Separation Anxiety and the Dread of Abandonment...

Book Review:

Separation Anxiety and the Dread of Abandonment in Adult Males

Gwendolyn Stevens and Sheldon Gardner
Praeger Publishers, 1994

"Men do not become what, by nature, they are meant to be, but what society makes them. . . . Generous feelings. . . are, as it were, shrunk up, seared, violently wrenched, and amputated to fit us for our intercourse with the world, something in the manner that beggars maim and mutilate their children to make them fit for their future situation in life." --E. Colby

This highly academic and well-researched book (~550 references) has two primary tenets - that human males develop more slowly than females, physically and emotionally, and that they are required to separate emotionally from their primary caregivers sooner. This double-whammy sets up an intense inner tension in males in our culture, which often cause men to collapse when a separation experience is repeated in adult life.

In a section entitled The Vulnerability of Males the authors document the physiological differences of our gender. For example, 170 males are conceived for every 100 females. At birth, however, there are only 106 males for every 100 females. Fetal death rates are about 50% higher for males. Within the first month (after birth) the male death rate exceeds the females' by about 40%, and for the entire first year the male death rate is 33% higher than for females. "From the beginning it would appear, therefore, that being male requires more effort and is fraught with more danger than being female."

Male infants have a higher incidence rate for almost all childhood disorders. Males suffer more birth defects and "boys are more often afflicted by all major diseases during childhood". A table shows the sex ratios for physical and emotional disorders for children where boys suffer disproportionately to girls. Reading disorders and Perth's Bone Disease top the list, with a ratio of 400 boys to 100 girls suffering. The difference does not stop in childhood. Other tables list 97 ailments that men suffer in significantly greater proportion to women, vs. only 29 that women suffer in greater proportion to men.

Prior to the teen years, males also show more of almost every type of psychopathology, adjustment reactions and disorders that include antisocial behavior, anxiety, gender-identity, learning, psychosis, affective, and depression.

The authors go on to document the major developmental advantages that girls have over boys. "After five months of pregnancy, females are two weeks ahead of males; at birth, they are four weeks ahead. Females complete most processes earlier, including the acquisition of such skills as walking, talking, and bladder and bowel control. They also attain . . . puberty and full physiological maturity sooner." "Males speed of growth lags nearly two years behind girls', . . . and their physiological maturity is achieved as late as two and one half years after girls' physiological maturity." Most parents with both boys and girls will attest to this developmental lagging of boys, as will most elementary school teachers.

While boys develop more slowly than girls, emotionally and physiologically, they are expected to mature (e.g. become independent) sooner. "A ubiquitous belief in our culture is that men should be aggressive, independent, objective, dominant, active, competitive, logical, worldly, direct, and self-confident. . . . To encourage little boys to grow up to meet these objectives, parents encourage differential behavior for boys and girls: little boys are socialized to become proficient at outdoor activities, insensitive to the emotional needs of others and themselves, obstreperous, and convinced of their own invincibility."

The authors then go on to document in explicit detail the ways that boys are treated differently than girls in our culture - Anglo Saxon North American/European. Part of this is an early 'rejection' by the mother, supposedly in order to teach the boy independence. "The rejection by mother, therefore, in the cause of either a biological predisposition against males or as a means by which she may begin the arduous task of appropriate gender role socialization, appears to put the male infant or child in a double-risk-factor situation. Not only is he biologically vulnerable but psychologically he misses out on the human connection that could lead to greater psychological stability."

". . . studies indicate that up until their infants are six-months-old mothers look at and talk to daughters more than sons but touch and hold sons more than daughters." After six months "mothers tend to give daughters both more non-touching and more physical contact than they give their sons. By responding to male and female infants differently, of course, mothers invest them with different natures. Mothers apparently invest six-month-old females with sociability and six-month-old males with autonomy." Other studies have shown that parents are generally more punitive toward boys than girls.

