Men in love

A new book asks hundreds of husbands what they think about the real issues in their marriage -- from porn and housework to adultery.

Published January 30, 2006 12:50PM (EST)

Women like to talk about feelings and relationships; men do not. Be it self-fulfilling prophecy or biological reality, it's an idea that American culture accepts completely. In the course of doing research for his book "VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment," Neil Chethik found the stereotype to be true, but only on the surface. During in-depth interviews with 70 husbands scattered across the country, Chethik discovered that men were indeed hesitant to talk about feelings, yet had plenty of ways of expressing them, if you knew where to look. Affection, for instance, can be found in the meticulous way that Roger Warden makes the bed every morning with an extra blanket spread across his wife's side; in Randall Hutchins' glances at his wife as she dozes in the passenger seat; and in pleasure that Jake Morrison takes in his wife's company as they tear the old wallpaper out of their home.

Hundreds of hours spent with husbands ages 22 to 95 led Chethik to conclude that men get a bad rap when it comes to committed relationships -- that what is often identified as emotional deficiency is simply a different approach, no better or worse than its female counterpart. And after three decades of cultural upheaval in gender relations, Chethik believes we have reached a point where the "male style of loving" can be accommodated without trespassing on the gains of feminism. If men can learn to cuddle, cry and change diapers, women can learn to see the romance in an afternoon spent spackling or watching sports.

Based on a randomized telephone survey of 288 American husbands, plus the 70 face-to-face interviews, "VoiceMale" outlines how men "do marriage" -- not as problem to be fixed but as a practice to be understood. Chethik begins with chapters on the basic phases of courtship and marriage -- from the first spark to the empty nest -- then grapples, one at a time, with the major tensions of a long-term relationship. With the security of anonymity, Chethik's subjects talk frankly about all of it -- from sex and adultery, to money and chores, to in-laws and children. Chethik, for his part, acts as both emcee and editor, allowing the men to speak for themselves and organizing their various accounts into a coherent whole. Through their voices he has created a snapshot of marriage as men know it but rarely discuss it in the outside world.

Chethik is a writer in residence at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Ky., where he lives with his wife and son. He spoke with Salon by phone about the reasons men still want to get married, the influence of feminism on the institution, and the link between housework and good sex.

Tell me a little about your methods. How reliable do you think these interviews and phone surveys are, especially in terms of husbands reporting honestly? They talk about some pretty intimate and sometimes shameful things such as adultery and domestic abuse.

The phone survey was what they call a random digit. The University of Kentucky Survey Research Center called random homes across the country and asked if there was a man there over 18. Almost 50 percent of the 600 or so eligible men agreed to answer the questionnaire. At the end of the survey they would ask the subject if he was willing to allow his name and phone number to be given to me, the writer. Then I contacted those people individually, not all of them, but as close to a representative sampling as possible. I was able to look at their answers from the survey, so when someone said, "I have struck my wife before," I would ask about that when I did the follow-up on the phone or in person. Usually they would talk pretty openly. I am always wondering exactly what's going on behind the answers, but I felt like they were mostly true.

There was a sharp divide in your research and in your interviews between husbands who thought that you always admit to everything, including affairs, and those who thought that it wasn't always necessary. Did you come down on one side or the other?

I think it is very difficult for anyone to hide that from a spouse. And for the most part I think it's got to be brought into the open or it will become a barrier. I did talk with men who had never told their wives. My overall sense is that they thought their wives knew and that there was a tacit agreement that it was OK to not talk about it because it was over and the issues that had to do with the relationship had been worked out, so why hear the nitty-gritty of what he did when you weren't looking?

You also report that four in 10 husbands say that they use porn, and most of them say that they masturbate. Were they open about that with their wives? Were their wives OK with it?

The responses were all over the map. Sometimes the woman was equally interested in using pornography as part of their sex life. Other times women were appalled that their husbands did and the husband had to reconsider. For most husbands it was kind of a respite or a refuge, somewhere to be alone and have his own sex life. That doesn't mean he's not having a good sex life with his wife. Maybe he likes to have sex twice as often, so rather than appeal to her and be rejected or appeal to her and have her do it when she doesn't want to, why not do something nice and easy?

