I was interested to reread recently an old column I’d saved by Maureen Dowd in which she writes about how she was shocked to hear from a male friend that before his recent marriage he had thought about dating her but chose not to because she was too “intimidating”. She also referenced a recent study that showed that women in powerful executive positions were among the least likely to be married or in any kind of intimate relationship with a man. Her conclusion: men have a fundamental need to marry submissive women so they can dominate the relationship.
The balance of power in intimate relationships depends on the issue and depends on the couple—even in traditional patriarchal-age marriages. Clearly the dominating partner in the Macbeth marriage wasn’t he. In more balanced traditional relationships, though, it’s possible for two strong partners to play equally powerful roles. It’s not about dominating and submitting; it’s about embracing a framework that gives both meaning.
I saw The Great Gatsby last week, so I have it on my mind. He’s a prototype of a man for whom the traditional framework provided intense meaning. It was never about the wealth for him, it was about being worthy of his lady’s love. He needed a woman to give his life meaning. His life is meaningless unless there is someone to create a world for. Other men don’t need Gatsby’s grandiosity for the model to work. But Gatsby and other men who have relied on this model depend on finding a woman who wants to play along, someone who likes being the one who is the source of that meaning for her man, who is happy to be given the prize he works so hard for, who is honored to be the one for whom such efforts are expended--and who understands the power she wields in this scheme. Chances are that the guy Dowd is complaining about is a Gatsby type, and it was clear to him that Dowd was no Daisy.
The Gatsby type, in his many varieties, needs a woman to give his life meaning, and that meaning was provided him in the old narrative of prize/bread winner. But in feminist-era marriages, if the woman has gone out and got the prize for herself, there’s no emotional satisfaction in a relationship like that for him. You can say that he should change his thinking, but it’s not about thinking, it’s about an emotional need for meaning that the old narrative fulfilled and the new one does not. Many, many men feels rudderless in this sea change. They feel emasculated and they don’t like it, and so they start looking for ways to change that, and then they become the selfish jerks castigated in our many pop culture depictions of them.
So I’d argue that many men, especially ambitious men, are not afraid of powerful women with established careers; it’s just that they don’t see that they have anything to give to them, and it’s hard for them to imagine any way to connect in a deep way with them if there is nothing their women need from them that they want to give. They may very much admire them, may be sexually attracted to them—but they don’t see them as marriageable.
So I want to start this longish reflection on the changing relations between the sexes by looking at this issue from the male perspective, and I want to do that by trying to understand the impact the destruction of the traditional male as breadwinner model has had on many if not most men since the 1970s. Because since the seventies it’s been all about what women want, and it’s only rarely asked what men do. The norms have changed, and there are good arguments to support these changes as a matter of justice for women, but those arguments tend to be rather a head trip, and I want to think out loud here about what men need emotionally from women, and why they are not getting it, and why it’s not men’s fault that they often act in ways that disappoint their women. I think that men and women both want the same thing, but that they need it in different ways, and that our culture and its conventional wisdom lack any real wisdom or models that point a way for either to get it.
So I’m not interested in looking at marriage as a social institution or a unit of social order in western societies. I’m more interested it provides or fails to provide meaning. The old breadwinner model provided dates back at least to the Provencal poets and the chivalric ideals of the late medieval period. Dante needs his Beatrice, and Gatsby needs his Daisy. The male must be worthy of his lady’s love and admiration, and he wins it in the public sphere. And so, yes, Lord Macbeth needs his Lady Macbeth in this scheme, though her ambitions for him, (and thus the bar he must clear to win her admiration) is more than he likely bargained for. Nevertheless, his sense of meaning, purpose, and identity are all linked to whether he will win or lose his lady’s love. Other norms are eclipsed by those. The Macbeth and Gatsby stories make no sense outside that old meaning framework given shape in the old romances.
There is something big here, and it needs closer analysis than I have the space to give it here, but I suspect that there is an aspect to this this model that needs to be retrieved, but in a postmodern key. I explored it in another post about Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It points to something important even if it seems impossible to imagine having validity in our current confusion regarding who men and women are for one another. So all that matters for our discussion here is that this model no longer works to provide meaning for most educated westerners—at least in ways they would consciously acknowledge—but also that nothing has emerged that effectively replaces it. Is there any reason for a relatively aware twenty-something to see in marriage something to which they can honestly make a life-long commitment? What is the meaning framework in which such a commitment could make any sense, especially when things start getting tough?
