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Ask Dr. Helen: Single Men in Never-Neverland

Why do today's men run from commitment -- indefinitely delaying settling down in a marriage they take seriously, and having kids? Dr. Helen Smith asks whether they are indeed pampered eternal adolescents more interested in exploding toilets and video games than real life.

by
Helen Smith

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February 7, 2008 - 1:05 am

I’ll start out this column with a follow-up to last month’s column on the “47-year old virgin,” I heard back from him about the replies from all of you and this is what he had to say:

I was pleased that there was so much compassion and honest concern voiced by many of the commenters. They brought up many interesting points and in many ways made me feel much less isolated.

He states he will seek professional help and follow up at a later time. Thank you to all who responded and to those who truly seemed to care about helping another reader deal with this complex issue.

Now, I’ll turn to another complex issue from reader Eric who emails about an article by Kay Hymowitz entitled, “Child-Man in the Promised Land,” a rather insulting look at the Peter Pan Syndrome in today’s young men:

Dr. Helen:

Kay Hymowitz obviously spent a lot of time researching this piece on why young men delay marriage. To be honest, some of its themes struck home with me, but there’s one obvious deficiency here that invalidates the entire article. Care to guess what it is?

For all her work, Ms. Hymowitz never talked to an actual man. Sure, she watched the Man Show, read a couple issues of Maxim, read a couple of humor Web sites and quoted plenty of studies on the market potential of video games. And yes, by looking at all of those, I’m sure she could glean some truth about the young American male.

Then again, if I spent a couple of months reading Cosmopolitan and Redbook, catching up on Grey’s Anatomy via the DVD box set, watched the Lifetime Movie Network and re-runs of the Bachelor, I could probably come to some interesting conclusions about American women and write an article about it in a serious tome like City Journal. Unfortunately, I’m guessing nobody would take me seriously unless I actually chose to speak to some real live actual women before coming to any conclusions.

Why does this sort of tripe get taken seriously?

Dear Eric,

Good question. This “tripe” gets taken seriously because the focus is on “why men are bad,” which is the new slogan for the 21st century.

For those of you who don’t know her, Hymowitz is the author of Marriage and Caste in America whose main thesis seems to be that marriage is important to society. I read over her article and was rather appalled at the lack of understanding on the part of Hymowitz as to why men don’t marry. We interviewed her for a podcast on the Glenn and Helen Show and she seemed to be level-headed and understanding–but I guess everyone has their blind spot when it comes to why men don’t toe the line and provide society with what it needs or wants despite little reward and plenty of headache for being a modern day husband and father. Instead, Hymowitz, like so many other writers and naysayers blames men for not marrying because their “default state” is perpetual adolescence:

But this history suggests an uncomfortable fact about the new SYM: he’s immature because he can be. We can argue endlessly about whether “masculinity” is natural or constructed-whether men are innately promiscuous, restless, and slobby, or socialized to be that way-but there’s no denying the lesson of today’s media marketplace: give young men a choice between serious drama on the one hand, and Victoria’s Secret models, battling cyborgs, exploding toilets, and the NFL on the other, and it’s the models, cyborgs, toilets, and football by a mile. For whatever reason, adolescence appears to be the young man’s default state, proving what anthropologists have discovered in cultures everywhere: it is marriage and children that turn boys into men. Now that the SYM can put off family into the hazily distant future, he can-and will-try to stay a child-man……a freewheeling marketplace gives him everything that he needs to settle down in pig’s heaven indefinitely.

Yep, it’s just that freewheeling marketplace or an avoidance of deep attachments or whatever that is keeping men from taking marriage seriously, settling down and having kids. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. What Hymowitz misses is that men are on a marriage strike, not necessarily because they are perpetual adolescents or avoiding deep attachments to others but because the reward for being an adult in our society is so low, especially for men.

It’s really simple Psychology 101 (or Economics 101) — make something negative enough and people will avoid it, make it positive, and more people will engage in that particular behavior.

Nowadays, for many men, the negatives of marriage for men often outweigh the positives. Therefore, they engage in it less often. Not because they are bad, not because they are perpetual adolescents, but because they have weighed the pros and cons of marriage in a rational manner and found the institution to be lacking for them. It’s a sensible choice for some and the video games, magazines, and humor websites that Hymowitz disses are a way to fill one’s time with fun activities that don’t tell you that you suck, are an “unfinished person,” emotionally detached or on your way to jail for fake domestic violence charges. People used to treat men better than this.

Now, Atlas is shrugging and everyone is coming out of the woodwork to explain why. But like reader Eric said, if you want to know why fewer men are getting married, go to the source, go ask some actual men and really listen to what they have to say. You may be surprised to find out how grown-up, adult and rational single young men really are.

***

What’s your take? Do you think today’s single young men are “child-men in the promised land,” or rational adults who are turning to video games and alternative lifestyles because those are more rewarding activities?

If you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at askdrhelen@hotmail.com. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question-if you want me to use your name, tell me, otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as “a reader” etc.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee and blogs at drhelen.blogspot.com. This advice column is for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not purport to replace therapy or psychological treatment.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.
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