". . . male children are a problem for mothers because of their (gender) difference and her belief that she needs to 'turn this little boy into a man.' The essential problem of individuation - to break the tie with mother - becomes a serious problem for males, who must come to identify with the father, often in the absence of the father. . . . Making a child 'the other', especially in a culture and time when the range of acceptable gender-role behavior is wider than in the past, is difficult. Unfortunately, it is the boy who is most likely to be damaged or hurt by this difficult task."

"Being separated, when the mother forces the child away, may lead to feelings of abandonment. In our society . . . his identification with her is considered negative, and subsequently the mother works hard to turn the little boy into a 'man'. In this process, the mother may both psychologically and physically push the young boy away. As the father is often unavailable, the young boy, in our culture, is frequently left alone. 'Sex-role typing' . . . is debilitating and constrictive to growth. . . . Male victims of sex-role typing are unable to be fully feeling individuals. They are crippled in their expression of needs for nurturance, love and dependency." "Data suggest that children between six and 18 months of age who are even temporarily separated from their primary caregiver develop symptoms of depression."

"Some feminists and advocates of the new men's movement have argued that, while possessing "masculine" traits has certain economic and political (power) advantages, the socialization practices of this society create men who are emotionally crippled. It is our contention that stereotypes and child-rearing practices are worse than unfair; because they are inconsistent with the sex differences in biology and physical maturation, the social forces affecting gender distinctions create males who are uniquely unprepared to deal with separation and cannot accept their dependency needs."

"Males who are saddled with a lifelong dread of abandonment because of very early traumatic experiences, who suffer serious problems in individuation, . . . and who do not remain happily married become vulnerable to breakdown during 'crises' involving separation." This is true even when the man initiates the separation.

The Cure

The authors suggest that dealing with these issues starts first and foremost with prevention, and primary in the list of actions is a heightened participation of fathers in the lives of boys. "Boys who have been deprived of a nurturant father have been noted to be more aggressive and hyper-masculine than non-father deprived boys. Little boys without fathers are more hyperactive, destructive, and suffer more cognitive, behavioral and emotional problems. Adolescent father-deprived boys are more likely to have distorted assumptions regarding women and sexuality. Research also shows that rapists often have poor relationships with fathers, often accusing them of being distant and uncaring.

It is not enough for men to be only occasional fathers; they must be full members of the family and clearly share parenting responsibilities. The authors also recommend a prolonged period of pampering for boys, and the postponement of 'separation training' until the child has learned on his own that the primary caregiver will sometimes go away, but always returns (termed 'object constancy' or 'object permanence'). There is a need in boys to understand the constancy of the mother, and this may not come until the child is more than a few years old.

The treatment of men is more problematic, made difficult by the phenomenon itself. The early training that boys receive to act independently, to shun support and to loathe dependency prevents them when they grow up from seeking help when in crisis. The patterns have long been laid in the psyche. 'Jumping the tracks' can be excruciating and often requires a man to go through a crisis. The authors describe specific techniques in individual therapy to counter this, and list the characteristics of men's support groups that are constructive and helpful in overcoming these roadblocks. They also offer a quick and shallow critique of the men's movement based on their perceptions of groups of men spending "weekend marathons in the woods with tom-toms beating." This is unfortunate but understandable since access to such contemporary men's trainings and initiations as the Sterling Men's Weekend and the ManKind Project's New Warrior Training may have not been unavailable to them.

Among the other gems in this book is a thoughtful and dispassionate discussion of the roles of myths and archetypes in the gender dynamics described above. "Jung's notions that archetypes are transmitted genetically has been taken up by evolutionary theorists, . . . who suggest a biological basis for the need to establish perceptual predispositions and for the mechanisms that produce mythic images." There is also an intriguing, if short, description of male initiation rituals in tribal cultures.

Fearful to ponder in light of this book are the ramifications of the new wave of welfare reform that has swept the country. In forcing new mothers in the most marginalized segments of our society to return to work only a few short months after giving birth, and leaving their children in daycare, we may be creating a new generation of men even more emotionally crippled, angry and incapable of healthy relationships.

Tad Montgomery & Associates
Ecological Engineering
P.O. Box 107, Greenfield, MA 01302