Photo by Kevin Liu on Unsplash
Agony Aunt columns may soothe through a lent ear. Some might even have contributed to change in past conservative societies by offering frank advice on things not normally spoken off – such as on contraceptives. However, by and large they remain a part of the lonely world of individualism.
Consider a recent bit of advice in The Sun’s Dear Deirdre column.(1) Often a bit of a raunchy or voyeuristic content the recent one was rather tame. A woman asks should she leave her husband – he hardly talks to her anymore, shows no affection, and their sex life is dead. The response to this woman, basically, is not to leave, give the guy a massage and suggest he goes to a GP for depression.
Hmmm, how successful is that likely to be?
Much of the responsibility and implicit blame are left to an individual – in this case the troubled wife who must be more attentive – and society’s role is completely ignored.
What would a more society-conscious perspective offer?
Of course, the background info is scant so any suggestions should be issued tenuously and come with a caveat. Although we don’t know the type of business or any specific elements about class backgrounds, we do know that the central characters are a man and a woman and that both are aged 56.
It is suggested that the timing of the problems is linked to the loss of the business and that he now works for somebody else which he hates. No longer his “own boss” there has been a clear loss of power in this workplace change.
Loss of power and status is closely associated with many problems for men, including feelings of inadequacy, shame, depression, suicide or even extremism. We do not know how the failure of the business took place and whether he might blame her for some of it or was his sense of inadequacy worsened by his life partner being a witness to his demise – does she now in some way serve as a reminder of his ‘failure’?
Might one of these relationship connections be contributing to their lack of intimacy and defunct sex-life?
We do know, however, that boys have typically been encouraged to be men, to achieve, to ‘man-up’. Again, without knowledge of background, a man born in the 60s, would surely have been submerged – at least on occasion – in interactions, symbols, ideas and practices of manliness.
So what sort of advice does this lead to then?
This post is not suggesting that a visit to the GP should be avoided since one of the other links between expectations based around masculinity and suicide is avoiding seeking help so as to not appear weak. But there are additional options that being conscious of the societal puts on the table.
If dispositional elements, underlying how we act, are an emergent part of the routines and environments in which we are embedded then should we not seek to change them where they contribute to these bleak situations?
If his sense of status is not being found in the workplace should he not seek to reclaim it elsewhere? Salaried status is deeply problematic anyway, contributing to narcissistic tendencies such as conspicuous consumption, over-accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, stark inequality, etc. What about finding respect in community engagement instead?
Volunteering appears to offer a sense of validity. Perhaps it can enhance supportive social networks that adhering to misguided masculine variants of independence – e.g. myths of ‘the self-made man’ and the ability to ‘stand on your own two feet’ – can inhibit from developing.
This isn’t just a case of masculinity. The current economic system has a heavy emphasis on placing individuals at the mercy of the labour market, which can leave them feeling very exposed. Again, being part of community resilience might help counteract that sense of exposure.
To limit the isolation and its accompanying self-obsession it could help to be part of something bigger than yourself and in so doing find a camaraderie with others. Unfortunately, for certain extreme cases this sort of solution to affronted masculinity has been to join far-right groups as Michael Kimmel’s research highlights. But of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.
For the types of exposure being suffered by the man in question other actions to hand would be to join groups that campaign towards greater empowerment in the workplace or to be part of organizations like Calm, the Campaign Against Living Miserably and push for recognition of masculinity’s relationship to mental health.
This all requires some element of communication, opening up with each other, and some openness to reflexivity on the part of the man – that is on some level he needs to look at the social history of his own actions.
Emotions too, are important and should not be ignored. There is an intelligence in emotions that often sees them act as markers of power. In that sense the powerful can feel contempt for those they perceive to be lesser than themselves, embarrassment and shame are often the emotions of the oppressed. There is a need to do something that is in opposition to traditional masculinity and that is to listen to these emotions.
The answer to alleviating them might be found in identifying when and where they emerge, what stirs them, and try to understand how one might have come to be susceptible to such disturbing emotions under these circumstances? For example, are these emotions markers of stalled entitlement and if so where has this sense of entitlement emerged from in the first place? Does rejecting individual entitlement in favour of something larger than oneself help to relieve it?
If, however, the man is not in any way open to confronting these problems should she stay, as Deirdre suggests, and continue throwing massages into the deep void in his life? There are no easy answers and trying to provide them seems to open up more questions.
We are told that she finds it hard to find work where they live as they are not near a town, there’s no bus route and she hasn’t got a car. Should she continue such self-sacrifice if he’s unwilling to change? Should her own problem not be treated on the same level as his in the first place?
Is working-from-home the solution as suggested by Deirdre or simply another route to further self-sacrifice through her own exploitation – overwork is sometimes associated with this type of activity?
The ultimate questions then perhaps should be: is the advice of Agony Aunts largely redundant when they locate what are essentially social problems within the individuals who suffer them? and what significance does this have for how the problems of individuals are to be confronted?