Alberta, Canada, 2005. Photo by Alex Webb/Magnum


A manly divorce

Straight men rarely write about the end of their marriages. Our enduring ideas about gender explain this silence

by Joshua Coleman + BIO

Alberta, Canada, 2005. Photo by Alex Webb/Magnum

The past few decades witnessed a flood of personal essays and memoirs about divorce. Perhaps the most successful was Eat, Pray, Love (2006) by Elizabeth Gilbert, which has sold more than 12 million copies to date, and became a movie starring Julia Roberts. In her breakaway bestseller, Gilbert describes her ‘devastating, interminable divorce’ and the search for fulfilment that followed it. The book’s popularity is not only due to Gilbert being a gifted writer, but also her ability to capture a cultural perception of marriage as an institution often antithetical to personal growth and self-development. What’s more, the book is just one of dozens tracking the same territory: the freedom and self-exploration that comes of departing from past strictures and setting a new course.

While men have written their fair share of marital advice books, only a handful of marriage memoirs have been written by them. Which prompts the question: aren’t men also happy to leave bad marriages, work their way through their feelings of guilt, and ultimately find a better life? And, if they are, why aren’t more saying so? Are such proclamations considered to be the domain only of women, rendering such ideation too feminine for men to acknowledge? Does it look too narcissistic for men to also have a ‘What I learned from my divorce’ narrative? Or are men just not that interested in the topic – or, for that matter, are they not liberated by divorce itself?

In the context of the traditional, heterosexual marriage, it’s important to acknowledge that women’s freedom to negotiate a relationship more in line with their ideals, or to leave altogether, is relatively recent. It is also important to acknowledge that this freedom has not been universally achieved, either globally or in the United States. From that perspective, the archetypal hero’s journey narrated by Gilbert and other female memoirists is likely born – among other aspirations – from a desire to push back against historically oppressive forces. As the historian Stephanie Coontz argued in her opinion piece ‘How to Make Your Marriage Gayer’ (2020) for The New York Times:

Right up to the 1970s, when an American woman married, her husband took charge of her sexuality and most of her finances, property and behaviour … During the 1970s and 1980s, wives won legal equality with husbands and courts redefined the responsibilities of spouses in gender-neutral terms. By 1994 a majority of Americans repudiated the necessity for gender-specialised roles in marriage, saying instead that shared responsibilities should be the ideal.

However, legal equality has not necessarily made marriage a more equitable place for women. As Coontz notes, while the model of shared responsibility has become the ideal in principle, it remains far from the reality in practice. Today’s women – at least those in heterosexual marriages – do twice the amount of childcare and almost twice as much housework compared with men, including women in full-time employment. Men after marriage do less housework than when they were single, while women do even more, especially when they become mothers.

Women are also more likely to carry the emotional burdens of their extended network of family and friends – to keep track of birthdays, gifts and crises – and to respond with cards, calls and outreach; a task sociologists refer to as ‘kinkeeping’. While this orientation has the potential to make for deep and lasting relationships with friends or family, the sociologists Ronald Kessler and Jane Mcleod observe that this effort takes an emotional toll when it involves helping loved ones manage stressful life events. In those cases, what they call a ‘cost of caring’ leaves women more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and burnout, a reality from which men are often insulated.

While men arguably love their wives as much as their wives love them (and, in some cases, even more), their identities are less oriented around care work per se, and more commonly toward achievement, self-direction and status, as a survey of men and women in 68 different countries confirmed in 2009. However, the stereotype of the self-centred and clueless male paints a pale portrait of what many men experience today. It also ignores the cost paid by men pressured to prize status and invulnerability over connection. For example, men account for almost three out of four ‘deaths of despair’, as the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton term it, either from a suicide or overdose, especially those down the economic ladder. Many men feel rudderless today since the role of provider and protector is no longer a pathway to identity. Men who lack the ability to provide, protect or significantly contribute to the family are psychologically the least likely to be able to offer their wives the kind of vulnerable, emotional and collaborative support that predicts today’s stable marriages. They’re more likely to retreat into anger, addiction and internet use, a dark triad of traits stemming from a preoccupation with self-reliance. Unfortunately, being vulnerable, talking about their feelings and asking their wives about theirs is the last thing most men want to do when they’re feeling small or defective. And they certainly don’t want to write about it.

