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How Capitalism Turns Intimate Relationships into a Battleground

How Capitalism Turns Intimate Relationships into a Battleground

by Susan Rosenthal

Relationship conflicts are a universal source of pain and confusion. I frequently counsel couples in distress where the woman is angry and the man is depressed. The woman cannot understand why the man won’t fix the problems in the relationship. The man feels inadequate. Nothing he does is good enough. The woman can’t understand how any man could feel inadequate, because men are supposed to be superior beings. In her mind, he has simply stopped caring about her.

The vulnerability of men is one of society’s best-kept secrets. Men are expected to provide and protect and solve all problems. They aren’t supposed to feel needy, vulnerable or inadequate, like women. Yet, in some ways, men are more vulnerable than women.

As early as five years of age, males are more likely than females to kill themselves. This difference increases through life. By age 22, men are six times more likely and by age 85 fifteen times more likely to kill themselves. When a relationship breaks up, the man is 11 times more likely than the woman to commit suicide.

Capitalism demands that men be tough to compete and endure hardship, while denying them the emotional support necessary for genuine inner strength.

To “toughen” males, society directs an astonishing level of violence against them. The most sensitive parts of their bodies are singled out for attack. Parents are pressured to circumcise infant sons in the first week of life, a traumatic procedure that is commonly performed without anesthetic. The same surgery done on female infants (removing the skin around the clitoris) is illegal in North America and generally condemned as cruel and mutilating.

More than 13 percent of boys have experienced assaults directed at their genitals, and 10 percent of boys have been kicked in the groin before junior high school. Boys subjected to physical violence are prohibited from expressing pain. In films, a man being kicked in the groin is typically presented as comical, despite the excruciating pain of such trauma.

Laughing at someone’s pain is a sign of dissociation, and both girls and boys learn to deny male vulnerability from an early age. One woman found herself laughing while reading a description of a woman battering her husband until she realized that, if the roles were reversed, she would be “screaming bloody murder.”

Sexist stereotypes depict real men as strong and powerful, not victims. To be a victim is to be without power, like a woman, and the most important thing for a man is to not be a woman.

Taunts like “Don’t be a cry-baby” and “Don’t be a girl” shame boys for feeling hurt or scared. The expectation that even very young boys should be tough causes them to be separated from their mothers much earlier than girls. While sons need their fathers’ affection, fathers consider it their duty to toughen their sons to help them succeed in life. Fathers have learned to suppress their emotions, and they expect their sons to do the same.

While men are prohibited from expressing “women’s” emotions (hurt, need, fear), anger is seen as a manly emotion because of its power. Consequently, boys learn to respond with anger, even rage, whenever they feel vulnerable or detect vulnerability in other males. Homophobic bullying is a common way for boys and men to bolster their masculine identity.

During school initiation rituals, violence against male students is condoned as “character building.” At Columbine High School, site of the 1999 shooting massacre, sports initiation rituals included senior wrestlers twisting the nipples of newcomers until they turned purple and older tennis players slamming hard volleys into the backsides of younger ones.

Sports train young men to hurt others and to risk being hurt, in order to win. When a head-injury prevention video was developed for hockey players aged nine to ten, 22 of 34 minor-league coaches refused to show the video because they thought it would “make players think they will hurt other players on the ice” and “decrease competitive success in the game.”

Recreational play is transformed into war-games, where there is no gain without pain, preferably the other guy’s pain. More than one young athlete has been killed or permanently crippled by assaults committed “in the course of the game.”

Crushing expectations combine with a lack of emotional support to create an inner despair that many men cannot communicate in words. Instead, they withdraw from intimate relationships, drink to excess, strike out in rage and kill themselves.

Much has been written about how the female role is profitable for capitalism. Women provide unpaid labor in the home to raise the next generation, and they are paid lower wages outside the home.

The male role also serves capitalism. Huge profits flow from shaming male workers to compete to produce more, to accept oppressive conditions (“only wimps complain”), and to serve as cannon fodder for imperial wars.

