You will often see me write that it is, if not inevitable at least likely, that a young man will break a few hearts along his way, especially at the start of his partnering years. The reasons here apply in later years too, though to a significantly lesser extent.
Let me also point out that I’m generally a pretty consistent supporter of relationships. I’ve counselled couples and been involved with both men and women individually trying to make their marriages or cohabitations work better. I don’t recommend breaking up lightly: I’m pro-love if anything.
In a meta-analysis of 60 years of attachment theory done in the 1990s, researchers were surprised at just how important the “need to belong” factored in life satisfaction. They discovered belonging governed the whole of the emotional system. When we connect with each other, our emotions rise; when we disconnect, those emotions fall.
As anyone with even a modicum of understanding realizes we operate much better when we feel positive and empowered. That largely results from how well we manage the relationships around us.
That said, the most important relationship a man ever has in his life is his first, the one he has with his mother. All love is essentially maternal in nature. The nervous system governing flight, flight, and freeze are present in the developing fetus in the first few weeks of life.
A child’s ability to connect with others begins in the third trimester—presumably when the baby starts to hear its mother’s voice—and continues when the babe is born and responds to “motherese” as she coos and cuddles and talks to the newborn. “How’s my little man today, are you hungry, do you need your diaper changed little bear?” she might say…
It is mother who teaches love from her bosom and this love then takes form in various contexts as a person grows in belonging amongst others throughout life.
Mom’s love is also critical to any child’s survival, and if a child makes it to age three or four, it is usually because of its mother. Dads are important too, but mom’s care trumps dad. She is the creator of life, while dad’s best role is as a defender of life.
Back in the late 1930s and into the mid-1940s, a few hundred men from Harvard were enlisted into the Grant study, to investigate what makes a “Harvard Man.” Later a few hundred more inner-city Boston men under the Gluek study were added and the two combined into the Grant-Gluek study.
The men underwent extensive questionnaires and testing including interviews with family and doctors and continued every two years for life. There is a small handful of these men alive presently.
An interesting finding is that warm maternal relationship meant greater earnings as an adult, as much as 90K more annually. Good paternal relationships meant less adult anxiety and greater fun on holidays.
Poor relations with mom as a child was associated with a four-fold increase in dementia end of life. (8% versus 32% if I remember correctly). Some of you will have witnessed dementia. It ain’t pretty.
I had occasion to ask my dad about his life once I rekindled our friendship in my late thirties and beyond and he told me both his parents broke his heart. I sat on his bed beside him for four hours as he death rattled before watching him die… of dementia.
I often tell how we evolved to band together to take advantage of each other’s strengths and to shore up each other’s weaknesses. I point out nature intended for men and women to raise children together.
In days of yore, we used to live where we worked. Not so since the Victorian era. What has weakened men over the last 150 years is that fathers leave the home to go to work. The usual apprenticeship under a complement of men on the family farm or family trade has now largely been lost.
Add to this is that we have just survived a century filled with calamity. WW1 saw about 20 million deaths. Another 21 million from the Spanish Flu which followed the war. The stock market crash of 1929 set the world GDP back by a quarter or more.
Total death count for WW2 is another 70 million. Add to that Stalin killed millions, as did Mao in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia. Vietnam killed millions more. The nuclear war détente stretched for half a century into the 1990s providing even more uncertainty.
The good news is technological advances, especially in medicine, double life expectancy over the last two hundred years. Starvation has decreased by 96% over my lifetime.
The great rebuilding of the world during the 20th century put men to work, and capitalism prevailed. Unfortunately, this leaves boys almost exclusively raised by the feminine caregiving around him. Not always, but predominantly, a boy’s adult influences are female.
In 1990, the poet John Bly wrote an important book for men called Iron John, in which he identified this issue and encouraged men to break free from maternal forces. Iron John is a fable where the young man is encouraged to steal the keys to the castle out from under his mother’s pillow if necessary, and fuck off on great adventures out on his own. Every man should read it.
Which brings me back to break ups.
Often when a man summons the courage to leave a woman, it is an exercise in leaving the maternal. We are trained as youngsters to be beholden to the feminine. We put women on pedestals starting with the all-powerful mother, and rarely have an adequate check to her power in masculine form.
Having the balls to leave a woman, despite the particulars, is often a calling for the man to steal the keys and leave the castle. It is an opportunity for self-reliant renewal.
If no children figure in his circumstances, he does well to realize he is not responsible for her feelings, only responsible to her as a fellow human being.
He must first honour his destiny, protecting his mission and journey, before he can defend others.
Life is suffering, unavoidably heartbreaking even.
Wherever possible, choose your pain.
Powerful, true and free…
CHRISTOPHER K WALLACE