It's been nearly a century since Freud asked his famous question about the nature of female desire, and very few men that I know are any closer to an answer than Freud was. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, shortly after going through my own divorce, I belonged to a men’s group that met weekly, and I was regularly hearing the stories of men troubled by the fact that they had been unable to make their relationships work and distressed by their inability to understand what makes women tick. Although it’s widely believed that men’s infidelity, drinking, insensitivity, and all-around emotional numbness are the primary reasons most relationships dissolve, I was getting the other side of the story. My group included a man whose wife had left him after 22 years for a woman. She, of course, took with her half of their “community” property and regular spousal support payments, although their three teenage children continued to live with him. It included another man who had been unhappily married for over 20 years but couldn’t bear to leave his wife because she was sickly and very needy. But she had been handling the family finances, and when he finally did leave (with the help of Zoloft, which broke through years and years of depression), he felt so guilty he gave her everything she asked for (far beyond what was required by the community property laws of California), and she left him with nothing but a mortgage to pay. It included a man struggling to keep his construction company afloat, whose wife was demanding alimony payments that would clearly bankrupt the company. And it included one happily married man who had put his marriage back together after a year-long separation by simply doing everything his wife asked him to do. Not too long ago, University of Washington psychologist John Gottman reported that the secret of successful marriages is male capitulation (www.webhealing.com/joyrelat.html). When men defer to their wives’ needs and desires, the marriages last. When I told this to a married male friend, he smiled and said, “That’s not true; I always have the last words in conflicts with my wife. And those words are ‘Yes, dear.’ ”
Given that it is often assumed a marital breakup is caused by the male, is it any wonder that men generally, over the past several decades, have felt battered, misunderstood, and beleaguered and that many of them wonder what’s wrong with so many women that they can’t fathom the possibility that the “he said” side of any “he said/she said” story may have some validity? My favorite gender-based joke is “If a man says something in the middle of a forest, and there is no woman present to hear him, is he still wrong?”
So conditioned are we to assume that men are the perpetrators and women the victims in the ongoing war of the sexes, we can wander through the battlefields hardly noticing the wounded male bodies strewn here and there. A feminist friend of mine said that she thought that description was an exaggeration, but it reflects my experience talking to many men in many different contexts over the past dozen years or so. These were men of all ages, from college students to those now in their 50s and 60s, who have lived through both the sexual revolution and the gender revolution. The latter group are generally men who went into relationships with one kind of expectation and were caught by surprise at the changing attitudes and roles of the women in their lives. They are the collateral damage of the women’s revolution that very few chroniclers of that revolution have talked about.
I spoke with Richard Peacock, coauthor of Learning to Leave: A Woman’s Guide, who told me he was amazed when doing research for the book at how cold, methodical, and systematic some women can be when they’ve chosen to end a relationship. “Women have the ability to turn off the love tap and get on with things much better than men do,” he said. “It often leaves men confused and dazed. Here’s this woman who was showering you with love and affection, and suddenly she’s cold as ice and meticulously planning the future of her life without you.” This remarkable ability to go from devotion to distance, from nurturing to nastiness troubled a lot of the men I’ve spoken with and often left them puzzled. In today’s world of “serial monogamy,” the most intimate person in one’s life turns into a ruthless courtroom adversary. After a divorce or breakup, the quest for money often replaces the erotic component of a relationship. Obviously there are sociological reasons for this quest — men generally earn more than women. Economic inequality creates a situation where couples remain linked financially, although split emotionally and erotically.
Consider the case of Paul M. (all names have been changed), one of the men in my group. Paul was a technical consultant for a large corporation and was married for 22 years to the same woman, and he thought he knew her well. Paul and his wife Hillary had three children, two girls and a boy, who were now into their teenage years. Paul was absolutely devoted to his family and was enjoying the good life of his middle age. He owned a home in Del Mar — which they had bought years earlier, before prices moved beyond reason — had a solid job that paid well, and loved Hillary without reservation. So he was surprised when Hillary suggested they attend a couples group she had heard about in order to “enhance” their marriage. At the first meeting they attended, it became clear she had something else in mind altogether. Hillary announced — to the group, not to Paul alone — that she was unhappy in her marriage and needed time to discover “who she was.” She had fallen in love with a woman who understood her a great deal more than Paul did, and she was going to leave her marriage to live with her new love. To say Paul was dumbfounded, nonplussed, shocked, startled, driven to distraction, etc., would be understating the case. He could not believe what he was hearing. After the meeting, Hillary told Paul she would not be going home with him, and she walked across the parking lot to a waiting car, where her lover picked her up and drove her away.