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The Backward Psychology of Why Men Fight Over Women

Why can’t we stop doing it, even if she doesn’t want us to?

She had told him not to message her anymore. But — bing! — there it was, another text. He knew she was dating me. Apparently, that wasn’t very discouraging.

“I’m just going to ignore it, and he’ll shut up eventually,” she said.

“Or you could tell him that, considering he goes to school across the street, I’m going to go over there whip his ass,” I retorted.

I was just 15 years old when I first wanted to fight someone over a girl. I can barely remember his name, or the details of the clumsy, adolescent messages he sent. But I recall how his persistent attempts to woo my girlfriend ignited a rising, hostile burn in my gut, and I had daydreams of running into him outside of the 7-Eleven down the road. Alysha, wisely, demanded I calm down. In turn, I felt a twinge of annoyance at her — for denying me a chance at some small semblance of justice.

I had been on the receiving end of a bully’s blows over the course of middle school, a journey that concluded with two lessons: I didn’t care what assholes had to say, but hitting them in the face would usually shut them up for a bit. She wanted me to focus on the former, in this case. But my mind instead wandered toward the latter. And, somewhere in the back of my mind, was a third thought: Shouldn’t she be proud that I’d trade blows over her?

The notion that men can, and should, fight for respect is a seductive idea, at least in pop culture. Heroic figures have long been painted in film and television as using physical violence as a response to disrespect, whether it’s in the American West or Napoleon-era France. Naturally, women have been portrayed as a common trigger for a fight over honor, whether they’re insulted by another man or outright assaulted. Modern films like the Liam Neeson beat-’em-up franchise Taken owe much to a long cultural history of “don’t touch my woman” — a concept that, in reality, seems to influence male-led societies all around the world, despite so many differences in race and creed. A 2008 study from Durham University even posited that men fought each other to the death over women as far back as prehistoric eras.

“If you go back a couple of hundred years, we used to talk lot about people’s honor. And insulting someone’s wife, fiancée, sister, daughter — that was an honor violation. And if it was sufficiently severe, then we might be talking about a duel. So this is a thing that has been with us for a long time in our culture,” says Andrew Smiler, a therapist, researcher and expert on masculinity.

The trope is alive and well today, persisting despite the rate of physical violence (notably homicide and assault) steadily declining over the last 25 years. A lot of men still see getting into fisticuffs with another dude as a normal rite of passage. “I don’t know one guy, including myself, who wasn’t in a bar fight,” declared Newsmax host John Cardillo in October. Experts who study men seem to actually disagree, insisting that most American men have never gotten into a fight, but no matter. Scroll through the comments of a viral video where a man knocks out two guys who harassed his girlfriend, and you’ll see gleeful takes on the necessary joys of physical dominance (and the perceived satisfaction of the woman, too).

Over the years, I can recall conversations with friends and acquaintances who grappled with the psychology and aftermath of fighting — or not fighting — when there’s a woman involved. Aaron, a 28-year-old in Colorado, tells me how his last relationship effectively disintegrated in 2017 after a bar fight that his girlfriend had tried to de-escalate. While Aaron claimed the other guy was making rude hand gestures at her, she saw it differently. “She told me that me ignoring her protests, and just going ahead and getting into a dumb brawl with this stranger, showed her that I cared more about myself than anything she could communicate,” Aaron says. “That breakup messed me up. But I still think I was justified.” It wasn’t a single incident that led to the split, he says, but a pattern of behavior in which he wanted to respond to disrespect, and she saw him as a person who couldn’t maintain a level head.

Aaron admits that nothing bothered him so much as another guy trying to harass his girlfriend. Sex and aggression are intertwined in the heads of a lot of young men, especially those who believe in alpha-male stereotypes about displaying dominance as a mating benefit. Smiler tells an anecdote about one of his clients — we’ll call him “Adam” — who grew up amid the soundtrack of his parents’ fights, in a neighborhood where the threat of violence loomed large. In his teenage years, Adam’s outlets for intense, pent-up emotion became sex and anger.

“If he’d had a particularly bad day at work, or he was having arguments with his friends, or if he had gotten into an argument his mom, he’d go out and pick a fight. And one of the ways that he would routinely pick a fight, was that he would hit on some guy’s girlfriend,” Smiler tells me. Now in his mid-20s, Adam has used therapy and mindfulness exercises to break down his aggression. Yet his experience did provide some insight into what makes the average guy most angry most quickly. He could have started fights in a lot of organic ways, Smiler says, but no method worked quite like hitting on or messing with another man’s girlfriend.

Even the guys who avoid a fight, and get praise from their partners for it, can end up agonizing over why they backed down. Jeff, a 34-year-old in Southern California, recalls how a movie night with his girlfriend in the city of Orange went sideways when a group of four young men began messing with them. The quartet sat right behind them in an otherwise empty theater, talking out loud and kicking the duo’s seatbacks. The final straw for Jeff was the appearance of feet, jutting out right next to their heads. He stood and turned. So did the four guys.

“One of them said, ‘You want something, fucker?’ or something like that. I stood up and didn’t say anything. I grabbed my girlfriend’s hand and calmly moved a few rows down,” Jeff says. “As we walked away, they made a few comments. I wanted to simply leave the theater but didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy the rest of the film. I was expecting a confrontation at the end of the film, but they actually left the theater after a while and that was it.”

