Has Commitment Become Too Risky For Men?

Gerald L. Rowles, Ph.D.


Just one short generation ago, the cartoon ending for a footloose man portrayed a hapless groom being convinced to marry via a "shotgun" wedding. Flash forward one chaotic generation and we still find men and women getting "hooked up" - in today's vernacular for extramarital sex - but they are no longer attending armed weddings. They often just "shack up".

And still, men are caricatured as the relational partner who fears "commitment." In a recent article, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker lamented the reality that it is contemporary women who are the failing to commit:

"Remember when guys suffered Fear of Commitment? Today, young women suffer Contempt for Commitment. Gloria Steinem's maxim springs to mind: 'A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.' "( 1.)


Today's shack ups and footloosers share a radically different, and mutually exclusive, gender-based-mind set than that of the previous generations.

Dr. Sanford Braver identifies the "Women's Movement" as planting this most prolific seed of change:

"Thus the movement encouraged women and men to view traditional gender relationships within marriage as unacceptable.
As (Professor) David Popenoe writes: 'If men in families can't be reformed, the argument goes, let's throw them out. This perspective typically envisions the family ... as a patriarchal invention. It was presumably created by men so they could imprison women in marriage and have total control over their sexuality and their children.'"
"... Raising Women's consciousness has correspondingly lowered their degree of tolerance for unrewarding marriages or for their husbands' behavior and shortcomings "

"... According to our research, the top ten reasons mothers give for seeking divorce include such mundane factors as 'gradual growing apart,' 'differences in lifestyle or values,' 'not feeling loved or appreciated by spouse,' and ' spouse not able or willing to meet my needs.'"( 2.)

A subset of men seem to remain sublimely oblivious to the constrictions of this generational change, focusing instead on its relaxation of sexual mores and prohibitions. And the popular media seems intent on directing its salacious content toward this group.

But for those men - I believe to be in the majority - who are even peripherally attending to the potential consequences of such oblivion, the situation is far more grave. And the young men who comprise the post-baby-boom population are having their consciousness raised in a far less direct fashion than did their mothers. Many of these men have grown up in the midst of divorced, "blended", and single-mother "families." And those men who have not directly experienced these conditions, have witnessed the impact of those conditions within their cohort. While women enjoyed the comraderie and networking of their sisters in the movement, men remain traditionally individualistic in their isolated learning.


I cannot address here the panoply of change for men and boys in all sectors of the broader culture such as employment, education, and the gender-muddled. The focus here is on the changed nature of relationships of a sexual and/or intimate nature between men and women that were once entirely cast within the context of marriage and child-rearing.

  • Urban myth and junk science continue to hold men's feet to the fire for being the marital deserter. Alas, such is not the case. As Dr. Braver puts it, the "dirty little secret" of contemporary culture is that women and mothers initiate the vast majority of divorces:
    "The result that women initiate the preponderance of modern divorces is hardly unique to our investigation, we found upon further study. Rather, there is hardly a single study which doesn't find almost the same proportions. The most well-known research on this matter was conducted by Judith Wallerstein, who found that 65 percent of the divorces were sought by women, 'in the face of opposition' by the other spouse. Additionally, Constance Ahrons found that 'between two-thirds and three quarters of all divorces are initiated by the wife.'" ( 2.)
    "Few policymakers in the divorce arena know or even suspect the finding. The reason is that the result has not been well publicized..., perhaps because of how politically unacceptable it is. To acknowledge the result suggests that men may not be entirely to blame for divorce, and that women are perhaps not so helpless and victimized as was thought." ( 2.)

    It seems intuitively apparent that despite the lack of publication, most men must by now be aware that they are now more often the "dumpee" than the "dumper" in marriage. Given such awareness, can a fear of non-mutual commitment be far behind?