We muddle along together, but to what effect? There are some couples who seem to make it work, but for reasons I’ll explain later, I think it’s rare that such relationships are deeply emotionally satisfying. Deeply emotionally satisfying relationships are always rare. That doesn’t mean that these couples don’t make good companions for one another, feel affection and loyalty for one another. But they are not most of them deeply meaningful relationships; they are not relationships about which either partner feels inspired to write sonnets. Where has the poetry gone in our relationships with one another? Isn’t that what men and women really want? Is that too much to expect?
Conventional wisdom demands that marriage provide meaning where couples too often experience very little of it. Its solution? Well, couples need to provide for the other’s needs. It’s basically a consumerist model of human intimacy. I was watching Oprah a while back, and she had on a marriage therapist who was counseling a couple that had experienced what he described as an “emotional divorce”. Both the husband and wife struck me as fundamentally sane, decent people—but very conventional, and not particularly insightful. The guy had been made profoundly confused by the way the rules had changed. He saw himself as doing all the right things, as a hard worker and good provider for his family. But his wife wasn’t playing her part. She didn’t want him working so much; she wanted him home and more involved with her and the kids. She said she wanted to have the same kind of intimacy and closeness with him that she felt with her girlfriends.
She was angry, and this guy was not having any of it. The problem lay in that he was playing by one set of rules, and she was playing by a new set that she learned about by reading the women’s magazines and watching shows like Oprah. This particular woman was too weak and lacking in self-confidence to be a true lady Macbeth or even a Maureen Dowd. But there is a poignancy there, for both of them. There is something that she needs, and clearly she isn’t getting it. Neither is he. She wants more emotional intimacy with her husband, and the new conventional wisdom tells her that she should have it, and it’s his fault for not giving it to her. Maybe intimacy is a word to describe what’s lacking in her life, but no one in that TV studio, most of all the therapist, had any good ideas about how she should get it. It’s first of all not something you can demand. You don’t demand intimacy; you create the conditions that make it possible. And so the basic question is how to do that.
Intimacy is about connection, and I think that men and women connect on three levels. The most common is the physical, instinctual level. This is something everybody understands. Less well understood is a spiritual level. I think there are some marriages made in heaven, but they are not necessarily happy ones—they are what I would describe as karmic. There is some work they have to do with one another, and it’s often painful work. The rarest connection I would describe as a soul connection. It’s rare because few of us have much in the way of souls anymore, and there’s not much in us to connect to on that level. But men and women really want to connect, but they don't know how; they are too soul-weak to effect it. But this is what men really want—and it’s what women want, too. That's what the couple on Oprah wanted. They long for the poetry.
We have, we educated moderns and no-longer-moderns, “Missing Middle Syndrome". We are all brain and genitals, but no middle, no soul. It took several centuries to produce such a type in the West; the soul-centered, premodern, magical, shamanic way of experiencing the world lingered tenaciously in the rural countryside, among the illiterate, and in the Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Latin American cultures, which were more resistant to the Modern impulse. We see soul still in the spontaneity and joy of the poorest people who have not yet become soul-shriveled moderns. But by the time Freud came upon the scene, there was a significant constituency of top-heavy, fat-headed men and hysterical women. But top-heavy guy that Freud was, he saw the problem not about the missing middle, but about a repressed bottom. And so his main contribution to western civilization was to try to fix Victorian angelism by opening up the tap to release repressed instinctually.
Nineteenth-century Victorian bourgeois culture was extraordinarily head centered in its Gnostic/puritanical rejection of life impulses beneath the neck, which led to the kind of problems that Freud tried to understand. And the model Freud eventually developed was one in which there was a kind of opposition between the goals of civilized life and the goals of human instinctual life. The task for psychotherapy became to find a balance between the brain and the genitals. It is no wonder that the earliest psychotherapists were called ‘alienists’ because they saw their task as helping their patients to bridge the rift between a kind of head-centered angelism and a genitally centered instinctualism, a split that Freud thought could never be bridged in any deeply satisfactory way.
The best that could be achieved for the healthy bourgeois post-Freud was to find a balance between the head-centered fulfillments of career and work and the genitally centered pleasures to be found in the erotic. No notice was taken of the still missing middle—not at least until Jung pointed it out. But no one (except flakes) took him very seriously. But ‘soul’ is the missing middle, and it is the only thing that can bridge the gap. The challenge is to learn how to grow one.