Domestic violence

When you hear the phrases “domestic violence” and “spouse abuse,” you probably picture a man assaulting a woman. During the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement drew needed attention to domestic violence. Because the feminist wing of the movement blames “male power” for family violence, female-perpetrated violence is dismissed as self-defense, and the fact that women are more likely to abuse children is swept under the carpet.

While there is more awareness of female-perpetrated violence today, it continues to be under-estimated for a number of reasons: Women are more likely to report spousal assault than men who are usually ashamed to admit they were assaulted by women. The belief that males are naturally more violent has caused most research to examine male perpetrators and female victims. Most studies do not distinguish between minor assaults, perpetrated by both men and women, and serious assaults that are more commonly perpetrated by men. These factors combine to give the mistaken impression that domestic violence is always serious, if not life-threatening, and that women attack men only in self-defence.

In reality, domestic violence does not result from any “battle of the sexes” because same-sex relationships are equally afflicted. Men in relationships with men are battered as often as women in relationships with men. And between 17 and 45 percent of lesbians report being the victim of at least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a female partner.

I have provided medical treatment for battered women, abused men, and adults of both sexes who were maltreated in childhood by mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. It doesn’t help to argue whether men or women are more responsible for domestic violence. All victims deserve support, and all perpetrators need treatment. The overriding need is to eliminate the social roots of family violence.

Stress and shame drive interpersonal violence. Stress escalates when people feel trapped in relationships they would rather leave. Women’s low pay keeps them financially dependent on men, especially when they have children. The State insists that men support women and children regardless of their ability to do so. People who feel trapped are more likely to attack one another. Not surprisingly, domestic violence increases as income levels fall.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling of believing one’s self to be unworthy or unacceptable, a loser. The primary source of shame is the social hierarchy that divides people into a few winners and many more losers. The lower down the pyramid you stand, the harder it is to feel good about yourself.

Intolerable shame transforms into rage that can be directed at one’s self or someone else. Rage and shame can re-enforce each other in a downward spiral of violence.

Powerlessness corrupts

Those most likely to injure their partners are not the ones who feel most powerful, but the ones who feel most powerless. Abusive men are more likely to feel like failures, to be unemployed or intermittently employed and to have less than high-school education. Their desire for complete control over the partner is directly related to their sense of unworthiness and their fear of loss.

On the surface, wife-battering looks like a display of male power. In reality, most men who batter feel extremely dependent and deeply ashamed of their dependence. Female batterers experience the same inner conflict.

A “battering cycle” can result when shame at feeling unworthy builds to an explosion of rage that drives the partner away. The terror of being abandoned leads to acts of contrition to draw the partner back. The return of the partner revives the fear of being rejected, and anger builds again. These people are at their partners’ throats one minute and at their knees the next.

Men are most likely to murder their partners when they feel least powerful, when the partner leaves or threatens to leave. Those who kill their partners often kill themselves at the same time. Such tragedies do not result from male power but from powerless rage.

Capitalism creates an impossible bind for both sexes. Because meeting human needs would cut into profits, people are deprived of what they need and then shamed for feeling needy. The more difficult life becomes, the more we expect love to provide compensation. Of course, it cannot. As needs go unmet, resentment builds, and we punish our loved ones for failing us, as fail they must.

By putting profits before people, capitalism transforms our most intimate relationships into a battleground. We must stop fighting each other and start pulling together to demand what we all need and deserve.

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13 Comments For This Post

  1. FujiFan Says:

    August 4/07

    Thank you for shedding some light on the way this nation treats its boys and men!

    I’m a nurse, and infant circumcision makes me sick. It’s so brutal and unnecessary.

    A very “unscientific” survey I’ve done on my own through the years has shown my uncircumcised boyfriends were always less hostile than the circumcised ones. It’s not a huge sample size by any means, but I’ve always wondered if having their genitals cut at birth made the circumcised men more like ticking time bombs. Maybe they started life with a lot of pain, and it put them in an angry mood for the rest of their life. I’m pretty sure I’d be upset if the same had been done to me!

