October 14, 2012
Seen it all ... Dare Jennings, at his
Camperdown shop Deus Ex Machina, believes many married men are being
held back. Photo: Janie Barrett
discontent comes from Alex, a thirtysomething married executive, one of
four Aussie males romping their way through Certified Male, the blokey comedy playing around Australia.
rarely questions the 65-plus working hours he puts in each week. He's
always agreed with his wife, Sam, that he has to work long hours so she
can be there for the kids. Besides, she's got her charity work and, as
she says, there's no point in her taking up a job just for the sake of
earning money, is there? All her friends at book club totally agree.
during the days Alex spends with his mates on a work retreat, his
alienation in his marriage starts to surface. ''I get into bed next to
my wife and it's the loneliest place on earth.'' He determines he's
going to have it out with her.
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
time with the kids, too. Perhaps you could take up some part-time
AdvertisementThe response is a solid jab to the head. His long list of concerns
don't get a look in. ''What do you mean I don't appreciate you?'' He
wails as her punches hit home. He's reduced to pitiful bleating: ''Of
course, you're a good mum.'' (THUMP.) ''I love it when your parents stay
the weekend.'' (WALLOP.) ''I was not looking at your cellulite.'' (BASH
- and he's knocked out.)
Welcome to the world of modern marriage -
a world where men's needs, wants and desires don't always feature
highly on the agenda. Marriage has changed dramatically over the past 40
years since the sociologist Jessie Bernard wrote her influential book, The Future of Marriage. There was his marriage, which offered power and satisfaction, while her marriage
brought stress, dissatisfaction and loss of self. Bernard's depiction
of women suffering through marriage as a kind of psychological torture
drew on Betty Friedan's discovery, a decade earlier, of ''the problem
that had no name'' - wives' unvoiced frustrations with their confined,
Marriage was good for men and bad for women, Bernard concluded.
has that all changed? Women's lives and marriages have been
transformed, but now many men are wondering if they may be the ones
being offered a dud deal. It's rare that they complain openly about
their lot but, beneath the surface, there's an undercurrent of
discontent, suggests the men's health expert Steve Carroll.
has spent more than 30 years travelling around rural Australia talking
to groups of men about their health - conversations that often end up
focusing on relationships. He reports of men bewildered to find
themselves in marriages where they never get it right, or get any thanks
for what they do. A typical lament to Carroll: ''Why in the f--- am I
doing all this when I don't get given the time of day?''
mentions a 35-year-old agricultural worker in Hay, who felt after he
married ''the noose got tightened'' and he was no longer given support
or respect. Rather, he was just there to ''do the heavy lifting''. A
42-year-old miner from Broken Hill said his wife had ''all the important
stuff and my stuff is just not important''. Carroll's conversations
reveal a mood of resignation and despondency in many married men: ''They
can't understand why they are always in trouble with their wives.''
are noticing that men's stuff doesn't make it on to the marital agenda.
Spend any Saturday at Deus Ex Machina in Camperdown and there'll be a
bunch of men wandering around, gazing at the ultimate male excitement
machine - a custom-made motorcycle. The shop's owner Dare Jennings - a
co-founder of Mambo - regularly talks to men who yearn to lash out on
one of his dream bikes. They are mainly married men, he says, many
clearly well-heeled. Yet as much as they are tempted to indulge
themselves, they rarely take that step without checking with the wife.
Flushed with enthusiasm, they rush home - and rarely come back.
argues that men's dreams are clearly not a high priority in modern
marriage. ''The wives play the safety card, arguing the bikes are just
too dangerous.'' But he adds: ''I've had women joke to me that they've
got the men under control and don't want trouble. These days married men
are on an incredibly short leash.''
Think about men's leisure
time - or what's left of it. If men ever dare to reflect wistfully on
past glory days of patriarchy, high on the list would be the freedom
enjoyed by the man of the house to come and go as he pleased. Gone are
the days when married men were free to drop off at the pub for a beer or
three on the way home from work. Or spend most weekends playing golf,
or at the dogs, or tinkering under a car. Men's discretionary leisure
time has been shrinking for years, the New England University sociology
professor, Michael Bittman, says. He discovered it fell by more than two
hours a week between 1974 and 1987. Bureau of Statistics time-use data
shows a further drop between 1992 and 2006 of about 45 minutes, with the
latest figures showing men average 37 minutes free time a day compared
with 30 minutes for women.
Men rarely talk about their leisure, or
lack of it. But is that because they spend their lives on the back foot
cowering from constant complaints about their failure to share the
domestic load, the burden of childcare and housework carried largely by
women? Women's dual shift - doing most of the domestic work while many
also have paid jobs - is very real. But it is odd that public discussion
of this issue, including regular reports from the ABS, somehow fails to
mention that there is no difference in the total work load of men and
women, if you add paid and unpaid work.
Men are doing more hours
of paid work than ever - two to three hours a week more than in 1985,
according to a National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling report.
Housework hours for men in dual full-time-earner families increased
from 14 hours in 1986 to 17 hours in 2005, according to recent research
by Belinda Hewitt and colleagues from the University of Queensland.
notice they don't get much kudos for all that they do,'' says Steve
Carroll, pointing out many men are doing it tough, spending years doing
jobs they don't like, facing job uncertainty, seeing little of their
children. ''When they were growing up, dad's contribution was
acknowledged and respected. You know, 'Dad's home! Come on, kids, don't
bother your dad. He needs some peace.' ''
Comedy is one of the few
outlets for men's disappointment about their changing deal in marriage.