You also find a link between housework and sex, that there was a correlation between the wife's satisfaction with the division of labor and the husband's satisfaction with their sex life. Can you describe that in a little more detail?

That's a correlation, but it's not causal. So the anecdotal part of my research involved asking men, What's the deal here, have you seen a link? And a good number of men had seen it. There were more men who reported that the sequence was, he does housework, then she has sex -- as opposed to, she has sex with him and then he does housework.

You quote one husband who says, "My wife told me that she's never more turned on to me then when I'm doing housework, and she's proven it again and again." In a cynical view it looked like a quid pro quo, but also it seemed sort of sweet.

Well, and that's exactly what that man you just quoted says a little later. At first he thought she was kind of holding out on him. His initial reaction was to resist that because it did feel like a quid pro quo. But then he realized that it was more about her feeling appreciated. It seems that women who feel their partners are paying attention to them, and to the household, are more appreciative and less tired.

You say you noticed in your interviews that men tend to have a hard time with the word "feelings." Why is it mystifying?

Men have a tendency to compartmentalize. There are some evolutionary psychologists who say that for most of history, men have been at the outskirts of communities looking out, side by side with other men, while the women have been closer to the center. So there may be a tendency for men to be more action oriented and more spatial. They kind of feel a person next to them, but don't necessarily have to be face to face with them. So I think maybe some of that came through our biology, and then our culture reinforces the message that boys don't cry, that men have to hold back emotion and present a stoic front.

It's a big thing in sports, for instance, to be able to control emotion. I remember one of the men I spoke with for my previous book, "Father Loss," told me that when he heard his father had died, he wanted to cry, that he could feel it building in his throat, but he swallowed it. And later, when he wanted to cry for his father, he couldn't get it back.

So this combination of biology and socialization leaves men backpedaling a little bit. And when a woman, on the other hand, has been well-educated about feelings, has had a lot of personal, face-to-face conversations with other girls and women, then we're particularly unsteady as men because we're afraid we're not going to be able to be an equal and that we may get hurt.

That was one of the main themes of your book -- that there is male style of loving and a female style, and that over the last 50 years the male approach has been disparaged or devalued, at least in the context of home life and marriage. What is the male style and why is has it been devalued?

The male style is less oriented towards words and more towards action, less oriented towards face-to-face interactions than side by side. In my own marriage, for instance, there was a long time when my wife was quite disturbed that I wasn't affectionate toward her in the ways she wanted me to be. She wanted more touching, kissing and saying "I love you." Those things didn't come easily to me. But over the course of 15 years she's come to recognize that when I leave her a note or spend hours working to make our backyard a refuge, that's my way of doing those things. At the same time, I've recognized that she needs those direct expressions and I've made an effort to meet her halfway.

As for why the male style is devalued, I think there was a long time when male voices did rule, so to speak. And so as women's voices became clearer and more insistent, men kind of backed away. Thirty-plus years ago, the home and family relationships tended to be the one domain where women had authority as far as who knew better how things should be done. And I think they were reluctant to let it go until they gained more power in places outside the home. So in a sense, we're at the point now where men can speak more. But what has happened, I think, is that our popular culture has turned men into goofy incompetents.

Like Homer Simpson?

Yes, Homer and so many others. I watch some of these TV commercials where the man is like, "Oh, I don't know how to change a diaper," or, "Oh, I don't know what I'm doing here with the laundry." We've become laughingstocks, but I didn't see that in the study. I saw men who weren't laughingstocks, who were doing a lot around their homes, who were involved in their children's lives.

But isn't this image of the bumbling man projected largely by men? I mean isn't it convenient for us, since it sets low expectations?

Yes, I think men are torn. We want to perpetuate it because it's easy and safe, but in my experience there's a greater desire to change now than ever before. A lot of men in my generation and older, men in their 40s and 50s, felt disconnected from their own fathers and they want to be more available to their own children.

Were you at all worried that there's a danger in saying, Wait a minute, why are we devaluing this male style? -- that you might be cutting into the gains that feminism has made?