It doesn’t help that so little understanding for men can be found across the political spectrum. As the economist Richard Reeves writes in Of Boys and Men (2022), progressives are quick to label problematic male behaviours in marriage as evidence of toxic masculinity and propose that men should be rehabilitated to learn how to communicate their feelings and needs in more socially adaptive ways. The populist Right, on the other hand, weaponises men’s dislocation and offers false promises such as removing women from the workforce or re-establishing men’s seat at the head of the family economic table – all the while failing to endorse family or work policies that would aid working men, women and their families.

It’s important to ask: ‘Who’s leaving whom?’ Maybe men also don’t write about their divorces because of the shame that attends their wives’ leaving them, since, in the US at least, most of the time men are the ones getting left. Because men are more conflicted about showing weakness or vulnerability, it’s not difficult to see why men aren’t lining up to reveal themselves in this way, or finding a narrative of growth or transformation. In addition, men can face worse health effects than women after divorce or widowhood. They’re more likely to die or become ill if they don’t remarry or re-couple. Since husbands are the primary beneficiaries of their wives’ behaviours – such as scheduling doctor’s appointments, therapists or social engagements – the absence of this care can lead men’s orientation toward independence on a self-neglectful, even self-destructive course.

Another reason men – at least those in heterosexual marriages – sometimes do worse after divorce is that, for a significant percentage, their wives are their best friend, if not their only friend. Women commonly have much more extensive social networks, which may explain why they’re more likely to show resilience post-divorce, even if they’re often more at risk financially. Friendship is important and carries a whole host of psychological and health benefits. My wife calls her closest friends her ‘sister wives’. I like the double helix of the term, the way it encircles them as siblings and spouses, where platonic rather than romantic love is the bond. She talks to them often, sometimes daily. I like talking to my wife too, but not all of the time, and sometimes not as much as she wants. She accepts that we have temperamentally different inclinations towards conversation. And her acceptance of that disparity allows me to feel comfortable expressing vulnerability in ways that I would likely avoid under less favourable marital conditions.

However, many men today are caught between knowing what’s enough vulnerability with their wives – and what’s too much. Years ago, I saw a cartoon with two women in conversation; the caption read: ‘I want a guy who will well up with tears, I just don’t want one who actually cries.’ While that may or may not be true for the majority of women, it’s certainly true for some, at least based on my own private practice. Which is to say that men aren’t the only ones doing the gender policing around men’s emotions.

It’s good to be able to talk over your feelings but also good to know when to put them away

Some of these differences begin in childhood. Men are sometimes less fluent with feelings in adulthood, in part because parents, even parents today, are more likely to use emotion words with girls than they are with boys. This may also occur because girls begin talking at a younger age and remain more verbal than boys throughout their lives. The psychology professor Thomas Joiner found that, overall, boys are more secretive with their parents than are girls, and less responsive to and inclusive of their mothers. ‘The fact that, when the genders are combined into one group, gender rises to the top as a predictor of speech frequency, even beyond a personality characteristic like expressivity, shows its fundamental importance,’ Joiner writes in Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success (2011). ‘Speech frequency is of obvious importance to interpersonal exchange; indeed, it can be viewed as its currency … Talk can be viewed as tiny stitches in a social fabric; the more stitches, the more varied and durable the fabric.’ Men have fewer friends, fewer sources of support, and are far less likely to reach out for help. This means that, when they fall, there’s often no one there to catch them. Worse, they often won’t let anyone know that they’re falling.

Our society, and we therapists, idealise communication, vulnerability and expression of emotions, overall, for good reason. But, sometimes, not expressing yourself – more often the domain of men – has its own value. It’s similar to the parenting differences observed between women and men. Mothers tend to be more communicative, more sympathetic to the child, and more prone to guilt or worry about them. Fathers tend to be less conflicted about limit-setting, less preoccupied with the inner life of the child, and more oriented toward stimulation and excitement. Too much of one spoils the child. Too much of the other induces less self-reflection and emotional awareness. While everyone’s needs are different, the same could be said of a healthy marriage: it’s good to be able to talk over your feelings but also good to know when to put them away. As we therapists sometimes advise: ‘Before you say you don’t feel heard, consider how well you listen.’

Perhaps this is why the comedian Chris Rock’s observation – that men care about three things only: sex, food and silence – gets such a big laugh. There’s some truth in it. But I think it’s less about silence than it is the absence of conflict. While women can’t be described as liking conflict, some report that they see it as affirming when their husbands complain, since at least it shows he’s thinking about the relationship. Meanwhile, men often experience their wives’ complaints as a failure in their role as men or partners.

