When Strong Men Give Up — and the Courage it Takes To Do So
They’re strong, stable, and noble to the naked eye — so why are men so afraid to risk it all for happiness?
When I was a kid, we listened to records.
It was a thing we did. For me, it was a stand-alone activity and I intently memorized the lyrics to literally thousands of songs. The other day one of these lines popped into my head unbidden from that long-ago far-away era, from an album I have not listened to in decades:
The strong give up and move on, while the weak give up and stay.
As a teen, I imagine this sounded like gibberish, but as an adult deeply entrenched in middle age it struck me like a bolt from the blue: “giving up” and moving on takes so much courage, it is somewhat remarkable anyone ever does it.
Especially given that our culture regularly vilifies us for doing so.
I often think the Great American Pastime is not so much baseball as “banging-our-heads-against-a-wall.” Middle-age is our classic template for a crisis, but as I look around at my peers, I see a lot fewer of us buying red convertibles than chasing our own tails in circles.
From my perspective, the desire to get new results from old behaviors seems to reach a fever pitch once we enter our 40’s, and many of us spent the whole decade learning and relearning that this is not a winning strategy.
The truth is, in these years women, especially mothers, are given a lot more leeway when it comes to “trying new things”; the children are often self-sufficient enough at this point that “me time” can be prioritized.
But a man who wants to branch out in his 40’s or even try a whole new path will most certainly get a considerable amount of push-back, especially if he is a dad.
Men are expected to stay the course in order to remain good and stable husbands, fathers, and providers.
Risk-taking is frowned upon.
So men often “give up and stay,” as the song goes. This is not because they lack dreams or ambition, but the cultural norm is to steer a steady ship, especially if he has committed to financially care for others.
But what if he hates his job? What effect does this have on his primary relationship and/or his children if they see him dragging himself to a day (or night) of perceived drudgery, returning home sucked dry of energy and joy?
What if he is in an unhealthy relationship?
Often relationships that developed when we were young fail to evolve with time, but the idea that enlightened love is a worthy life goal seems to stop at the end of the Cineplex parking lot. “True Love” is seen as a frivolous ideal; meanwhile, men and women languish in affectionless or stagnant relationships because it’s the “right” thing to do.
Staying in marriages and jobs, whether they are positive or fulfilling places or not, is the expected course. If you are suffering, it is considered to be “for a good cause” — the upholding of vows taken at a very different time in your life and/or financial stability. Even staying with a spouse who has been unfaithful or has in some other way destroyed the trust in that relationship is considered “noble.”
Does this sound right to you?
Maybe we have embraced this belief system because change is so very scary and the “devil we know” is so much more approachable than the devil we don’t. But change is inevitable and if we don’t get out ahead of it, it tends to sneak up on us from behind and push us over a cliff. Dissatisfaction and unhappiness cause ripples in the pond that over time can gather to tsunami force.
Example: you hate your job but it provides well for the family. So you grouse and maybe look around a bit, but ultimately don’t make a move.
Then you are fired at the worst possible time.
Or: you are unhappy in your marriage, but the idea of being alone is more frightening than the idea of spending the rest of your life in an environment that doesn’t nurture or uplift you. Maybe you fantasize about a better relationship but the idea of being “out there” again is intimidating. Possibly being with someone who doesn’t love you well has convinced you that you are unlovable, or unattractive. So you languish until the day that your spouse dumps you, with so many years of unhappiness accumulated that you feel as though you have wasted your life.
When we keep a “stiff upper lip” and “hang in tough” we may think we are being admirable, but our energy speaks volumes more so than our actions. How often have you been REALLY surprised by a divorce? How often have you said, “Gee, but they seemed so HAPPY!” I’m not saying it never happens, but for the most part our reaction to divorce news is secretly, “It’s about time.”
Unhappiness begets unhappiness
Unhappiness transmits and increases in frequency the longer we go without addressing it. It makes us a magnet for even more unhappy circumstances because that is where we are living almost all the time anyway.
Unhappiness begets unhappiness, as an FYI for those of you staying together “for the kids.”
Moving on is often the strongest and bravest thing anyone can do, but most especially for men. In our society, fulfilling the traditional gender role becomes more important than living a happy and fulfilling life, and the pressure to do so remains enormous, even in this relatively evolved day and age. But the courage to break from that and declare “This isn’t working for me” is truly super-heroic.
Of course, there are “better” and more responsible ways to do this as well as more “selfish” ones, but ultimately some people will call you selfish anyhow, so as long as you remain true to your own personal morals you are doing the right thing. That middle-age crisis template of buying the red convertible is just a yearning for freedom and change…so how about pursuing some ACTUAL freedom and change instead of lining the car-makers pockets on a whim that will not take you where you want to go, metaphorically speaking.
The strong give up and move on, while the weak give up and stay
Is there any aspect of your life in which that line is resonating?
Ultimately we all come to the realization that YES, actually, our HAPPINESS matters. That isn’t about abdicating responsibility to others, but it is about taking your responsibility to yourself very seriously.
No matter how strong your resistance to this idea, it is 100% guaranteed that you will make a bigger and more meaningful impact in this world and on the people around you if you are operating from joy. Guaranteed. But pursuing genuine happiness rather than remaining stagnant will take not only bravery but will power as well. Sticking to a diet of what you want to do rather than what you “should” do is a LOT harder than it sounds.
Yes, strong men DO give up.
They give up unhealthy, unhappy situations and habits.
They move on to more clarity and more joy.
They do this by walking their own path, not by following the well-beaten trails of others.
What can you give up to improve your life?
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.