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Men ... Who Needs Them?

  • Connally Gilliam Author
  • 2006 19 May
Men ... Who Needs Them?

In most of the single women I know, there is a residual sense of needing men, on some level.  And yet in practice, there’s a lot of life that can be lived – like paying rent and changing oil and cutting grass – without them.  As a result, I’ve seen in many twenty-thirty-something single women, a strange ambivalence around this question, Who needs men?  

Sometimes I wonder if it is in part a problem of the words we use.  While I’ve not found anyone who thinks it’s wrong or abnormal to desire a man – or the company of men – there is often an unspoken caveat.  It is fine to desire from a place of internal strength, but when it is desire that’s born of need, somehow, well … that’s just a little sketchy.  Maybe it’s some of the circles I’ve run in or into, but somehow needing a man can quietly connote an undue weakness or potential desperation, i.e. being sort of needy.  Citing the best-selling book, "The Rules," Barbara Dafoe Whitehead offers a picture of the new ideal single woman. “You are a very fulfilled person – stable, functional, and happy – with a career, friends, and hobbies … and you are perfectly capable of living with or without him.  You are not an empty vessel waiting for him to fill you up, support you, or give you a life.”12 No, this is not a woman with evident needs. 

A leader whom I respect tremendously once commented, “You know, nothing scares men away like a needy or desperate woman.” So, as there’s this very fine to the point of almost invisible line between needing and being needy, I see many friends conclude that perhaps the best thing a woman can do is to cultivate an air of detachment around the whole topic of needing men.

The unfortunate irony, however, is that in my world, one hears numerous comments from men bemoaning women’s self-sufficiency. I have heard many male lips utter some form of the phrase: Women don’t need us anymore; we’ve become obsolete. And is it true? Have men become obsolete from your vantage point? Honestly, for many of us, the need deficit is a reality. For example, do we need men for financial provision? It’s nice but not crucial. Do we need men for physical protection? Perhaps when walking to a car late at night, but generally we live in a world governed by the rule of law and that’s enough. How about for social status? Of course no one wants to be excluded from dinner parties because she lacks a man, but at least in metropolitan areas, social opportunities decidedly exist for single women. How about emotional connection? Don’t we expect our girlfriends to fill a lot of these gaps? Kids? We can adopt or be artificially inseminated. The only obvious thing left is sex, which some women are content to live without or embrace in such a way that no meaningful, lasting relationship with a man is necessary. In short, men on the whole aren’t really needed any longer, at least not in the clear-cut ways of previous generations.

Perhaps part of the ensuing ambivalence about needing men is that what many single women find themselves actually left wanting and what many men find themselves capable of offering, are more divergent than ever. The language of so many of my single girlfriends is the vocabulary of “connection” and of “soul mates.” Launched in good careers and already owning condos, but living in transient communities without extended families, many in this group yearn for intimacy. It’s something that even from a point of strength we can’t create on our own.

Ironically, this intimacy is something that an un-fathered generation of men seems, on the whole, least prepared to offer. It is not so much that these men lack for intimacy. Rather, significantly, many lack the conviction, confidence, and capacity to commit to creating the structures (e.g., marriage and family) that have nurtured and sustained intimacy over the ages. So the women are longing, and in some cases, dying for intimacy. And the men are clueless about how to help build it.

Perhaps because of the culture of privilege that characterizes much of the United States, my first memory of experiencing a real and objective need for men – a need deeper than just a vague ache, a flash of desire, or an impulse for social normalcy – came at age thirty-one, in another country. I was on a train in India. Being led to my destination by a Hindi-speaking male who communicated via warm nods and animated body language, I was traveling in the coed train car.

As we rode in that all-male-except-for-me train car, I found myself standing a head above a sea of Indian men whose bodies were smashed up against mine. Not convinced that the rule of law had any particular power in these men’s lives, I suddenly found myself profoundly grateful to be with my guide. Though he was half a foot shorter than I, his presence next to me communicated, “Do not bother this woman.” The glances he shot in the direction of those who leered hungrily in my direction felt like arrows shot on my behalf. At that moment, I could not contemplate being without him; I knew I needed him.

Likewise, when my younger brother arrived in India a week later from his home in the Middle East, something that was unwittingly clenched in me released. One of the friends I’d made in the interim said to me, “Your face is much more relaxed now that your brother is here.” Though something within me flinched at his words (my illusion of self-sufficiency had taken a blow), my face told the real story: at the reflex level, my brother’s presence, like that of the guide but with a further and deeper reach, carried with it the power to bring me to a place of rest which, at least in that culture, I couldn’t get to on my own. I genuinely needed his presence and when I received it, something in me exhaled.

