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Men in relationships and dating: findings from Heads and Hearts report

In Netflix’s Sex Education, student sex advisor, Maeve Wiley, suggests a reboot in male

dating behaviour:

“You know in rom-coms, when the guy finally realises he’s in love with the girl and he turns up with a boom box outside her house, blasting her favourite song, and everyone in the audience swoons? Yeah, that makes me sick.”

When it comes to men and intimate relationships, it would seem that change is afoot. #MeToo has brought discussions around male sexual abuse and harassment out of the shadows and into public discourse. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 lockdown has increased male presence in the home and frustrated opportunities to meet new partners.

Men’s Heads and Hearts - a new report by National Relate and eharmony aims to bottle the essence of this new zeitgeist, exploring men’s attitudes to dating, love and relationships in 2021. It combines insight from practising Relate counsellors including myself, alongside consumer polling.*

Nervous beginnings

So what has changed?

Research elsewhere has shown that lockdown resulted in the proportion of people reporting anxiety-related symptoms increasing three-fold. In Relate and eharmony’s new research, we can see how this may have impacted the return to dating with six in 10 men feeling insecure when it comes to dating, with fear of rejection, their age and appearance the top contributing factors.

Further factors driving dating insecurities for men include prior bad experiences (19%), plus the perception that they’re ‘out of practice’ after coming out of a long-term relationship (13%).

One in seven (13%) men think it’s harder for them to date than it was 10 years ago. For example, mismatched expectations mean one in five men (19%) believe they should pay the bill on the first date, while less than half as many women say the same (9%).

#MeToo has also impacted attitudes with 39 percent of men saying it has changed their approach to dating.

Business as usual

When it comes to settled relationships though, the picture is more sobering.

The poll found that only 20 percent of men felt comfortable showing their vulnerability in a relationship, only 41 percent think communication is important in a relationship and 38 percent feel that household chores should be divided equally between partners.

Research compiled by the ONS, tells us that while men were more likely to die from COVID, it was women’s wellbeing that was more negatively affected during the pandemic, by factors such as additional childcare responsibilities and increased loneliness.

For those for us in the counselling room, this isn’t a surprise. While there is some evidence to suggest that overall relational satisfaction improved for most couples during lockdown, for couples and families that were already struggling to cope, it proved a breaking point.

It is often the case that partners find themselves repeating the patterns set by their parents, who in turn were influenced by the previous generation. It is not uncommon for men to aspire to modern values around gender equality and the division of labour, but under stress they find themselves falling back into the patriarchal behaviours that they observed as children. This can create unhappiness within intimate relationships, especially for women, because expectations aren’t met by reality.

Therapy surely forms part of the solution. However, Relate and eHarmony’s poll revealed that only 10 percent of men would consider counselling if their relationship in trouble. This is especially tragic, because a 2012 report by Samaritans also showed that marital breakdown was a major factor in the elevated suicide rate amongst middle-aged men.

One impact of the pandemic has been the transition of therapy to webcam and other digital platforms, making it accessible to many more people than before. We know from previous research that men often value a certain degree of anonymity when accessing services so Relate’s WebChat, Message A Counsellor email service and phone counselling could all be avenues for men to consider.

Not all men?

According to our survey almost a quarter (24%) of men said they’d not really heard of the #MeToo movement and more than one in ten (11%) think #MeToo is exaggerated. As the anti-feminist retort goes, surely “not all men are like that”? Well, maybe in some sense, that is true.

The effects of #MeToo seemed to be particularly felt within the 25-34 age group, with 66 percent reporting that it had changed their attitude to relationships. This was one of the strongest effects recorded in the poll.

So, perhaps there is hope for Maeve after all?

*Relate and eharmony conducted a focus group with four practising Relate counsellors to understand the challenges men face when dating. Censuswide on behalf of Third City conducted supplementary UK research in September 2021, among a nationally representative sample of 2,531 UK adults (18+). A boost of 1,031 UK singles (18+) was added to this sample - with a minimum quota set for 200 in NI.

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