Update (7/13/2020): Turns out, a lot of the ideas and themes discussed here have been given a more thorough and useful treatment in Mark Manson’s Models, highly recommended for anyone interested in contemporary thinking about male intimate relationships.
This post deals with heterosexual relationships from the male perspective (the author’s experience). This focus is not meant to dismiss or render invisible other perspectives and their complexities.
Some of the motivation for this piece is as an archaeology and analysis of the incel movement (see here for a related essay), and how this phenomenon speaks to modern romance.
Note also that while this essay begins with a consideration of the ecological aspects of relationships, the substance and thesis concern the role of our minds and personalities.
Forming and maintaining relationships is one of the most important and rewarding aspects of life. Relationships help us create our identities and find meaning in our days.
No one is born knowing how to have a healthy relationship. In our infancy, we establish our first relationships: those with our parents. In our childhoods, we begin to form relationships with our siblings (if we have them), and our first friendships with other children. As we pass through our adolescence and into adulthood, we begin to explore romance.
Sex and romance occupy a central place in our thoughts and our culture, and strong arguments (see: theory of evolution) exist to explain why this might be so. For many, one’s desirability as a sexual and romantic partner is of utmost importance, and many of our actions which are not explicitly romantic in nature (exercise and work routines, for example), are nonetheless deeply connected to our romantic lives. Those who find romantic success are often able to derive great joy. In juxtaposition, those who do not often experience psychological suffering.
It would be a wonderful world in which everyone finds the romantic success that they desire. Unfortunately, we seem to live in a world which for its very functioning necessitates the opposite: it is a (heartbreaking) axiom of evolutionary theory that not all individuals are able to reproduce. The struggle to reproduce is the struggle of life.
This struggle has manifested differently in different times for different species. For example, many bird species engage in what is known as “lek mating,” a type of mating process in which males gather together and attempt to display dominance; females gather around and observe, and ultimately select the males with which they wish to mate. Unsurprisingly, the more dominant and aggressive males are preferred; surprisingly (and sadly?) researchers have found that in lek mating systems, 70-80% of matings occurs with the top 10-20% of males. The other 80-90% of males are left out in the cold. This asymmetry, known as “reproductive skew”, may be good for the species but is rough for the individual.
For primates, things aren’t necessarily better. In some troops, a single alpha male dominates the group and manages access to the females; if present, lower-ranked males may struggle to mate. It is worth noting that dominance is not necessarily a function of physical size — in some species (notably Chimpanzees), alpha status can be attained via strong social and political skill.
Some species (including ours), however, display monogamous tendencies: researchers have theorized that monogamy developed to facilitate a more even distribution of reproductive ability and easing social tension.
The development of monogamy was not the end of the story. Even in monogamous communities, not all individuals find romantic and reproductive success. Further, as many humans have come to realize, competition for mates has not disappeared — rather, we can argue that the struggle changed from “will I be able to reproduce?” to “with whom will I be able to reproduce?” Concerns about marriage fidelity are common. Finally, many liberal and sexually progressive societies encourage premarital sexual exploration. One might wonder whether the distribution of reproductive success in this premarital period exhibits greater skew.
What are the sources of romantic success?
It is hard to deny the role of physical appearance. Aspects of our appearance, such as our dress, our grooming, and our level of fitness, are (to an extent) under our control. But key aspects of our appearance, including our features and build, are not. It is a bitter truth that the randomness of genetics leaves some with easier hands to play.
Wealth and social status also play a role. As with appearance, aspects of these are under our control. One could work hard and succeed; many do. But it is worth noting that material success often requires intelligence and other traits of personality, themselves partially shaped by our heritage.
Finally, personality plays a role: the quality of the experience of being in our company. Our personalities are shaped by many forces, some outside our control; compared to appearance and socioeconomic status, however, this seems the one over which we have the greatest control. Even if our looks or socioeconomic status determines our “league” of viable romantic partners, it is our personality which determines how attractive we will be within that league. It is on this factor we will later focus.
It is worth mentioning that the relative importance of these factors changes over time. For people in their late teens or early twenties, less experienced and concerned for the future, looks and money likely play a larger role (for better or worse). For people in their late twenties or early thirties, more experienced and with a mind to the future, character takes precedence. The experience of romance changes over time.
Much attention is paid to romantically successful males, who often are also more socially successful (this correlation strongly suggests causation, likely bi-directional). Less attention is paid to those who, for whatever reason, are less successful. What is the fate of these men? How would they experience their situation?
