One of the most enduring and pernicious charges thrown at the archetypal "modern woman" is that she has unreasonable, contradictory expectations of men. She claims to want an emotionally accessible partner, but is turned off by displays of vulnerability. She wants a traditional strong provider who will magically intuit what she needs five seconds before she needs it. She is doomed to dissatisfaction, and the man who tries to please her is destined for despair.
From men's rights activists who gloat about a rapidly approaching "spinsterhood epidemic" to Kate Bolick's offering in the Atlantic-article-turned-bestselling book parade, we're reminded of the growing surfeit of overachieving women and the parallel deficit of emotionally competent, educated, and ambitious single men. The cottage industry of books and articles peddling the masculine malaise has at least three goals –- or, if that sounds too conspiratorial, three "unintended" consequences — for those who buy into the notion of dudes in decline. First, women are pressured to compete ever more intensely with each other for a shrinking pool of good guys. Second, standards are lowered for men in college admissions (and in the job market that follows) as a perverse form of affirmative action designed to benefit the presumably no-longer-dominant male. And third, women should, as Lori Gottlieb argued in an earlier Atlantic article, lower their expectations for relationships with men. Don't expect passion or profound emotional connection, Gottlieb wrote; just "settle."
Women aren't just urged to settle because of the supposedly diminishing number of good men. They're warned against having unreasonable expectations for men's emotional dexterity – and derided for placing men in an impossible double bind. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Richer Sex author Liza Mundy opines that "women, like men, can be emotionally retrograde even as they are progressive and ambitious; it's not always men who have trouble adapting to female achievement and female earning." At the Good Men Project, Mark Greene cites Mundy while wondering about "the dark side of women's requests of progressive men." Is there, Greene wonders, "some vast emotional and sexual landscape that exists in direct conflict with the modern women's request for men to ‘be more emotional and engaged?'"
The title of a new Canadian book, How Can I Be Your Lover When I'm Too Busy Being Your Mother? names the problem perfectly, but focuses primarily on how to get husbands and boyfriends to do more of their share of the chores. A more equitable share of the housework matters, but what about the emotional labor?
There's still a hefty chunk of the modern sexual landscape that remains poorly charted and understood. Gender roles are shifting, though perhaps not as rapidly as we're led to believe by the media. Some of what Mundy calls women's tendency to be "emotionally retrograde" is a reflection of the reality that when it comes to redefining heterosexual roles, we're in between what theologians call the Already and the Not Yet. We have already given so many women (though not nearly enough) the opportunity to succeed in traditionally male environments; we haven't yet asked men to develop the emotional fluency to function equivalently well in female space.
The oft-repeated trope that too many women have impossible emotional expectations of men reflects the "Already but Not Yet" dynamic. Greene and Mundy, like many complementarians before them, set up a false dichotomy: women must choose between hot, confident, and arrogant jerks on the one hand, or sweet, kind, and emotionally available nice guys with very limited sex appeal on the other. It's a massive over-ask to expect the average men to be able to confine devotion and swagger, or ambition and intuition. Put another way, women can't (or shouldn't) expect both passion and perceptiveness from a man.
While men's neediness is a renowned slayer of lady-boners, part of the problem is that more than a few men aren't clear on the distinction between being emotionally articulate and being emotionally dependent. These are the dudes who know how to relate to women sexually, but who still have their mothers as their most familiar (and sometimes only) model for genuine vulnerability with a woman. They know how to do courtship (which is still an arena in which traditional gender roles get plenty of use), and they know how to be sons to the women they love. The result is, as Sarah Innes writes at XoJane this week, "simmering resentment" that has inevitable "consequences in the bedroom."
It sets the bar too low to argue (as virtually all of those writing about the "End of Men" have done) that women ought to resign themselves to the inevitable truth that most men will be either obtuse or whiny (or both,) invariably turning into sons rather than lovers. Letting go of low expectations is difficult to do when contemporary culture seems so intent on reminding women that "good" men are increasingly rare, and apt to disappoint. It's hard to accept the much more promising (but less often repeated) notion that physical differences notwithstanding, most men have the same capacity for emotional availability and verbal dexterity as women have. Socially constructed lack of practice shouldn't be mistaken for biological lack of ability –- even if the latter is a much more congenial excuse. Put simply, the problem isn't that women want too much. It's that we expect too little from men.
Besides challenging individual men to develop in adulthood the emotional skills that they didn't nurture as boys, what more can we do? Perhaps the best -– though not the most immediate –- solution comes from the famous 2009 "sister" study. Researchers found having-a-sister-makes-you-happier-and-more-well-adjusted that men and women who grew up with at least one female sibling were demonstrably happier and better-adjusted than those who grew up as single children or with brothers alone. The study noted, "men who grew up with lots of brothers scored the lowest for emotional health."
Not every man has a sister, of course. But he can have enduring friendships that come close, in terms of their longevity and their devotion, to those they might have with a beloved sibling. The study's findings suggest that non-romantic friendships with women are key to improving men's both men's overall well-being -– and their emotional competence. Having at least a few close female friends from childhood on can not only de-mystify women to men, but can teach guys how to show up as an emotional equal in a relationship. Encouraging rather than mocking childhood cross-sex friendships is a start, as is pushing back against the myth that these platonic relationships are invariably fraught with destructive sexual undertones.
There's nothing inherently unreasonably about women's desire for verbally competent, ambitious, psychologically present partners. It's not contradictory to want relationships with men who are emotionally fluent but not so needy that they turn their wives and girlfriends into surrogate mommies. In this current "man crisis" frenzy, the real problem is the relentless message that women need to dampen their expectations for what men can bring to the table. The solution lies in doing the opposite: challenging guys not to "man up" but to "step up." The evidence suggests that sisters – or friends who are as close as sisters -– are best positioned to make that challenge.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.
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