6 Nov 2014

The crazy cat man: single men suffer too

Crazy cat lady. Spinster. Old maid.

Player. Bachelor. Ladies' man.

The difference in the way single men and single women are described is pretty well-established. Although some of the more archaic terms seem to be thankfully dying out, the thinking behind them still seems to be going strong. Single women generally don't clutch their chests and say "Oh God, please don't let me end up an old maid!", but you'll still find plenty of them making self-deprecating jokes about ending up a crazy cat lady, because the idea of an old unmarried woman can never be synonymous with dignity or sanity. We'll save the debate about whether a life spent doing what you want while subject to the adoration of numerous felines is actually infinitely preferable to an existence spent catering to a partner or children for another time, but the point is, female singledom is pitied. Male singledom is not.
And yet, as Zoe Heller wrote in her scathingly well-observed novel Notes on a Scandal, "It is bizarre, really, that spinsterhood is considered the uniquely pathetic destiny, when bachelors are the ones so fatally ill-equipped for a spouseless life." Yes, it's a massive generalisation to say that men are actually the ones who suffer more from being single, but it's something of a necessary observation to make if only to address the deep imbalance at work here: because there is no male equivalent of the crazy cat lady, no dotty dog man, no guy supposedly weeping into his Stella, gorging on Doritos and watching Die Hard every night to make himself feel better about singledom. A few Nick Hornby books and films aside, there is not an entire industry devoted to telling men that what they need is a wife, a baby and some nice shoes to make them complete. There is no implied threat in every beauty product aggressively sold to men that if they don't buy it and keep themselves appealing to the opposite sex, they will die lonely and cold in a garrett room in Skegness, smelling of wee.
And yet, this is probably the narrative that is actually more likely to become a reality. Men's rights activists love to bitch at feminists about all of the problems that men are more likely to suffer from than women, as if a) feminists caused these and b) we are not already engaged in a passionate fight against the patriarchy that is responsible for these problems. But yes, OK, MRAs, let's look at the things men are more likely to do: Spend time in prison. Have an alcohol abuse problem. End up homeless. Serve in the armed forces (and therefore be at increased risk of subsequent mental health problems, substance abuse and homelessness). Commit suicide.
Writing profiles for a charity that helps men who've lost jobs, homes and livelihoods, it occurred to me how many times the kind of problems described above happened after a relationship break-up (for the purposes of this piece, I'm talking about heterosexual relationships). Sometimes the cause and effect wasn't clearcut or linear (an existing substance abuse problem may well become worse after a breakup), but the outcome was the same - the loss of a steadying influence in the form of a partner always saw the individual go further down a path of self-destruction. The charities' beneficiaries were all male, but I didn't find that horrifically sexist - given limited resources and the fact that men were by far the majority of those who fall through the net in these ways, it made sense. But it made me think - why are single women pitied so relentlessly when single men are far more at the risk of such serious problems?
I do think cultural narratives have a lot to do with it. As I mentioned in my previous post on the lack of credibility afforded to women (like myself) who aren't interested in long term relationships, the dominant myth persists - that of commitment-hungry, baby-crazy women who, at the age of 30, start aggressively trying to lock down any creature with testicles, combined with the perma-adolescent, commitment-phobic, perpetual lad trying to avoid such a woman while still trying to get laid. Men who like being in long-term relationships and want to get married are erased from this picture. So are women who prefer casual relationships, or no relationships, or same-sex relationships, or who don't want kids. Women are portrayed as the needy, grabby, grasping ones. Men are portrayed as the ones who eventually "give in" to this tyrannical female demand for commitment. Yet, as Time magazine reported, despite the stereotype that "men are dragged to the altar, fingernails clawing the floor of the church aisle into splinters until the very last step", a survey of men showed them to actually be more pro-marriage (even divorced ones!) and more romantic than their female counterparts. Why might this be? Well, at least one study has found that: "In addition to being happier and healthier than bachelors, married men earn more money and live longer. And men can reap such benefits even from mediocre marriages, while for women, the benefits of marriage are more strongly linked to marital quality." 
In a lot of ways, I really wouldn't be surprised that marriage benefits men more than women, especially in terms of earnings and health. A married man is attractive to employers because he's a family man, seen as respectable, kind, trustworthy. A married woman is a flight risk, a woman likely to cost you big bucks when she inevitably decides to have children and go on maternity leave, and will then be an unreliable employee always running off to look after sick kids or leave early to go to school plays. (Think I'm stereotyping? Just look at what happens to men's salaries after they have children, compared to women's, although bear in mind this is white men only). And as for physical and mental health, well - while there are some marriages that I'm sure drive men to drink and despair, I'd like to think that most partnerships mean having someone to look out for you, to kick you up the bum to go to the doctor, to tell you you're working too hard, to give you someone to turn to rather than binge-drinking alone. The plentiful evidence of the paths of self-destruction that newly single and vulnerable men go on certainly imply that a lot of men are safer in relationships.
Yet it's not talked about. Why? Why is the myth of female dependence on men still so aggressively pushed, when it's men who may actually benefit more from the safety net of another person to lean on? Would it make those who like to comfort themselves with the stereotype of the playa and the sad spinster feel too vulnerable to admit that he could be only a paycheque away from a park bench himself? MRAs can't have it both ways (not that they'll care, of course, because logic has never been their strong point) - they can't demand that Those Mean Feminists stop focusing on women's problems and start acknowledging male vulnerability, while at the same time pushing the theory that men are superior to us unreliable, hysterical, hormonal bitches. You want us to start thinking about male homelessness, male alcoholism, male mental illness? By all means. But first I'll need you to see me an old maid and raise me a crazy cat lady. I'll need you to admit that men can be lonely, vulnerable, isolated and struggling - and that maybe, whisper it, they're more likely to be so without a female partner. And I'd like to hear that admitted not, amazingly, because I'm trying to institute a matriarchy or claim that women are men's saviours (UGH), but rather that I'd just like to see the social script flipped once in a while.


erica jacobi reynolds said...

Well said and very true.

Singlegirl said...

Excellent piece, very well said.

twigletmchugh said...

But have we forgotten about our "confirmed batchelor" friends and our "comic-book-guy" acquaintances still living in their parent's basements and spending all their earnings on first edition Batman comics?

We certainly do have tropes and stereotypes for single men, and we are conditioned to feel sorry for their single status too.

But certainly a man striding confidently through his single (no room for feminine distractions ) life is certainly better tolerated than his female counterpart.