Because men in both straight and same-sex marriages are more preoccupied with sex than are women, they also suffer a greater cost by its absence. More to the point, sex is often a way that men gain access to their vulnerability and expressiveness, something women value. I often see couples caught in a downward spiral where the wife says she doesn’t want to be sexual unless her husband shows more vulnerability and openness, and the husband states that he has more difficulty accessing his vulnerability and romantic feelings without sex. I occasionally hear wives say they feel used by their husband’s preoccupation with having sex with them. I think that misunderstands the meaning of sex in marriage: for most men, it’s not just about the sex. It’s about the connection. Well, that and the sex.

It is tragic, though not surprising, that fathers are more likely to be estranged from their girls than from their boys

My experience counselling men and couples for the past four decades shows me that men also long to have close, intimate relationships, and sometimes leave their wives to pursue them when they feel too rejected or ignored. Yet a man leaving his marriage for love seems freighted with more condemnation or contempt than a woman. Culturally, this seems less permissible, and may also explain why men aren’t telling their stories. Perhaps we still have the idea that leaving a marriage is a more selfish act for a man because we assume that women agonise more about its effect on their children. In addition, our outdated ideas about men in marriage, along with men’s more self-reliant orientation, may cause us to believe that men don’t care as much and therefore don’t deserve as much empathy. Those beliefs might also be fuelled by the fact that, traditionally, men have been better able than women to land on their feet financially and have a better chance of re-coupling post-divorce.

Yet, fathers in my practice worry a lot before and after their divorces. In particular, they worry about how the divorce will affect their children and their relationship with them. With good reason, as it turns out. Recent research by the sociologist Rin Reczek at Ohio State University and colleagues found that, while roughly 6 per cent of people report a period of estrangement from mothers, a whopping 26 per cent of respondents report estrangement from fathers, especially by daughters. While not all of those fathers are divorced, my research shows that some 70 per cent of estranged parents became so after a divorce.

It is tragic, though not entirely surprising, that fathers are more likely to be estranged from their girls than from their boys. Daughters often seem to speak the same language as their mothers, their inclinations toward empathy allowing them to sense what she is feeling or thinking at an almost psychic level. As the journalist Ruth Whippman observed in The New York Times in 2018:

At both its best and its worst, the mother-daughter relationship can at times be as close as two humans can get to telepathy. With two people who are both heavily socialised to anticipate and meet everyone else’s emotional needs, the dynamic can become a kind of high-alert empathy, each constantly attempting to decode what the other might be thinking, hypersensitive to any change in pitch or tone, like a pair of high-strung racehorses.

While that disposition can make for a close relationship, it is not without its burdens. Mothers and daughters are the most common dyad seeking my services after the daughter has cut off contact. It’s another example of the way that care work, a predominantly female enterprise, can cause problems. Estrangement sometimes results because the daughter knows no other way to shed herself of the tidal pull of her mother’s emotions, especially painful ones. As Deborah Levy writes of a fictional mother in her novel Hot Milk (2016): ‘I must never look at her defeat with all I know, because I will turn it to stone with my disdain and my sorrow.’

Non-heterosexual marriages are less governed by gender-role expectations, though men in same-sex marriages still behave differently from women in same-sex marriages. Like straight men, gay men are less likely to engage in the kind of care work that is more common with women in straight and lesbian marriages but are more likely to share the care equally between the two partners when needed. Gay men appear to do better both in marriage and in communication, and have the lowest divorce rates in comparison with straight and gay women. They are more likely to openly discuss their sexual preferences and have agreements about the circumstances and types of sexual contact allowed outside the marriage. In The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (2022) Louise Perry writes:

[T]he average differences in male and female sexuality become glaringly obvious when we look at the gay and lesbian communities. Although it may be controversial to point out how dramatically these two sexual cultures differ, there is plenty of hard data that it would be dishonest to ignore. Lesbian women are remarkably keen on committed monogamy: the median lesbian woman in the UK reports just one sexual partner within the last year, and a majority report having known their sexual partners for months or years before they first had sex. Lesbian women are also significantly more likely than gay men to get married or enter into a civil partnership.

However, in comparison with gay male or heterosexual couples in marriage, lesbian marriages are also the most likely to end. As Coontz writes in her 2020 opinion piece:

Women put more energy into maintaining and deepening intimacy than most men do and have much more extensive expectations of empathy and emotional support. They also monitor relationship quality more closely and have higher standards for it. These traits can produce exceptionally intimate, supportive relationships, but they also consume a lot of energy and can generate stress or disappointment. This may help explain why lesbian partnerships, despite their high average quality, have higher breakup rates than gay-male couples or different-sex couples.

