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Modern Romance

‘Help! I’ve become my boyfriend’s mum’: The unstoppable rise of the manchild

Dating discourse is currently overwhelmed by tales of women folding their boyfriends’ clothes and being met with tantrums rather than conversation. But, asks Ellie Muir, does the problem of so-called ‘manchildren’ mask a deeper truth about relationships today?

Tuesday 25 April 2023 18:40 BST
Cultural figures including Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Andrew Tate have all been dubbed ‘manchildren’
Cultural figures including Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Andrew Tate have all been dubbed ‘manchildren’ (Getty/iStock)
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Jenny is embarrassed to admit that she used to clean her ex-boyfriend’s bedroom for him. She would fold his clothes, book his doctor’s appointments and write his job applications. He was aimless, she says. When they went out drinking with friends, she would pray that he wouldn’t reupholster the seats of the Uber with his own vomit on their way home. Now, more than three years after their breakup, she remembers him as “a manchild”.

“He wouldn’t communicate with me properly,” she explains. “He’d end up just storming off if we argued and not talk to me, or he’d make fun of me for crying.” It’s made Jenny reassess the type of person she’ll date in the future. “It’s definitely made me think I need to be on an equal emotional maturity level with the partner that I choose next. It put a lot of strain on our relationship because I ended up feeling like I was doing everything for him.”

There is a growing tendency in modern dating to disapprovingly frame men who are incompetent in certain areas – namely in domestic and emotional scenarios – as “manchildren”. A manchild is loosely defined as a heterosexual man who lacks maturity. He is often faulted for being emotionally unavailable, unorganised, and lacking basic levels of cleanliness. He has more in common with a six-year-old than a fully grown adult. And, as a result, women are left feeling like they’re parenting a supersized toddler.

A glance at current relationship discourse will tell you that women are living in fear of the manchild. Venture onto TikTok and you will find relationship gurus warning of the “signs” you’re dating one. These include a messy home, an inability to handle criticism, endless playing of video games, poor time management... the list goes on. Meanwhile, advice columns will offer a list of the red flags to avoid in a potential partner. But do manchildren actually exist, or is it another attempt to cast blame on men for failed relationships? At worst, could the idea of a manchild be a way to cruelly attack a male partner’s ineptitude by emasculating them?

Away from dating, the manchild label is used to characterise men as demanding, selfish and immature. Think someone who might throw their toys out of the pram when things don’t go their way. “Goddamn manchild,” served as the opening line of Lana Del Rey’s American opus Norman F***ing Rockwell!. “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news,” she grumbled. A quick search of the term “manchild” on Twitter shows the word used in criticism of Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and controversial influencer Andrew Tate. In this sense, the behaviour of each of these individuals is likened to that of a toddler.

At present, the best example of a manchild on our screens is Paul (Young Mazino) in Netflix’s hit series Beef. Paul is the younger brother of the series’ protagonist Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), with whom he’s trying to launch a construction business. But Paul is incompetent, addicted to cryptocurrency, and spends his days playing video games. Danny even cooks his meals for him. He also exhibits immaturity in romantic scenarios. In one episode, after he has sex with a millionaire (Ali Wong’s Amy), he asks her to lend him money and calls her a “b****” when she declines.

Nobody would give a similar label to a woman. It just doesn’t fit where we’re going as a society...

Mark Brooks

The manchild label often boils down to a combination of “immaturity, emotional unavailability, and a reluctance to shoulder adult responsibilities”, says relationship expert and divorce lawyer Laura Wasser. “Partners who exhibit these traits can leave their significant others feeling like they’re stuck playing the role of a parent rather than an equal partner.” But she also wonders whether the label can ever be “fair” – since anyone, regardless of their gender, can exhibit childlike tendencies in a relationship.

Psychiatrist Dr Carole Lieberman, author of Bad Boys: Why We Love Them, How to Live with Them, and When to Leave Them, tells me that the label is more of a reaction to an unhappy situation. “Any woman who calls her partner a ‘man child’ because she feels overburdened and resentful of his not helping more at home is destroying her marriage,” she says. “One dish or laundry load or mopped floor at a time.” In fact, inequality in the home has been cited as one of the most common causes of divorce in previous years. “Tradition has put the responsibility for domestic tasks on the women,” says Lieberman. And that doesn’t seem to be changing: a recent study has suggested that women are still doing the majority of housework despite earning more. The study concludes that “gender norms remain strong” when it comes to household chores.

Being involved with a manchild affects women’s sex lives, too. One study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour journal, shows that inequality in household labour can lead women who are partnered with men to experience lower libido. Relationship and sex therapist Dr Tom Murray tells me that a partner burdened with responsibilities could experience a lower sex drive because they feel “unsupported” or “overwhelmed” in the relationship. “When someone is emotionally spent or doesn’t feel supported, it can be hard to connect with their partner deeply.”

While the manchild label does, to an extent, sum up inequalities in gender dynamics, I would argue that it does little to move us towards better relationships – it just allows us to believe that heterosexual men are incapable of change.

Manchildren demonstrate ‘immaturity, emotional unavailability, and a reluctance to shoulder adult responsibilities’ (iStock)

Last year, journalist Moya Lothian-McLean coined the term “romantic victimhood”, which refers to a tendency by some women to villainise the male half of a failed relationship. It’s characterised by the use of sweeping generalisations about an ex’s behaviour, allowing women to wallow in the idea that men are bad romantic partners and not much else. Lothian-McLean argues that women see themselves as perpetual victims of men’s behaviour rather than sharing equal responsibility for a broken relationship. The manchild label has the same effect.

Mark Brooks, a male inclusion policy adviser, rejects the manchild label and sees it as part of a double standard when it comes to categorising men’s behaviour. He finds the label “odd and wrong” and says it is a “step backwards” from more inclusive and evolved conversations around gender. “Nobody would give a similar label to a woman,” he tells me. “It just doesn’t fit where we’re going as a society, and therefore shouldn’t be seen as an acceptable description.”

It feels easy to categorise our exes with a label or a finger-point, but it’s worth considering deeper issues at play – like “unresolved childhood experiences” or “a lack of positive role models” growing up, says Wasser. “As with any label, it’s crucial to remember that people are complex and multifaceted, and reducing someone to a single descriptor can be both unfair and unhelpful.”

Indeed, there are scenarios in which a partner – of any gender – could benefit from some serious house-training. Nobody should be unhappy in a relationship where they are shouldering another person’s share of the work. Especially if that incompetence is weaponised. But in other scenarios, is the issue that your lazy boyfriend expects you to pick up his socks, or that you should just be better at picking your partners?

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