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Why Men Leave. What Every Woman (and Man) Needs to Know.

Dear Dr. Jed,
I was in my doctor’s waiting room and just so happened to read an article in the grapevine magazine about “The Irritable Male Syndrome.” This described my husband to a T. He’s started to take things out on my children getting very angry at them and bringing their confidence down. He would also degrade me about my weight and appearance and would call me names. He said that everything was my fault. I finally decided to take my kids away for a week to get away from him. We had a great time and I began to find myself again.

When I got back I felt a lot better about myself and I had more faith that we could work out our problems. It seemed things were going better for awhile, but his dark moods returned and one day he just announced that he was leaving. He got himself an apartment not far from here and he still comes around to see the kids, but he still bristles when I try and talk to him about us. He doesn’t seem happy. How do I get him to see what he is doing?It seems so obvious to me and everybody else, but he is just not willing to listen and still thinks I am the problem.

What makes it even harder is that I still love him and I think he loves me. I pray and hope we can get through this for each other and our children but I don\’t know what to do. If I wait until he comes to me he may never return. Every time I reach out to him he tells me I’m the problem. I wonder if I just have to move on with my life. Maybe my husband has to figure things out for himself. But it doesn\’t seem fair that my children and I have to go through this pain. I just don\’t know what to do. You are my last hope. Can you help me, my husband and our family? JP.

Many people spend a good part of their lives worrying about whether a spouse might leave. Some must actually deal with the consequences of a man’s moving out. Although there are endless discussions and many books written about why men leave, few people get at the heart of the matter. For you to make the right decision you need to understand the secret reasons, that even most men never come to learn, about why they leave.

The first thing you need to know is that men are inherently more insecure than women, though you wouldn’t know it by the way men posture their self-sufficiency. But consider these facts about male vulnerability:

  • More male than female embryos are conceived, possibly because the spermatozoa carrying the Y chromosome swim faster than those carry the X.
  • External maternal stress around the time of conception is associated with a reduction in the male-to-female sex ratio, suggesting that the male embryo is more vulnerable than the female.
  • The male fetus is at greatest risk of death or damage from almost all the obstetric catastrophes that can happen before birth. Perinatal brain damage, cerebral palsy, congenital deformities of the genitalia and limbs, premature birth, and still birth are all more common in boys.
  • Boy’s brains are slower to develop. According to studies, a newborn girl is the physiological equivalent of a 4- to 6-week old boy.
  • According Dr. William S. Pollock in the Department of psychiatry at Harvard medical school, “Although boys have the same emotional potential as girls, their emotional range is soon limited to a menu of three related feelings: rage, triumph, and lust.” Anything else and they risk being seen as a sissy, says Dr. Pollack.

Male vulnerability and our need to act like men can be deadly. When asked if the American man was endangered species, Dr. Herb Goldberg, the author of The Hazards of Being Male, replied, “Absolutely! The male has paid a heavy price for his masculine ‘privilege’ and power. He is out of touch with his emotions and his body. He is playing by the rules of the male game plan and with lemming-like purpose he is destroying himself—emotionally, psychologically, and physically.”

The second thing you need to know about males is that we long to be touched, loved, and nurtured, but we are afraid of it as well. Why is that? A number of studies show that mothers talk to, cuddle, and breastfeed male infants significantly less than female infants.

So boys experience a nurturing deficit from the very beginning and long to make up for what we didn’t get. However, as boys get older we are taught to be tough and not to need the “tender loving care” that most girls more often get from their parents, relatives, and friends. These conflicting desires create a huge ambivalence inside most men. Inside we know we need extra nurturing. But we are told that it isn’t manly to need it. If we act too “needy,” we will be rejected by the very women who long to get nurtured by. Do you get a sense of the bind we feel?

The third thing you need to know about men is that we have an unconscious compulsion to get our spouse to give us the “mothering” we missed growing up. According to John W. Travis, M.D., author of Why Men Leave, “It\’s no surprise, then, that most of the unbonded boys in our culture grow into men who spend a good deal of their lives unconsciously seeking a mommy-figure to provide them with the nurturing they were denied as infants/children (fueled by advertising that prominently features the breasts they were denied.)”

The forth thing you need to know about men is that we may do all right early on in the relationship when a lot of focus is on us and our needs. We may appear to be “perfect gentlemen” giving the woman all the signs of love she is needs. In fact, we are giving her the things we know will get us the love and care we desperately need.

