The Male Straitjacket

Mark Radcliffe tears up the myth of male independence.

I’m a man.

I’m supposed to be able to do it all on my own.

Chop my own wood.

Slay my own dinner.

Provide for my children (if I had any).

Charm women far and wide.

And still remember to call grandma on Mother’s Day.

I’m not supposed to “need” anyone. I’m supposed to be fiercely independent, bravely self-sufficient, and provide for others in my spare time.

But the secret is that, often, I’m barely keeping my head above water.

I’m trying to feed all of my dreams, like starving children I so desperately want to help flourish.

And the problem is: I always feel like I’m falling short.

Whether it’s a writing career I’m trying to manage, a new album of songs I’m trying to write, an essay I’m trying to finish, or a novel I’m trying to edit, or even a social life to keep afloat, the problem remains the same: after a certain point, I’m overwhelmed. I need a relief pitcher to come in and take over.

What’s worse: I can almost never admit it.

Because I pride myself on trying to finish what I’ve started. That I can be the Babe Ruth of my own personal World Series—knock in the big final grand slam with one last, brilliant swing.

I’m not a toddler, I tell myself. I’m not a teenager. I don’t need a coach. I don’t need anyone. I’m a self-sufficient achievement machine.

(Aren’t I?)

But the thing we don’t realize when we look at our heroes is that they all had their coaches and teammates and supporting cast. We just don’t see ‘em.

Jordan had Phil Jackson. Lance Armstrong had Johan Bruyneel. Bono had a nation of Irishmen (and women) behind him, not to mention a helluva band. No one makes it alone, we’re told, time and time again, but we forget it. Because we only see Phelps up there on stage. We don’t see his coaches. We only see Scorcese accepting the Oscar. We don’t see his high school film teacher. Or his manager. We only see Adam Levine getting a Grammy. We don’t see the guy who encouraged him to keep writing songs back in 9th grade when he was about to quit. Let alone his accountant, guitar tech, pilates instructor and girlfriend(s?) who keep him going each day.

It just slayed me. The notion that maybe the final act of being a man was to not achieve perfectly competent independence, but to rather so commit yourself to life that you can’t possibly do it alone, that you need someone to help you get through it all, someone without whom you’re utterly helpless.

So that’s why it’s crucial that we men take the humility step and just learn to lean on others to help us get to our goals. It’s okay if we only do 80% of the work instead of 100%. Especially if trying to do 100% keeps us from ever finishing anything. The novel. The career switch to being a chef. The act of being a better husband. The pursuit of working less and being a better father. Or any of the other countless goals we men dream up but don’t always get around to doing.

Because it’s hard to ask for help. To truly admit that we can’t do it alone. That in some sense, we are “dependent.” And that’s what we’ve been told not to do.

There was a DeBeers diamond ad years ago that was perhaps the only one of the whole campaign to reach me. I wasn’t really sure I’d ever marry, for a variety of reasons. But there it was, this simple line, that caught me at the right time: “Make a declaration of dependence,” it urged. It just slayed me. The notion that maybe the final act of being a man was to not achieve perfectly competent independence, but to rather so commit yourself to life that you can’t possibly do it alone, that you need someone to help you get through it all, someone without whom you’re utterly helpless. Or at least not the best man you can be. The goal for independence is the male equivalent of a straitjacket, and one that keeps us from truly embracing others in life.

So maybe the real goal of being a man, after a certain point, is to stop being superman, and to realize that you can make a lot more difference in this world if you’re part of a team than if you’re going it alone. Steve Jobs needed a Wozniak. Barack needs a Michelle. Kobe needed a Shaq. The trick is to realize it while they’re still in front of you.

And ask them if they’d care to join up as a team.

Here’s to the end of the Isle of Man.

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About Mark Radcliffe

Mark Radcliffe is a writer living in New York City. He has a weakness for bourbon, jazz and girls who can drive stick. You can read more of his essays here: and


  1. For some of us it’s a real Catch 22. We get used to not asking for help and not reaching out to friends because we believe we don’t have any, that it means we’re weak, or in my case a controlling marriage and depression. We get pushed away by those that we are supposed to be able to turn to. As time goes on that becomes our default mode. Then when life changes and we *should* be able to turn to a support system we don’t have one and we’re afraid of trying to build one. It just gets harder and harder on both fronts.