What men long for, but now more than ever women, too, is the missing middle. Women readers, think about it. Isn’t this really what frustrates you most about the men in your life? You might connect intellectually; you might connect sexually. But something still isn’t there--a level of intimacy that, women, like the wife on the Oprah show, find easier with other women because they are not as soul-dead yet as men are. Of course, if by some fluke you have a soulful, sensitive man, you’re probably angry at him because he won’t go out and get a job. He's allergic to the soul-deadening corporate workplace and would suffocate there.
Men want something so badly and women symbolize that for most of them, and they don’t really know what it is, and they certainly don’t know how to get it. That’s the big story behind Don Juan. He is not a crude sensualist; he is a clueless guy with Missing Middle Syndrome who thinks that each time he beds a woman, she will be the one to give him what he’s missing, which is his soul. It doesn’t work; if it did, he’d stop. Don Juan and his early modern cousin Faust, a rationalist at the end of his rope, are archetypes of the missing middle, and as such they symbolize the soul-empty, restless spirit of modernity. Both are looking for what’s missing, but going about it rather ineffectively. Give them credit for trying; at least they’re not vegging out in front of the tube.
The central point I want to make is that while this trend is at least a thousand years old, it’s come to a critical juncture in the twentieth century during which the combined effect of the changing role of women and the growing encroachment of techno-commercial values into every facet of contemporary life has all but extinguished the lingering, atavistic vestiges of premodern soul culture in the West. This has led to a condition that is not new in the West; it’s just affecting more people than ever before, and the result is the profoundly disorienting experience of a collective soul vacuum, and the culture dislodged from its traditional moorage has been drifting in fragmented confusion for some time now looking for ways to compensate for its loss.
So whence the solution? My sense is that it’s the women who will take us to it because they are not as soul dead as we men. The best we men can do now is talk a good spell about what’s wrong and why. We have good enough sniffers to tell whether a solution is bogus or not, but we’re as dimwitted as ever when it comes to finding real solutions, especially if the solutions require any soul sense, which they do. Sure men got us here--it was a male-driven historical impulse that over the centuries has driven us out of the fertile soul world below up into the arid, barren, sun-drenched mountaintops of modern rationality. It was something we had to do, I guess. But it will be the women who lead us down into the fecund valley again.
Many women have come up to the mountain top and sniffed around and learned pretty quickly that this was no place to live a life. They picked up what they needed there, and have already started back down to where the climate is more hospitable. And the men will follow them down because while it might have been interesting climbing to the top, once you get there it gets old. It’s old already, and that’s why we talk about what we’re in right now as the postmodern. The modern Enlightenment impulse is spent; it’s time for something new.
So what do men want in their relationships? They want meaning--deeply felt meaning, and that kind of meaning is not found in sex or in heady conversations or shared idelogoical commitments. Those connections have their place and importance, but they don't meet the real need, which is for all of us to be more than we are. For what we want most deeply is to be worthy of the beloved's love, and how many of us feel that we really deserve it? You know what I mean. In the abstract sense, yes, we deserve it, but in the deeply felt sense, there is something deeply narcissistically infantile about you if you really think you deserve the beloved's love. We neither deserve another's love, nor can we demand it. We can only receive it with gratitude.
So much of what is grand and foolish about men lies in their absurd projects to prove themselves worthy of the beloved's love.That's Dante's story, and Macbeth's and Gatsby's. Gatsby's project and Macbeth's were delusional and evil because the women they loved were themselves unworthy. And with Dante, who knows? Beatrice was a kid he hardly knew, married someone else, and died young. She was never real, never a real human with whom one lives in the day-to-day.
So what do men want? They want capacity, for it's precisely capacity they feel they lack, and they then go about doing the stupidest things to compensate. It's a capacity however that can be filled some by the love a good woman. But a good woman is hard to find these days for lots of reasons because they lack capacity, too. And they, like their men, are looking for it in all the wrong places.
So what do men want? The same as women--the recovery of their souls, and as they have always done, they look to their women to help them do it. It may be possible for them to do it without women, but I doubt it. The mistake too many women make is to think that men have something they want—like power and influence in the public sphere. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have it if that’s what they want. I’m just saying that they won't find their souls there, and soulless women in the public sphere are just as useless or dangerous as soulless men. Don't follow us into the wasteland; lead us to the promised land. You'll know you've arrived when the poetry begins to flow again.