It is a Saturday and three young women are sitting at a popular bar in Delhi’s Khan Market. The two bottles of beer, a glass of vodka, a pack of cigarettes and plenty of laughter at the table is attracting a lot of male attention. It is the end of a long week and the weekend ritual is underway in full swing.
One of them, R, a lawyer, has just called off her engagement. The prospect of an attractive wife with a successful career seemed to have brought out the worst in her fiance. “I don’t want you to work after marriage,” he told her. And then came the news break for her. “I wouldn’t know who you were sleeping with.” That was the final straw.
R is not alone in her predicament of meeting men who are blundering their way through a society in transition. The sexual and financial opportunities available to a woman in the 21st century officespace and its playgrounds are threatening the man’s sense of security like never before. He has no precedent for this kind of democratisation of the sexes. “It is inconceivable to him that a woman with these freedoms will want to remain committed,” explains Rathna Isaac, Bangalore-based clinical psychologist, formerly with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (Nimhans).
That essentially explains a whole lot of behaviour that Indian women are encountering in their relationships with men today.
Unexpressed anxieties and insecurities that have come to populate his mind are seeing in him, for instance, the return of traditional patriarchal expectations that are completely at odds with his personality and lifestyle. And these contradictions are taking a toll on his relationship, his marriage, his sex life, and his work life. While most men support their wives working and their independence, they fear its possible consequences, leading to confusion in relationships.
Trying to cope with the changing family life, says Isaac, is what is leading to inconsistencies in relationships.
“This insecurity is not unfounded. It is only to be expected in a patriarchal society. There is, no doubt, a lot of anxiety. Men today are bound to be insecure. It is a phenomenon that is evident across the spectrum,” says Delhi-based consulting neuropsychiatrist, Rohit Jaiman.
Today more and more men are seeking therapy. And they are talking about their relationships and ways to cope with the confusion and the uncertainty that their own socialisation hasn’t prepared them for. Their crisis: “I can’t handle it… I don’t know what to do.”
Chennai’s leading marriage counsellor and psychiatrist Vijay Nagaswami is in his third decade of practice. “About 25 years ago, when I started working with relationships, men wouldn’t be caught dead in a therapist’s office. Today at least three to four times out of ten, it is the man who initiates the therapeutic intervention,” says Nagaswami, who recently released his third book 24/7 Marriage. Husbands and boyfriends are talking about feelings of jealousy, about not talking enough with their wives or girlfriends, about demanding partners, about girlfriends who aren’t willing to commit. “I love her more than she loves me,” seems to come up a lot. But the repercussions that these feelings have on a man’s relationships are often nasty and extreme. There is, after all, an immensely favourable power equation that is at stake here.
Let’s return to the girls at the bar at Khan Market, to hear another story.
R’s friend, a journalist (let’s call her K) is in a marriage that has turned into a living hell. K is married to her boyfriend of four years. They worked together in the same newspaper office. But his simmering anxieties exploded in her face only after she married him—“Why don’t you get yourself a desk job? Why do you want to be a reporter? Why do you spend so much time talking to your colleagues?” Unable to take the constant policing, she decided it was better they worked in separate offices.
She got herself another job. That was worse. He would call her constantly on the phone. Five-minute delays would become huge argument points. Within one month of her new assignment, she was forced to quit. Now she freelances.
Predictably, her husband’s drinking and smoking habits worsened. He even ensured they moved out from a colony where other journalists lived, in order to cut her off from her friends.
Now K has managed to get herself a scholarship to study abroad. She dreads having to come back. The couple are in marriage therapy. And this is what the husband told the therapist—“A woman who works is difficult to rely on. She won’t get ahead in her professional life unless she obliges her boss.”
Surely, treating his wife like a suspect is not a sustainable exercise. Not for his mental health, and most definitely not for his relationship.
S, also a lawyer, is reminded of her social worker friend whose husband hired detectives to keep tabs on her. An arranged match, the friend had no inkling of what was to follow despite a six-month long courtship. Unhappy with her circle of friends, that included boys, the husband insisted she give up her job. All numbers received on her mobile phone would be called back. A detective was hired to bring back photographs of her daily routine.
Six months into the marriage, he began to physically abuse her. He even started following her around himself. As a result, his work suffered. He had to go into counselling. This, of course, was an extreme case.