We can speculate that, in times past, they would have remained somewhat marginalized throughout their lives. They might have harbored anger and frustration at their situation and the women who rejected them, but would have had few options beyond an attempt at personal transformation.
In recent years, however, the situation has changed. These men, formerly isolated, have become connected and have developed a shared identity and a shared narrative. Through this process of identity-building, this group has gained the ability to coordinate and influence events in the mainstream.
To make this point, we consider a number of recent cultural events and episodes:
GamerGate was a 2014 controversy regarding sexism within the gaming community, in which female game developers and academics were anonymously and aggressively harassed by gamers. The aggressors cited as their motivation their frustration with the conduct and attitudes of the gaming press, who they felt were prioritizing feminist political agendas over evenhanded discussion of game quality.
How do we interpret these events in the context of our argument? A Jacobin article on GamerGate, “Death to the Gamer,” makes the argument that, “like all geek culture, [gamer culture] is little more than the consumption of media as a means of identity formation.” Gamers are united by their shared consumption.
But consumption of what? Video games, like comics before them, entice with sexist imagery and hyperbolic experiences of power. It is not difficult to see how these images and experiences would appeal to those who, for whatever reason, fail to find these images and experiences in the course of their social, romantic, or professional lives.
The image of the gamer as an awkward nerd is prevalent, if not universally accurate. This author grew up a gamer, and was friends with many gamers. Many of these gamer friends were not only very talented (competing in amateur Halo tournaments, and regularly “filling the screen” in Snake), but also socially and romantically successful. For these talented individuals, gaming was less an escape as much as a way to bond with friends and stimulate the mind.
The gamer stereotype is not groundless, however, and for individuals fitting this mold, gaming is a means of escaping their real-world lives and soothing the distress borne from social and romantic frustration. In games, these individuals find experiences of sex and power absent from their external lives.
Recall the Jacobin critique: gamers are defined not by their production, but by their consumption. In as much as hard work and focus help develop our skills and our character, the gamer community can be seen as a community in which character development is deprioritized. Individuals seek this community as an escape from an unsatisfying conventional existence; the community facilitates this escape and simultaneously creates no incentive to grow or develop traits which might improve their social or romantic condition. Further, the community serves as an echo chamber in which the social and sexual frustrations of its members are articulated, legitimized, and rationalized; the aggression towards women observed during GamerGate can be seen as a consequence of this.
It is important to note that these individuals are not unintelligent. Their internet-based socialization has given them a savvy grasp of internet-based information flow, a talent which, in part due to their lack of face-to-face social development, is employed to skewed and harmful ends. Consider the extreme nature of discussion on the internet, in which ALL CAPS takes the place of face-to-face emotion: it should be no surprise that individuals socialized in this environment display extreme tendencies.
Elliot Rodger was a mentally-ill Santa Barbara City College dropout, who, in 2014, killed six students in a shooting spree in Isla Vista, CA. Rodger, who struggled both socially and romantically and was regularly bullied as a child, had developed extreme hatred towards the women he felt were denying him and the men whom he perceived they preferred.
As a member of various online communities devoted to commiserating about romantic struggles (pick-up artist and men’s rights groups), Rodger was in regular dialogue with like-minded individuals, theorizing and articulating a subculture which views modern romance as a type of lek: one in which women pursue only a small subset of attractive men, and avoid the rest.
Some members of this community believe that men can learn to be more romantically successful by mimicking behaviors attributed to romantically successful men. Known as “pick-up artists,” these men regularly engage in long, rational discussions concerning culture and female psychology. These groups are often criticized as misogynist for their view that women can be consistently and categorically influenced by certain behaviors.
Rodger was a member of a different subset: those for whom the methods of the pick-up artists failed, and who were still unable to find romantic success. This group in particular exhibits tremendous anger and bitterness towards the society they perceive as denying and failing them.
This author is not a mental health professional and will abstain from offering novel diagnoses. Rather, this episode was raised as it provides a clear illustration of the tremendous frustration experienced by romantically unsuccessful men, and the lengths they will go to rationalize their condition.
Milo Yiannopolous is a prominent, controversial journalist who has written trenchantly on his perceived plight of modern men. To Milo, men’s romantic and social struggles can be attributed to a small, well-organized, and non-representative group of radical feminists who, over the last several decades, have influenced culture and policy to systemically advantage women.