  2. So true for people, in general. We all could use a partner in different aspects of our journey through life, to help and be helped by.

  3. Al Porter says:

    Great article. Modern society has put men in a impossible bind. We are supposed to “man up” ,”be a man”, “buck up”. At the same time we need to be more kind, sensitive, caring, emotional, and open. And good providers. Meanwhile, women can do whatever they want and we are supposed to respect their choices or we are labeled “misogynists”. If we miss any of these targets, we are shamed and blamed. No wonder over 50 middle age men are committing suicide a day. And no one cares. It’s got to change fast or we are headed to a crisis of massive proportions.

  4. I am a woman and I feel that if I didn’t separated from my family I wouldn’t have made it so far. I did it on my own and even though I knew things would have been easier with people helping, I learned that I am all I have and need. I was always in survival mode full of stress and now things are clearing themselves and I can see the results of my independence. No everybody is out there to help, some people will drag you down even further if you become dependent of them. Now I am filling my life with good people that can be there for me by respecting my independence and I will be there for them. I just need the space to find out things on my own. I guess I am a loner.

    However my independence was not about being successful, but about surviving. About being able to get out of an unhealthy situation with my family when I was just a teenager. When some says “you couldn’t make it with out me” they are telling you the biggest lie there is; You can make it on your own. It is just harder and more painful, but not impossible.

  5. Hi, just wanted to mention, I liked this article. It was funny.
    Keep on posting!

  6. Isnt the paradox here that men almost need to acheive independence (or at the very least self-suffiency) before they can come to the realization that its necessary for them, as you put it “so commit yourself to life that you can’t possibly do it alone, that you need someone to help you get through it all,”…? So is a long-lasting relationship basically a requisite for hapiness?

    This article has just piqued my interest for what really motivates men, and what acheivements seem to favor a balanced and harmonious life.

    I am asking this as a single man in my 20s. Having no career or relationship of any kind, i find myself at the cusp of an existential crisis, with no solution in sight and a waning hope for some kind of fulfilling existence.

  7. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    One of the reasons I think gender isn’t going away anytime soon is due to the responsibility of men to protect women and children from other men, unfortunately. I have two friends who are escaping abusive relationships, and I have played a protective role in one, and probably will have to do the same in another. If another man beleives someone will do something to him if he doesn’t straighten up, it may give him pause. I admit that this is a fine line, and a panicked man may hurt his partner even more. But men do have experience with instrumental violence, so even if they are only making recommendations, they have the gendered experience to do so. I agree with the article above pretty much, however.

    • Well, at least you’re upfront about your misogyny. It takes a dedicated person to come out and say outright that women are on par with children when it comes to taking responsibility for their own personal safety and well being, and that therefore that responsibility should land on men’s shoulders. I don’t personally agree, but I can at least commend your honesty about it.

      • Hank Vandenburgh says:

        The word “misogyny” means woman hating. You may want to reconsider your language here. I’m a sociologist, and many of my students are working class. Even a relatively skilled woman usually can’t stand up to an angry man most of the time. And yes, physical (probably not mental) abuse does get worse with poorer classes. Your comment reeks of class privilege. I don’t like the way meaningful language like “misogyny” has been utterly cheapened. I favor expanded gun rights for abuse victims too, by the way. One of my friends was beaten with a collapsable baton by her ex-boyfriend, breaking some bones. I’ll probably be teaching her to shoot.

        • Perhaps male chauvinism may have been a more appropriate term, because you’re right, looking upon women as if they are children isn’t necessarily hatred. As to the rest of your post, it would appear you are under the impression that the only way one can be responsible for ones safety is through physical violence. Makes me worry for the students you teach.

          As to my “class privilege”, I grew up in poverty, and I had to work my way through school to get where I am now. My baby sister on the other hand got handed scholarships for having a vagina. And according to you, it’s MY privilege to put myself in harms way, not only for her (which I would gladly do, as I would for any friend or family REGARDLESS OF THEIR SEX), but for any random woman I might come across, for no other reason than I have a penis and they don’t…And you want to talk to me about privilege while YOU try and dictate what MY responsibility is?