  • One need not intuit the anti-male, anti-father biases that characterize family courts and their parasitic Divorce Industry. ( 3.) Every man and woman in the United States has a friend, cousin, uncle/aunt, or other acquaintance who has run this gauntlet. The formulaic conclusion of this exercise is a virtual constant for Divorced Dads. Mother gets the child(ren), Dad gets two or three weekend visitations per month, and a hefty child support obligation, if not an additional penalty of alimony. And depending on the acrimony involved in custody or property disputes, attorney's fees can run thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars.

    Shack-up and footloose sperm-fathers fare no better. Sometimes the courts are even less tolerant of their paternity claims, and/or demands for paternal rights. But they will still assess comparable support awards.

    "According to David Blankenhorn, 'divorce almost by definition, destroys the basis for effective paternity ... the reality is that visiting fatherhood is a contradiction in terms ... Visitation confers almost none of the predictable benefits of fatherhood because visitation is not fatherhood.' - in Sanford ( 2.)"

  • Another article from the category of myth is that men come away from divorce (and other less formal arrangements) emotionally unscathed. The image of the emotionally detached or unfeeling male patriarch remains fully entrenched. But this too is far from fact.

    Early in 1998, I published a paper that recounted the experiences derived from my contacts with more than 3000 divorced and divorcing dads (and the occasional unwed dad) who were trying to work through the emotional devastation of divorce and the loss of their children. It was, and remains, my conclusion that these divorced dads were exhibiting a clinical level of grief and loss that combined the clinical diagnoses of Depression and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress disorder). It was also my impression that most of these men were virtually debilitated by their emotional distress. I initially referred to the observed effects as the Defeated Father Syndrome. After the publication of Sanford Braver's Book I renamed it the Disenfranchised Father Syndrome (DFS)( 4.).

    Dr. Braver found, as I had, that "men have more trouble recovering emotionally" from divorce. He notes that "most often the man - feels utterly powerless because he can do nothing to prevent the breakup of the marriage." This is entirely consistent with my experience in dealing with the DA*DI dads. Hence, I attached the label Defeated. But mine was an outcome-based label. It failed to encompass the whole of the divorced, battle-weary-father experience and what precipitates that sense of defeat.

    Dr. Braver more adequately captured the precipitating event in using the label Disenfranchised. He reports, "Fathers are often obsessed with what they perceive as the profound bias against them displayed by the courts and the legal system."( 2.) And the fact is that such a bias does exist, including the presumption that all divorced dads are or will become deadbeat dads.

    Expanding on Dr. Braver's findings, Parke and Brott in "Throwaway Dads"( 5.) take us another step closer to understanding the degree to which the contemporary myth of the unfeeling, macho, uninvolved, "deadbeat", if not "dangerous" dad belies the frequent, tragic-reality of the post-divorce, disenfranchised, "visiting father." To their credit, Parke and Brott take note of the fact that "hammering men over the head" with their "wildly exaggerated ... shortcomings only fills them with feelings of shame that serve to drive them further from their families" ... and developing a sense of "being worthless and powerless."

    The definition of disenfranchised is "to deprive of political rights", "to enslave", "to deprive of a franchise, of a legal right, or of some privilege or immunity". Such is the process of becoming a divorced dad - a disenfranchised parent. These definitions are becoming even more relevant as the Child Support Enforcement statutes become more egregious - e.g., depriving Fathers of their licenses to drive or practice their professions.

  • If you sense that I have been building to a crescendo to get to this point, you are precisely on target. Just this month (April, 2000) the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health( 6.) published an article authored by Augustine J. Kposowa entitled "Marital status and suicide in the National Longitudinal Mortality Study."

    This robust study (471,922 observations) arrived at the following dramatic conclusions:

    • Divorced men are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than married men.
    • Divorce and separation have the strongest association with suicide. "In the present investigation, it was observed that once socioeconomic and demographic factors are controlled, only divorce is a significant risk factor for male suicide."
    • The study controlled for gender, and found that female divorcees in particular were not associated with an elevated risk of suicide.
    • As clinical depression is often a prelude to suicide, poor mental health probably accounts for the higher risk of suicide.... One source of suicide ...(is) the result of a sudden and unexpected change in a person's social standing, for example, a shift from being married to being divorced ...
    • "Loss of an integrative family unit" is considered to be the unique circumstance faced by a divorced (male).
    • Being widowed or single (never married) has no statistically significant effect on suicide.
    • "...Marriage offers the best protection against suicide because it provides social and community integration, and reduces social isolation.
    • The lower the level of education, the higher the risk of suicide.

