How Toxic Masculinity and Femininity Can Affect a Relationship / Marriage

How toxic masculinity and femininity can affect a relationship/marriage.
Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash.
Noel McDermott
Noel McDermott
Mental Health Works Ltd

Toxic masculinity is discussed in mainstream media quite a lot having migrated from a narrow academic interest in gender studies course and come to cover a range of problematic behaviours around rigid gender roles.

In 2018, the American Psychological Association issued the first ever guidance on working with men and boys and issued alongside its guidance on working with harmful masculinity and violence. This is key to understanding the current situation and the focus on toxic masculinity.

In general broad-brush sense (excluding nuance of gender identity), men are socialised into acting out their psychological distress in aggressive and violent ways and women acting in distress in self harming ways. This is still pervasive.

Alongside this is the psychologically and therefore relationally destructive socialisation of unhealthy masculinity beliefs around denial of psychological distress, refusal of emotional intelligence and help seeking viewed as a weakness. Society is still largely structured on the notion that men provide rather than nurture.

In the UK, which has many dual income households, structural inequality still means men’s salaries provide the majority of a household’s income. These structural issues reinforce gender stereotypes.

Toxic femininity doesn’t really exist as a term but in this formulation could be understood as the ‘self-harm’ side of unhelpful female modelling and expectations. So, whilst men face most of society’s violence as victims and perpetrators (including being victims of suicide) women face eating disorders, high levels of anxiety and depression, direct self-harming behaviours, carer and financial struggles and of course male violence to women, especially rape.

It’s easy to see how extreme issues would negatively affect any relationship but it’s important to understand that all these issues exist on a spectrum of severity and in most cases don’t manifest at the early stages of a love relationship in extreme forms. They tend to emerge over time becoming more chronic with the stressors of life.

Intimate partner violence, for example, rarely starts when you are dating.

More often it is controlling behaviours and inflexibility that become more intrusive over time. In fact, it may not develop into violence at all but becomes normalised in the interaction creating high stress levels and fear, the so-called walking on eggshells to avoid triggering your partner. It may manifest in lack of attention, controlling through withholding and withdrawal to punish etc. Over time these destroy intimacy and safety, leading to significant psychological and other health issues.

One of the core needs we have as social animals is safe, predictable, loving relationships to form resilience in the face of life’s challenges. There is a very harmful view of resilience as coming from being exposed to threat and challenge, and in fact the opposite is true. We can demonstrate we are resilient by getting through challenge well, but the resilience predated the challenge and formed because of kind, loving, consistent relationships. Resilience is a consequence of strong attachments to other stable people where we can share our vulnerabilities.

Our social (animal) nature is what gives us the edge in terms of survival, allowing us to live in very complex social structures that mean we can combine skills and abilities for the greater good, what in general is termed prosocial behaviours and activities. As a matter of fact, the more prosocial we are the healthier we will be on all levels; psychologically, physically, financially, and relationally. Unhealthy masculinity in many ways promotes anti-social behaviours and attitudes.

Lacking resilience because of our lack of ability to form or maintain loving relationships will lead to developing unhealthy and unhelpful coping mechanisms, generally increasing our antisocial attitudes and behaviours. For many men this will look like withdrawal, rejection, substance misuse especially alcohol, hyper-sexual behaviours and cheating, or aggression and violence.

Unhealthy masculinity does not allow men to say, “I feel lonely, lost, broken” even though these are perfectly normal things to feel in life at times. The anti-social nature of the coping behaviours leads to a vicious cycle of greater isolation and rejection reducing resilience further.

Again, these things develop over time and one day a straw breaks the camel’s back with the relationship seeming to suddenly implode. The male in this situation is unlikely to learn a lesson from this and will often go on to find another partner to repeat the same mistakes or being unavailable and anti-social.

Children witnessing and experiencing this can find it very challenging and especially male sons.

Since the 1970’s mothers and daughters have been coming to terms with seismic changes in society and in what it is to be women with many daughters of the 70’s / 80’s etc feeling they had to reject their mums to be liberated. The current generation of women maybe not having to go through this pain.

Younger male adults and young men are having to face a world which is very different to the one their fathers grew up in requiring a new set of tools. Many fathers are ill-equipped to deal with these changes, unable to offer insights into their sons’ challenges in life and relationships. Many of course have adapted but sadly attacks on these adaptations are rife, with men being called ‘snowflakes’, or being attacked in the media for carrying their babies in carriers on their bodies for example. But many young men feel they have to reject their dads so they can have relationships that last or to thrive in a work world that is increasingly demanding of prosocial group work. There are very public relationships in which sons have clearly made these decisions leading to camps forming in support or in attack.

The social changes we seem to be witnessing in terms of the reformulation of many masculinities is unlikely to be smooth, but it is certainly needed.

About Noel McDermott

Noel McDermott has over 25 years’ experience creating unique mental health services in the independent sector and is considered an expert on mental health in the workplace, he is also the Founder of Mental Health Works Ltd.

Passionate about bringing high quality care and support to the vulnerable, he is an advocate of community care and the power of an at-home mental health care model that includes the affected individual, their family, and their workplace.

Well-known to the UK media, and regularly featured on channels including BBC Local Radio, 5News, LBC and SKY News, Noel also produces and presents The Well-Being Show, a weekly live podcast where he is joined by guests sharing stories on mental health issues.

Noel’s areas of expertise include mental health, addiction and recovery, trauma, social care, distance therapy, childcare, refugees, personal development and emotional health and wellbeing.

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