Tonic Masculinity in a Toxic Culture
Or lessons I've learned the hard way about being a man, a father, and a husband
If you are striving to be a good man in our postmodern culture, God bless you. It is not easy, and most of our cultural norms and institutions are arrayed against you. If just go with the flow, you will be weak and ineffective, and you will have unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships. I’m offering my take on “tonic masculinity” as a cautionary tale: if you don’t want to end up like me, then learn from my mistakes. Here are some lessons I learned the hard way.
Tonic masculinity is a term coined byas a healthy counterpoint to society’s nonstop slander of masculinity as being “toxic.”
I went on a podcast today to discuss the subject of tonic masculinity with, , , , and on ’s RealFemSapien’s YouTube channel. All of these guys are great, as is Aly, and the discussion was fun and insightful.
Now, why on earth would anyone want to hear what I have to say about tonic masculinity, you might ask? That’s a good question, and one which I immediately asked when these gentlemen invited me to do the podcast with them. After thinking it over, I believe I do have something to add: the lessons I learned the hard way, from not cultivating tonic masculinity earlier in life.
I have been happily divorced since 2020. Prior to that, my eleven-year marriage was basically a dreadfully long, slow-motion train wreck. Kind of like the one in New Palestine, Ohio, but even more toxic and explosive. For the past three years, I’ve been doing what the Army calls an “After-Action Review” (AAR). In other words, I’ve been working as an accident investigator trying to make sense of the wreckage in my own life. What happened? How did things go wrong? And what lessons can I learn from it?
This endeavor is particularly important for me, not just for my own sake, but for my children. My ex-wife and I did not give our children an intact household in which to grow up, nor did we provide them with a healthy model for male/female relationships, so I’m hoping I can at least give them insights about how to do better than their parents, when it comes time for them to get married and raise children.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the lessons that I’ve learned:
You have to be intentional about creating the kind of marriage and family life that you want.
Maybe in generations past, ordinary people could just kind of stumble into marriage and parenthood and expect things more or less to work out, but those days are long gone. Not only is our culture NOT optimized for producing healthy, happy marriages and nuclear families, but it is actively disincentivizing just about everything that is required for marriages and families to thrive. You can make it work, but you will be swimming upstream against a very strong cultural current which, if you don’t actively fight against it, will sweep your household towards dysfunction and divorce.
Be honest with yourself and with your potential spouse about who you are and about the kind of marriage and family life you ultimately want.
Pay attention to your deepest dreams and desires. Our culture feeds us a steady diet of lies about what it means to be male or female, about the roles of husbands and wives in marriage, about the proper relationship between parents and children, etc. But our culture is terribly sick and promotes an anti-human agenda, so following today’s conventional wisdom is a recipe for disaster. Deep in your soul, you no doubt feel that our cultural norms are wrong.
Ever since the
Enlightenment Endarkenment, the intelligentsia has promoted the idea that Human Nature is a blank slate, that humans have no “essence” other than being free to choose their own way, and that gender roles are mere social constructs. But these traditional gender roles were the end result of countless millennia of a variety of diverse cultures working out how best to manage the relationships between men and women and between parents and children, in light of immutable and important truths about Human Nature that were more or less taken for granted for the vast majority of our history.
The social constructivists untethered Mankind from these ancient norms and then invented new norms to replace them. The irony is, these social constructivists created artificial norms that are the very thing they attacked the old norms for being: mere social constructions. These novel values are rooted, not in Human Nature, but in childish delusions, where people enjoy full freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, and with whomever they want, all without having any responsibility, at all, to anyone, not even themselves.
So how’s that working out for our civilization?
Odds are, that on a deep, visceral level you feel that something terribly important has been lost in all this madness. Sure, some cultural reforms have been for the better, but certainly not all, or even most. You know progressive reformers threw the baby out with the bathwater when they cannot give a straightforward answer to even the simple question, “What is a woman?”
Do not be bamboozled into second guessing or shrinking away from your desire for a traditional marriage and family arrangement. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for a husband and wife to both have thriving and demanding careers while simultaneously raising healthy, virtuous children; but I am saying it’s very difficult, and most of the time it doesn’t work. If you are a man who wants a wife who will put her career on the backburner to be the primary caretaker of your children when they’re young, that is natural, but it is not normal in our deranged society. If you are a woman who wants a man who will be the primary breadwinner and who will be a protector for you and your children, sacrificing his own safety and well-being when necessary, that is natural, but it is not normal in our deranged society. Our society will try to guilt-trip you into seeing those desires as regressive and archaic. Don’t fall for it: if those are your desires, you are not wrong for having them.
Remember, this is your life. You are the one who will have to dig deep and sacrifice in order to make your vision for your marriage and family a reality. It won’t just happen on its own. And it certainly won’t happen if you compromise on the things that are important to you because you second-guess yourself and your own deeply-held longings.
