The Commitment Phobia Myth

It’s been almost six years since my divorce, but only recently have I prioritized my romantic future. I’m not alone in taking it slow. I know other men who got divorced in their 30s or 40s but didn’t remarry until over a decade later.

We’re told that men are afraid of commitment, but there’s not much evidence to back this up. Women and men first marry around the same age, and men are more likely than women to remarry after divorce.

One of the men who remarried a while back after being single for fifteen years told me that as a middle aged man with one divorce under his belt, he had very specific ideas about what he wanted in a life partner. And it was mostly about emotional health, particularly how conflict is handled. He dated several women before remarrying, but was very selective about whom he would commit to.

In my view he was taking commitment very seriously, though many of the women he dated before he met his wife might have thought he was commitment phobic.

Part of the problem is that there may be an assumption that because men tend to be less selective about whom they’ll have sex with, men also must be less selective about whom they’ll marry. If a woman wants a commitment, but he’s being more selective, then she might feel like he wasn’t taking things seriously.

And as we reach middle age the dynamics of dating shift. For one, divorced men are often cautious because they know the emotional and financial price they could pay. In divorce it’s more often the man who loses his home and his children.

As well, in Dataclysm OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder uses dating site analytics to show that a woman’s desirability peaks in her 20s, where it’s extremely high; but it declines thereafter, becoming steep after 40. A man’s desirability, however, is more moderate until it peaks around age 40.

In other words, young women typically have more choices than men of any age. By middle age, however, men who date women their own age can afford to be more selective.

But in the long run it’s the quality of the relationship matters most. Every man who stays married will one day be married to an older woman.

Besides, many women over 40 are only interested in dating but not relationships. They seem overrepresented online, that strange world where serious relationship seekers are typically disappointed by the plethora of men looking for hookups, and the large number of women who think someone better might email her tomorrow.

My philosophy is that it can’t hurt to have an online presence, and free sites are best because online dating really isn’t worth paying for. With online dating there’s a larger number of single women in one place, but it’s better to meet someone in the real world because in-person interactions have fewer incentives for either party to be shallow.

Though a cliché, it really is true that my number one relationship pattern is me, and your number one relationship pattern is you. That’s why men who blame women for their relationship failures are seen as immature and possibly misogynist.

Yet, it often goes unchallenged when a woman blames men for her relationship failures. Putting women on a pedestal, however, is passive-aggressive sexism because it treats women as unable to take adult responsibility for themselves. It’s also unfair to men because being blameless is necessary for women to stay on the pedestal, and being blameless means finding someone to blame.

Taking it as far as playing the damsel in distress is even more problematic because the knight in shining armor won’t be her hero for long. In the end he cannot solve her problems for her, and having thus failed he becomes the new villain. Then the cycle repeats.

Dating often feels like a guarded activity where I’m hopeful but on the lookout for red flags. Women usually avoid men who have negative attitudes toward women, but it’s just as important for men to avoid women who have a negative attitude toward men. Other common red flags include people who blame others and who won’t acknowledge their contributions to past relationship failures, people who try to change (i.e. control) others, and people around whom you feel like you must walk on eggshells.

But in the end, emotionally healthy people attract other emotionally healthy people. So one’s own emotional health is the necessary starting point.

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Male Stoicism, Traditionalism & Progressivism

Stoicism’s core idea is straightforward: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest of it. Stoicism appealed to Roman soldiers who had little control over their lives but faced great danger. And some took Stoicism to the extreme of subjecting themselves to great pain without flinching. That’s Stoicism’s dark side.

Problem is, emotions happen. Repressing our emotions only causes them to rear their heads elsewhere, and in unexpected ways. It’s better to accept our lack of control over experiencing emotions and instead focus on controlling our reactions to these emotions.

But the world over, men are honored for their ability to endure physical and emotional pain without flinching. Men who show their vulnerability or who cannot endure pain are mocked and despised by women and men alike.

One perspective is that society teaches male pain endurance while disallowing expression of vulnerability as a way of training boys to become men capable of fighting in a war. A boy’s training may consist of enduring sports injuries; being bullied; learning never to cry; and hazing in the military, fraternities, and the workplace.