          • Hank Vandenburgh says:

            One may have to be responsible for one’s or another’s safety through physical violence. It’s sad but true. I had to put myself through school too, after a six-year stint in the military. I need to point out that you are and have been using language in a more violent way than I. I think men (as more physically capable on average) generally have an obligation, a pro-social one, to defend women and children, because it’s often men who do the damage to women, anyway. (Women do harm children more often than men – proximity.) So, I don’t really see the chivalrous part of the male gender role disappearing anytime soon. Frequently, men will be advisors to women on resisting physical violence (just as some women are,) but men know violence better than women do. I’d call myself a realistic ally of feminism.

            • ” I’d call myself a realistic ally of feminism.”

              I’d call you that too, but that’s because I realise the reality of feminism is about privileging women, and for most, that means using men as trained monkeys to shield them and do the heavy lifting. And you play into that oh so well. Chivalry and the patriarchy are tools of feminism as much as anything else. And you exemplify that.

              • The word choice in this discussion suggests a lack of regard for what the universal woman population has gone through and is going through.
                Women don’t ask to be the victims of rape and brutality inflicted BY men, so that they may be protected by men.
                It’s the responsibility of all capable people to alleviate the suffering of CRIME victims.
                Poverty in the rich priveleged countries is not comparable to the poverty of the third world where the american poverty level would be a luxury to many families.
                Where women and children are dealing with more than your mind will ever fathom.
                Want to talk about women’s privilege, let’s talk about human trafficking and war children, all the young girls being raped in the Congo and all the aboriginal women who go missing in america.
                Being able to work hard to get an education or earn a living IS a privelege.
                And being handed a scholarship for a having a vagina, that same vagina which prevented having equal human right, is a weak argument for anything at best.
                True feminim is about women being equal people, not objects not holes not punching bags. Not about chivalry. Its about human rights.
                men, especially white men have ben handed the worlds since thebeginning of time for having dicks.

                • “Being able to work hard to get an education or earn a living IS a privelege.”

                  We all agree with that statement. However, in this country is that boys and men, not girls and women are the ones being denied the privilege of getting an education. Many feminists don’t care about that, as evidenced by your comment.

                  You claim that true feminism is about human rights but you don’t acknowledge that males are also human. News flash: they are.

                  The feminism that you speak of above does not know what equality is because it is gyno-centric and doesn’t see or care about male suffering. That is why most women want nothing to do with it. They actually want equality.

                  The next time you go to a developing country where virtually the entire population lives in abject poverty, for a change, notice that the men and boys are also living in abject poverty, including the ones with missing arms and legs. You seem to believe that males live in western-style luxury while females suffer.

                  Have you actually spent time there? I didn’t have a concept of how people lived until I traveled to Africa a few times. You’re right, women have it harder there than most Americans can possibly conceive. However, everyone there, male, female, young and old suffer if you are poor – which in many countries, all but a privileged few are.

                  Some women and girls do get raped but the men and boys are forced to fight, and are the ones that get shot, killed, maimed, and dismembered. I have met these limbless men, the fortunate ones who survived. However, I saw not a single limbless women. Perhaps some was a victim of rape, but neither did I see the men who were killed. Nor were the men who were forced to start fighting at 10 years old wearing T-shirts that boasted about it, but they are there.

                  Get in touch with humanity. Suffering is not exclusive to females. In this country, they are the ones getting educated; why doesn’t the government, including the POTUS care at all bout that?

                • “The word choice in this discussion suggests a lack of regard for what the universal woman population has gone through and is going through.”

                  The word choice in your post is a blatant disregard for what men have gone through and go through. Eric covers this pretty well in his response. I’ll just ask, do you agree with Hank that men must take responsibility for ensuring women’s safety and protection?

                  “Want to talk about women’s privilege, let’s talk about human trafficking and war children, all the young girls being raped in the Congo and all the aboriginal women who go missing in america.”

                  Yes, please, let us talk about human trafficking and war children. All the rape in the congo. Let us talk about how privileged the women who suffer from that are to be getting their pain and suffering acknowledged and aided, while the men who suffer those same attrocities must endure and suffer in virtual silence, who are denied acknowledgement and aid. Let us talk about the privilege of being disposable.