Milo’s arguments include the observation that raising awareness of the prevalence of rape on college campuses has made inexperienced college men more cautious in their pursuit of women, out of fear of being branded “creeps” or “rapists”. This fraught environment, Milo argues, has made it difficult for young men to undergo “normal” romantic development.
In Milo’s mind, these romantically frustrated men find little motivation to participate in society and contribute to overall social decline; Milo concludes by attributing this decline to feminists.
As an aside, Milo writes more broadly on social and cultural issues, having defended the gamers of GamerGate and written apologetic expositions of the alt-right. His skill lies largely in his ability to create a rhetorical opening by articulating a legitimate criticism of progressive methods, and then to follow up with a one-two punch of hyperbolically lionizing the group he defends (ignoring their legitimate problems) while hyperbolically demonizing the group he attacks (ignoring their legitimate grievances).
The power of this method stems, fundamentally, from the unresolved and overlooked dialectical tensions in our culture. Consider: does the right to free speech protect someone who speaks against free speech? Consider: does the attempt to correct for historical inequality manifest as a new inequality? To ignore the tensions inherent here and to insist that there exists a single “right” answer is to create opportunity for these types of individual, who are able to gain undue advantage from identifying these tensions.
Key themes uniting these events are the romantic and social struggles of the men involved, the rationalization of the romantic process, and placing of blame on women and culture for their problems.
In the GamerGate story, we see how the consumption-fueled escapism of socially and romantically unsuccessful men led to the creation of an aggressive, reactionary subculture. In Elliot Rodger, we see both a glimpse into the world of pick-up artists — men who attempt to rationalize and systemize the romantic process — and the psychological struggle of those who fail in their pursuit. In Milo, we see the articulation of an apologist theory which defends the right for men to pursue women however they please, and blames women for challenging this blank check.
These are not sympathetic men. Their actions are destructive and violent. It is not impossible, however, nor useless, to attempt to empathize with their experience, if not their reactions. Many can relate to the struggles associated with romantic development: timidity and uncertainty, mistakes and awkwardness. We are not born romantically mature.
Romantic development is part and parcel with overall personal development. As we grow, we learn to have friends, in part by making mistakes and potentially losing friends. We learn to be professionals, in part by making mistakes and even losing jobs. We learn to be lovers, in part by making mistakes and hurting partners (and being hurt in turn). It is unfair and unrealistic to insist that all men and women be born perfect partners, and we must make allowances for romantic development.
That said, we must also recognize the long and undeniable history of male-dominated and male-focused culture. Men have long asserted the right to female bodies, and women have historically had little agency in determining their romantic outcomes. As we have begun to more widely recognize and appreciate the immense value and potential of women, we have begun to emphasize the importance of female consent in all romantic activity, and have less tolerance for one-sided or entitled male behavior. This trend is undeniably positive: a world of mutual respect is a better world.
Further, it is important to note that while #NotAllMen channel romantic frustration into aggressive misogyny, not all women want modern and equitable relationships and gender roles. To ignore this and to pretend that progressive feminist advocates speak for 100% of women is to deny an important and consequential reality. It is difficult to change culture when old behaviors seem to work, at least part of the time.
We find ourselves in a moment of crisis. Many men struggle to develop romantically, and in their struggle turn to rationalization and anger. Our legacy of misogyny has left men with few positive examples to follow, fostering resentment and a feeling of impossible expectations.
How to move forward? The first step is to challenge the cynical and overly-rational views of romance and relationship, and put forth a more positive view which emphasizes individuality, freedom, and feeling. This is the focus of the rest of this work.
How to have relationships? In this author’s experience, a relationship exists at the intersection of several dynamics, all of which must be understood and navigated. The rest of this essay takes up this theme, written for a man who spends perhaps too much time in his own head, written by a man who used to do the same.
Safety and Play
First, consider the sentiment behind #YesAllWomen, and appreciate that the female experience is profoundly different from the male. It is a truth that (almost?) all women endure unwanted male attention, and that this attention can turn aggressive. We socialize women in a way that limits their ability to respond and deflect this attention, with the consequence that women are often concerned about their safety and comfort.
As a man, keep these facts front and center when interacting with women. While you yourself may have no hostile intentions, take it slow, and keep it feeling safe. Obviously, we avoid people we do not feel safe around.