Witness the ABC's recent comedy series Agony Uncles, with
constant jokes about men in trouble with their partners for missing the
target in late-night trips to the loo, for not cutting their nose hair,
for not doing enough housework, and so on. And the risks of getting it
wrong, ending up divorced and losing a house. There are endless jokes
about men's post-divorce finances, like the one about the man who goes
to buy a Barbie doll for his daughter. He's offered a range of different
dolls, all selling for $19.95, except for Divorced Barbie. This one
comes with the hefty price tag of $265. He asks why? ''Well, it's like
this: Divorced Barbie comes with Ken's house, Ken's car, Ken's boat,
Ken's furniture …''
The truth, of course, is more complex.
Well-heeled men often recover financially from divorce more easily than
their ex-wives and some evade all responsibilities. But a recent
Australian Institute of Family Studies report found a quarter of older
divorced men who remain single experience financial hardship.
are also aware of the legacy of decades of legal decisions favouring
mothers in custody battles. They've witnessed the public agony of men
denied a proper role in their children's lives. Singer-activist Sir Bob
Geldof - in an essay in Andrew Bainham's book Children and Their Families -
wrote about being offered ''access'' to his children: ''A huge
emptiness would well in my stomach, a deep loathing for those who would
deign to tell me that they would ALLOW ACCESS to my children - those I
loved above all, those I created, those who give meaning to everything I
did, those that were the very best of us two and the absolute physical
manifestation of our once binding love.
''Who the f--- are they that they should ALLOW anything? REASONABLE CONTACT! Is the law mad? Am I a criminal?''
of males have watched friends, relatives and perhaps their own fathers
lose contact with children through divorce. Almost 50,000 Australian
children are affected by their parents' divorce each year and almost a
quarter of people aged 18 to 34 experienced such a break-up as children.
Half of all children not living with their divorced fathers see them
less than once a fortnight, a quarter have contact once a year or less
(ABS, Australian Social Trends March 2012). So huge numbers of
young men have grown up seeing their fathers alienated from their
families. These young men know what they have to lose if a marriage goes
wrong. And in two-thirds of divorces it is the mother's decision to
Despite new freedoms and choices available to women, their
happiness - their subjective well-being - has actually declined over the
past 35 years, according to research by the economics professor Betsey
Stevenson and colleagues at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. Women
have become less happy with their marriages over that time, perhaps due
to the gap between their expectations and reality. For men this is a
disaster. Think of that truism: happy wife, happy life. The reverse is
even more true.
''Men have a very real fear of being turfed out or
becoming redundant,'' says the clinical psychologist Owen Pershouse,
who has spent more than 15 years helping men through separation and
divorce through his Brisbane group MENDS. ''Men know they often pay a
huge price if a marriage ends and can be held hostage by women who are
usually the ones to pull the plug.'' Pershouse notes that many men only
question the costs of marriage after it is all over.
men are now very publicly questioning whether the risks of marriage
work mainly in women's favour, which may be why we so often hear
complaints about men's reluctance to commit. There's been a huge drop in
the crude marriage rate (the number of marriages per 1000 people) over
the past five decades, dropping from 9.3 in 1970 to 5.5 in 2010. Yet
this is mainly due to more couples in de facto relationships. There is
overseas research suggesting cohabiting men are more likely to resist
the shift to marriage.
They may have good reason. For a start,
marriage may well mean less sex. There's no Australian research on the
subject but a 1992 US national sex survey shows co-habiting men have
more sex than husbands do.
That really matters to men. ''Men want
sex more often than women at the start of a relationship, in the middle
and after many years,'' says Florida State University psychology
professor Roy F. Baumeister, an expert on sexual drive.
been the most extraordinary shift from the 1950s, when sex was among a
wife's marital duties, to the current situation where so many wives feel
entitled to shut up shop if they are not interested. The men taking
part in my recent research projects (published in The Sex Diaries and What Men Want)
poured their hearts out about their misery at finding themselves in
marriages where they had to grovel for sexual favours. One man went for
19 years with no sex in his marriage. His wife announced when his second
child was born that their sex life was over.
There's a sad letter
on my website forum, from a 40-year-old father of two who wonders if he
should leave a marriage in which he enjoys very little sex. He has
averaged 5.6 times a year for the previous decade. Oh yes, he's been
counting! But he is also unhappy that he receives little affection or
intimacy of any kind. ''Should I stay or should I go?'' he asked. He
received 163 responses, mainly from men. They debated the cost of losing
his family versus spending the rest of his life starved for physical
love. Most argued he should leave.
But these murmurs of discontent
are largely hidden from public view, as was the case back in the 1960s
when Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique about ''the
problem which has no name''. Friedan gave voice to women's frustrations
about the limitations imposed on them by the wifely role and decades of
consciousness-raising followed. Now women grasp every opportunity to
state their case, loud and clear.
Yet most men still lead
unexamined lives. Their ''problem which has no name'' - marital
discontent - remains unexplored. But one day that too will change.