Male Stoicism has been challenged in recent years, however. Feminism rejected the narrow traditional female role and fought to make it more expansive and less rigid. And this changed the traditional male role by proxy: women need men to accommodate and support a less rigid gender role for women. Feminism also connected male insensitivity toward pain to men’s violence toward women. Further, second and third wave feminism have mostly been anti-war, thus opposing the push to socialize men as warriors.

Flexibility for the male role in ways that are not needed to accommodate an expanded female role, however, hasn’t been pursued to the same degree. But this creates a double bind. A man must know (without being told) when to adhere to the traditional male role, and when to step outside of the traditional male role to accommodate women.

This ethos has been integrated into progressive politics and ideology. For example, men must support women with greater emotional openness. But emotional openness that doesn’t reflect positively on women (such as a man talking about a woman’s controlling or abusive behavior) is taboo. This also applies to discussion of issues that don’t directly affect women, such as dads being treated like they’re disposable, boys falling behind in school, or male suicide being three to four times more common than female suicide.

As such, both traditionalism and progressivism promote male Stoicism to varying degrees. Feminists and progressives quickly put the kibosh on men who are emotionally open in the wrong way, sarcastically asking, “what about the menz?”, declaring that they “bathe in male tears,” or smuggly lamenting “masculinity so fragile.”

Traditionalists will tell a man to stop acting like a girl. Progressives don’t say that because it’s misogynist, but the intent of saying “don’t act like a girl” and “I bathe in male tears” is the same: they silence men’s emotional expression.

At least traditionalists are straightforward about it. But progressives are often passive-aggressive. They deny they’re promoting male Stoicism or being insensitive to men’s feelings. They claim that bathing in male tears is ironic. And it is ironic because it represents feminism and patriarchy being on the same page, though they fail to see that irony.

Considering this insensitivity toward men, how can we expect men to be more sensitive toward women? More to the point, if we only value men insofar as their actions affect women then how can we expect men to value themselves for who they are?

Yet, the advice that men simply need to open up is simplistic. To change society so that men feel more comfortable opening up we must:

  • First must recognize early 21st century expectations for male Stoicism, how both traditionalism and progressivism contribute to it, and how progressivism has worked to partially dismantle it.
  • Articulate the problem in order to challenge it.
  • Increase societal support for open male communication, even when it means looking male vulnerability in the eye and not putting women on a pedestal.

At the individual level, I’m trying to set the unhelpful aspects of Stoicism aside by:

  • Being honest about what I’m feeling even if I wish I didn’t feel that way, and even if someone else doesn’t want to hear it.
  • Articulating the emotion in a calm, matter of fact way. Though it’s a cliche, stating things in the first person (“I feel…”) is important for personal responsibility. Saying, “You made me feel…,” blames the other person.
  • Following up with a statement of my needs or wants in a way that respects other people’s boundaries, and without the expectation that others will respect my needs (because at some point my needs will be mocked).
  • Refusing to be treated like a doormat. Others might not respect my needs, but I can still set boundaries.
  • Recognizing the value of Stoicism’s message of chilling out when I lack of control over external things, even if the aspect of detaching from my emotional experiences or silently enduring pain as a path to self-discipline is not valuable.

The Intern: Another Tangential Movie Review

Robert De Niro is best known for his mafia tough guy roles, but in The Intern he’s a sweet old man. Jules (played by Anne Hathaway…sorry, Jess) runs a successful eCommerce fashion website that she created from the ground up. Ben is retired and bored, so he applies for an internship for senior citizens.

The movie is cute and funny, though not Oscar material. But that’s not what I’m here to write about. I’m here to go off on a tangent.

The Intern makes has a few points to make about 21st century culture. Ben is a relic from the Mad Men era, that generation whose values were pushed aside as the counterculture came to the forefront in the late 1960s. That cultural shift was a good thing in many ways, but maybe we did throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Ben has cast aside many old fashion notions. He defends Jules’s hard working and decisive management style, telling a group of stay at home moms that she broke the glass ceiling. Ben tells Jules that she doesn’t have to tolerate her husband’s affair as a price for being more successful than he is. Ben is emotionally sensitive and isn’t afraid to cry while watching a tearjerker.