I asked Diane Ehrensaft, a psychology professor and gender specialist at the University of California, San Francisco and the author of Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender Non-Conforming Children (2011), about how these dynamics express themselves in transgender marriages and divorces. ‘I think to answer that question you have to break it down into: when one or both of the partners is trans when they come into the relationship, versus when one person transitions while in the relationship, and, within that category, when they start out as a heterosexual couple versus a same-sex couple,’ she explained in an email. ‘Mostly what I’ve observed when one person transitions after getting together, the trend seems to be that the woman in a previously heterosexual relationship doesn’t want to be with a woman, whereas I’ve noticed in same-sex gay relationships the couple is more likely to stay together if one transitions to transfeminine, and in same-sex two women relationships, it’s the woman who usually wants out if her partner transitions to transmasculine. So, I guess you might say that women either have their finger on the pulse more about what works for them or are less flexible about switching gears in their sexual relationships.’ She went on to clarify that her statements were observations, not hard data.

The German historian Ute Frevert observed that: ‘[E]motions are not only made by history, they also make history.’ Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the ways that feelings, far more than economics, social class or status, became crucial in determining whom to love and whom to leave. Sociologists of modernity such as Anthony Giddens in the UK, Ulrich Beck in Germany, and Pierre Bourdieu in France have noted that, as our lives began to be less governed by religion, neighbourhood or gender, our emotions became far more central in helping us decide whom to be close to or avoid. This highlights that, while women’s orientation toward care work and men’s emphasis on self-reliance may seem predetermined, it is in some ways historically recent. ‘In the localised and hierarchical society of the premodern era, no interactions were impersonal,’ the historian Coontz explained in an email quoting from her forthcoming book on the history and future of love and marriage. ‘Men had to gauge the moods to soothe the feelings of their social superiors; while women felt no obligation to be considerate of their social inferiors. But as work moved out of the home and politics became more competitive, men had to distance themselves from personal emotions and focus on “the bottom line”. Their wives became responsible for providing men a refuge from the demands of the workplace and the market, anticipating their needs and offering a place for emotional recuperation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the doctrine of separate spheres made it inappropriate for men to read and respond to other people’s emotions, and inappropriate – indeed unacceptable – for women NOT to do so.’

Expanding on the role of emotions, the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz describes three narratives that attend today’s contemplations of divorce – revelation, accumulation, and trauma. In this process, individuals retrospectively explain the desire or decision to disentangle themselves from the person with whom they were romantically involved by labelling and using emotions as a moral foundation to support decisions to stay or leave. ‘I shouldn’t have to feel so neglected all of the time.’ ‘I deserve to be with someone who is more affirming of who I am.’ ‘His anger was a form of emotional abuse and I don’t have to put up with that.’

Illouz notes that, over the course of the 20th century, the reasons for divorce became more affective and abstract. While alcoholism or neglect were most commonly given as reasons to divorce in the 1940s, by the 1970s and beyond, ‘growing apart’, ‘becoming more distant’ and ‘feeling unloved’ took their place. The ‘Relationships in America Survey’ (2014), sponsored by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, found the following reasons for divorce listed by respondents: infidelity (37 per cent); spouse unresponsive to needs (32 per cent); growing tired of making a poor match work (30 per cent); spouse’s immaturity (30 per cent); emotional abuse (29 per cent); different financial priorities (24 per cent); and alcohol and/or drug abuse (23 per cent).

The opportunities for men to display their masculinity and honour have largely eroded

‘[E]motional intimacy has been a force of dis-institutionalisation, making marriage more likely to follow psychology than sociology, individual temperament rather than roles and norms,’ writes Illouz in The End of Love: A Sociology of Negative Emotions (2021). And in Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation (2011), she writes:

It is therefore unsurprising that love has been historically so powerfully seductive to women; it promised them the moral status and dignity they were otherwise denied in society and it glorified their social fate: taking care of and loving others, as mothers, wives, and lovers … Women’s social inferiority could thus be traded for men’s absolute devotion in love, which in turn served as the very site of display and exercise of their masculinity, prowess, and honour.

