It was late at night when I got the emailed threat about five years ago. A suicidal friend sent me a dramatic picture — an obvious cry for help — with a knife poised against her wrist. She lives hundreds of miles away, so there was little that I could do to help, but I wondered where her husband was.
After I sent a reply trying to talk her into ending the threat — at least for that night — she sent back a sarcastic reply to my attempt to help her deal with this existential crisis.
“It’s not your job,” she wrote. “It’s the man-child’s who’s off playing computer games.”
I knew this was a continuing issue in her marriage. Her husband — about 30 years old — spent pretty much all of his non-work time playing computer games. As a result, they had fallen into living parallel lives. Although he knew she was depressed and suicidal, he chose to live in a fantasy world with gaming buddies instead of in the real world he had chosen for himself.
We’re living in a world where adults are allowed to remain irresponsible children. What’s worse, they’re led to believe this is normal.
I have no idea how accurate this is, but I noticed over the weekend that a 2011 study from a British company called Divorce Online claims 15 percent of recent divorces result from men paying more attention to computer gaming than to their wives. The first thing I thought of when I read that was the formerly suicidal woman who I used to know.
It’s not just men, but the crisis seems especially acute to me among men. Maybe it’s just because I’m particularly conscious about men’s failings in this regard. Either way, I’m certain it’s a crisis — for millions of individuals and for society as a whole.
We’re encouraging adults to remain children. It’s no longer treated as something to be ashamed of. It’s excused and treated like “just a phase” that someone will grow out of.
We talk about “man caves” and accept the idea that a man should go out partying with his friends and leave his wife and children home. Or sit in a basement alone playing video games for hours on end. Or do a dozen other things that say, “I brought a check home from work and that’s where my responsibility ends.”
We glorify immaturity. The heroes of our movies are often lovable but irresponsible men who won’t grow up. The villains and the butts of jokes in the movies are the “square” people who take responsibility for their families and lives. What kind of message does that culture send to young men? It tells them that they don’t have to grow up. And if they’re among those who can make a nice living and get married, that’s the only nod toward maturity that these men ever have to make — so they remain 40-year-old children.
When a man does it, the marriage is inevitably rocky and it forces a woman to build a separate, parallel life. After awhile, she might even come to prefer this dysfunctional pattern, because she doesn’t have to put up with a man who she doesn’t especially like anymore — a man who doesn’t especially like her, either — so she just makes bitter jokes about him and then makes her life all about her “girlfriends.” (And sometimes boyfriends, too.)
Guess what children learn as they grow up watching these patterns? They’re not as blind as you hope they are. They learn that this is what a family looks like. They learn that mom and dad don’t really need to love each other. Mom and dad don’t even have to like each other. They don’t even have to deal with one another. So what pattern do you think these children are going to unconsciously emulate in their own future?
As individuals and as a society, we have to grow up.
That doesn’t mean we have to become boring people like the “squares” in movies. Movies need conflict and they need a character to start out in a terrible place and then magically grow into something mature and loving by the end. It doesn’t work that way in real life.
Adults have to leave childhood behind and start acting like mature adults. We have to treat each other better and in more loving ways, not like selfish and angry 9-year-olds on a playground. Responsible people have to learn to quit trolling each other and trying to hurt each other online from behind the anonymity of a keyboard.
Most of all, adults need to become clear about their values.
Mature people need to realize that marriage and family are a responsibility. If they choose to take on those responsibilities, they owe it to their spouses and children to fill their roles in emotionally responsible ways. And that requires knowing what matters.
If you’re a nihilist — or if you’ve accepted that functional way of thinking — nothing really matters. You can troll people online. You can hurt people for “fun.” You can ignore the needs of people who you claim to love if that feels good to you. You can disappear and leave your family alone for a drunken weekend with your buddies if you want. You can do all those things — because if you value nothing, your actions don’t matter. Just do what feels good.
But if you believe life has meaning — and if you believe you have a responsibility to those you love — that changes everything about your behavior.
You put someone else first.
You treat your spouse and your family with loving care.
You give them your time and attention.
You turn away from immaturity. You turn away from the pop culture version of adulthood.
Let’s grow up — and let’s raise our expectations of those who we allow to be part of our lives. This epidemic of “the man-child” needs to end.