                  • Joanna Schroeder says:

                    I think that the world will be better if we respect that both sexes are suffering globally under many of the same big problems – war, trafficking, forced labor, sex slavery.

                    No one, I mean NO ONE, will ever win the “who has it worse” contest. Rule number 1 to having a good marriage and a good relationship with the world is realizing that life is hard for every population in different ways.

                    Let’s work together and move forward in making the world better for everyone.

                    • I agree.

                      I just want to clarify, did I at any point in my comment make the assertion that men had it worst? I thought I only pointed out that men suffer, and that women have a privilege men don’t in that their suffering is acknowledged and they are provided aid.

                      I’m also curious on your opinion of Hanks “men have a responsibility to protect women and children” assertion. Do you feel men should be required to protect you like a child?

  8. ” It’s okay if we only do 80% of the work instead of 100%. Especially if trying to do 100% keeps us from ever finishing anything.” Thank you for sharing. I will keep this for the rest of my life.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Wonder where I’ve been all my life.
    Nobody ever told me to eschew asking for help.
    However, given that nasty law of physics, we have a problem. If I ask somebody for help, that takes resources and time from that person who is helping me. It is incumbent on me to do that as little as possible in order to allow that other person to conserve finite resources.
    Manchester, in his book about his service, refers to a phenomenon familiar to most guys; the ease and speed with which a random collection of guys thrown together–military, dorm floor, football team, block–spontaneously forms an informal or even formal mutual aid society, depending on each other and being available to be depended upon. Happened to me any number of times.
    Manchester’s dark view is that the Marines know this and depend on it for fighting quality, using it cynically. Might be true, but the point is that if it doesn’t exist, it can’t be used, much less be planned for in advance as a resource in desperate circumstances.
    Mark’s individual situation does not apply to most guys. Unfortunate he missed what most of us got.
    That, however, does not mean the rest of us are similarly situated.

  10. Thank you for writing this and for putting into words that which so many men don’t want to admit. i often say that we’d all be better men if we learned to trust and depend on each other a little bit. Of course, we’re hard-wired exactly the opposite way (as you so eloquently put it here.)

  11. This is a nice reminder but something that should be taught to children as they are raised.I was always taught and teach my kids that no matter how capable and independent you are, “no man is an island.”

    Part of the point of having family is to enjoy the relief and comfort of interdependence. We weren’t meant to do it all ourselves. If we were, it would be possible to procreate on our own. There is a reason that it takes both a man and a woman to bring a child into the world.

  12. It saddens and amazes me how some men will avoid seeking help and support when they need it the most. About 2 1/2 years ago, my ex-husand life and my life fell apart. I was laid off from my job and “we” experienced the loss of his “wonderful mother” f she succumbed to ovarian cancer. The man was blindsided on 2 fronts. When my ex-husband met me, I was working for a Fortune 500 company, I owned my home, and I was working on a Master’s degree. In fact, I paid for our first date, but I made sure to ask him if this “was okay” – I didn’t want to offend him. During my job layoff, my ex-husband had to shoulder the bulk of the financial obligations, even though I worked part-time and temp job assignments. We had to struggle to make ends meet, but I always had faith that we would make it through. I was very blessed to find another job that paid a six-figure salary, our daughter earned a full, academic scholarship, and will be studying in Paris, France next year; she has made us very proud. Unfortunately, during this period of struggles, my ex-husband began to drink heavily, take illegal prescription drugs, and had at least 2 sexual affairs. I barely recognized the man I had loved for over 2 decades, and our daughter was shocked and disappointed with her father’s behavior. He refused to seek professional help or therapy; so I filed for a divorce. I could not give him permission to continue “disrespecting me and dishonoring our daughter”. He’s moved to another city and continues to support our daughter, he loves her very much and she feels the same way about “her daddy”. My ex-husband has aged about 15 years, he looks tired and miserable. I have already forgiven him and will always love and care about him. Perhaps, one day men like my ex-husband will wake up, put their pride and egos aside and finally let the people who are closest to them, give them what they need and deserve the most: Our strength, our compassion, our loyalty, and OUR LOVE!!