But Ben hasn’t left behind the good manners that Baby Boomers and younger generations have forgotten. He also understands technology’s limitations. When one young man in the office laments that a woman he’s interested in won’t respond to him even though he’s texted her “like, a billion times,” Ben simply asks the young man if he’s tried talking to her. Ben is a man who was married for 42 years before his wife died, and when he meets a woman close to his age (played by Rene Russo) he calls her without making her wait a few days.

His young coworkers are amused that Ben shaves and puts on a tie before going to work. In one scene, Ben is wearing a suit and tie while three young men are dressed in t-shirts and hoodies. Jules notes that today it’s considered sexist to refer to women as girls, though men are now often referred to as boys. Cue the too casually dressed young men looking embarrassed as they glance at Ben’s suit.

Young women, Jules continues, grew up in an era of girl power, and maybe the boys were forgotten. My two cents is that it’s more than that: today’s young men were raised in an era of “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.”

The point The Intern seems to make is that today’s embrace of equality is a good thing, though the process is incomplete. But today’s culture made a mistake when it got too casual, casting aside good manners, dressing well, taking relationship commitments seriously, and treating others with respect.

Anger’s Antidote: Getting In Touch With Your Inner Jerk

A recent discussion about Donald Trump’s hair (which fascinates me because it seems to defy the laws of physics and fashion) led to something more serious: there’s a lot of anger out there, which is maybe why Trump’s popularity increases when he says bigoted things about Mexicans, women, and others.

Anger is nothing new. But certain situations seem to draw it out. My mother asked me, Why are some people so angry when they’re driving, honking and flipping the bird? But when they’re walking down the street they seem friendly?

Perhaps it’s the question du jour. Not long after our discussion, Hank Garfield wrote an op-ed for the Bangor Daily News asking why there’s no pedestrian road rage. Hank’s conclusion:

The inside of a car straddles the line between public and private space; we’re on our best behavior in one but not the other. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you’re stuck, unlike pedestrians and cyclists, who can simply go around; impotence leads to frustration. Drivers can’t directly communicate with each other beyond easily misconstrued gestures; it’s easier to apologize or express good will face-to-face and on foot. Driving is stressful; walking releases stress. And so on.

In brief, it’s the lack of direct human contact when we’re in a car.

Thing is, we’re not as moral as we think. The self-serving bias is well documented, and apparently intractable. Morality is about how we treat others, and it’s socially enforced. In isolation (in a car, online, etc.) there’s no accountability, and our inner jerk has a greater opportunity to make an appearance.

And there’s more bad news. Anger spreads faster than anything else. A lot faster than joy, which takes a distant second place.

Why? It is because anger is a negative emotion? Sadness isn’t so popular, so that can’t be it. But anger is intense and energizing, unlike a downer like sadness. But joy also is intense and energizing, so why would joy fall so far behind?

In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt points to evolution. The consequences of finding food aren’t as significant as missing a predator. You can find more food, but if you’re dead you are food. Haidt cites research which finds that it takes five good things to outweigh one bad thing.

Humans no longer live in our evolutionary environment. We have few natural predators, and those that exist (such as bears and lions) are not an everyday concern. But being stuck in traffic, immobilized with no options, still triggers an unconscious fear.

Haidt writes:

Research shows that when we are under extreme time pressure, we are more likely to behave unethically. When we operate in isolation, we are more likely to break rules. When incentives are very steep (we get a big reward if we reach a goal, but much less if we don’t), we are more likely to try to achieve them by hook or by crook.

Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges (from the Republic) is a great metaphor. Do people really value goodness, or merely the appearance of goodness? What if you had a magic ring that made you invisible? Would you use it like a superhero to defend the innocent? Or would the lack of accountability corrupt your best intentions until you became a totally selfish asshole?

Plato’s musings helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkein to write The Lord of the Rings. A wicked long answer to Plato’s questions. But such a fun answer!

