The Relationship Deal Is Off, Guys. It’s Time We Forge A New One.

For millennia, most men and women operated based on a reciprocal deal: men satisfied women’s basic needs and women satisfied men’s psychological needs. As the world has changed, fewer women need or want this deal, leaving men in a void. Now, men need to find a way forward. Here is how.

In 1969, somebody graffitied a catchy slogan on the walls of the University of Wisconsin. I think it is wrong in a very interesting way – read to the end to see exactly what I mean.

Installation at Dublin Guinness Storehouse, photo by Nga Ahorangi – Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The slogan was later misattributed to several feminist activists and writers and rehashed in countless articles, posts and memes. My partner’s mother raised her with this motto in mind, teaching her to never depend on a man, as did many mothers around the world.

In 1969, this quote was somewhat aspirational – in most families, it was still the man who put food on the table. But as more and more male-dominated industry jobs got offshored to Asia, as more and more female-friendly service jobs emerged in the Global North, this aspiration started looking pretty close to reality.

Today, most women – and definitely those in developed democracies guided by at least somewhat liberal values – can easily provide for themselves. They don’t need husbands, fathers, brothers, or male members of their community to buy them a bicycle. If they want a bicycle, they’ll get a job and buy one themselves.

Great, you’ll say. Finally, I don’t have to work my ass off to pay a woman’s living. And that’s right. But here’s a thing: women are not fish and bicycles are not all they want from life. Meanwhile, for many men, paying a woman’s living was part of a deal they are sorely missing now.

The other part of the deal

Long before we outsourced industrial production, men outsourced something else: satisfying our psychological needs. However hard we try to prove to our mates and ourselves what unshaken rocks of stoicism we are, the truth is, we are like onions: we’ve got layers.

We want to be respected, loved, understood, desired. To feel useful, to see a smile on somebody’s face when we get home, to have someone calm us down when we’re fuming with anger, hastily unbutton our trousers when we’re horny, share our joys when we’re happy, and talk to us when we hurt.

And whom do we want all of that from?

It’s not our mates, is it.

Those are broadly what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘psychological needs’. They span two levels in his famous Pyramid of Needs. First, there is love and belonging: the need to have an intimate partnership, friends, a community – people we can rely on and who make us feel wanted, understood and cared for. Then comes esteem: our need to have status in a group, prestige, and respect.

Below are our Basic Needs, also divided in two. First, physiological: We need air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink, shelter, clothes… Then it’s about safety: knowing that nobody will rob and kill us tomorrow, safe employment, decent health and adequate resources.

The idea of the pyramid is simple – you need the lower levels to be in good shape before you can focus on the upper ones. In Maslow’s own words,

A person who is lacking food, safety, love, and esteem would most probably hunger for food more strongly than for anything else. [When this basic need is satisfied,] other (and ‘higher’) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. (Maslow 1943).

In very broad strokes, for centuries there was an unwritten deal between men and women. Men satisfied women’s basic needs: we put food on the table, roofs over heads, brought a regular salary, and fought off anyone who would endanger our family or take our stuff. Protector and provider, in a nutshell.

In exchange, women satisfied our psychological needs: they made us feel loved and respected, shared our joys, comforted us in pain, and did all the stuff mentioned above.

Naturally, this isn’t to say that we relied on the other gender entirely – men made each other feel respected and accomplished, women were the ones actually turning salaries into food, ensuring the safety of children and each other, and so on. Like I said – broad strokes. There were many exceptions but overall, there was significant asymmetry: men did more on the basic, and women on the psychological needs front.

At this point, I don’t want to get into a discussion on how natural or fair this deal was, where it came from, whether it has a biological basis, whom it benefitted, whether the sides actually wanted it or not, and so on. Neither do I want to talk about the fact that men are also the source of much unsafety to women and women of much psychological distress to men.

These are important discussions to have, for sure, but others are already having them and they’re not very relevant to my current point. All that’s relevant is that wherever this deal came from and however justified it was, in broad strokes, it was there.

And now it’s not.

The deal is off

Here is how deals work.

When my parents wanted to watch a specific film at home, they had to pray it would come up on cable, or buy or rent a DVD. And these were the deals they went for: they had a collection of DVDs and a monthly subscription at the local video store.

But would I do that now? I never owned a TV and my computer doesn’t even have a DVD drive! I can stream all the films I want for way less money, right here, right now. I just don’t need to buy or rent DVDs. And I don’t care if the local store has the widest selection and most amazing discounts – it’s just not a deal I’m interested in.

You can see where this is going. Now that women don’t need men to satisfy their basic needs, it’s hardly any wonder they’re not interested in the old deal.

Many men seem really annoyed with this. To be fair, given that some women love to rub their independence in our faces and go out of their way to tell us just how much they don’t need us, I think at least some of this annoyance is unsurprising.