    • Please note in my comment that the letter “f” at the end of “mother” is a typo. I loved my mother-in-law like she was my very own mom, and I miss her very much.

  13. I can well remember some years back when a close family member passed away unexpectedly. As far as I was concerned she was a marvelous woman, married for some forty years to the same guy.

    Theirs was not a relationship worthy of envy. I scarce saw a moment of warmth or tenderness between them. Rather than love each other in any demonstrable fashion, they seemed to have made a mutual decision to merely tolerate each other.

    When the woman died I remember the man lamenting, “What am I going to do now?”

    That statement encompassed everything, from getting his supper, to managing the house, to nurturing his children, to sending out Christmas cards. The man had no experience with any of life’s necessary underpinnings, those mandatory machinations spinning quietly in the shadows that—to a large extent– allowed him to excel in his career.

    The woman was everything, the powerhouse in the background.

    The man was good at one thing: He knew how to go out and scrounge out a living. But that was really the extent of it.

    The shame is, as he stood before the open gash of her grave, I doubt he had ever shown his appreciation to her.

    There may be a lesson to all of us here. If you have that good female beside you, that co-pilot, that partner in crime, that sex buddy, that confidant, that business collaborator, that life strategist, that homey and best friend–tip your hat to her.

    Don’t wait to show your appreciation only on the requisite holidays. Acknowledge her worth frequently, often and all the damn time.

  14. This is such a beautiful piece of work. As a therapist who specializes in working with men on their relationships, I am always trying to impart this exact sentiment. Your post says it more eloquently than I ever could. We all need to depend on someone, as scary as that can be. We are an interdependent species – we cannot survive (and certainly can’t thrive) alone. Thanks for sharing this. I’d like to post a link to this on my own blog and/or facebook business page…

  15. Thanks for this. I made this admission to myself, to my wife, and to a community of men – years ago. I’m deeply grateful that I know a lot of other men who have also come around to a new way of being men. These are the men I want as role models. The age of the cowboy is over.

    And Copyleft – you have my support to stop waiting.

  16. Brian Reinholz says:

    Mark, I agree. I don’t think most men or women function function very well in this “independent” society we’ve built…one that says, leave your family when you turn 18 and carve out on your own, focus on intimate relationships that focus more on impressive feats than true emotional intimacy, and a community of friends that knows you mostly through the online world, not in person.

    On the whole…we’re not very good at connecting with one another’s hearts, griefs, pains. We’re not very good at giving up our possessions (material and otherwise) to help those around us. We’re not too quick to open up our homes for any occasion, casual or urgent.

    These are not maxims, of course. But at some point, when you see everyone around you medicating or ignoring their pain, rather than dealing with it, that most of us are pretty darn overwhelmed, as you state. Perhaps this affects men especially because of the perception of having it all together and being a pillar of strength.

  17. That was beautiful and profound!

  18. Mark Neil says:

    I see this assertion that men don’t ask for help all the time. Men are incapable of letting other people in to take on some of the workload. But as much as I see the assertion, I really don’t see it in practice. I don’t know any man who believes, in order to be a writer, he must also be his own editor and publicist. To be an athlete, he needs to be his own coach and personal trainer. I work as a product specialist for 3D software, and every day we get dozens of calls from men (usually) looking for help, and the only time I have ever heard them feel ashamed is when the solution was so blatantly obvious, even to them, that they are ashamed they missed it and “wasted” (their word) our time, and that is exceptionally rare (2-3 times in the last year personally).

    But ultimately, most men want the crowning achievement to be theirs. A writer who has someone else write every second or third chapter can not claim the book for his own, A boxer who win’s the champion due to a few punch’s from someone else on the sidelines is no champion. That does not diminish the fact you will find an editor and a coach standing behind him, with his blessing, in both cases.

    Now, if you want to argue men don’t ask for personal, that’s something else. Though I’d point to Obamacare to see an example of why that will continue to be the case.

  19. I hear you, Mark. And I’ll be glad to admit I need help and support as soon as society, both men AND women, stops punishing and ridiculing men every time they do.


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