I came of age in the late '60s and early '70s, which is right at the time that things were changing radically, and I never felt feminism to be a threat. Now, I know there were some angry people, angry women in particular, who I thought were sometimes wielding a broad brush by saying that you can't trust any man, that all men want is sex, or that they are uniformly dangerous and abusive, but I never really felt angered by that because I believed that, in the bigger picture, both men and women stood to gain from the larger feminist goals of equality and removing biology as destiny.

I've seen that in my own life. I married somebody who has her own career, who's very good at what she does. She also supports me at times as I'm chasing my dream of writing books. So my philosophy is that we can be pro-female and pro-male and pro-relationship if we are reasonable with each other. And I sense that women, even very strongly feminist-oriented women, are open to hearing what men have to say.

Still, were you at all afraid of perpetuating the stereotype that men are intellectual and women are emotional or that men are doers and women are talkers?

I can see that it might be misinterpreted that way, sure. But I look at it more as a masculine style. In the relationships I've seen, there's maybe one out of four where the female is more oriented to the masculine style, so I hope it doesn't push stereotypes. I think if people read the book, they will see the diversity of men's perspectives, and we wouldn't be stereotyping them into this one way. But I use that idea because there's a tendency in certain directions for men -- toward action over words, or side by side over face to face. And if we can see it not as a bad way of loving but a different way of loving, then everybody may benefit.

You also write that the cultural upheaval of the '60s made marriage unnecessary in a sense, since men could live with, sleep with and raise children with a woman without getting married. Yet you found that men still want to get married anyway. Do you think it's become pretty much a matter of choice? Aren't there still some serious pressures to get married?

I don't know if I would say that marriage is culturally unnecessary, but it's not demanded by the culture the way it used to be. There's a somewhat lower marriage rate than there was 30 or 40 years ago because the options have grown with more women being financially responsible for themselves. But I do think that the idea of marriage as a core to a family, as two loving partners who teach love by being in it, is a human need.

There were many examples of self-denial in the book, of husbands sacrificing things that they wanted, out of a commitment to the marriage. One of the husbands you talked to was in a sexless marriage and said he had no intention of leaving. He said. "You have to accept the things you can't control." That struck me as an unfashionable sentiment. In popular culture anyway, the message seems to be that a lack of passion destroys a relationship rather than helping to maintain it. Yet, in your book, self-denial seemed to be both a constructive and a destructive force.

For those who married before 1965, I think self-denial was an expectation of marriage and family. There was a certain point where you put childish things away and you "became a man." Today, we don't deny ourselves as much; self-denial has become less emphasized. But this sometimes wreaks havoc on our relationships. We tell ourselves that it's OK to sleep with somebody else. And when we do, we cause damage that we weren't expecting. The culture is lurching forward and backward when it comes to the meaning of marriage and family.

Do you think on balance there's been more progress?

I do. I think the biggest progress is having women as equals in marriages. When that happened, it created the possibility of really deep, important relationships and, at the same time, made it possible to try work out the differences that are inevitable in every relationship. However, I think we've been in upheaval over the last 30 years or so since this happened. We had a spike in divorce rates, which has leveled off and possibly even dropped a little bit in the last 15 years, depending on what kind of data you use. I think that's because we're beginning to understand a little bit more how to negotiate long-term relationships without the old rules that the man has to work and the woman stays home, and if he doesn't, he's not a real man and so on.

You write that husbands "recognize that marriage takes work and work pays off." And you quote a husband who says, "Marriage is a job, a hard job and a low-paying one." Are you familiar with the book "Against Love," by Laura Kipnis? Her critique of marriage is essentially that it's too much work and not enough play.

I think there is some truth to that. I think, actually, that men are of the opinion that we should have more fun. When I talked with them I heard, "I wish my wife would want to talk less about the relationship and just enjoy it." Men seem to weigh four or five good things against two or three bad things in a relationship, and that means good enough. A woman might say, "Look, we've five good things and three not-so-good things. Let's try to work on them and really make this the best it could possibly be." There's a gender gap there that we need to bridge.

By Ira Boudway

Ira Boudway is a freelance writer in Brooklyn and frequent contributor to Salon.

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