I’ve been thinking lately about some friends of mine, getting a divorce after more than a decade of marriage. Children are involved, but the two spouses are as amicable as one could hope to expect. What is clear, however, is that the husband and the wife each have very different support networks — or more accurately, that the wife has a fairly strong support network of family and friends, and the husband has virtually no one. And looking at the two of them is a reminder of one of the particularly unfortunate ways in which we structure white American middle-class masculinity; too often, not only is a wife a man’s best friend, she is his only friend.
We live, after all, in a culture which shames displays of male vulnerability. Though some sociologists detect signs of a shift among younger men, millions of boys in this country still grow up with the “guy code” and its rules about toughness, competitiveness, and a steadfast refusal to cry. Even those young men who do everything they can to avoid playing by the “guy rules” — the sensitive, bookish lads, let’s say — find it difficult to find other men with whom they can be open, vulnerable, and safe.
A great many young women have had this experience: they’ve been dating a fellow for a while, things have started to get serious. A fight happens, or perhaps the dude has a setback of some sort or another. One night, he breaks down in front of her, surprising them both with his sudden vulnerability. He may say something like “This is the first time I’ve cried in years” or “I’ve never cried like this in front of someone before, not since I was a kid.” Now, it’s possible that he’s just being manipulative, seeing how far this kind of emotional flattery will take him. But dollars to doughnuts, there’s a good chance that he’s being honest — it’s only in romantically and sexually intimate relationships that many men find the chance to be vulnerable.
One rather flippant but generally sound piece of advice I gave (and still do give) in youth group about sex: “Don’t get naked until you’re ready to get naked”, meaning that in relationships, it’s often wise to have some degree of congruence between emotional and sexual intimacy. Generally speaking, emotional intimacy is a good precondition for sex; the danger lies in the attempt to reverse cause and effect, and using sex as a way of generating enduring intimacy. But of course, for many men, sexual intimacy is a kind of trailhead into some deeper and more concealed parts of themselves. This doesn’t mean that heterosexual men can only trust those women with whom they are sleeping, but it does mean that sex gives a kind of permission for a man to be vulnerable. (If I had a dollar for every woman who has ever asked me if it was “normal” for men to cry after sex, I’d have enough to take my family out for a nice vegan dinner. Many women are floored by these sudden post-coital displays of strong emotion; though not universal, it’s more common than many think.)
The problem with connecting sexual intimacy with emotional vulnerability is that it breeds a particular kind of dependency. Once married or in a long-term monogamous relationship, the man becomes increasingly dependent upon his partner for emotional release. While she may also feel connected to him (one hopes that she does), women in our culture are generally given permission to separate emotional and sexual availability. Women are more likely to have friends of either sex with whom they can “get naked without getting naked”; women are also more likely to have strong family support systems. And because both partners figure out that there is some sort of connection between sexual and emotional intimacy for the guy, it becomes all the more difficult for him to find others besides his wife or girlfriend with whom he can be vulnerable. One of the factors that works to prevent married men and women from having close opposite-sex platonic friendships is this suspicion that at least for men, sexual and emotional closeness are easy to confuse.
Many men, particularly in long-term heterosexual relationships, end up with very few close friends other than their wives. They have their colleagues, buddies, and rivals — men and women with whom pleasantries are regularly exchanged and business is done, but with whom really close conversations rarely happen. When they break down at all, when they open up, it’s with their wives. And when the divorce or separation happens, these guys often go into tailspins of rage and depression as their emotional source of support is withdrawn. And while divorce or separation is of course devastating for women as well, most women (by no means all) are more likely to have stronger support systems in place. They are more likely to have friends and family to whom they can talk and with whom they can process through their feelings. And as a consequence, their emotional recovery will often be far more rapid. (It doesn’t seem that way, of course. Men are much more likely to remarry, or at least start dating, very soon after a divorce. But don’t confuse the seach for a new anesthetic with signs of genuine growth.)
We all pay the price for the Guy Code. Wives and girlfriends pay the price by being the sole source of emotional support for husbands and boyfriends. It’s often thankless work, mind you — many men, recognizing how dependent they become on their wives, become resentful of that dependence. The toxic mother-son dynamic, so common in heterosexual marriages, often grows up as a result of this dependence; that dynamic stunts the growth and warps the soul of each person trapped within it. Husbands and boyfriends pay the price, particularly when the relationship ends or is in trouble. Of course, this aspect of the Code is one classic contributing factor to infidelity (though not, surely, the only one). We all know the tired old line about the cheating husband looking for the “other woman”, the “one who understands him”; his search for extramarital intimacy may be as much about “rebelling” against his wife (whom he has turned into his mother, and whom he resents for his own dependency) as it is about seeking out new skin.
The solution, of course, is as simple as it is challenging: teach relationship skills to both sexes, from childhood on. And bring male mentors into the lives of boys, not to teach them how to be men but to teach them how not to be. Male role models who display emotional fluency and depth as well as responsibility and the capacity to self-regulate — these men are out there, and their numbers are growing. But the insidious Guy Code is by no means gone, and if we tolerate it, our sons and daughters will invariably be the next to suffer from it.