Long hours of therapy are driving home some fundamental truths that even the most urbane of men are only just beginning to accept. “There are bound to be teething problems when systems that have gone for centuries begin to change. They have grown up watching their mothers and grandmothers. Men are certainly feeling very insecure these days and are inflicted with withdrawal symptoms. Surprising as it may sound, many of them just don’t know better,” says Delhi-based psychologist Jyotsna Swaroop.
When they see their partners with male colleagues or male friends, says Swaroop, innocent remarks may be interpreted as ‘she doesn’t love me’ or that ‘I am not good looking’ and that can be traumatic for him.
“Women don’t realise that small ripples become huge tides inside their minds. The men tend not to say these things immediately. But they suddenly snap or make a sarcastic remark that might seem to come completely out of the blue,” says Swaroop.
Increased sexual anxiety is another major fallout, although it is something men are more reluctant to discuss. Sexual freedom in women tends to create feelings of sexual inadequacy in men. There is either a complete sexual withdrawal or a tendency to exert excessive sexual control over their partners. “Having sex after 12-hour working shifts is bad enough. And when the man’s mind is loaded with anxieties, it only makes it worse. He, unlike the woman, cannot fake it. So he withdraws,” says Nagaswami. According to Isaac, the sexual withdrawal also decreases the man’s sense of need for his partner because it is one less form of interaction. It could also lead to an extra-marital affair where these issues don’t play a role.
Of course, excessive sexual control is what most women have to report today. “It could be controlling his wife or girlfriend’s sexuality in terms of what she wears, whether she drinks, her lifestyle and so on. Sometimes, it could be even be forced sex, not exactly amounting to marital rape,” say Isaac. The emergence of the husband’s parents, even within love marriages, as big players in the husband-wife relationship is also a mechanism men use to bolster their own security. Parents are brought in to exert indirect pressure on the wife to conform to traditional roles.
“There is increased expectation of the wife to engage with the husband’s family—to play the role of a daughter-in-law. Men often complain that the wife is not playing the role of being the family glue. Another thing they do is insist on having a child early,” says Nagaswami. The mechanism to go back to a system that is predictable—in this case, tradition—may, in many cases, be a reaction to his anxiety rather than a reflection of his true beliefs or feelings, adds the psychiatrist.
The attempt in therapy, therefore, is to make men express their anxieties through emotional and sexual bonding with their wives or girlfriends, rather than through suspicion and fear and control.
The broad idea is to make the men aware of various ways to build intimacy. “Men are not socialised to be intimate. And when women are not satisfied, there is a lot of pain about not being able to make it work. They don’t know what to do. Through therapy they are becoming more aware of issues of intimacy, and learning to be more intimate,” says Isaac.
As women have grown into the roles of men, men haven’t kept pace with returning the favour. And, therefore, the build-up of an identity crisis of sorts, a sense of being inadequate and being confused about their own role.
In an article titled ‘Weaker Sex’ published in a national daily (The Hindu, 31 August 2008), for which Nagaswami got a lot of hate mail from his male readers, he writes: ‘From the man’s point of view, it would appear that being feminine is a specialised activity. And that is why the male feels threatened by the women’s liberation. Not because women are encroaching on his territory, but because he can never completely encroach on hers… So he responds twice as aggressively to her, often painting himself into a lonely corner in the process.’
He puts down the gender conflict to one essential problem. The “masculine woman”, he says, has become more socially acceptable than the “feminine man”, who is still an object of derision.
So, while women find it easy to pursue their masculinity; men find it disagreeable to even acknowledge, let alone pursue their femininity.
Back in Khan Market, it is close to 11 pm. And girls have had their last round of drinks. R is telling her friends about a book, rather intriguingly titled Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care. Written by American columnist and author Kathleen Parker, the book makes a humorous case for ‘rescuing the allegedly stronger sex from trends that portend man’s cultural demise’. The book, quite naturally, stirred up quite a controversy.
Dubbing the changing gender order an existential threat to men is something most women would find a laughable proposition. But for the male of the species, the change is seen as a threat to his self-identity as the Man In Charge. As one detective put it, there is “a leadership crisis” in marriages today. And men are only beginning to come to terms with it.