Fatherhood has changed so much in the last twenty or thirty years that it would be almost unrecognizable to my father. He was a member of the last generation of hard-working fathers who were remote figures to their children.
Men have always thrown themselves into their work -- that's where we usually feel the most powerful and successful. In the last twenty or thirty years, fathers have become much more loving, friendly and caring parents to their children. That's the good news. The bad news is that many fathers are still so intensely focused on their work -- and children -- that they are letting their marriages wither on the vine.
I often think that we men treat getting married like buying a refrigerator: we go out and buy one, set it up, plug it in, and then expect it to run for a long, long time without any maintenance or cleaning. Recently, a man told me, "My marriage must be going OK, because if it isn't, my wife would've yelled at me about it!" Most men don't want to think too much about their marriages. They especially don't want to talk about them. If you want to see a man squirm, watch him when his wife says, "Let's talk about the relationship". In general, men hope their marriages will run on automatic while they go out to conquer the world.
We men tend to use our masculine power, our "warrior spirit", to create a good career for ourselves and to provide for our families. We want to believe that our efforts will be enough to keep our marriages going. For thousands of years, providing for, and protecting, one's family was enough for most marriages. In the 21st Century, however, women have much more economic and social power, and the stigma of divorce has lessened. As a consequence, women expect more from their husbands today and feel freer to leave their marriages if they aren't satisfied. Of course, both men and women have high expectations for marriage: we each expect to feel loved, respected and fulfilled through our marriages, and we are often sorely disappointed.
Men today are often confused about what's required of us in the area of marriage. We want to make it work. But, it feels like women and therapists have all the answers and can speak a unique "relationship language", while we can't even find the dictionary! So, we continue working hard and caring for our children. In fact, in many families today the pendulum has swung away from parent-centered marriages to child-centered ones, where the couple's focus is always on raising "perfect" children.
We parents do a disservice to our children when we give them the message that they are the center of the family. Kids need the safety and stability of close, loving parents at the family's center. This is why Notre Dame University President Emeritus Reverend Theodore Hesburgh said, "The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother."
What I tell couples is simple: put your marriage first, and your children second. Make your marriage the sun, and think of your children as the planets that revolve around you, benefiting from your love and the solidity and strength of your relationship.
To accomplish this, we men have to become "relationship warriors", as well as warriors in the world of work.
Men are naturally inclined to act, to build and to solve problems. We have the power to dream and put our dreams into concrete action, and to make powerful commitments and stick to them. We are able to keep our distance from the daily swirl of feelings, because our biology allows us to focus intensely on our outward "prey". Men have the power to stand for something great and to fight for it with resolve.
According to many experts, male testosterone and thousands of years of evolution give men the ability and inclination to be warriors, to respond to external stimulation with aggression and ambition. Now it's time for us to be relationship warriors, to act in a uniquely masculine way, and to stand up for our marriages as vehicles for love, growth and true fulfillment. We men can stand firm in our marriage commitment, holding onto a vision for marriage success with strength and purpose. We can learn to take full responsibility, to pull our own weight in marriage, and not expect our wives to do all the heavy relationship lifting. We also can learn to tune-in to our spouses and appreciate and listen to them better.
It's time to stop expecting our marriages to run on automatic. It's time to be relationship warriors and to commit ourselves 100 percent to creating an alive, powerful marriage!