However, as the relationship matures and children are born and grow up, we increasingly lose our special position with the woman. As she matures, she expresses more of her own needs. Work and other demands make her less available. We may initially compensate for the loss by getting involved with work ourselves, drink, use drugs, etc, but deep inside a time-bomb is ticking. One little loss, disappointment, or threat to our stability and the whole house of cards begins to fall.

The fifth thing you need to know is that no matter how much a woman gives to the man, it will never be enough. The love of a good woman can never make up for the losses a man suffered growing up. But he doesn’t know that. He believes that she could, would, and must give him what he needs. If she doesn’t, his love suddenly turns to hate. Is this making sense to you?

From her perspective, her wonderful, loving mate has suddenly gone from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, from Mr. Nice to Mr. Mean. From his perspective, all the love and nurture he was promised when he met and married this woman, has systematically been taken away from him. He feels he’s been set up and betrayed.

In his mind he deserved to be treated special, that his needs are more important than anyone else’s. Unconsciously he believes that his spouse has promised to take care of him and now she’s abandoning him. At this stage he may become violently angry, jealous, or withdrawn. He may see his children as competitors for his spouse’s affections and criticize them for real or imagined transgressions. Outwardly he appears mean and controlling. Inwardly is in a panic. He’s like an infant who has lost his mommy and he thinks he will die.

The sixth thing you need to know is that most men don’t leave for the reason you (or they) think. They are not leaving because they are not “in love” with you like they used to be, or because they’re trying to “find themselves,” or “need their space,” or for the endless transgressions they may accuse you of perpetuating. These may be secondary reasons. But the primary reason men leave is that they are overwhelmed with shame. They feel ashamed that they feel so needy for love and nurture. They feel ashamed that they are acting in hurtful ways towards those they love. They feel ashamed of the rage that engulfs them. And most deeply, they feel ashamed for feeling ashamed over things that seem so trivial on the surface (I’m leaving because I don’t feel the romantic attraction I did when we met 30 years ago?). They have built their manhood (and the hoped for love and nurture they thought it would bring them) on being clear, strong and decisive. Now they feel clouded, weak, and ambivalent. The very foundation of their existence seems to be crumbling under them.

They feel they need to leave the relationship to keep the core of their identity from being destroyed. They feel they need to leave the relationship to keep from destroying the people they love the most. In their state of mind, leaving is the most kind and loving thing they can do to protect their spouse and children from the rage that is building up inside. They leave because they feel the long repressed childhood traumas coming to the surface, which many men would rather die than confront.

So, given all of this “secret” knowledge, what can you do?

  • Let this sink in for awhile. When I tell women the truth about the secret reasons men leave, it is disorienting. It shakes the foundations of their own world, how they have come to understand their own identity as a woman, wife, and mother. It also rings true for them and a lot of what has been going on makes sense and falls into place.
  • Have compassion for yourself. No one really knows what they are getting themselves into when they say “I do.” If we knew, perhaps fewer of us would make this kind of life-time commitment. Or perhaps we wouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we’re not able to be the kind of spouse that we dreamed we would be. Few women really understand the inner life of men, just as few men understand what really goes on inside the heart and mind of a woman. So, if you’ve felt inadequate to the task, have some compassion for yourself. Recognize that you have been doing the best you could and with new knowledge you’ll be able to do even better.
  • Have compassion for the man. Once you recognize how vulnerable men are and how much time they spend trying to deny their weakness and act like the men they imagine women want them to be, you can have more understanding of what’s really driving him. You can let go of your negative beliefs about men–that they are arrogant, aggressive, stupid, sex-crazed, mean, etc. You can let in the reality that they are really just confused, wounded human beings doing their best to love and be loved in a world that has deprived us all of getting what we need the most. Let the whole question of “staying or leaving” be held within a larger container of “how can we truly heal our wounds, nurture our relationship, and take care of each other.” Once you know what is really going on, his desire to leave can be seen as part of the healing process. Even if he leaves, that doesn’t have to be the end. Leaving can be seen as another step along the way to understand the past, reclaim the present, and build a new and better future.
  • Commit to working with a guide. Because these issues are so important and the journey so new and confusing for many, I recommend you find a knowledgeable therapist or counselor to help guide you through this process. Finding the right guide isn’t easy. Just because a person has the right credential doesn’t mean they’ve been over this territory enough to guide others. Be tenacious. Be creative. Be willing to make mistakes. But never give up.
  • Jed Diamond, PhD, LCSW Boomer Male Expert

    Jed is Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live long and well. Though focused on men's health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives.

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