This conclusion served as the best-case scenario for Jeff’s girlfriend, who complimented him for not “sinking to their level and fighting like an animal,” he says. Succumbing to a fistfight would’ve been a turnoff for her, she told him. Jeff had experienced a few fights in his teens and early 20s, but acknowledged to her that taking on four strangers in a dark theater was a terrible alternative. Yet the moment replayed over and over in his head. “It bothered me for months. I was tempted to go back and look for the guys. I believed my girlfriend, but a part of me knew that, had she seen me kick the asses of four guys, she would have loved it,” he says.  

Would she have loved it, though?

Fans of evolutionary psychology (a lá Jordan Peterson) buy into the theory that women are naturally attracted to dominant males who are taller, more muscular and have the capability for aggression. The actual research on this is mixed — several surveys have found women do respond positively to “dominant” traits, but only within the context of a short-term relationship, for example. “As American guys, we get trained that we should be able to defend ourselves, and we should be able to defend the people around us,” Smiler notes. “But I think the majority of American women in the current day, aren’t particularly attracted to that escalating to physical violence. I suspect that there’s a small percentage that are absolutely repulsed by it.”

Surely, the negative reactions from women on the internet far outweigh any potential admiration for a brawler. There’s the story of the girl who got a black eye while trying to get her raging boyfriend off another man. Reddit threads spill over with comments from women who think fist-fighting just proves that a guy “fails at being an adult” and is a “huge, trashy turn-off.” And the women in my life I trust most agree, too. “Short of someone punching me, I can handle myself and would like to keep it that way. Having my S.O. get into a fight would just be embarrassing and means we’d likely get kicked out of wherever we’re at, too, so it ruins my night more than it ruins the other person’s,” one of my best friends, Joan Gray, tells me. “The disrespect thing drives me crazy. You do not deserve my respect if you’re getting into public fights.”

Women, how do you feel about men fighting? from AskWomen

“I also feel like it makes the girl look like she can’t take care of herself,” adds my girlfriend, Sonja Carlson. “It’s 2019. Plenty of women can defend themselves and don’t need to be ‘saved.’ It’s very fratty/college behavior that I expect men to have outgrown by their 20s.”

Men, meanwhile, continue to fixate on how kicking ass is, well, just kick-ass (“Alpha as fuck,” as one redditor concludes). The key element here is that while a fight between men might be triggered over a woman’s quote-unquote “honor,” flying fists are usually driven by a sense of personal affront, Smiler observes. You can see the transition begin in the pre-fight shit-talking, he says, when two men are calling each other out, wondering when a taunt will cross a line. “During that escalation, it becomes about him, not her. For a lot of guys who will fight in this situation, the defense of honor isn’t to be abandoned or negotiated away,” he says. “That’s a thing a lot of people don’t really notice, because, yeah, at the surface level, they’re fighting about the woman. But at some point, this is no longer really about the woman.”

Does this imply that men just have an irresistible urge to fight? There’s a number of evolutionary and social reasons that try to explain this, and the answer so far seems to be “kind of.” It’s hard to pinpoint to what extent typically “masculine” traits like physical toughness and an appetite for aggression were held true by older generations of men. And it’s obvious today that society has shifted away from the attitudes of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In their oft-cited 1976 study, researchers Deborah Sarah David and Robert Brannon argued that the central ideas of American masculinity at the time was summed up as such: “No sissy stuff; be a big wheel; be sturdy as an oak; and give ’em hell.”

One might suspect that this viewpoint is a toxic one, given how men continue to struggle with emotional expression, revealing their vulnerabilities and managing their mental health. But I also see the appeal of an old-fashioned fistfight as Brady Westwater, a L.A. legend and an old acquaintance, regales me with tales of brawling in saddle bars and bonding over fights in the 1970s. Westwater, now 70, is the kind of guy who’s never shied away from a battle, be it as president of a neighborhood council or on a wrestling mat in his downtown L.A. office. And while his stories can sometimes sound like tall tales, I believe him when he declares that “fighting saved my life.”

It started with a trip to the Owens Valley after high school in June 1966, when Westwater was restless and looking for stimulation. What he found was a culture where playing and fighting hard were encouraged, and saddle bars throughout Southern California were hotspots for young guys with cash to blow and mettle to prove. “We would fight for money. Some women came in pairs looking to go home with the winners,” he tells me. “And in places such as the Palomino, we’d fight in the parking lot, and the girls would watch up while sitting on the hoods of the cars.”

These joints had “real cowboys” along with stuntmen, actors and regulars from legendary Vince’s Gym, he says, but all the men understood that the fights, regardless of whether they were for money or over a disagreement, would always go down outside, with reasonable limits on the violence. “If you’re talking back in the day, I think all young males were once expected to fight each other as part of their becoming men,” he says. “Not out of anger, but out of the need to discover who you are. And in our group, everyone knew who could whip whom. Those ritual fights never came to a bad end. Because as soon as it was clear who the winner would be, the fight ended.”

That culture seems so distant today, but Westwater leaves me with an important point when I wonder whether he thinks young men in 2019 are missing out by not engaging in fights like he once did. While he believes that men should be taught to fight, “they also need to be schooled in proper behavior.” “I’ve been very lucky, but the majority of troubled young men have had no men of any kind to help guide them,” he says.

This reminds me of something Smiler told me: The way men feel about the need for aggression is related to the people around them who can relate and offer advice. If the people in your life who object to violence are your wife and mother, for instance, it’s easy to ignore their criticisms in the face of encouragement from other men. “If we really want to change this trope,” he explains, “then we need to really make the conversation about men, and what masculinity means, and what purpose violence serves within masculinity, because if men are only changing for the women in their lives, they’re not inherently invested.”