The Other Problem That Has No Name

On February 19, 1963, W.W. Norton published Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the book that helped launch the 1970s feminist revolution. In it, Friedan identified what she believed was the widespread unhappiness of housewives in the mid-20th century and labeled this malaise the “feminine mystique.”

Her underlying argument was that women’s lives were narrowed into the domestic sphere and that this caused wives to lose their identities. To alleviate this problem, Friedan said, women should devote themselves to a career rather than to family.

How common the “feminine mystique” actually was is still in question. What isn’t in question is that fifty years later, the concept of a lost identity can absolutely, no question about it, be attributed to men.

Men’s identities are being crushed as we speak.

Let me tell you about Mark, a married father of two who I’m in the midst of coaching (along with his wife). Like every other red-blooded male, Mark has single focus: he’s at his best when he concentrates on one thing at a time. And when it comes to earning for his family, again like most men Mark feels a unique kind of pressure—one most wives do not. I don’t care how many “working mothers” (God I hate that phrase; what’s a nonworking mother?) there are out there; it isn’t the same. Most married mothers work for precisely the reason Friedan laid out in her book: to achieve some measure of personal fulfillment outside the home.

That is not why married men work. They work because the need to provide is in their blood. It is a man’s main contribution to family life, regardless of how useful he may be on the home front as well. Unlike most women, the pressure most men feel to produce is not a pressure they resent but a pressure they welcome.

Yet it still takes an enormous amount out of them. As a result, men like Mark are often quick to let their wives rule the roost at home—and this is when the problems begin. It feels easier to many men to let their wives manage the minutia of family life, for two reasons. 1. It helps free up their minds so they can focus on work. 2. Many men are married to strong-willed women who insist on being in charge, and these husbands get tired of fighting. Consequently, they give up. Men aren’t cut out for emotional warfare, so it’s easier to let his wife be in control.

As logical as this may seem, there’s a danger to it—for both husband and wife. I know this because I see it every day in my work. Dominant wives and accommodating husbands represent the new norm in America. Well, in the West, really. We’ve done a complete 180 since the publication of The Feminine Mystique.

Indeed, Mark is not alone. He represents the countless husbands who’ve suppressed their identities in an effort to keep the peace at home. And the irony of the whole thing is that when this happens, neither partner is happy. You might think the wife would be since she’s calling the shots. But in fact, she doesn’t.

What almost every woman wants is a strong, competent man on whom she can depend. A man who gets shit done, and who doesn’t seek approval from anyone, including his wife’s. A man who’s a leader, not a follower. Who doesn’t wait to be told what to do but who does it when he sees it needs to be done.

And what men want is a place at the table. Husbands should have at the very least an equal role in the goings-on at home, such as who he chooses to spend his free time with and how the money he earns gets spent. If he’s not in control of that, the marriage is a ticking time bomb. Because when a husband abdicates that role to his wife, he ends up with a boatload of resentment—toward her for being controlling and toward himself for allowing her to be.

But there is good news! These couples may not know it, but they actually want the same thing. He wants her to be a little less strong, and she wants him to be stronger. That’s a match.

In Mark’s case, he married his wife because he loves how vivacious and smart and competent she is. He admires her strength. What he didn’t anticipate was that her strength would overpower his. But it did.

Somewhere along the line, he took a step back to accommodate her strong personality. Since it appeared she wanted to be in charge, he let her. He thought the nicer and more accommodating he was, the happier his wife and their relationship would be.

But the opposite happened. She became less happy, less agreeable, less playful, and less sexual. She no longer feels like the woman he knew when they met.

Of all the messages modern men need to hear, this is the most important: The more you let your wife lead, the more difficult your relationship will become. What your wife wants is for you to not be so nice and so accommodating. What she needs is for you to take the bull by the horns. She wants you, in essence, to tame her.

What you’re doing now isn’t working. When you’re compliant all the time, it will fester. Plus it’s not a mark of a mature man. A mature man knows who he is and isn’t afraid say so, no matter who’s in his midst.

Now this next part is important. I’m not suggesting you become an asshole. People often conflate being strong with being domineering, but they are not the same thing. What women crave is your inherent masculine nature, the one that’s lying dormant inside you because you’ve been told it’s bad.

Your masculinity is not bad. Quite the opposite: It is the engine on which your relationship will run. Without it, at best your relationship will coast. At worse, it will die.

I’m sorry there’s been so much fear mongering as of late about traditional masculinity being defective at its core. Unfortunately, this fear has caused men to overcorrect by becoming too soft. Too feminine. Too…agreeable. And women aren’t attracted to soft and agreeable men. They just aren’t. And women aren't attracted to soft and agreeable men. They just aren't. Share on X

And here’s the kicker: the stronger your woman is, the stronger you’ll have to be. Like Mark, you no doubt love your high spirited, can-do woman. But you probably also wish she could be just a little bit softer.

Guess what? She wishes the same thing. She doesn’t actually want to be in charge all the time, but she’s scared that if she steps back you won’t step up. She’s worried you won’t lead her. So: show her you can and you will.

In my next post, I’m going to help you do just that. Stay tuned!

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne is an author, a coach, and a podcast host committed to helping women let go of cultural beliefs that undermine their happiness in life and in love.