When Men Disappear: Modernity, Masculinity, and the End of Breaking Up

So… I got dumped before Christmas. I debated for a while about whether I wanted to write about it on my blog, but I think my story here ties to some larger themes about masculinity and dating in the world today. The “gentleman” in question is someone I’ve known almost three years and have periodically been involved with over that time. He always seemed careful to avoid characterizing us as “in a relationship,” (why wasn’t that a huge red flag, you ask) but I think it’s fair to use the word “dating,” because he used that term himself at one point. I spent most of this fall seeing him on a regular basis, texting constantly, and when I told him I loved him (not once, but multiple times) I got the response, “I love you, too.” So, you can imagine my surprise when, a week before Christmas, while I was on the East Coast and his Christmas gift was sitting in my house in Tucson, he stopped speaking to me. I was told, in a text message, “I need to figure myself out right now.” There were a couple of exchanges after that, including some admittedly snippy (READ: profane) language on my part, and then nothing. *POOF*

Dear reader, I’m not telling this story to get pity. I was basket-case-crazy-depressed for a while, but who wouldn’t be after spending Christmas alone with a broken heart, feeling ashamed to tell anyone what had happened? After time to reflect, though, I decided to do what I do best—approach the situation as an academic with a research question. Why do men disappear? And why can’t they look you in the eye when they tell you it’s over?

I. Technology, Distance, and Concealment

I can address two factors here, and one applies equally to men and women. Breakups and fights are uncomfortable for everyone, and technology makes it easier to take the coward’s way out. In 140 characters or less, you can tell someone it’s over in a text or a tweet or an e-mail, without ever seeing their face, hearing their voice, or having any evidence that you caused them pain beyond the angry messages you get in response. And, hell, you can even delete those unread. On social media sites, unpleasant reminders of relationships past can be blocked with a simple click of the mouse. I fully admit to telling men in e-mails and voicemails that I wasn’t interested in seeing them anymore, though, in my defense, I always did so after a few dates, not after nearly three fucking years of knowing them, and not when it was someone I claimed to love.

12 SecondsThe linkage between distance, concealment, and modernity is one that has been discussed by scholars. Timothy Pachirat, in his 2011 book Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (which I hope to review here soon) sums up this literature. In particular, he draws on the work of Norbert Elias. Elias, in his book The Civilizing Process, argues that concealment is “the major method of the civilizing process.” (I’m relying on Pachirat’s discussion here, as I have not read Elias’ works myself.) Throughout history, he states, Western society has sought to segregate and remove from view that which has become viewed as distasteful. Execution and torture, nudity, and the slaughter of animals are all examples of things that have, over time, been concealed in the name of “progress.” Pachirat, building on Elias, phrases it simply: “labor considered morally and physically repellent by the vast majority of society… is sequestered from view rather than eliminated or transformed.” Break-ups are certainly repellent to most of us, but they’re a fact of life that can’t be eliminated, as we obviously want to be rid of the person we’re breaking up with for whatever reason. So, have breakups become the next unpalatable facet of life that we hope to remove from view?

The Internet dating culture, which has become ubiquitous, has worked to distance us from face-to-face relationship ending. I spent about a decade on Internet dating sites and I’m well aware of the code. If someone you’re not interested in contacts you, the common response is just to ignore them. It seems accepted that you don’t write to a person and tell them “it won’t work out” for XYZ reason. That usually only provides them an opening to: a) write a nasty response in which all of their bitterness toward the opposite sex is directed at you; or b) attempt to convince you why you’re wrong and you should give them a chance. In one particularly memorable instance, I actually agreed to a date with a guy who stood me up. More accurately, he showed up to our date an hour and a half late, without replying to my messages or giving me any notification that he was running late and needed to reschedule. Of course, by the time he showed up I was long gone. After that night, he continued to send me messages at the rate of about three a day, asking for another chance and telling me how much he liked me. My initial response was not to respond, but after a couple of days I decided to do the right thing and wrote him a very honest note in which I said that I felt he stood me up, was very inconsiderate to me, and therefore was not the type of person I’d like to date. Rather than stopping his messages, it only seemed to embolden him. There was another rash of “give me a chance” messages until he drifted away for good.

This faulty code of communication in a technology-based dating culture benefits no one, and is one of the reasons I stopped Internet dating almost a year ago. Go on a singles site or check out Craigslist personals sometime. There is a lot of bitterness and baggage from both sexes; dating veterans who believe they’ve been played or otherwise done wrong, now looking for serious inquiries only.

