“When we are understood and responded to, we feel more whole within ourselves and the world.”
Luise Eichenbaum & Susie Orbach, What Do Women Want?
“Of course you don’t like her. You have a problem with strong women.”
Such was one of the more bruising comments delivered by a lovely but frank friend during a recent discussion about my romantic prospects, and in particular about a person she thought I should have dated. Naturally, I was scandalised. “Don’t be ridiculous. Strong women are funny, great company … Why would I have a problem with strong women?”
But it got me thinking.
A quick trip down memory lane yielded some uncomfortable truths. I do, genuinely, like independent-minded women; most of my female friends fit squarely into that category. And I’ve certainly fancied a few. My first serious girlfriend, for example, was no wallflower. But when it came to true love – to that singular mix of affection and lust and intoxication and connection that makes you want to spend the rest of your life with someone – I came up blank.
It’s a tricky thing to quantify, but by my reckoning, there have been four great loves in my life (three of them unrequited). And while they were all very much their own people, they did share a few qualities:
Shorter than me. White (albeit from all corners of Europe). Middle class. A little younger (11½ years in one case, but otherwise 1-6 years). Attractive, but not intimidatingly so – more girl-next-door pretty. Brown hair. Slim. Compact boobs. Great bum. Laughs at my jokes. Intelligent; can hold her own at dinner parties, and stands at least a fighting chance against me at Scrabble. Faint hint of a naughty side. And nice. Not pliable; not weak; not pathetic; nice. Sweet, thoughtful, caring.
The other thing they had in common was an Achilles’ heel. That’s not to say that any of them were in any sense meek or pathetic or damaged; none of them needed constant protection and provision, and all were quite capable of offering support, which is important, because I sure as hell can’t handle all the shit life throws at me alone. But they all had a chink in their armour. Whether it was slight neuroticism, insecurity about looks or intermittent depression, they all had something I felt I could help with. Something that made me feel needed.
I’m just one man, of course. I can’t speak for the entire male race. But then I thought of those strong female friends. Lovely people all, bright, witty, creative, thoughtful and ferociously attractive, 40 or thereabouts – and alone. Some of this, of course, is down to paucity of options; there just aren’t that many hugely desirable 40+ men out there. But choice is a two-way thing. Is it a coincidence that it’s my most single-minded friends who are single?
My lovely-but-frank friend is younger, but she’s another case in point. Full of force and character and her own pesky ideas. She recently confided that her latest relationship was foundering – until she started playing the part of the meek, supportive girlfriend. And how many times have you heard the complaint, “Men can’t handle strong women”?
But these are still just anecdotes. Are there any hard statistics to back this up?
I’ve devoted most of my energies until now to figuring out what women want in a man. I’ve barely touched on the question of what men look for in women, because … well, why should I care? And it turns out that science has been similarly remiss. One of the core assumptions of evolutionary psychology is that men’s choice is so restricted, they’ll take anything they can get; and that when they are able to exercise choice, all they’re really worried about is youth and beauty.
But there’s obviously more to it than that. Yes, if we’re talking about a one-night stand, face and figure may indeed be the only things on our checklist. But when it comes to life partners, we’re a bit choosier. And as far as I can see, there has been criminally little scientific research into the personality traits that men value in women.
There have been a metric fuckton of surveys. Not to mention millions of male internet dating profiles, where men state what they’re after. I’ve waded through a lot of these, and while I didn’t keep rigorous count, strength barely registered at all. Neither did independence, or ambition, or self-sufficiency. (True, confidence got a look-in here and there, but it’s not the same thing.)
The terms that crop up most frequently are intelligence, sense of humour, fun-loving nature, good conversationalist, passion, empathy and agreeableness. Not many of these traits preclude strength as such … but the one at the top of this list – moderate neuroticism – does. This survey is even more depressing for feisty females, especially dark-haired ones with green eyes.
Let’s turn the tables for a moment. There have been a number of articles and blogposts in recent years bemoaning the “new scarcity” of decent men. Since women started catching up with men, and in many cases overtaking them, in academic ability and earning power, the number of guys who tick their boxes has plummeted.
Some women, at least, are panicking that wealthy, high-status men, manly men, alpha males, classical “protector-providers”, are suddenly in short supply. Female voices were among those jeering loudest at the New Man and the Metrosexual, with their vulnerability and their sensitivity and their emotions. And when I read through 2,000-plus female dating profiles, the phrases that came up most often were “strong”, “ambitious”, “good with his hands”, “can fix things”, “a real man”, “a manly man” and “I like a man to be a man” (along with, incidentally, “not afraid of a strong woman”).
Never mind that these desires are completely incompatible with an egalitarian society: if every woman finds a guy who earns more than she does, how can there ever be pay parity? If every woman expects her man to be a leader, how many leadership slots will be left for women? Desire isn’t rational. Women can’t help what they want.
Well … maybe men can’t help what they want either. While some rail about “toxic notions of masculinity”, many women seem still to be drawn to exactly those traits (or at least, traits that are inseparable from them). Could it be that men, while rationally willing to engage with assertive, high-achieving women, just aren’t feeling it? Do we secretly yearn for “traditionally feminine” qualities – for girly girls?
