A few nights ago, my older son found out that one of his dad’s friends had taken his own life. He is the third man within my son's families’ wider network of acquaintances to do so over the past few years.?. My son’s response was to go quiet and take himself off to bed uncharacteristically early.
I didn’t know this man but his death breaks my heart. It breaks for him and for the anguish that is left behind for generations to come, starting with a young boy who will now stare at an empty void with sorrow instead of at a father with awe. How much pain must this man have carried for him to choose this untimely tragic end?
I feel much sadness and compassion for boys and men today. I realise that the patriarchy has cast a very dense shadow not just over women, but over men too. Middle-aged men are more likely to take their own life than any other group. Men are three times as likely as women to die by suicide.
The existing social norms do not allow boys or men to show who they really are, to be vulnerable, to feel broken. Men often lack the community of friends that holds women together in times of turmoil. They are taught to be strong and to fix, not share their problems. There is a much greater expectation on men to provide for those around them. Their success is measured by what they have achieved in life, not by their personal qualities such as kindness, nor by how connected they are to themselves, those around them and the world at large. Men are expected to fight, to compete, to build fortresses, not to create harmony or spread love within their walls. And some simply cannot survive this extraordinary pressure, the isolation, the bravado that doesn’t really belong to them.
I wish that we encouraged men to share their feelings, without judging them for being vulnerable or weak. I wish we assured men that we would love them and remain physically attracted to them when they cry, feel lost, confused, or scared or when they don’t make much money. Instead, when a man shows vulnerability and softness, women typically and quietly lose their respect and physical attraction to them. Women seem to want it all: a sensitive man who is also strong and powerful, because powerful is sexy and sensitive not so much. The proliferating porn industry reinforces the image of the macho, overpowering, unapologetic, brutal hulk. It is mainly this image that feeds the imagination of generations of young men and women, precluding any chance of sensitivity being perceived as sexy.
Often when men retire and have more time to co-create a home with their partners, their wives end up feeling irritated by their husband’s constant presence and secretly wish them out of the house during the day so that they can reclaim being in charge of the household without any man meddling in domestic affairs.
If we are to dismantle the Bronze Age-old patriarchy, societies need to help men shed the weighty armour of expectations of strength, prosperity, self-sufficiency and stoicism that is so painful to carry! We must bring symmetry to the changing gender roles: empowering women to become equal breadwinners while also inviting men to become equal home-creators and primary caregivers without feeling threatened or being judged as effeminate or dull.
For more on this topic please read this article I co-authored with the brilliant therapist and dear friend Linn Martinsen, where we examine from various perspectives the shadow that the patriarchy has cast over men and women.