II. Masculinity and the Amazing, Disappearing Man

But technology is only one part of the puzzle. Technology gives a person the means to disappear, not the desire to prefer that to a face-to-face discussion. I believe that men are the worst offenders here, and masculinity is also to blame. Some scholars would seem to agree with me. Last week, I reviewed Michael Kaufman’s The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars. Kaufman is a scholar on masculinity, and says he was inspired to write this book because of our culture’s lack of focus on men and love, and because of the struggles men face as a result. One phrase that sticks with me is when Kaufman says that men don’t learn an authentic language of emotion, and therefore are taught that they shouldn’t discuss their feelings or show weakness, and are unable to communicate needs and desires. In a follow-up blog, Kaufman points out that there is much about masculinity that we should admire, but that there are important pitfalls. By teaching men not to show pain, weakness, or fear, we teach men not to communicate in an authentic way. We teach men not to get too close, especially to other men, and not to empathize with others who may be hurting or be hurt by their actions. Empathy: Like feeling and expressing regret when you’ve hurt someone or broken their heart. This failure to emote creates a recoil and can contribute to a spiral of depression, addiction, and violence against self and others. Indeed, men are more likely than women to kill themselves, commit violence, be victims of violence, and experience addiction at some point in their lives.

GuylandGuyland is the term coined by another masculinity scholar, Michael Kimmel, in his book of the same name, for the existence of men between 16 and 26 (or longer, for some men into their 30s). In the past, men of this age would be finding their career paths, marrying, having children, and buying homes. But all that has changed. Average age of first marriage has been on the rise for both men and women for decades. This means having children later (in most cases), and certainly the economic downturn and the so-called “mancession” has done nothing to help young men in their career goals. (Kimmel’s book was originally published in 2008, and so does not directly discuss this development, but there’s a logical extension.) As a result, Kimmel argues, today’s young men live in a world where they are “aimless,” “anxious,” “uncertain.” The “sacrifice and responsibility of manhood” are gone, replaced with… ? Video games? Hookups? Binge drinking? All of the above. Communication in Guyland is superficial. Emotions that could be perceived as weakness are taboo. Anger manifests as aggression, active or passive, against women, homosexuals, or anyone who pisses you off.

Relationships also fall by the wayside. Kimmel devotes a lot of time to discussing the hookup culture, where relationships “begin and end with sex.” Hookup culture can mean a lot of things, but Kimmel sums it up as “deliberately vague.” Boundaries and roles are ill-defined, but some patterns hold: It’s often true that men set the rules (like saying “dating” is OK, but “relationship” isn’t) and women comply; long-term commitment is usually off the table; and emotions are avoided—no strings attached. Where one party wants to negotiate a deeper commitment, it almost always falls to the woman to ask the “where are we going?” question.

Interestingly, Kimmel points out that the majority of young men he talked to in over 400 interviews said that they did someday want love and a committed relationship, but not until their early 30s. As if Ms. Right will appear at exactly the moment they’ve ordained. In any other case, if the man is not ready, not willing, it seems to me that there’s a feeling of entitlement for men not to talk about it, not to have that conversation. The thinking is along the lines of, “We’re not in a relationship, so I don’t owe her an explanation. How dare she expect me to talk to her about my feelings?” The penalty for women who transgress this boundary is figurative death, from social media, contact lists, and from a man’s life. More distancing, more concealment. She doesn’t even get the courtesy of being read her sentence, it seems.

I often feel bad for men in today’s culture. God knows women have problems of our own, but we’re often better about putting them out there. Men are taught, socialized, to internalize. Now that I’m in my 30s, I see the men my age and older who are looking for love, confused and discouraged because Ms. Right didn’t show up when they expected her to, or confused and discouraged because they still haven’t figured out what they want. In their wake, many of these men have probably left a trail of women like me, also confused and discouraged because we couldn’t make it work. Remembering some man in our life who we loved and who disappeared, and wondering how we could have been so wrong about him. Wondering how any man with a mother, a sister, a niece, or a female friend in his life could be so utterly without empathy or accountability. (I say many men, but not all, and if you’re one of the men who’s never pulled the disappearing act, feel free to pat yourself on the back now.)

I could send a link to this blog to the guy who vanished on me. Maybe he’d read it, maybe he’d feel bad. Maybe he’d even tell me why he chose to disappear rather than face me. I’d really like to know someday. It’s just that guys never let me get close enough to ask.

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8 thoughts on “When Men Disappear: Modernity, Masculinity, and the End of Breaking Up

  1. What a jerk. I feel fortunate to have spent my dating years in a less technical era. I feel especially fortunate to have gone through high school without Twitter, Facebook, and Springform.

  2. Wow, it’s so interesting how you link your break up to the book Every 12 Seconds. I really enjoyed that book, I found it very interesting and insightful.
    Thanks and sorry about the guy.
    -anon

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  8. That sounds really crappy. I guess everyone’s had ‘men problems’ so your post struck a lot of nerves. I personally find it quite painful to reject someone, and I’d rather, I think, be rejected. When I do reject, I try to do it personally, sort of modelling the kind of behaviour I’d like other people to have. I do that on the internet, too – I write ‘no thank you..’ letters (and sometimes get that ‘but..but..’ response). The effect I’ve noticed with internet dating is that men don’t know how to ask women out in person any more (well, they might not be single, for instance! how would a man know). Even really attractive people would prefer to choose from a sort of anonymous buffet menu. Courting is such a tricksy thing whatever era you do it in, I reckon.

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