Think of the physical attributes that straight men and women get most excited about; they are, almost without exception, the characteristics unique to that sex.
Broad shoulders (shoulder-to-waist-ratio)
Slim (hip-to-waist ratio)
Physically, we prize the traits that are most different from our own. And I’ve mentioned before the role that sense of smell plays in human attraction; experiments indicate that we are attracted to people with complementary immunities to our own. Why shouldn’t the same be true emotionally and psychologically? Do opposites attract?
Of course, if we wanted our polar opposites in every respect, toddlers would be marrying pensioners and anorexics would only date the obese. There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that one of the main governing principles of attraction is similarity, in characteristics ranging from age to height, race, religion, intelligence, values and earlobe length. That’s because it’s important to have a life partner who shares your goals.
But when it comes to achieving those goals, it’s useful to have someone who brings something different to the table.
One of the main factors in the rise of humanity has been our ability to specialise. (Many other outstandingly successful species on the planet, such as bees, ants and termites, do it too.) As Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, the division of labour – assigning different tasks to different people – makes groups of individuals far more efficient. Imagine how much harder your life would be if you had to kill your own food, make and repair your own clothes, build your own houses and roads, heal your own illnesses … And the original division of labour took place between men and women. Men hunted, women gathered. Men built, women nurtured. It’s almost certainly from that first cooperative pact that society, with its complex systems of trade, of tax and spend, of welfare and charity and lottery funding, sprang.
A male-female pairing is a team. And just as you wouldn’t field a football team with 11 goalkeepers, in a relationship, you don’t want a couple with identical skills. Your ideal partner is someone whose strengths offset your weaknesses, and vice versa. And that’s how things were, in most societies across the world, for most of history. Men brought one set of aptitudes to a pairing, women another. But now things are changing.
Apologies for the crude Microsoft Paint effort, but this is my attempt at representing men and women as they used to be:
Essentially, regardless of the form we were born in, older societies tried to bash all men, and all women, into similar “shapes”, such that all men were prepared to carry out certain functions, and all women to carry out others. So men became the breadwinners, the warriors and the inventors, while women became the carers, the lovers and the negotiators. As a result, most men fitted – more or less – with most women.
But since equality of rights and opportunity came along, the template has been shattered. Everyone can take any shape they want. Men cook and get frightened of spiders; women tell jokes and cut people up at traffic lights. This is of course a Good Thing, and I wouldn’t for a second dream of returning to the old days. It has, however, had a powerful impact on the Date-o-sphere.
Someone’s gender is no longer a guarantee of their capabilities or qualities. So we can no longer just pick someone at random from the opposite sex and have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be a good match. Because we’re all different shapes now, we have to work our way through lots of potential partners in an effort to find someone who fits. (Good job Plenty of Fish and Tinder came along at just the right time, huh?) And in the process, we’re likely to come up against an awful lot of people who don’t.
So that’s part of my theory as to why men and women are drifting apart. For the rest, we must return to a point I touched on earlier.
Why do we love pets so much? Because they need us. (By the by, pet ownership in the UK is at an all-time high and rising, which is another sign that more and more of us are having to look beyond people for our emotional needs.) Why do we love children so much? Because they need us.
And why did men and women use to stay together? Because they needed each other. Each was privy to secrets of which the other was hopelessly ignorant. They were mutually dependent. And because courtship was so long and costly, and non-virgins deemed less valuable, it was at best a huge pain in the ass and at worst impossible to repeat the process.
Now, as most strong, independent women won’t hesitate to remind you, they don’t need money. They don’t need looking after. They don’t need emotional support. They don’t particularly need companionship, as they can get that from their huge and diverse circle of friends. They probably want sex now and then, but they can get that at the swipe of a thumb. In short, they don’t need a man. (They’d just quite like one.)
Well, I’m going to let you in on one of our most closely guarded secrets, ladies: men like to feel needed. I would go so far as to say need to feel needed. I’ll come out and admit it now: I have been put off by strong women. Put off sufficiently, at least, that I haven’t pursued them as doggedly as I have some of their more vulnerable peers. It’s not been a conscious decision; more a gut feeling. Because when I meet someone who comes across as completely sorted, as totally together, as bulletproof, only one question fills my head: “What on earth could I add to your life?”
You can build a relationship based on attraction, and compatibility. But you can only build a lasting relationship with dependency; by finding someone whose skills and needs complement your own. And now that we’re all so damned independent, we just don’t have the incentive to stick with anyone.
As I said before, this is just a hypothesis. It might be a bunch of crap. Even if it is a problem, it’s probably a surmountable one. In a generation or so, perhaps sooner, men will have grown used to the idea of strong women, women to the idea of vulnerable men, and we’ll have better techniques for tracking down suitable partners.
But in the meantime, to my single, lovely friends, and anyone else out there who’s single and lovely, I would say this: I love your strength. You wear it well. But don’t be afraid to show weakness from time to time. Don’t be afraid to need someone.
And Merry Christmas! x