It’s worth noting that a part of safety is being clear about your intentions. Many men fear that if they express their interest, they will make a woman uncomfortable. In fact, often the opposite is true. Concealing intentions, being afraid of feelings, being indirect, etc, is concerning, leading to thoughts of “what does this person want from me?” Making it clear what you want, knowing full well you might not get it, can be extremely relaxing.
Establishing an environment of safety does something else: it creates the possibility of play. Play is the substance of a relationship. Play creates positive memories. Play teaches you about yourself and about your partner. Play is the root of fulfilling sex. But there can be no play without safety.
Many pick-up artists and bitter men’s rights activists have concocted elaborate theories of female psychology, convincing themselves that liberated women are interested only in perfect men. What is closer to the truth is that many women deal constantly with terrible men, and as a consequence, the standard is not so prohibitive. If you make people feel safe, and you show some personality, someone will eventually like you back.
Presence and Intuition
How to create an environment safety and play?
The first, foundational insight of relationships is that you can never fully know another person. We can never fully know ourselves; thinking we can fully know another is ridiculous. Ultimately, we are mysteries to each other. To think that you can understand the other person’s thoughts and predict their reactions is a fallacy.
As mentioned before, the principal failure for many men is their rationalization of the romantic process. They view women as objects to attract, rather than subjects to relate to. This is the view of the pick-up artist community, and likely many others. By viewing women as objects, men are able to view romance as a process of cause-and-effect: “if I do this, she’ll do that.” This view is problematic for two reasons. First, it denies the individuality of a woman, and second, it gives the man a false sense of control over the relationship.
This first insight implies the next: you can never fully know the future of the relationship. It could last a lifetime or end tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that you can’t tell if the relationship is going well or on the rocks — we generally can — but rather that you can never know for certain. We have a natural desire for control over our circumstances, but to try to control a relationship is to deny the freedom and humanity of the partner.
These two together lead to a key conclusion: a relationship is experienced only via the moment, in the space between two people. When you are with a person (even via phone or video chat), you are directly experiencing the other person and the connection between you. In contrast, when you are alone and thinking of the other person, you are thinking of an imaginary person, onto whom you project your own unconscious hopes and fears.
We do not suggest that you should never reflect on your partner or on the relationship, only that such behavior is not a substitute for being in the presence of the other person, which is the substance of the relationship.
Presence is attractive because mystery is attractive, and being present with another is to experience the mystery of your relationship, moment by moment. Further, presence is attractive because presence is safe: it is easier to feel close and connected to someone who is paying attention to us than someone who is distracted and thinking of something else (“what are they thinking about?”).
An intuition is an idea which comes to us suddenly, the result of unconscious thought. Intuitions can be contrasted with the results of conscious thought processes, in which we take time to reflect on one or another mental objects. We believe that intuitions are fundamental in navigating relationships.
It is worth considering the relationship between intuition and conscious thought. Learning research has shown that activities which at first require conscious thought, if practiced enough, become automatic and unconscious — a type of intuition. This submerging of thought into the realm of the unconscious frees the conscious mind to focus attention on other tasks, leading to an overall higher level of skill and functioning.
As far as social cognition, the type of thinking we use in social interactions, we can make an argument that much of this thinking is unconscious and comes to us via intuitions. One strand of the argument is that most people interact with others multiple times per day; over the period of childhood and adolescence, this results in cumulative interactions in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. With this much experience, we should expect that much of social cognition takes place unconsciously. A second strand of the argument looks to our roots as social primates; even before we acquired our capacity for abstract thought, we had the capacity to function in social groups. It stands to reason then that aspects of social cognition are not simply submerged due to experience, but were never conscious in the first place.
All of this strongly suggests that, in the context of romantic pursuit, emphasis should be placed on intuition over reason. Rather than suppressing or ignoring intuitions in favor of rationalization, men are better served learning by learning how to detect and interpret their intuitions. This emphasis on intuition aligns nicely with our earlier emphasis on presence. Rational thought separates us from the immediate moment; to think about something is to remove yourself from the immediacy of the thing being contemplated. Put another way, one cannot simultaneously experience something and also reflect on it.
Taken together, we have a vision of relationship as a mysterious process: one which we cannot analyze and control, but rather must ride, like a surfer rides a wave. This does not mean that there is no room for rational reflection in a relationship. If one is dissatisfied, it is wholly appropriate to take time to think about why. It is wholly appropriate to raise issues considered in advance, and to think before you speak. The important thing is to appreciate that it is through presence with the other that the relationship is truly experienced, and that it is via our intuitions that we are able to act while remaining present.
