Mark Greene asks, “Do some women who encourage men to be more emotional and engaged, end up losing respect for the men who do so?”

A while back, I followed a series of tweets about men and the expression of emotions. At one point, a women who was participating said the following:

I’m having a hard time formulating all my issues here. It boggles my mind that we’ve been asking [men] to be more emotional and engaged, and when they become emotional and engaged we say, “That’s too much!” I mean, talk about expecting perfection. Life is growth and effort.

I went to sleep thinking about a question which can haunt men like myself: Do some women who encourage men to “be more emotional and engaged” end up losing respect for the men who do so?

Think of the moment when Lucy yanks the football out on Charlie Brown.

I admit it could take a decade or two to unpack all the implications of the phrase “be more emotional and engaged.” I’m also aware of the exhausting and overworked meme of women who talk about wanting a nice guy but go for the jerks in the world. That narrative smacks far too much of either self pity or opportunism depending on the man promoting it.

What I am talking about instead is the moment at which our deeply layered cultural conditioning collides with our social or ideological aspirations — what we think we want, versus what we discover we need.

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This request by women for men to be more emotional and engaged covers a vast range of relational and functional markers. It also means very different things to different people.

I take it to mean that men are 1) being asked to increase emotional expression in their relationships and 2) address basic issues of fairness in how work is organized and done in any partnership up to and including marriage.

If the stereotypical 1970’s dad brought home the paycheck and did little to help raise the kids or clean the house, the modern man is asked to be much more engaged. In some cases, he may be asked to take over the home and the primary child care while his wife pursues a higher paying career.

This cultural trend may ideologically driven, a function of the breakdown of gender silos, or the result of simple economic necessity. Regardless of the source, the trend is out there.

So, if I ended my day thinking about the tweets I read, I ran smack into the other bookend the next morning — -a book review by Liz Mundy of the San Francisco Chronicle. She is reviewing a novel by British author Rachel Cusk titled Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation.

Mundy writes:

Not long ago, in an online blog of the Wall Street Journal, a wife made a confession. A high-earning editor and the breadwinner in her family, she admitted that she resents her husband for being supportive and domestically hands-on. Far from being grateful that he makes her job and family life possible by taking on the role of primary caregiver to their son, she feels burdened and jealous. While some of her objections are fair — supporting a household is scary, as men have long known — others, she acknowledged, aren’t.

Her piece is a reminder that women, like men, can be emotionally retrograde even as they are progressive and ambitious; it’s not always men who have trouble adapting to female achievement and female earning.

The same dynamic is at work in “Aftermath,” Rachel Cusk’s bleak and rather bravely unsympathetic memoir of marital dissolution. Cusk, a British novelist, sketches a scenario whereby she maneuvered her husband into the role of househusband, then scorned him for occupying it. She is not sure whom to blame for this radical inconsistency: her feminism, her parents, her schooling, or simply whatever was in the water when she was growing up.

It got me thinking; maybe this whole gender equality thing is a hell of a lot harder than we know, because it’s not just about men and women taking on new roles and ways of being, its about unpacking the very real and disruptive conditioning the daily reality of this can reveal. Its fine for a woman to wish for a husband who will stay home with the kids and support her career, but what if that woman then wakes up one morning resenting her husband for it?

Now imagine how he feels.

Many women are becoming the primary providers for their families. Many men are becoming the primary caregivers to their children.

Amidst all this, is there some vast retrogressive emotional and sexual narrative that exists in direct conflict with the modern request for men to “be more emotional and engaged?” Do some women struggle with what Mundy calls the emotionally retrograde side; yearning for a more traditional man even as they seek an egalitarian marriage?

As we ask men to let go of their own cultural conditioning the question of what traditional conditioning women still carry will come into question.

It’s a question that begs a larger conversation.