Why Sacrificing Power Helps Husbands Gain Masculinity

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Shortly after tying the knot, a friend asked if I wanted to watch a football game at a local bar and grill. I hesitated. “Maybe. Let me check with the wife first.” Then I quickly added, “I’m probably forgetting some plans we’ve already made, but if not, then I’m definitely in.” The sinking feeling in my stomach begged two gnawing questions. First, did I give up my decision-making power at the wedding altar? And second, did I lose some manhood along with it? 

If we believe the media, men are certainly losing power to women. Many pundits equate this loss of power with a loss of masculinity. Most prominently, Hanna Rosin announced the “end of men” in a 2010 Atlantic Monthly article of the same title. She argues that men have fallen behind economically (largely due to job losses in manufacturing and construction) and are now losing social power as well; women dominate decisions about child-rearing, finances, and other household concerns. While economic and social power are certainly linked on both macro and micro-levels, I believe the power dynamics of marital decision-making are changing regardless of male job security – and this is actually a good thing for both husbands and wives.

For a long time, both before and after my wedding, I felt uneasy every time I deferred a decision in favor of discussing it with my wife first. I thought I should be able to make plans on my own, just as I had done before our relationship became serious. Queasily, I analyzed the change and its causes, rationalizing it as best I could to preserve my sense of manhood. Like the disassociated ex-husbands briefly profiled in Rosin’s article, I need to possess and exercise some kind of authority in my family. I need to feel needed.

After contemplating the change, I realized the slippery slope started when my independent decisions began causing problems. I often forgot previously-made plans, leading to incredulous questions from my wife like, “You didn’t remember our date night?” Or I failed to consider important variables, immediately earning her chagrin when she learned of my half-baked plans: “You invited six couples to dinner? What are we going to make for fourteen people?” “Fourteen?” I asked. “It’s just twelve.” “Eric, I added you and me.” “Oh.” I’m half-joking here, but you get the idea.

After a while, I almost feared making plans because I anticipated my wife’s questions, concerns, and frustrations. I expected to forget something important, to ignore important considerations, to miscommunicate or misunderstand. As a result, my masculinity came under attack in two important ways. First, I felt less of a man because of my mistakes. As a general rule, men hate making mistakes that call into question their competence, which they equate with their manliness. As John Ellheridge writes in Wild at Heart, we are all insecurely wondering, “Have I got what it takes … when it counts?” Second, I wanted to make decisions for my new family instead of relinquishing that right, that power, to my wife. As the husband, I was the “head” of the household, right?

These insecurities – couched in nature and society, respectively – are preyed upon by Rosin’s article and every other “End of Men” doomsday tale. They tout female gains in education and society as evidence of male losses, implicitly indicting male competence and authority. In reality, masculinity is evolving rather than ending, just as I was evolving from an independent bachelor into an interdependent married man. Whereas a codependent person cedes identity and power to his or her partner and can hardly function independently, an interdependent person retains individual identity while also forging a partnership based on shared power. The unique benefits of interdependence convinced me that sharing power does not equate to a loss of masculinity. In fact, far more is gained than lost.

When I rationalized my reluctance to make decisions and plans, I told myself I was being considerate rather than relinquishing authority and masculinity. In truth, I was being considerate as well as surrendering some authority – but not masculinity. Sure, I was sharing power and accepting my wife’s influence. But these are necessary and beneficial alterations in modern male gender roles. These adjustments create an interdependency, a shared sense of meaning, that in turn generates deep fulfillment among both partners.

To paraphrase John Gottman (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work), marriage should be more than splitting chores and decisions. Rather, the most fulfilling and satisfying marriages possess what Gottman calls “shared meaning” – an interdependency, a spiritual quality, a rich family culture based on “rituals, roles, goals, and symbols.” Obviously, cultivating shared power in decision-making and other roles will facilitate shared meaning and thus marital happiness. Gottman summarizes his conclusions after studying 130 newlyweds over an eight-year period:

Men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce than men who resist their wives’ influence. … the most stable marriages in the long run were those where the husband treated his wife with respect and did not resist power sharing and decision making with her. When the couple disagreed, these husbands actively searched for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way.

Some of our worst arguments occurred when I resisted my wife’s influence and hoarded decision-making power. Naturally, she felt disrespected and threatened; her ideas and opinions clearly didn’t matter. Some of my greatest frustrations resulted from decisions I made without consulting her, only to learn how belittled, disrespected, and irritated she felt since I had made a decision affecting both of us as though it affected only me. However, I not only avoided further conflict but also changed the dynamic of our relationship by accepting my wife’s influence on my decisions and decision-making process, sharing power, and seeking common ground. This “emotional intelligence,” as Gottman calls it, conveyed both “honor and respect” and contributed to our shared meaning, our healthy interdependency.

Pretty soon, I stopped worrying about my masculinity. Initially, I admit, I began consulting my wife because bitter experience proved it the wiser course; mistakes and manhood were very much on my mind at that point. Then discussing decisions with her became standard procedure, and I didn’t think twice about it. Eventually, subtly, it transformed into an important part of our shared meaning, our family culture, our partnership. In my marriage, “husband vs. wife” has been replaced by a strong sense of “us vs. the world.” We’re in this marriage together. I can’t imagine not collaborating on most decisions, not seeking each other’s input, even for decisions that truly belong to one of us (like work-related decisions, for instance).

Hanna Rosin and other “End of Men” alarmists completely miss the true significance and benefits of evolving masculinity. Spouses should share power and accept each other’s influence because doing so increases the collective power, happiness, and fulfillment in their relationships. Marital power should not be a zero-sum game in which one spouse loses if the other wins. It should be a win-win dynamic characterized by putting the marriage first. Sure, I sacrifice some independence and power when I check with the wife before scheduling a guy’s night out. But I gain masculinity every time I humble myself to consider my wife first and foremost. That is one of the truest and most confident forms of masculinity.

Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month.

Photo credit JAS_photo/Flickr