The Internet is the Ring of Gyges, the one ring to rule them all. Another interesting study found that after five days offline, teenagers’ emotional awareness notably improved. Maintaining niceness requires social interactions with immediate emotional feedback from others.

Anonymous, invisible, and unaccountable on the Internet, it’s surprising that there aren’t more trolls out there. When I see an anonymous person kindly disagreeing with someone online I think, there’s a person of character.

A while back a friend told me about a book called Radical Honesty. AJ Jacobs interviewed its author, Brad Blanton, for Esquire. Blanton told Jacobs that “I appreciate you for apparently having a real interest and hope you’re not just doing a cutesy little superficial dipshit job like most journalists.”

Jacobs, of course, did a superficial dipshit job. He missed Blanton’s central point: radical honesty starts with admitting to ourselves all the stuff that we try so hard to deny. In contrast, being blunt with others without being blunt with ourselves just makes us bigger assholes.

So that’s one (though certainly not the only) antidote to anger: getting in touch with your inner jerk. Or as atheist Jonathan Haidt (channeling Jesus) more tactfully puts it, focusing on the beam in your eye and not the speck in your neighbor’s.

This doesn’t mean being down on yourself. That’s just a passive-aggressive gambit for attention. Granted, you’re not better than the average person. On the other hand, you’re no worse than the average person either.

The Mask You Live In: A Documentary Review

The Mask You Live In is the second documentary by the Representation ProjectMask “follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.”

maskReleased in January 2015, it’s still hard to find in many places. But like its sister Miss Representation, Mask eventually will be available on DVD or streaming. The screening in my area was sponsored by a local organization called Maine Boys to Men, whose mission is to “support the happy, healthy, non-violent development of boys and those who help raise them.”

Mask hits the ground running with the gravelly voice of former NFL defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann, who remembers his father teaching him (at five years of age) to be a man – tough and stoic. And what Ehrmann details can only be described as child abuse.

Mask then informs us that gender is a social construct, noting that males and females psychologically are 90% similar. Of course, some may challenge the notion that gender is not biologically innate, but Mask is focusing on gender roles rather than gender identity.

Culture certainly looms large. The interviews with various psychologists, teachers, and ordinary men and women detail American society’s definition of a real man: powerful, dominating, wealthy, and promiscuous. But above all, not weak. Not like a girl.

Educator Tony Porter talks about a boy who said he’d feel destroyed if his coach said he played like a girl. Porter asks, What are we teaching our boys? What are we teaching our girls?

Mask advocates for a less rigid definition of masculinity. One that encourages greater emotional expression and openness for boys and men, thereby discouraging violence and destructive behaviors.

The film observes that a rigid definition of masculinity means boys and men constantly have to prove their manhood. But a man can never definitively prove his manhood because every new challenge threatens a loss of this identity.

This can lead to extreme behaviors, or what the film calls hypermasculinity. Most notable is men’s violence, which Mask illustrates with statistics, and clips from popular action movies and violent video games.

The film’s biggest impact, however, is the everyday boys and young men who tell their stories and talk about how they really feel. Teacher Ashanti Branch runs a support group for teenage boys. The film shows him leading an exercise where boys draw a mask on a piece of paper. On the front they describe how other people see them. On the back they write how they really feel. Then they crumple the papers and throw them at each other. Opening up someone else’s mask, each boy reads what’s on the outside, and what’s on the inside.

The funny, nonchalant, and cocky personas turn into sadness, anger, social isolation, and low self-worth. It’s a painful place to go. But Branch’s Ever Forward Club claims that 100% of the kids in this program (many of whom are from low income families) graduate from high school, and 93% go on to college.

Mask is full of boys and young men who confess that they feel like they could never measure up to the image of a “real man.” They describe their loneliness, isolation, despair, and anger. They describe coping with alcohol, drugs, and risky behavior. But they play the game because not doing so means being socially ostracized, bullied, and rejected.

For some there’s a larger price, however. In a prison support group, inmates describe horrifically abusive childhoods, and joining gangs because they craved a sense of belonging.

