One thing that is hard about working with men who are dealing with a lot of conflict, either from their wife, or in the past from mothers, teachers, or other women, is that they constantly look for reasons why they are to blame for the hurts they have received. This is a part of a destructive cultural narrative that needs to change around Agency.
Agency is your ability to choose the circumstances of your life. When we see someone as having Agency be believe that they are capable of making things better for themselves, and we are willing to believe that of they have problems, they share some of the responsibility for making them.
We assign different levels of Agency to different people. Men, Caucasians, and the wealthy often are seen as having more power and control in their lives. Women, ethnic minorities, and the poor are seen as having less agency. Adults are seen as having more agency, teens and the elderly less, and children none at all. I would argue that this is more grounded in myths within our culture than reality. Although if you constantly tell a person their choice and their responsibility is limited, they will come to believe it.
The real problem comes when you take this to extremes. Men, especially White Men are seen as having Hyperagency, that is they are seen as having superhuman control over their lives. When things go bad for them, we always assume it is their responsibility. If they are in a bad situation, we assume they don’t need help. And we have a hard time imagining people with Hyperagency as feeling hurt or helpless. When see a person as a Hyperagent, we can excuse ourselves for feeling empathy towards him.
The opposite extreme is Hypoagency, which right now, we tend to ascribe to Women, and particularly College Women. When we see a person as having Hypoagency we treat them like children. If they behave badly or have problems in their lives we assume that someone else is to blame – after all, we see them as being helpless. We worry more about a Hypoagent’s feelings because we have a natural instinct to protect them, and somehow imagine that they can’t choose their feelings.
Both the myth of Hyperagency and Hypoagency are toxic.
We treat Hypoagents as if they are made of sugar and tissue paper, trying our level best to protect them from any kind of consequence for their actions. We constantly tell them they are victims, their problems are someone else’s fault, and that the deck is stacked against them. This often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where they stop trying to succeed, develop depression or anxiety, become embittered and entitled, or have difficulty feeling good about their accomplishments in life.
We treat Hyperagents as the default bad guys. If we see a group of Hypoagents suffering, we look for a Hyperagent to blame. Hyperagents who accept their own mythical status also develop obsessions over performance. They can develop severe mood disorders, and do themselves incredible harm from overwork trying to live up to the superheroic abilities we imagine that they have. They also tend not to process their feelings, because they are often derided for even having them, leading to many stress-related illnesses and high rates of suicide. Their issues and needs always come last in the social dialogue.
You see this in its extreme in abusive relationships where the abuse is mutual, or the woman unilaterally abuses the man (which are statistically the two most common forms of abusive relationship.) Because we assume the Man has Hyperagency, if he is being hit, berated, or abused, we imagine he deserves it. We don’t worry about how the abuse he is receiving is damaging him, because we pretend he doesn’t have feelings. And we don’t care to help them because we figure he must have the power to get help whenever he wants it – and probably never needs it.
A man who believes the myth of his own Hypoagency deeply enough asks two questions of himself when he is being abused:
“What did I do to deserve this behaviour?”
“How can I be better to her, so that she doesn’t have to hit me again?”
He never once thinks about how wrong it is for him to be abused. It never occurs to him that she might be abusive towards him because she is a toxic person. He never asks where he can go for help. And accordingly the abuse can escalate and happen over and over again for decades, without him ever thinking that the problem lies with the woman treating him badly.
And in the process he can swallow incredible shame: because he believes in his own Hyperagency, he imagines that if he were just good enough a man that she would stop hitting, humiliating, or denigrating him.
And because the rest of the world, including the woman abusing him believes in his wife or girlfriend’s (or mother or teacher’s) Hypoagency, they are likely to agree with him. After all if she is behaving badly it can’t possibly be her fault. His attempts to please her so she will stop abusing actually reward her abusive behaviour, giving her a reason to act progressively nastier.
In fact we have even enshrined this perception into our laws – in the past a man who was hit by his wife could be put n the stocks, publicly given 20 lashes, or forced to ride through town naked and backwards on a donkey while people pelted him with rubbish in the canon of Western law. Today if police are called to a domestic abuse situation, in many places like my home province of Ontario, police are forced to make an arrest for a domestic disturbance call, regardless of their discretion, and have “Primary Aggressor” guidelines that tell them to arrest the Man – no matter who is bleeding – although not in so many words.
These dual myths have set up a system in which shelters that take in battered men cannot get public funding in this country. And where Men-only organizations that could help abused men heal emotionally are effectively banned, if not outright illegal. And where the men who need them most are too ashamed to use them.
The myth of Hypoagency short-circuits rational moral and ethical thought. When a person with normal Agency or a Hypoagent harms someone, we are perfectly willing to say “It is wrong to hit,” or “That kind of speech is abusive,” and punish that person for it. But when a Hyperagent harms someone we say “this was a revolutionary act”, “this person was provoked”, or “they had it coming.” We put conditions on what ought to be unconditional principles.
Changing the cultural narrative is going to take a long time. We have a long way to go before Men and Women are really going to be treated as equals in the most meaningful way: by both being treated with an equal and realistic standard of Agency.
Until that time comes, the hardest part of picking up the pieces when I work with a man who has been abused is to teach him that the abuse she is putting him through is not his fault. He needs to be taught that what she is doing is as wrong as if he were doing it to her, and no amount of trying to be a better man will change her until she gets therapy. And that he needs to speak about it to someone better qualified than me who will listen to him with compassion, and find ways to process his grief and pain, even when there are so few resources to do it.
Every time I have this conversation, I get furious that I even have to have it. But I will keep doing it as long as I can anyway. Maybe something will give.
Edit: With thanks to Takeshi Kovacs for spotting a glaring typo for me.