Normative Masculine Marital Despair

Normative Masculine Marital Despair is the fancy name I have given a thing that I could probably do a research project on with 12 participants and then call it a thing-conclusively-proven-by-science, then trademark it and write a book and go on a speaking tour, but for now I will content myself with a humble blog post.

Never pick up a cat by the scruff of the neck

Many men, myself included, have moments where we feel that we are incapable of pleasing our female partner. Usually this happens when our female partner is telling us we have screwed up in some way. Sometimes we think, “Okay, fair enough, I blew it.” Sometimes we think “Hm. I don’t think that’s accurate. I think I did pretty well.” Neither of those is NMMD. NMMD is when we say “I will never be able to satisfy her. I will always get it wrong.” Women may have a similar feeling, but in my experience with couples most women may fear being a not being happy or that their partner will not be happy but it seems to me that is slightly different than fearing that you do not have the capacity to ever satisfy your wife or female partner. I have rarely seen a woman react in the ways that many men I have seen.

Margaret Atwood said “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them." Appearing incapable before one’s female partner is a powerful fear that subjectively holds some of the same terror of helplessness as the female fear of being overpowered and killed by a man. We can view this as silly and dismiss it or as so powerful that men should never have to experience it but I prefer to take it seriously as an element that may drive a lot of conflict in opposite-sex couples, but that does not have to.

This video may be a upsetting but it is a good illustration of the mammalian freeze reflex “freeze”

Lots of men take a deep breath, know that the feeling will pass and get on with their day. Some men get aggressive when they feel this way, some men seek to get away. Some men freeze. I once heard the feeling of hopelessly failing at marriage described as similar to a cat being “scruffed.” Not being a cat owner I had to go check it out and when I saw it I thought it was actually a pretty powerful analogy. Stephen Porges and others have theorized that extreme stress or the memory of extreme stress particularly when there is an element of helplessness or immobility can result in “dorsal vagal shutdown”, that is collapse. This is described as the same reflex that makes the springbok that gets jumped by a lion go limp when it senses that it cannot escape. Many men talk about feeling trapped, stuck or unable to breathe when they talk about this feeling.

When these responses have a lot of secondary gain, for example if a female partner backs off from asserting that something isn’t working for them, NMMD and the response may become more likely to recur. The feeling may also reactivate other, earlier traumatic experiences of being powerless from earlier in a man’s life which can amp up the emotional intensity of the response.

The reactions that can come out of this feeling can fuel a lot of crappy stuff in a relationship, as I think is probably pretty evident, particularly if they happen regularly. But feelings are always legit, worth noticing and breathing through. By calling it Normative I hope people will understand that it is common, both to take the shame out of feeling it and also to help men realize that while lots of other men feel this way, other men have figured out how to manage their responses to it in ways that don’t blow up their relationships.