    The bit about the hockey coaches and the injury prevention video also makes me sick. To think that any adult would prohibit children from gaining information that could save them or other players from injury in order to win more games is disgusting! Those coaches should be ashamed!

    Tim Allen on the TV show Home Improvement used to always put down his boys by calling them “girls” or saying they threw a ball like a girl. Isn’t it horrific that being a female in our society is looked down upon and used as an insult?

    Very nice blog. You may be one of the brightest people on the web!
    Carol

  2. Jeremy Wells Says:

    August 26/07

    Your article is the tip of the iceberg of a huge question that needs exposure and thought. That is, our consciousness of our own human nature is constantly being molded to maximize profitability.

    The most obvious effect of capitalism on men, more noticeable in the last 30 years in the U.S., is the inability of men to make a serious “living wage.” This is especially true if the man is not a college graduate, is from a working class family without connections, etc. and is trying to raise a family with one or two children.

    All your time and energy is spent trying to work overtime, extra jobs, and sacrificing vacations for the extra money. The time necessary to maintain relationships with the spouse and children disappears as the years go by.

    It is not just difficult to survive economically. For many it is impossible to make ends meet. Credit card debt piles up and is ultimately impossible to pay off.

    Unresolvable economic stress causes inevitable arguments and finally divorce. Remarriage is out of the question as long as economic conditions remain unchanged.

  3. Bill Says:

    August 27/07

    Thank you for pointing out the politics of domestic violence. It is difficult to separate out the economics of domestic violence from the politics but you have managed to do that as well.

    It is sexist to presume that only women are victims of domestic violence. I am an attorney who has handled cases of gay “DV” as well.

    Domestic violence laws cut both ways. Any law can create victims as well as saving them. DV laws are often used as a weapon in Family Law Court for gaining an advantage often not justified by the facts alone.

    Thank you for seeing this truth and having the courage to voice it. Many families are broken up by the very laws meant to protect women, just as child molestation and rape laws have been used for political purposes. Truth is never black-and-white.

    We have to examine the evidence and the motivations, as well as the interest of the lawyers or social workers involved, before the system can begin to provide fairness to the individual and the family as a whole.

  4. David Holmes Says:

    august 30/07

    After years of being falsely arrested for domestic violence by a bipolar, psychotic, alcoholic woman who was always believed by the police I finally left her. I personally know of two other women who play the law this way.

    Women have been taught to call the cops for revenge, out of anger, and a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with abuse. Something has to change. It’s so damn unfair.

    She more than once had me locked up so she could be with her boyfriend. I absolutely don’t trust women.

  5. Ron Horn Says:

    August 26/2007

    I think this and other articles on this website are helping to balance to the issue of male-female relationship problems.

    It has always bothered me to hear the phrase, “women and children”, as if women and children naturally belong in the same category. But that is, in fact, the way our patriarchal culture has viewed women, mostly as children, or adult females who lack the ability to take care of themselves, to have their own values, and opinions, etc. Of course, the history of capitalism has made women dependent to a great extent on men. Significant progress has been made to accommodate women as equals economically, and I think that the system can continue to accommodate women as equals. Meanwhile many people have not caught up with these changes, and as a result, still see women as victims almost automatically. I’ve seen some women use this to their advantage.

    It’s patriarchy, which predates capitalism, that I think accounts for the lag in thinking realistically about male-female relationship issues. Even if we manage to overturn capitalism, we still will need to deal with patriarchal issues.

  6. Susan Says:

    August 26/2007

    As a physician-psychotherapist, I have been immersed in the problems of men, women and children for more than 30 years. I have come to realize that ALL of their problems are the result of capitalist social relations.

    A separate theory of patriarchy is not needed. Patriarchy assumes that all men have an interest in oppressing all women. This is not true. The majority of men are ground down by the same system that oppresses women. And a minority of rich, privileged women are raised up by the same system that keeps their sisters down.