Yet history marches on. The opportunities for men to display their masculinity and honour have largely eroded, and the ability for women to strongly push back against a perspective of them as inferior has been strengthened by the many ways that women have caught up to men and are surpassing them.

Consider the following statistics, cited by Reeves in Of Boys and Men:

  • Girls are about a year ahead of boys in terms of reading ability in OECD nations, while the advantage for boys in mathematics is increasingly shrinking.
  • Boys are 50 per cent more likely than girls to fail at mathematics, reading, and science.
  • Girls are more likely to graduate from high school.
  • While the Ivy League colleges in the US were always predominately male, every one of them today is majority female.
  • Women account for around half the managerial positions in the US economy.
  • Many previously male-dominated professions, including medicine and financial management, are rapidly tilting female, especially among younger professionals.
  • The proportion of women lawyers has increased tenfold, from 4 per cent in 1980 to 43 per cent in 2020.
  • In 1968, only 33 per cent of young women in their teens and early 20s said they expected to be in paid work at the age of 35. By 1980, the share was 80 per cent.

This isn’t to say that parity has been reached across the board. Only one in five executive-level company directors is a woman and, of the Fortune 500 firms, just 44 have a female CEO. The share of venture capital money going to female founders is less than 3 per cent. So, at the upper reaches of the economy, there is still much more work to do for women. But, the further you progress down the economic ladder, it’s men who are struggling far more than women.

So, why don’t men write more about their experiences?

Joyce Maynard – a bestselling author of 18 books, including two memoirs – has been hosting writing retreats for more than 20 years. While most of her memoir retreats have been open to men, she notes that they seldom attend. ‘Women have been telling each other their stories all their lives, and it’s not unfamiliar for them to do so,’ she told me in a phone call. ‘But it’s been my experience that for a man to reach a place of openness to exposing emotional pain or struggle, something in his experience had to bring him to his knees.’ Maynard added that, as someone who twice attended previously all-male educational institutions in the Ivy League, she had long observed the difficulty of men – particularly high-achievers – to acknowledge loss or vulnerability. She told the story of attending the recent 50-year reunion of her almost all-male class at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. ‘After decades of feeling the requirement to present themselves as successful,’ she said, ‘as they approached age 70, my classmates were no longer trying to set the world on fire. They had survived failed marriages, trouble with adult children, health issues. Many seemed relieved to finally be able to set down the mantle our culture had instructed them to carry all those years. They were able to reveal their more authentic selves in a whole new way. And, of course that’s what writing memoir requires: a willingness to look at one’s failures as well as one’s victories, and then make sense of them.’

To be clear, some men are writing memoirs on this topic: ‘The Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late’ (2022) by Matthew Fray; The Marriage Advice I Wish I Would’ve Had (2014) by Gerald Rogers; Falling Forward: A Man’s Memoir of Divorce (2014) by Chris Easterly; A Man’s Guide to Surviving Divorce: How to Cope and Move On with Life (2011) by R L Blackwood; and Men on Divorce: The Other Side of the Story (1997), an anthology by the editors of Women on Divorce (1995) – both female. But they pale in comparison with those authored by women authors.

The challenges that exist in today’s marriages are exacerbated by our highly individualistic culture in the US, where the gospels of twining one’s soul with another’s while prizing identity and independence are characterised as eminently achievable. Yet reconciling these often-contradictory forces requires enormous emotional and material assets. ‘The very idea of living “autonomously” and organising life as a self-defined, goal-driven, and future-oriented project would seem to require resources, private space, and an independence from other people that only the affluent and upwardly mobile might possess,’ writes the sociologist Joseph E Davis in Chemically Imbalanced: Everyday Suffering, Medication, and Our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery (2020).

And not to be a bummer but, while the hero’s journey of leaving a bad marriage can make for compelling and sympathetic memoirs, in the US, 67 per cent of second marriages end in divorce too, and 73 per cent of third marriages fail to go the distance. As Joni Mitchell sang in ‘Help Me’ (1974): ‘We love our lovin’. But not like we love our freedom.’ Freedom to stay. Freedom to leave. Freedom to choose. Perhaps a more apt lyric is Sheryl Crow’s: ‘If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?’

So, maybe, like many things in life, men want the freedom not to talk about it, let alone write it down. Or they want the freedom to hide how sad, lonely or hurt they feel by the loss of their marriages or the decline in the relationships with their children. Maybe they worry that they’ll look weak or inadequate in the eyes of women – let alone men – if they reveal how lost and alone they feel.

And maybe they’re not wrong.