Recently, I attended a Valentine’s Day dinner at the home of a friend I affectionately call Bald Harry (he shaves his head). The men who organized the event did the inviting, cooking, and serving. Dinner concluded with Harry’s brave recitation (brave because of the slightly bemused snickers of the other men, which actually seemed to embolden him) of Longfellow’s nineteenth-century epic poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Interestingly, it is a tale of a man who has no language for the deepest part of his heart. The poem lingered in the air a few moments – perhaps many of us, men and women alike, have lost language for our deepest longings – and then, after a short, Harry-led prayer, the men transformed the dining area into a dance floor, and most of us made our way on to it.

There was no budding romance for me that evening. Nor was I in any danger from which I needed protection. But nevertheless, that same “India thing” transpired. That evening, I found myself exhaling. Somehow in their planning, serving, risking, and engaging, that motley crew of men helped my omni-competence find a temporary shelf. It wasn’t a starry or dreamy night, but I left with the gift of rest, mysteriously provided by the presence of this hodgepodge of brothers.

Could I have lived without that Valentine’s dinner? Yes. Honestly, I’ve lived through a lot of single Valentine’s Day dinners and have had both lonely and laughter-ridden times with friends. But nevertheless, those men’s offering and simple presence touched something in me, and it was good. I left wondering, What exactly is that thing that men have that we need?  It’s hard, honestly, to define, but you know it when you smell it.

It’s at this point that I find myself thrown back to Scripture and its first mention of people, of men and women. The first chapter of Genesis reads: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).”13 Since the nineteenth century, these and related passages have been used consistently by assorted biblical scholars to highlight the equality of women with men, the distinct identity that women possess as image bearers of God, and the implicit character traits of God that we typically refer to as feminine. Debates have, and most likely will, continue to swirl around these issues. However, I’ve found myself coming to this text from the other side of the page.

Not so consumed with the place of women in the culture – rather, wondering more about the role men play – I’ve reflected on this passage.  And the conclusion is obvious:  men and women, together, reflect God’s image.  That’s why both genders are simply flooded with value.  And it’s why we need each other.  Even if you or I lack any practical, urgent or felt need for men, men, as equal image bearers of God, are integral to our knowing, seeing, and experiencing him. So, though maybe it’s a mystery, it’s still quite real.

In the past, women were propelled into interdependent relationships with men to a far greater degree than today. Perhaps many women exercised the strange privilege of jokingly reducing men’s value to “overeating lugs who happen to father our children,” while still receiving and enjoying the benefits of God’s image, imperfectly present in those males. In other words, it was fine to devalue men because as far as anyone could see, men and women were stuck with each other. I say that cautiously, recognizing my own naiveté and ignorance about fallen men, abusive relationships, and oppressive social structures. Undeniably, relative to most women in the world and in history, I speak from a place of freedom. But it is precisely that freedom (i.e., we aren’t stuck with men) that demands of both a decision and a discovery: Will we choose to believe that men carry the image of God? And if so, will we risk discovering more of what the image looks like in a handful of assorted fathers, brothers, colleagues, friends, and, potentially, a husband?

Believing and discovering is a risk, because men – like women – are fallen image bearers and can be schmucks as fathers, brothers, colleagues, friends, or husbands, and more often than not as strangers. They can spark deep, angry breaths and elicit sad, weary sighs.

But what I’ve discovered – beyond the endless if necessary debates around gender roles and traits, and beyond even the hurt inflicted by fallen men – is the relentless truth about the mysterious but real offering of men. I say mysterious because it’s hard to define.  It is like the blowing of the wind. I can’t put the offering in a box; I can’t measure its edges; but I can tell when it’s blowing by its effect on me. In my case, something mysteriously good transpires, and a part of me exhales. Put more concretely, my friend Cindi says it this way: “Think about getting a compliment from a woman versus getting the same compliment from a man. It’s different. Think about a girlfriend walking you to your car or a guy walking you to your car. That’s different. Those may sound silly, but I think there’s something there.”

No doubt many women, perhaps including you, will discover the image of God in men in a variety of forms. Clearly, my experience is shaped by a particular context and personality. But because God’s image, even if blurred, universally resides in men, there is an answer to the question, Men: who needs them? And while the answer is only a starting place, and begs many questions which I don't address here, it is nevertheless an answer on which we can solidly stand. Who needs men?  I’d humbly venture to say we all do.

12Whitehead quotes, on pages 172-173, from Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, he Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" (New York:  Warner Books, 1995), 49.
13Genesis 1:27, NASB.

Adapted from "Revelations of a Single Woman: Loving the Life I Didn't Expect," © 2006 by Connally Gilliam.  Published by SaltRiver Books (an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers).

Connally Gilliam  earned a Master's of Teaching (English) from the University of Virginia and has taught high school and college writing.  She now works for Navigators as a Life Coach for Twenty-somethings in the Washington, DC, metro area.  She loves sharing coffee with friends and discovering how God is real, even in a crazy, changing and unintentionally single world.