Why are some men so terrible, and what can we do about it?

Many people, including clients, have begun asking what's wrong with men. The answer is complicated.
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Image: Exasperated Woman
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A woman I was interviewing recently told me that a few months into a promising relationship, the man she was seeing suddenly stopped answering her texts. Worried, she sent him an email and then tried calling him, with the same results: No reply. Then she discovered that she was also blocked from his social media.

What had happened? She had just experienced ghosting, the increasingly common social phenomenon of being dropped without a word of explanation. “It’s so wrong,” she said. Like many women in this situation, she first tried to figure out what she had done to cause the problem. And then she realized it was not her fault. “You’re a psychotherapist,” she said, turning the interview around. “Tell me what is the matter with men? Why do they behave like this in relationships?”

Following #MeToo and all of the current criticism of male behavior, I have heard variations of this question frequently: Why are men so controlling, so unrelated, so unfeeling? It might seem like a simple question, but the answer is complicated.

For one thing, as a psychotherapist I have found that it can be extremely important (but also very difficult) not to fall into the trap that author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” There are many different reasons for men’s “bad” behavior, as Anna Sale clearly pointed out in a special series of her podcast "Death, Sex, and Money."

One of the difficulties, she told us, is that men are not so clear about what it means to be a good guy. She said, “We're in a moment where what it means to be a man is shifting — and to some men, it feels like there are a lot of mixed messages floating around. As one man put it to us, there’s a very unclear set of expectations as far as how a man should behave.”

When I interviewed a group of men about #MeToo, they agreed that men need to change, and were actually more critical than women of aggressive and rude actions by other men.

“I try to teach my sons that being sensitive to other people’s feelings is part of being a good guy,” said one of the dads I interviewed. “But in this world, with the role models they have, it’s not an easy job to convince them.” When one of his sons was bullied at school, his teacher not only failed to reprimand the other boys, but also added to the hurt, telling him, “What’s the matter with you? Are you some kind of sissy, that you can’t take a little teasing?”

“It’s hard to combat that attitude,” this dad told me. “And it seems to be the ruling philosophy these days.”

This man, like Anna Sale, is referring to what social scientists call social context. “Men behave badly,” says psychotherapist and author Joan Kavanaugh, “because they can.” The men I interviewed said something similar. “Men still have most of the power in our culture — in our world,” said another dad with teenaged children. A single guy in his 30s said, “We have a very skewed vision of masculinity in our world.”

"Men behave badly," says psychotherapist and author Joan Kavanaugh, "because they can."

David Wexler and William Pollack, who wrote the book "When Good Men Behave Badly," echo these thoughts. They write that some men who hurt others, whether intentionally or not, are simply not good people but others are good people who, for a variety of reasons, engage in not-good behavior. The social context in which many of these men have grown up teaches that emotions like sensitivity, sympathy, kindness, understanding and dependency are signs of weakness, and that “real men” are tough and hard.

Pew Research has just released a study confirming that, as a society, Americans skew towards not seeing men as being “emotional,” but as being strong, protective, and authoritative: 67 percent of respondents viewed power as a positive trait in men (but not in women). A lack of emotion, we communicate to boys from an early age, is the path to power, strength, authority and control — all traits we still identity positively with masculinity.

As long as some men in powerful positions act as though abuse and power-mongering is their right, others will follow in their footsteps. But there are many men who don’t buy into this attitude. So, what can we do about it?

Several of the men I spoke with said that we need to begin to educate boys about feelings and empathy from an early age — which, I agree, is an excellent idea. But until that happens, women might consider how we choose to react, which is really the only thing in our control.

For instance, if you are subjected to a man’s unfeeling, insensitive behavior, you might decide that there’s an innocent reason behind it — perhaps he just doesn’t understand what he has said or done. You don’t have to accept the behavior, even if you accept that the intention was not to be mean or hurtful, but, for some people, recognizing that the pain is unintentional can eliminate the feeling that you are somehow at fault for it.

And in the case of ghosting, or otherwise being dropped by someone with whom you thought you had a relationship. It’s often hard to move on from that kind of hurt, but there are two important things you can try to keep in mind. First, no matter what you did wrong, you deserve an explanation — one that you probably, unfortunately, won’t get. And second, that there are men out there who do not buy into the popular image of masculinity as unfeeling and unconnected.

In the long run, we all repeat patterns, and you might find yourself looking for the kind of guy you’ve always liked (and maybe have been hurt by). So do some soul-searching about what qualities you’re looking for. You might find that you’re drawn to guys who signal that they are strong and in control because we, too, are subject to the same social context as men. So, maybe see if you can let yourself get to know a couple of men who are a little — can I say? — softer. Those men need to be sought out and celebrated.

The more we reinforce the positive, the more likely they will become the role models for other men. And the more likely that we’ll find good guys for ourselves.

Diane Barth, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and author. Her most recent book is "I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

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