A few last thoughts on presence and intuition. First, reason gives rise to expectations; intuition does not. Second, note how dishonesty can be seen as a type of control; presence and intuition support honesty in communicating feelings. Minimizing expectations and being open about feelings then makes it easier for your partner to experience you and for you to experience your partner.
Action and Reaction
Many men are taught to be “nice” to women, only to experience frustration when their kind actions do not lead to romantic success. This leads to bitterness and contributes to the popularity of the notion that “nice guys finish last” and that men must be domineering and selfish to be desirable.
We suggest that it is not kindness, but rather reactivity, that is the source of this romantic failure. Imagine a friend who always wants to get together, is always seeking your approval. This friend brings little to the table in terms of their own interests or desires, never challenges or stimulates you, and seems only to want you to like them. This friend is reactive to you, in that they are seeking to “do the right thing” to earn your approval. Many people would be uncomfortable with such a friend, who is in truth little more than a mirror and an obligation. Such a person drains us of energy.
In contrast, imagine a friend who is active: constantly on the go, but thinks only of themselves and their goals and interests. This friend is stimulating and brings a lot to the table, but never stops to think about you or your needs. Spending time with this friend would be exciting, and give you energy, but over time you might begin to feel neglected and taken for granted.
We are uncomfortable with those who care only what we think of them, and we are uncomfortable with those who care only for themselves. Just as we seek a balance of action and reaction in our friends, so too should we expect women to seek this balance in their partners: someone who gives them energy but is also able to receive theirs. It is important to note that the right balance between “active” and “reactive” is not fixed, but a constantly-moving target to be continuously discovered and rediscovered.
This negotiation of action and reaction is a major part of the mysterious process of a relationship; successful negotiation of this tension requires presence and intuition. The ability to maintain personal boundaries while being flexible and responsive to another is a skill worth acquiring.
As a last point, it is worth mentioning that the capacity for action and reaction are skills to be cultivated. There are men who have not cultivated their capacity for action: they have few passions or drives, and feel little control over their circumstances. We should not be surprised that these men struggle romantically. Developing this capacities is an important part of self-cultivation and personal growth.
Intimacy and Distance
In addition to action and reaction, we can also speak of a tension between intimacy and distance. Beautifully put by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran:
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
It is possible to have friendships in which the friends speak to each other once per year. To have a romantic relationship in which the partners speak once per year, however, seems questionable. On the other hand, most of us would not want a partner attached at the hip and who cannot bear to be apart from us.
How much intimacy? How much distance? How to know? As before, there is no fixed answer. Navigating the mysterious process of a relationship involves negotiating this tension, however it appears, intuitively, over and over again, in every moment.
Fear and Joy
It would be natural to wonder how one might navigate these myriad tensions. It is easy to talk about “intuition” and the like, but harder to know what this means in practice.
One concrete method: whenever you have an idea for something to do or say, to ask yourself whether this thought is coming from a place of fear, or from a place of joy. Fearful desires manifest as “if I don’t do this, something bad will happen” or “I should do this.” Joyful desires manifest as “I want to do this.”
For example, a fearful intimacy is reaching out to a partner out of a sense of obligation or anxiety, hoping for a validating response. Joyous intimacy is reaching out to share a joke. One can give gifts from a place of fear or a place of joy, but the joyous gifts are the ones which truly enliven the relationship.
When contemplating a decision, it is worth attempting to discern the source. If is fear, think hard before taking action. If it is joy, embrace it.
In this work, we attempted to draw together a number of threads from psychology, ecology, biology, and philosophy, and use them to interpret a number of recent and salient cultural episodes. Specifically, we interpret a number of instances of destructive misogyny as the consequence of psychological strain associated with perennial, necessary, and fundamentally unavoidable male romantic struggle.
Rather than castigate these men, we instead attempted to understand a cause of their struggle: an overly-rational approach to romance. We then described an alternative view of romance as a mysterious process, de-emphasizing reason and emphasizing the critical importance of presence, intuition, and the dynamic negotiation of core tensions.
Our hope is that this description of romance is accessible and helpful to these men. Individuals who feel strongly connected to those around them generally seek to build, not to destroy. Individuals who are romantically and sexually satisfied are, by and large, uninterested in disrupting social order. By attempting to articulate a useful vision for positive romantic relationships, we hope to help more people find more satisfaction, and alleviate some of our current social conflicts.