But in the long run, what’s the point? We can rage all we want, but the truth is, we can’t paddle back history. The cat is out of the box. We had a deal, but now the context has changed and we no longer have a deal. Deals change, that’s just life.

If I lived in a place where I had no Internet, I’d go to a video store. But I don’t. You can try to sell me your DVD deal as much as you want, I won’t go for it because I don’t need it. It doesn’t matter that you can deliver them to my doorstep, I won’t pay you for something I can get myself. Simple as that.

A million deals had to change in the past. People used to sell paper maps, encyclopaedias and phone books. There were cobblers, typists and internet cafés. Then the world moved on – would you pay for any of that now? Soon, AI will make hundreds of jobs disappear. Life goes on.

And men need to move on, too.

Don’t get stuck

There are always some legacy providers who stay afloat after the world moves on because there will always be some who still want a legacy service. But how many people do you know who still buy DVDs or pay a cobbler to fix their shoes?

Most DVD store owners and cobblers of the past just moved on with history to make deals that more people actually want. Those who stayed are competing for a small and shrinking market.

When it comes to the gender deal, too many men are like those cobblers, clinging to the old ways and finding themselves competing for a dwindling population of women who do want a classic protector/provider/basic-needs service. Because there are some, for sure. But again – how many?

I am no fan of thinking about human relationships in terms of economic exchange, but there is no better way to illustrate this. If demand shrinks but supply stays the same, the value goes down and expectations go up. And this is exactly what we see: the value of protector-provider men is at an all-time low. You need to be really damn amazing at it to compete for the few women who still want men like that. And those women can afford to have pretty high expectations.

Sounds familiar?

But this isn’t only about relationships and it’s definitely not about just giving women what they want. It’s about men’s own thriving and happiness.

So far, I haven’t mentioned the top level of Maslow’s pyramid: self-actualisation. This is the cream. It’s about becoming your best self, being kind, generous and happy, creating amazing things, having wicked parties, discovering new knowledge, travelling the world, fulfilling your wildest fantasies, and building thriving societies ruled by justice, charity and peace. For most of us, it is what makes life worth living.

But save for a few starving artists and other outlier cases, humans find it hard to focus on all this wonderful self-actualisation when their lower needs are unmet. Most of us won’t be travelling the world if we struggle to pay the bills. We won’t be kind, generous and happy when we feel unsafe, unloved, and disrespected.

Women are now perfectly capable of satisfying their own basic needs as well as many of their psychological needs (not all – we’ll get back to this soon). As such, they are pretty well positioned to focus on self-actualisation and thus live happy, fulfilling lives.

But men who cling to the old deal are still trying to outsource satisfying their psychological needs to women. Except women don’t want to play along. Having unsatisfied psychological needs is bad enough, but it also makes it harder to focus on self-actualisation. No wonder guys are unhappy and feel their lives have no meaning!

Thus, men who don’t move on, are not just refusing to offer women a deal they want. They’re also depriving themselves of chances for happier, more fulfilling lives.

The Man’s Choice

Every man can keep offering the same old deal, hoping to find women who still want it. It’s not a lost game, but it’s a hard one. Stiff competition, high expectations. Moreover, even if he succeeds, having a partner who genuinely can’t provide for herself in today’s world and needs a man to do it for her, will probably get pretty old pretty quickly.

But if he fails – which is much more likely given the dwindling number of women up for that deal – he won’t only not have a partner. He also won’t have his psychological needs met and will struggle with self-actualisation. Like a stubborn cobbler, shocked to find himself with no money, no prospects, bitter and unhappy.

He might think that there is other value in sticking to the old ways. It can feel more manly to some. Others might think it’s natural, genetic, and wrong to change. Some guys just hate the idea of giving women what they want. It’s women who should be doing what men want!

I won’t bother getting into the factual or moral debate on any of that. I’ll just point out that you’re welcome to sit on your high manly horse, clutch your old values, complain about how impossible dating has become, and get more and more miserable, bitter at dejected. There is no law saying you’re not allowed to shoot yourself in the foot.

Meanwhile, all of us who have moved on are enjoying the life you secretly want.

Just saying.

Every man can also choose to not get screwed over by History and move on.

‘Moving on’ is not a codeword for ‘doing what women want.’ It is a codeword for ‘coldly assessing what the world is and acting accordingly.’ What women want is a part of the world, of course, but every man’s primary objective should be to sort things out for himself first. You can’t fix the world if your own house is a mess.

Moving on means acknowledging that you can’t count on outsourcing your needs anymore and should work out other ways to meet them. It means looking into those higher levels of the pyramid and asking yourself: do I really want to rely on women for all that? Wouldn’t it be better to have control over it myself?

Why can’t it be: A man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle?

Control your psychological needs

When my ex and I broke up after nearly eight years together, I spent a week in despair. But then all the therapy I did before kicked in and helped me process my emotions. I called a few friends who were there for me and allowed me to talk it through, offering good advice. I read a book about mental health and relationships to expand on that. I talked about it at my men’s circle. I did some journaling and mindfulness to keep my head from spinning into negative cycles. I went on a crazy weekend party bender to get it out of my system. I did a Slavic spring equinox ritual where I burnt and drowned the old pain and welcomed a new life.