    Braver( 2.) also makes note that fathers are uniquely at severe risk of emotional disorder following divorce.

    "... divorced men had substantially higher rates of hospital admissions to psychiatric facilities than divorced women. This is not a fleeting difference that evens out after a period of months. Rather, these gender imbalances in coping can last as long as ten years. Even more disturbing, another (1988) study found that suicide rates for divorced men were five times higher than for married men and significantly higher for divorced men than for divorced women."


    Elsewhere,( 7.) I have written that it is time for men to make a significant change in their approach to sexuality and intimacy. All too often, men fail to differentiate between lust and love, making any relational commitment risky from the outset. And from the analysis presented above, it is clear that those risks may be both emotionally and financially grave.

    The inescapable conclusion is, that as a matter of their emotional and physical health, men cannot continue to indulge themselves at the sexual trough of relaxed cultural attitudes and disinhibited female partners.

    Men can only re-empower themselves by pulling back from the brink of potential self-demolition, and taking control of their bodies so that their minds and emotions remain in bounds. Abstinence, goal setting, extended (non-sexual, unshacked-up) courtship, common interests and goals, may well be antiquated notions, but they are far less risky for contemporary males - and deserve serious reconsideration.

    In the words of Kathleen Parker( 1.):

    "In a world in which women devalue men and fathers, where women hold the high cards in divorce and family-making decisions, it may have been inevitable that men would begin guarding their bodies and that which is uniquely their own.

    Just like women once did."

    Has Commitment become "too risky" for men? The answer to that question is that in today's culture it has indeed become dramatically more risky than at any other time in recent memory. Commitment, from both the masculine and potential fatherhood perspective, now requires a far more thoughtful and rational approach.

    There is an interesting corollary in all of this. Women are buying "romance novels" at unprecedented rates. Harlequin Romance recently reported more than $160 million in sales. One of the prime ingredients in these paperback novellas is the portrayal of steamy love relationships with a strong, virile man, in which the heroine is sexually powerful. The question is, does that represent "woman-in-control" or "woman-in-trust"? I believe women are still looking for the same security in relationships that they always have. It follows that from this perspective, abiding trust is an abiding aphrodisiac for committed, intimate relationships.

    In prior generations, the defining aspects of masculinity - aside from virility - have been leadership, determination, honor, trustworthiness, and bravery. Today, it's a brave new world for men. Are they going to choose their place, or be put in it - take control or take risks - garner trust, or make sexual conquests? It's a powerful, or risky choice.


    1. Parker, K., April,5, 2000 , "Unwed motherhood is a crying shame", The Orlando Sentinel: http://orlandosentinel.com/automagic/features/2000-04-05/FEAPARKER05040500.html

    2. Braver, S. with O'Connell, D., 1998, "Divorced Dads; Shattering the Myths": http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/087477862X/dadi/103-5542909-8254235

    3. Rowles, G., 1994, "The Divorce Industry": http://www.dadi.org/Industry.htm

    4. Rowles, G., 1998, "the Disenfranchised Father Syndrome (DFS)": http://www.dadi.org/dfs.htm

    5. Parke, R. and Brott, A., 1999, "Throwaway Dads: The Myths And Barriers That Keep Men From Being The Fathers They Want To Be.": http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0395860415/dadi/103-5542909-8254235

    6. Kposowa, A., 2000, "Marital Status and suicide in the National Longitudinal Mortality Study", Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2000;54:254-261.

    7. Rowles, G. ,2000, In DA*DI.org, "DA*DI's Credo, It's Your Choice": http://www.dadi.org/

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