Mask describes gender socialization as beginning the moment boys and girls are brought home from the hospital, dressed in blue or pink, and given gender specific toys. Still, little boys are often as emotionally expressive as little girls. When puberty arrives, however, male friendships cease to have the same level of emotional connection because boys try to conform to the emotionally independent requirement of manhood. And so they don’t look gay. But with this emotional isolation we find an enormously higher suicide rate among boys.

The film also profiles several boys and men who grew up without fathers. Luis’s father was deported, and Luis got involved with a gang because he craved male role models. Cody’s dad was in prison for much of his childhood. Steven never had a father figure but later became a single dad. And an awesome dad at that.

Interspersed throughout the clips is a sea of statistics. The film could use a thorough fact checking, however. For example, Mask uncritically presents the unscientific statistic that 35% of men would commit rape if they thought they could get away with it. The claim is based on a non-representative, non-random sample that is too small (only 86 men) to draw any statistically significant conclusion. But this follows along with the film’s claim that the United States is a rape culture (the belief that American culture encourages men to rape women). Though this is debatable, it’s presented without any counterpoint.

I also would have preferred the film to explore the larger systemic issues of fatherlessness. Further, though Mask discusses father wounds, the issue of mother wounds is absent.

Also absent is any discussion of how girls and women’s expectations of men can marginalize less stereotypically masculine men, and encourage male silence. Likewise, men’s violence against women is discussed at length, but women’s violence against boys and men, and women’s not uncommon desire for control over males, is barely mentioned.

The most jarring omission, however, is that male disposability is never acknowledged or even alluded to. Yet, a culture that makes a global issue of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of girls while completely ignoring the group’s mass murder of boys (because they are boys) illustrates how little society values the lives of boys and men relative to girls and women.

Despite these flaws, Mask is a powerfully moving film that had a strong effect on the audience. The discussion after the film showed its impact. A grandmother commented that she thought boys had it easy, but now she’s seeing a different side of things. A young man said he just found out that he has a son on the way, and is joining the Maine Boys to Men new father’s program.

Though the dialogue about problems boys and men face so far has barely reached the mainstream, The Mask You Live In presents an excellent opportunity to spark a national conversation.

Well, That Was Stupid

We’ve all done stupid things. I’ve taken risks I’ve on a bicycle that didn’t turn out so well, made comments that made other people go “Huh?”, and missed things that should have been blindingly obvious.

But I’m not an idiot. I swear. No, really.

The Washington Post recently summarized the stupid research of Balazs Aczel.  Even highly intelligent people do incredibly stupid things, and he wanted to figure out why.

Aczel claims that stupidity comes in three basic flavors. Any more than three and I’d just forget them anyway.

The basic point is that emotions are a bigger factor that IQ. Typically we react based on how we feel, and reason kicks in (literally) as an afterthought.

The three kinds of stupid are:

1. Overestimating our ability to do something. This is the king of stupid. Youtube has tons of videos where people attempt things they’re clearly incapable of. The technical term for this is confidence ignorance. It’s kind of thing that leads others to ask, “Whadjya think was gonna happen?” But maybe we didn’t think. Maybe we just felt like doing it.

2. Then there’s impulsiveness. Acting without thinking because we’re unable to delay gratification; we’re being compulsive; or because of an intense emotional state, whether excitement, fear, or something else.

Impulsiveness can be induced, of course. Being manipulated with an artificial time pressure (a favorite of used car salesmen) is a good example. Don’t take the the weekend to think it over! Act now! It might be gone tomorrow!

There are some circumstances that overlap overconfidence and impulsiveness. Having an agenda or ideological blinders can lead us to ignore practical considerations or contrary evidence. It all comes down to a desire to prove the truth of our ideology by acting without taking the time to fully evaluate the situation. George W. Bush’s rush to war in Iraq is an example.

And there’s the desire to cover up a mistake. Too often people aren’t as good at lying as they think. And too often we panic, fearing immediate consequences without thinking through the longterm consequences of a cover up.

3. Finally, there’s absentmindedness. We’re just not paying attention. Our mind is somewhere else, and we don’t see it coming. Or it could be lack of information or lack of experience with a particular situation.

