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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Strange Days for the Man of the House

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And so, the recession drags on. Nobody feels it more oppressively and relentlessly than the men who have been cast out of all those industries they called their own.

In downturns past, there was always the certainty that, as nasty as things are right now, this too shall pass. Eventually, the pain will subside, the wound will heal over, and things will return to normal.

But, for men, and the power they've assumed as a right of gender, this one is different. Sometimes global events have a way -- like a nudge over the crest of a hill -- of accelerating things already under way. Normal is a new and, for many, very confusing place.

Laws and changing times have conspired for decades to siphon off male power. Women got rights that had long been denied. Place in society became less a matter of force and position than information and communication. Pick a measure -- education, managerial jobs -- and women, in most cases, have blown past parity and assumed the lead.

Add in a recession where 75 percent of the job losses were by men, and there are implications at every point where genders meet -- from the conference room to the bedroom. One of the murkiest of implications, however, is in the living room. What happens to the power structure of families that for centuries has been built -- at least in the confines of their castle -- around the supremacy of an alpha male?

There is some interesting study behind that question.

Working with families my whole career, I've seen that power is drawn from different sources. It might flow to the one who has the most knowledge of a topic -- how to fix the hot water heater. It might be likeability. Some family members are just more popular. It might be fear. It might be the ability to reward. For most families, all of that can play a part, and all of it is in motion.

But, researchers Robert Blood and Donald Wolfe argued in the 60s that there is a super-platform. They called it the resource theory of family power. What you are inside the family is what you are outside. Power is a function of income, prestige, education and other conveyers of worldly status. For most of our history, all of that has tilted toward men.

As the rise of women and the economic decline of men have kicked out those pillars, what happens to the power platform so long enjoyed by dad?

Philosopher Eric Hoffer said, "Every new adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem."

Crisis? It's too early to tell. But there are early indications that the adjustment to a new balance of power has certainly not been kind to self-esteem of men who find themselves on the short end of the seesaw.

An Emory University study has found that rates of depression in men is reaching that of women, who have traditionally been the higher risk group. The probable causes: job loss and insecurity have combined with the muddling of male roles, colliding directly with the embedded notion of the man as the breadwinner and boss.

Another piece of evidence is the dramatic increases in women who make more money than their husbands, giving "the resource theory" high ground. In a telling New York magazine article called "Alpha Women, Beta Men," Ralph Gardener did extensive interviews with couples where the economic balance of power had been flipped. His conclusion: "Neither the newly liberated alpha women nor their shell-shocked beta spouses seem comfortable with the role reversal." One woman talked about the relationship toll that comes with giving her non-working husband "an allowance."

We've adjusted to so much. Why not this? Ten years ago, cell phones were for talking, and a kid named Mark Zuckerberg was in high school. Clearly, we incorporate shifts in technologies into our lives a lot more readily than we do shifts in gender roles and expectations.

Both men and women are going to have to find a way. Some have made the adjustment seamlessly. For others, the seams may be coming apart.

The family shifts in gender power are a slow-rolling revolution that events have given powerful momentum. If there is one thing that history has taught us about revolutions: they don't go backwards.