today, many men bring home the bacon and wonder why it doesn't taste like lobster. The routine of family life and all it entails no longer seems enough.
Now a man wants children, but he also wants - and expects - a passionate affair with the mother of those children. Television ads, whether for cereal or a family car, tell him that every husband and wife in this country are shagging each other senseless in between mowing the lawn and reading Where The Wild Things Are to their kids. Why should he be left out? That's why, if the passion goes, it's more than likely he will, too.
He might physically go - to another woman whom he will eventually disappoint in the same way, because no honeymoon lasts forever. Or it might just be his emotional luggage he moves out. He might cheat. Or he might simply dream of cheating. But if a man wakes up in the middle of the night panicking that "It's going to be like this for the next 40 years", one way or another, he will surely go.
There is an unspoken belief among men these days that fulfilment is their destiny. Their fathers and grandfathers existed on a meagre diet of gruelling work, routine sex, distant children and limited expectations. And that's just not good enough for the greedy guy of the Nineties.
What do men want these days, then? Too much, probably. But after years of hearing women talking about fulfilment, who's to say a man doesn't have the right to dream, too? Men have changed. The men of today are as different from their fathers and grandfathers as women are from their mothers and grandmothers, and the reason so many relationships end in tears is because there is pathetically little attempt to understand exactly how men have changed. It makes me laugh when I hear about a "crisis in masculinity". There is no crisis in masculinity. There is a crisis in understanding men.
We hear a lot of wishful thinking about the diminishing role of men in society. There is a new concept of the modern male as big baby - lacking self-esteem and incapable of facing the responsibilities of the grown-up world. He retreats into beer, birds and football, cultivating his beer belly as if it were a prize marrow.
But beer, birds and football are no more popular now than they've always been. And despite all the acres of print wasted on the banalities of lads behaving badly, men are without question more well-rounded human beings than they've ever been. More than ever before, men are involved in raising their children - some of us even do it alone for a few years. More than ever, men are capable of having a true partnership with the woman they share their life with. We cook, we clean, we bath the kids. My generation of men and those that came after us have had it comparatively easy. Our fathers and grandfathers were sent off to fight in wars. All we have to do is learn how to get to grips with a few domestic appliances.
And has our changing role, the softening of our manly virtues, made us happy? In some ways, yes. I look at my son at the age of 18 - the son I found myself bringing up alone when he was four years old - and I know that nothing I do professionally will ever give me anything like the pride I feel when I look at him.
As a single man who has brought up a child - an experience that could only have happened at the tail end of the 20th century - I know I could never walk out on a son or daughter of mine. But although I can't condone men like Mick Jagger or Will Carling - who left before his son was one year old - I can, God help me, understand it. Because they are just selfish saps who have infinitely more than their fathers ever had and are still not satisfied. This is not a plea for understanding for my poor misunderstood gender. But it is surely in every heterosexual woman's interest to know what a man wants from a relationship - what it will take to make him stay and what will make him head for the door. None of us are in this world alone. A man and a woman in a relationship are like two mountaineers yoked together - for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Women have nothing to gain if men continue to retreat into the "me-me-me" attitude of the moment. It is no triumph for women if husbands continue to leave their wives, if boyfriends continue to cheat on their girlfriends and if fathers continue to abandon their children.
Women, you might not like what follows but read it. What I have to say might make you angry; it might make you despair. But I promise you that I know what I'm talking about because I am a man. The thing is, most women have no idea what men want from a relationship, which is why so many partnerships are doomed as soon as they begin. So, what do the men of today really want? They want the lot. Like women, they want to keep the excitement of the early days. The man who bought his girlfriend flowers and danced the night away can transform pretty quickly into a lager-bellied slob. But it works both ways. A woman will behave one way when she wants a man and quite another when she has him. Don't brutally switch from being naked in bed one night to wearing a ragged old T-shirt the next.
Put as much energy into being his best friend as you do into being his dream lover. The great inadequacy of male friendships is that men do not see their male friends to chew over their problems but to escape them, and if he can't talk to his wife or girlfriend, his life becomes a form of solitary confinement. A man will always stay with a woman he considers to be his best friend.
There was a time when there was no such thing as good sex - only existent sex or non-existent sex. A starving man in need of food doesn't complain if the vegetables have been boiled too long. But now we are all gourmets. Once sex becomes routine, most relationships are usually dead in the water. Not that every sexual act needs to feel like an event at the Winter Olympics, but passion should never feel like habit.
Don't try to change him. A relationship is not like buying a second-hand car and being able to change the colour and get new brake pads. Accept him for what he is. Don't treat him like a used Cortina.
Women seem to believe that commitment means choosing someone to pick out curtains with in Habitat. To men, commitment means staying faithful - even when every instinct in their dog-like nature is telling them to spread their seed. When it comes to casual sex, men are far more casual than women. But always go ballistic if he strays. Never forgive. Never forget. Make the louse come crawling back to you - and he will.
Women understand intuitively that love is what is left when being in love has gone. Unfortunately, it is something that men have yet to learn. Men these days can seem like spoilt brats who are never satisfied with the clear yet limited horizons of their life. But don't think too harshly of these men who want it all. Because they got the idea from women.
A longer version of this piece was published in the February issue of 'Red' magazine.
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