I think a common subset of this is anxiety or panic short circuiting our ability to think things through. This overlaps impulsiveness to a degree, in the sense that anxiety can not only cause us to freeze like a deer in the headlights, but it also can cause us to react without thinking like a squirrel that runs left then right then left (then gets run over).

We’re all stupid. It’s happened before, and it’s going to happen again. But we can minimize it:

  1. If I haven’t been in a situation before, I need to tell myself that I don’t know the limits. Be careful. Do some research.
  2. If someone’s pressuring me, they’re manipulating me. I have a right to slow things down and say, “I really need to think this over.”
  3. Plan ahead, and find an ally. If I’m buying a car I should bring someone with me who knows a thing or two about it.
  4. Be respectful but skeptical of all ideologies. And mine most of all. I think of myself as a skeptic (“Certainty is proportional to the evidence,” to paraphrase David Hume; “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” to almost verbatim quote Carl Sagan). But confirmation bias is a huge downfall for me – believing something without question because it aligns with what I already believe. This leads to overconfidence, however.
  5. Learn to delay gratification. If I really want something, wait a week and then see if I still want it. Tell someone about it so they can help me stay honest.
  6. Pay attention. Buddhist techniques to learn mindfulness are helpful.

Jane Austin vs John Steinbeck: The Ultimate Smackdown

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration. I’ve never made it through a Jane Austin novel, though I did watch the movie version of Pride & Prejudice. Twice. Mainly because Keira Knightly is in it, and she has the best smile in Hollywood.

The problem is that the book is full of snobby English people who talk fancy and are always trying to one up each other. I keep waiting for one of them to declare, “I do say, my kind sir, why don’t you close your pie hole!”

But that scene never happens.

My ex-wife likes Jane Austin, which is why I once tried to read Pride & Prejudice. She did make it all the way through the novel I recommended, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. But she didn’t like the Joad family. They’re too crude and ignorant. And the scene at the end where Rose of Sharon breastfeeds the old man (to save his life) is kinda gross.

Pride & Prejudice has a point to make, mainly that these vices can blind us to seeing the real person inside. I just can’t connect with the characters. The Grapes of Wrath has a point to make as well. Set during the Great Depression, extreme poverty can create an every-man-for-himself attitude, or it can draw people together.

Rose of Sharon, a poor farm laborer like the rest of her family, has shared the same hardships as everyone else. Plus one. Her baby is stillborn. But despite such suffering, she isn’t thinking of herself when he finds the emaciated old man. And that’s why she breastfeeds him.

There is a common theme with Pride & Prejudice and The Grapes of Wrath, however. Darcy is a gentleman who deserves a high status wife, but Elizabeth is merely middle class. The Joad family, however, is even lower class: poor uneducated farmers who don’t speak proper English, and who find meaning in life through their fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They don’t bathe often because they’re transient worker, they spit a lot on account of chewing tobacco, and one of them did time in the slammer. But they are people of character. They see each other through.

Low social class doesn’t make you a bad person, and high social class doesn’t automatically make you respectable in a way that really matters. It’s about how you treat other people.

I like Steinbeck because he wrote like like a psychologist. East of Eden takes place before the First World War. The novel explores the fear of rejection, and the destructive behavior this fear can lead to.

Adam’s father rejects him because he’s not manly enough. And Adam’s macho brother gets away with physically abusing him. Later, his brother impregnates Adam’s psycho wife (who will never love Adam and actually despises him for loving her). Adam’s wife eventually abandons him and the children, but not before shooting Adam for good measure (he survives).

But it’s Lee who articulates East of Eden‘s central point. Lee speaks broken English when he’s around white people he doesn’t know well. Though born an American, whites can’t see him as anything but a “Chinaman.”

Lee says that Cain and Abel “is the story of mankind.” He asserts that “the greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears.” He concludes that “with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt.”

Eventually, Adam’s son learns the truth that was kept hidden from him. Will the boy seek revenge on his mother? The boy, however, realizes he has a choice. And that’s what breaks the cycle of rejection and revenge.