And you know what? I was just fine. In a matter of days, I was back on my feet and within a few weeks I was firmly focused on those top-tier self-actualisation needs like never before. Now, my ex and I are good friends.

Being able to manage most of my psychological needs helps me with much smaller problems, too. It’s useful every time someone writes a cunty comment on my story. Every time someone’s a dick at work. Every time a date rejects me. Every time a thing I was looking forward to doesn’t work out. It all sucks, but I can process it in no time.

It’s also useful with every professional win I can use to motivate myself to get even better. Every time I party or travel, managing my energy levels and mood to make the most of it. Every time I get on stage, keeping my cool and focus.

But it doesn’t end there. Remember those friends who helped me through the break-up? I can help them, too. I don’t just deal with most of my own psychological needs – I can deal with other people’s. I can make them feel heard, understood, cared for, help them process and give them good advice. I don’t only take – I can also give.

Did you notice how careful I was to always say we can deal with most of our own psychological needs? This is where we come back to fish on bicycles.

Thank you for reading Man’s Compass. This post is public so feel free to share it.

Humans are not fish

I can tell you one thing – I don’t need a carp, but I don’t go around telling everyone how much I don’t need a carp. Neither do I spend time complaining about how carp fail my expectations.

So isn’t it suspicious how all those women who don’t need a man constantly talk about it?

bell hooks summed it up fantastically on the first page of Will to Change:

The male bashing that was so intense when contemporary feminism first surfaced more than thirty years ago was in part the rageful cover-up of the shame women felt not because men refused to share their power, but because we could not seduce, cajole, or entice men to share their emotions – to love us.

This is the key to it all. Unlike fish, humans want to be loved. To be cared for, appreciated, desired, understood, treasured, admired, supported and cherished.

Unlike fish, humans have psychological needs and while you can and should satisfy many of them yourself, some, by their very nature, require another person. And if you are heterosexual, you probably want this other person to be of the other gender.

When it comes to our basic needs, most modern men and women really do not need each other. We can even sort out many of our psychological needs just fine. But we won’t feel loved unless someone loves us. We won’t feel like we belong unless others accept us. We won’t feel desired, understood or cherished unless somebody desires, understands and cherishes us.

Men, women, and everyone in between.

We need and want each other to satisfy all of those psychological needs. And this is the key to forging a new deal.

The New Gender Deal

I got pretty good at managing most of my own psychological needs and learned to help others with theirs. Will you be surprised to hear that this is the same skillset that allows me to address women’s psychological needs and make them feel loved, understood and nurtured? To make them feel safe and relaxed? To make them want to be around and with me?

I’m not offering to protect them from burglars or market crashes. They’ve got the police and insurance to cover that. But when they have a crap day at work, I will do what I can to help them relax, push the stress away and stay resilient. When they get anxious, I’ll be there to protect them from their own brains and help them out of the dark.

Likewise, I am not offering to pay their rent and bills. They’ve got jobs and can afford it. But I will provide a shoulder to cry on when they fall out with a friend. I will give them my respect so they might feel understood, confident and validated. I’ll shower them with the right amount of desire to make them feel attractive and sexy but not objectified. I will create spaces where they can feel safe and don’t have to put on a mask to feel accepted.

And what do I want in return?

Well, I want pretty much the same. It’s almost as if we were all just humans, more alike than different.

The old Basic Needs for Psychological Needs deal is off.

The new Psychological Needs Exchange deal is on.

This isn’t just theory, by the way. This has been my life for over a decade now and I can tell you, I’ve rarely complained about the lack of respect, love or desire. My only problem with self-actualisation is that I’ve got too many projects and hobbies to realistically fit into my day. My problem with friends is that I don’t have enough time for all of them.

I’m not saying it to brag. I’m saying it because you can do it, too. Like most men, I grew up believing in the Old Deal. Nobody taught me to tend to my own psychological needs. My dad, supportive as he was, still can’t really process his. I had to teach myself in my mid-twenties through much reading, discussion and even some therapy. I was lucky to have partners and friends who helped me.

Now, I want to help other men, too.

Was there effort involved? Of course. Everything worth anything takes effort. You wouldn’t expect to become good at football, music or programming without putting some work in, why would getting good at dealing with psychological needs be any different? We train our minds the same way we train our bodies: by doing the hard stuff we want to get good at.

The cobblers who want no effort will have to keep peddling the old deal, desperately competing over the few women who still want it. Some would rather stay poor and unhappy than learn something new.

I hope that won’t be you.

Because you can get there just as well as I could. The work you put in really pays off in better relationships, better friendships, and just a better life for yourself.

I’d be honoured if my writing could help you along the way.


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