Before you get into a relationship, clarify what you really want long-term. And when you begin dating, look for signs that your own fundamental desires and values are in conflict with what the other person wants. Don’t brush past that and think you’ll figure it out down the road, and definitely do not second-guess yourself and wonder whether you are wrong for wanting what you really want.
But also understand, you cannot have it all; you must prioritize.
You can have only one top priority; you cannot have two. Or as Jesus put it, “You cannot serve two masters.” In addition to being honest with yourself and any potential mate about what is truly important to you regarding marriage and family, you also have to prioritize your desires and values, because they will sometimes conflict. Sometimes, you will have to make trade-offs, so you better get clear on what your most important values are and how those values rank in importance.
Contrary to what society will tell you, you cannot have it all. For women, this is probably a harsher reality than it is for men, since Mother Nature has imposed a relatively narrow window on female fertility, as well as a much heavier physical cost for reproduction. But for both sexes, you cannot pursue every goal all of the time, with 100% of your attention, energy, and resources. You will have to decide what it most important to you and pursue that completely and unconditionally. Then, you pursue your lesser priorities, subject to the condition that you sacrifice them whenever they conflict with a higher priority. With planning and self-discipline, you will hopefully be able to minimize such conflicts, but when they come up — and it is unavoidable that they will, at some point, come into conflict — you have to have the maturity to sacrifice lesser priorities for higher ones.
The only way your marriage can work is if you both commit, completely and unreservedly, to serving a higher good than your own self-interest or even, paradoxically, the other person’s self-interest.
You will never be fully prepared for marriage and parenting, because being married and being a parent require being responsible to your spouse and children, and nothing prepares you for being responsible to others except for being responsible to others. Just commit to doing your best and never giving up; Life will probably knock you on your ass a few times, so be determined to get back up and stay in the fight!
No matter how carefully you prepare, you will have times when marriage and parenthood are overwhelming. You are not just responsible for yourself anymore; you are responsible to your spouse and children, and those responsibilities are enormous and of the highest importance. If you fail, there’s really no one else who will be able to step in and replace you without your spouse and children suffering loss.
Very little in our culture prepares you for this level of responsibility, because our society has practically made “rights without responsibility” a sacrament. With each passing generation, the end of adolescence seems to get later and later, to the point that nowadays many adults in their 20s have never been responsible for themselves, let alone anyone else.
So go into both marriage and parenting expecting that it will be challenging, and that you will feel sometimes like you’re in over your head. The difficulties are exacerbated by our culture, which has hallowed out and abandoned just about all of the norms and institutions that once helped married couples and parents to successfully navigate life’s challenges, to be resilient in the face of setbacks, and to strengthen their bonds even in the midst of hardship. It will be tough, but it will be worth the sacrifice.
To borrow a phrase from the U.S. Army’s “Soldier’s Creed,” you must always place the mission (being a good husband and father) first; never accept defeat; and never quit. Life will knock you on your ass sometimes. You have to be committed enough to get back up every time and stay in the fight.
Foster a strong network of family and friends.
Life can be challenging and unpredictable, especially once you start raising children. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do it all on your own, but it is extremely difficult — so difficult that most couples don’t make it. You need family and friends to get through it.
Think about this before you start dating and definitely before you get married. Where will you live? Do you have kinfolk there? Does your spouse? People move around a lot in our increasingly rootless society, and you can form new networks in new places (if you’re religious, church can be a huge help with this), but just know that forming new networks takes time and effort. It is much easier to raise a family when you’re both surrounded by your own extended families and lifelong friends.
In the meantime, work on improving your own health, strength, wisdom, and virtue.
Whether you’re married or single, and whether you’re a parent or childless, you absolutely can improve your life and the lives of those around you by pursuing those things that improve your own health, strength, wisdom, and virtue. I once heard a Nigerian Bible teacher, after citing John 10:10, put it like this: The devil came to steal, kill, and destroy, but Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly; so when confronted with any choice, ask yourself, which course of action best maximizes that abundant life?
By spending time building meaningful relationships, you foster more abundant life. By eating healthy and working out, you foster more abundant life. By engaging your mind productively and pursuing spiritual growth, you foster more abundant life. By improving your sleep habits, you foster more abundant life. By treating others and ourselves with respect and goodwill, we foster more abundant life.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, or even close to it. Nor are these things that I’ve completely mastered in my own life. They’re just important lessons I’ve learned the hard way. It’s not easy to be a good man (or woman), especially in our anti-human culture today, and it’s certainly not easy to maintain a happy marriage and a strong family and to raise your children to have a strong character. But it’s critically important, and no one can do it for you. We have to try. Failure is not an option.
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Well done, Dan. I'm glad you guys have taken the ball and continued to run with it.
This is excellent. Thank you.