    The theory of patriarchy is an obstacle to building class unity against capitalism. It’s time we discarded it.

  7. Deadbeat Says:

    August 26/2007

    This is why I believe in advocating universal welfare. The current system allows the ex-wife to use the children as tools of aggrandizement, repression, and exploitation.

    Ms. Rosenthal is absolutely correct that the problem are the results of capitalist social relations. There is no “battle of the sexes”. That is rhetoric designed to divide and conquer everyone and to keep parasitic lawyers and other henchmen employed.

    Unfortunately the ruling class has many “tools” to weaken solidarity. Racism being a long standing one. The only solution is awareness and education to these social forces so that we can adjust our behavior and interaction toward each other while at the same time challenging the system that oppresses all of us.

  8. Nick Theophilou Says:

    August 28/2007

    In counselling men over the last 5 years, in groups and individually, I began to realize that violence is an expression of powerlessness and that men are by and large conditioned into a narrow expression of their emotional life. I have also seen men hunger to be more fully human, to express themselves more fully as human beings, and become happier when they are able to do so. I have also seen how easy it is to revert to old ways of being, so that one must continually work to maintain a fuller life.

    To help men in this regard, I have produced a film (http://www.fathersandsons.com.au) that demystifies mens’ groups which, I believe, can support men to develop the softer emotions. Many men have said they go home ‘quieter’, more available to the support their partners give and more capable of giving that support.

    I have also seen many women with ‘stellar careers’ begin to show the same attributes we have come to expect from the traditional male: stress, anger, and certainly little or no overt emotion like weeping.

    Thank you Susan Rosenthal for the article. I will pass it on.

  9. Jerry Says:

    August 28/2007

    A truly ground-breaking look at the MYTH of male power is Warren Farrell’s book, “The Myth of Male Power.”

    Examples of his work can be found at http://battlinbog.blog-city.com/at_male_matters_july_16_the_worlds_most_insightful_gender_ex.htm

  10. CH Says:

    August 28/2007

    Male babies aren’t anesthetized when they’re circumcised? Ouch! I used to work in a hospital and once saw a baby boy (not just any baby, but one born prematurely) being circumcised. I assumed he was anesthetized. I guess I was wrong.

    The image of the circumcised penis is so prevalent in the media that one can forget that many of the world’s males aren’t circumcised.

  11. James Cameron Says:

    August 29/2007

    It really is refreshing (and unusual) to see the left speaking up for men.

    How many times have we heard the left trot out tired mantra that men run the world? The implication being, of course, that individual men deserve no sympathy or help, regardless of the circumstances.

    It is true that the world is run by a small number of men, but men do not run the world. Most men are poor and powerless, just like most women.

    And, now that almost two thirds of college graduates are women, the power balance is swinging very much in women’s favor, particularly on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. In fact, in many major U.S. cities, young women now out earn young men. These trends are even more pronounced in minority communities.

    Feminism has focused for years on the complaints of upper middle class white women who resent the relative success of their male peers. In the process, it has painted all men, no matter how poor and powerless, as oppressors and all women, no matter how wealthy and powerful as “disadvantaged” and oppressed.

    No wonder that ordinary working class men appear to be increasingly swinging right, even to the point of voting against their own economic interests.

  12. Monika Says:

    I do not mean to cause any argument, but can you site sources for any of the figures you quote? (I know you can I just want them to show my friends) secondly have you considered the effect of pornography, and romance novels/tv/movies in these conclusions? I feel that they generate unrealistic expectations on both genders.

  13. admin Says:

    Monika – there is nothing wrong with argument or disagreement when we are respectful in our search for understanding.

    I used many sources for this article. Particularly useful were: Betrayed as Boys by Richard B. Gardner; The Abusive Personality by Donald Dutton; Violence – Our Deadly Epidemic and its Causes by James Gilligan and the Intimate Partner Violence Survey (U.S.)

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