Here’s a truism that also happens to be true: Single men are seen as happy-go-lucky bachelors having too much fun to settle down, while single women are often seen as sad and bereft creatures desperate to snag a man. I knew about those stereotypes when I sat down to write “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” a novel told from the male point-of-view. What I didn’t know is just how much this matters.
My protagonist, Nate, is a well-educated writer in his early 30s. He lives in Brooklyn. His world is my world, and yet when I looked at it through Nate’s eyes, the landscape looked so different. I began to realize just how different it would be to operate in a world whose romantic assumptions about you were so hospitable to your self-esteem—that is, to be a man.
A sense of being pitied—or at least pitiable—is communicated to women in myriad interactions that, taken on their own, may be too minor to register but cumulatively send the message that if she is single, it’s because she can’t find a man. It doesn’t even matter if she wants to find one. Resisting the stereotype and demonstrating (implicitly or explicitly) to people—from well-meaning relatives to self-satisfied OkCupid dates—that she isn’t actually desperate is a burden imposed only on women. It’s something we have to do just to keep up a level of self-esteem that men as a class take as a baseline level.
Avoiding the taint of desperation is exhausting: Who wants to manage perceptions all the time? It’s also tactically difficult, given the ever-present danger of protesting too much and seeming to confirm what you’d hoped to refute. In this environment, qualities that prevent women from seeming desperate—beauty or charisma, for instance—acquire new value, for reasons have nothing to do with attracting men: they serve as armor against demoralizing insinuations, spoken or otherwise. The sense of being in a pitied group also creates incentives for a woman to distinguish herself from other women, to prove that she is unlike other women, that she is better and somehow less pathetic than the rest.
For a woman, having a boyfriend or partner also has benefits beyond the obvious gender-neutral ones. Being in a relationship is also a way to quiet the noise, refute the judgment from without. But for men, the reverse is true. In our sexually permissive, marry-late world, men lose a little bit of status among other men when they enter a relationship: they are seen as having been domesticated, potentially whipped. To be affected by this perception, a man doesn’t have to believe this himself, or even put stock in the opinion of those who do. It’s in the atmosphere. For the kind of guy who no longer has to prove that he can get a girlfriend—a reasonably attractive, personable urbanite with decent career prospects—a girlfriend is at best neutral socially. This doesn’t mean that an individual guy doesn’t want one; maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. It means that some of the extra-romantic pressures that operate on women as a group don’t operate on men as a group.
The weight of so many female-specific pressures became evident to me when, by virtue of the character I was impersonating, I was temporarily relieved of it. Aspects of Nate’s mental life that a male writer might have taken for granted stood out to me because they were new and unfamiliar. (It’s the de Tocqueville principle, where a traveler to a foreign land notices customs so ingrained that the locals hardly register them.) Nate’s ambivalence about relationships was interesting in part because it was different from my own—from the ambivalence I felt when I was single. Mine tended to be more specific to the person I was with. Nate’s is more general. It’s not as much about wanting to meet the right person or wondering about what that might feel like as it is about whether he feels like trading in the benefits and drawbacks of solitude to the benefits and drawbacks of partnership.
I came back from my “travels” with mixed feelings. At first, Nate’s freedom from anxiety seemed intoxicating, even enviable. But I began to see a downside. If, for men as a category, relationships are less inherently desirable in the abstract than they are to women, any given relationship is also slightly less desirable. Even a small imbalance like this one can have a significant effect on a couple, which is after all a democracy of two. In this sense, the game is indeed rigged in favor of men.
But in a deeper sense, the situation isn’t so simple. Power isn’t a good in and of itself, and winning the upper hand—being the person who cares less in a relationship—doesn’t matter all that much outside the high school cafeteria. But it can engender an unearned sort of self-satisfaction, and that can be debilitating, as it is for Nate. It’s easy in a world so forgiving (a bubble of sorts) to avoid moments of painful reflection, to instead reach for the next thing, the next distraction; the cost of losing one woman may seem relatively small given the easy certainty of meeting another.
In the short term, this seems fine, but years of living frictionlessly take a toll on self-awareness and empathy. For some people—shallow ones—this may not matter much, but for the rest of us, this is a frightening outcome. For a person with a conscience, becoming a small-scale monster is its own kind of humiliation.