Who Picks Up the Pieces When Men Break Under Toxic Masculinity?

In a feature for The New York Times, Wil S. Hylton uses life experience to explain why he wants his son to begin thinking about the ways in which men fail. 

Hylton's piece, "My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me" is lengthy, but it's definitely a must-read. Hylton's article raises many questions about who picks up the broken pieces when men crumble under the pressures of toxic masculinity. 

The New York Times defines toxic masculinity as a set of behaviors and characteristics that can result from teaching boys that they cannot express emotion openly. This can include everything from suppressing emotions to equating violence with power. Toxic masculinity relates femininity to weakness and teaches men that they have to put up a "tough guy" front.

The societal side effects of toxic masculinity are serious. American men are currently almost four times more likely to die by suicide than women. This is in part because men are less likely to seek mental health treatment than women — only 5% of men seek outpatient mental health services when they are struggling. The APA identifies other health disparities as arising under macho man expectations, specifically cardiovascular problems and substance abuse. And the harmful effects of toxic masculinity can play out in arenas other than mental or physical health. In school, boys are more likely to face disciplinary problems and academic challenges. Men are also more likely to commit violent crimes and are overrepresented in prison, according to the APA

Further, since it teaches emotional suppression, toxic masculinity can wreak havoc on a man's ability to form relationships with others. In "My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me", ​Hylton identified his struggles with masculinity as a common thread in both his idolization of his violent cousin and his failings as a husband. As a partner, he admits to making his wife tend to his young son's cries at night. He recounts leaving his wife at home for weeks at a time on the premise of work trips he planned just to get away from the strain of domestic life—at her expense.

In a thousand different ways, Hylton waxes poetic on his struggles with his faith when masculinity was his religion. Missing from Hylton's analysis of his own struggle with masculinity, however, is a careful examination of who picks up the pieces when, as he puts it, men fail. 

Women pick up the pieces when expectations of masculinity shatter men. Whereas society teaches men to "man up" and keep quiet about their problems, women, already stereotyped as "more emotional" than men, are encouraged to form close relationships with friends they can lean on for emotional support. This skill is a double-edged sword. On one hand, women are often skilled at forming close relationships with others and forming support systems for themselves as they navigate school, work, and relationships. On the other hand, women are also ready (and expected) to step in when the men in their lives need emotional assistance. And while providing emotional support is just one aspect of being a good partner, sibling, or friend, women end up paying the price for men who are incapable of handling their own emotional needs. 

But male emotional needs aren't all women end up being responsible for in a society saturated with toxic masculinity. In Hylton's narrative, he described pushing all domestic responsibilities onto his wife as he struggled with what he named as a "lifelong conflict with male identity." Hylton might not have had his wife take care of his emotional needs per se, but she certainly picked up the slack when her husband's inner turmoil prevented him from being a good partner at home. And for Harper's Bazaar, the same woman who reported that she was supporting her brothers emotionally after their divorces told the magazine she was moving in with her mom to provide the caretaking assistance she knew her brothers wouldn't provide themselves.

In my own life, I have watched myself and the women around me make up for male shortcomings that result from toxic masculinity. We have urged our partners, siblings, and friends to talk about their feelings, seek help for addiction, and communicate their needs. We envision a world where men can express themselves and extricate themselves from the nooses that are tightened by toxic masculinity. But as we face countless other demands in a society where we frequently face the pressures of patriarchy ourselves (wage gaps, sexual harassment, and gender-based discrimination, just to name a few), we as women cannot continue to be responsible for men's emotional inadequacies. Men, too, need to step up to the plate in providing emotional support for the men in their lives. Yes, calling on the men in our lives to provide support to their brothers in a culture that already prevents men from talking about their feelings might seem counterintuitive. But it's time women receive assistance in their efforts to support the men in their lives. After all, our mental and physical health likely depends on it. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3