If you Google the name Matthew Mellon, you’ll learn he was a banking heir and businessman. You’ll also learn that he died suddenly last week at the age of 54, that he’d been married twice and had a total of five children, and that he was a recovering drug addict. Finally, you’ll learn what happened in his first marriage to British fashion designer Tamara Mellon:
“When your wife makes $100 million during the course of your marriage, it’s quite a shocker. I felt like my masculinity had been stripped from me. I was no longer the big man in the relationship. I feel like my balls are in a jar, like a Damien Hirst artwork on the mantelpiece. And here I am, ball-less.”
The amount of income in Mellon’s first marriage may be rare, but the marital dynamic he describes is not. The era of the emasculated male is upon us, and it isn’t pretty.
Our enlightened selves like to think that women can become the dominant sex and nothing negative should come from it. But men and women are not interchangeable, and pretending they are doesn’t change anything. The research is clear that when women outearn their husbands, the marriage suffers and will very often collapse. That’s because this dynamic undermines human nature. A man’s desire to provide and protect doesn’t disappear just because women have become economically independent.
It’s not that men mind it when their wives work—in fact most men today have been conditioned to expect it—but they will mind it if their wives’ earnings make their own income irrelevant. And when you think about this from a biological perspective, rather than from an ideological or a political perspective, it makes sense. Take a moment to really think about it.
It is women, not men, who have the ability to do the most important task in the world: create life. What’s more, their bodies are designed to nourish that life. Even a woman’s nurturing is more critical than a man’s in the first few years of life. A woman’s value to society, then, is immeasurable—even if she never earns a dime. That is not the case for men.
That is why the ability to provide and protect is at the core of a man’s identity. It is not a man’s singular means to care for those he loves, but for him it’s the most imperative. Thus, a man who is stripped of this ability does not feel like a man at all. He will feel, as Mellon said, “ball-less.”
In the past, there were two things men could count on to bolster their self-worth, or their value, to society: their income, which was necessary for women to raise children; and their masculine nature, which was understood as essential for fatherhood. But those days are gone. Not only have manufacturing jobs largely disappeared, college-educated men are competing with twice the labor pool they did in the past. And all men, regardless of their social status, are repeatedly told that their incomes are no longer needed—that women can manage just fine on their own.
Men have responded to this phenomenon in one of several ways. The men at the very top, the highest earners, carry on (and always will). And women scoop those men up as quickly as birds do your bread crumbs. The rest of the men—in other words, the majority of men—are left to try and find their rightful place. Women already “own” the home front and are now quickly “owning” the marketplace. That leaves men rudderless.
Some retreat from marriage altogether, which is a group that’s growing by the day. Some look outside the U.S. for brides who value men for being, well, men. And still others make a good faith effort to become responsible husbands and fathers. But their role as ‘head of the family’ has disappeared, leaving them wondering in what domain they do fit.
Needless to say, this entire phenomenon has upended marriage and relationships.
In her 2013 book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Our Culture, Liza Mundy wrote, “In the face of women’s rising power and changing expectations, many men may experience an existential crisis. When the woman takes on the role of primary breadwinner, it takes away an essential part of many men’s identity: that of the provider, the role he was trained, tailored and told to do since he could walk and talk.”
Not just trained to do, Ms. Mundy—born to do. Men are made to act, to create, to produce. Their provider role is critical, as it means to them that they’re self-reliant and can take care of their families. It gives them purpose. When that is taken from men, they are lost at sea. (As just one example, men who are dependent on their wives are more likely to cheat.) My inbox is filled with breadwinning wives who want advice about how they can fix a marriage that’s on its last leg.
I’m not suggesting married women shouldn’t work. I’m saying there’s a reason that in the majority of married-couple households, husbands remain the primary wage earners. (A mere 29% of wives earn more than their husbands.) And that reason is this: just as men are wired to produce, women are wired to depend on men. When a woman’s husband becomes her dependent, conflict ensues and the sex wanes. There are biological reasons for this, which is why this subject shouldn’t be (but sadly, is) politicized.
Men and women are not the same, and yet we treat them as though they are. As though it shouldn’t matter who makes what or who does what. But it does matter, and no amount of social change will change that fact.
It’s not that biology is the sole determinant of our behaviors and choices. But it matters—a lot. Only in understanding this fact, and accepting it (that’s key), can the relationship between the sexes survive.