Men have no shortage of ghosts and demons in their lives. Like Howard Hughes in The Aviator, many appear confident and in control to their families and the outside world, yet because of unresolved childhood or adolescent traumas they have substantial fear or abandonment issues. Some men admitted to me that they were so sensitive to rejection, they had a latent fear that the women they fell in love with might ultimately turn against them, or simply change and become a stranger. Sometimes this reflected their insecure relationships with their mothers. No matter its source, insecurity is bred in a popular culture where "weeding out" and "moving on" have become more acceptable choices than tolerance, forgiveness, and the hard task of working through problems.
Our fear of abandonment is nothing new. In the Bible, Job, a good man who was afflicted with one stroke of bad fortune after another, felt deserted by God. In The Aviator, because Hughes had a dysfunctional connection to his mother, his descent into madness was fed in part by repeated rejections from women. That men can go mad if they don't find love is not an exaggeration, but losing love may be even more painful. The adage that "it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" would be disputed by a lot of men.
While they rarely admit it, most men do not deal well with pain, emotional or physical. Neurologically, they are simply not equipped in the same way women are. In the film Million Dollar Baby, one of the themes is how the two main characters cope with the pain of isolation and abandonment. The trainer, Frankie, and his protégée boxer, Maggie, gravitate to each other from pasts filled with rejection. The love and respect they find for one another - he becomes her father figure and she becomes his surrogate daughter - are ultimately tested by a tragic accident in the ring. Physical suffering, especially for Maggie, is not easy, but the emotional pain for each of the characters is what is most devastating. "Girlie, tough ain't enough," Frankie says to Maggie at the start of the film, but by the end of the story we know that girlie tough is a lot more formidable than male tough. Maggie can handle her suffering. Her death is noble because she's found her redemption - she knows who she is, and she did what she wanted with her life - while Frankie remains passive and tormented. He may be a Catholic buried in the ritual of suffering, but first and foremost he is a man struggling with his emotions. Frankie blames himself for both causing Maggie's ring accident and not finding a way to save her afterward, a typical male response when life spins out of control: not only must a man be the problem solver, but should he fail, he has violated the male code and now must be saved himself. Seeking redemption, Frankie sends himself into exile, yet there is nothing in the film to suggest he'll ever find it.
When a man fails in his relationship, he too looks for redemption. Initially, out of anger, he may fault his partner for the breakup. But in the end he points a finger at himself. He wonders what he did wrong and what he can do about it. It can be argued that women are less likely to accuse themselves of making a mistake, but when they do, they are more forgiving of themselves, or they seek out friends to support and exonerate them. Otherwise, many women tend to blame men, and why not? It is not difficult to jump on the bandwagon of male- bashing if men are already in the driver's seat. Why are men so passive about accepting blame, and perceive themselves as screwups? Why do they find it so difficult to forgive themselves? Perhaps digging for the reasons is just too complicated. A common scene in movies and books is the repentant male bearing flowers, asking forgiveness of his partner for an argument that was surely his fault. Even if he doesn't believe he was in the wrong, this ritual of atonement is so expected and ingrained in popular culture that not to observe it would only bring more recriminations. Asking forgiveness is the quickest, easiest way to end the conflict and move on. If men are anything, they are practical and expedient.
There may, however, be a very fundamental reason why men beat themselves up. If no one is going to offer support or forgive them (unlike women, men do not usually rally around another man in trouble; instead, they isolate him or, sometimes, like predators, join in the attack), they have to atone by themselves. The more mea culpas, the better. The fact that a man doesn't understand what went wrong in his relationship doesn't mitigate self-blame. If anything, his ignorance only makes him feel more guilty. For a lot of men, any kind of failure is their fault because they are taught from childhood to excel and succeed. Failure is just not part of the male code. When it happens, a man thinks he has somehow let himself down, or let down someone he loves, or believes he has disappointed his childhood caregivers.
Feelings of inferiority were not uncommon in even the most achievement-oriented men I interviewed. I often found that the more they relied on acquisition and displays of material success as proof of their happiness, the deeper were their feelings of inadequacy. Inadequacy, I was told more than once, is what turns achievers into overachievers. Of course, feelings of pain, deprivation, and inferiority also spawn magical creativity. One has only to survey any field of writers and artists to know that from deep internal conflict and a need to assert themselves can come works of inestimable beauty and new perspectives.
No matter the outcome, the need to prove oneself is an aspect of masculinity that usually starts in adolescence. Determined to "become a man," teenagers will often set impossibly high standards for themselves. As they experience the inevitable failures of trying to measure up, they devise intricate, ingenious schemes to be judged a success by their peers, and particularly by girls. Young males learn to be cover-up artists, even con artists, at this hypercompetitive, hypersensitive age. "Winning" a girl over by artifice and deceit is condoned because without a girlfriend many boys feel stigmatized. It's the kind of stigma that sometimes leads to isolation and depression, so lies, or stretching the truth, are easy to rationalize. More than being a sports star or having money or being blessed with good looks, having a girl on his arm can mean the ultimate peer approval for a young man.
Behind his "victory," however, an adolescent often has a nagging feeling that he doesn't really know what he's doing, that he's a fake, and that at any moment his doubts and duplicity will be exposed to the world. Many men carry this fear and self-doubt into their adult lives, their professions, and their relationships, no matter how successful they try to appear. In terms of nurturing, approval, and acceptance, what these men didn't get from their families as boys and adolescents, they often want from their adult partner, or from popular culture. If they can just lose a little more weight, get that promotion, buy that cool car, live in a great neighborhood ... surely their insecurities will melt away. The irony is that our culture, instead of bestowing the unconditional acceptance and approval that men (and women) want, offers instead more judgment, insecurity, criticism, rejection, and false hopes than even the most dysfunctional family could possibly devise.