“Being the tough guy and always invulnerable simply
Where did you get your ideas about what it means to be a man? Was it from your father? Was it from other men in the neighborhood, a teacher or coach, church, family members? Whatever the sources of our notions of manhood, they are from a select group or two, and as such, are inherently narrowly defined.
As men, why do we define ourselves so narrowly? If I ask you, as I did at a breakfast with about 60 attendees, to jot down 3 words that were used to define manhood when you were growing up, chances are you would write things like they did: strong, independent, great provider, never cries, individualistic, unemotional, “in charge.”
If I ask you to write down some words to describe how you would like your son or grandson to see themselves, chances are you’d write words like empathic, sensitive, considerate, spiritual, tender-hearted.
Notice the disconnect? Isn’t it interesting how the way society and our peers define manhood fails us? Being the tough guy, warrior, always “in charge,” and always invulnerable, simply does not work in the real world of work and personal relationships.
Many times, our independence and toughness cause us to be overly competitive, aggressive, and inappropriately defensive in relationships with colleagues–and especially so with our partners.
When I talk to women about what they want in a man, they talk about the qualities in the second list above. Being open, empathic, sensitive, responsive, tender-hearted and collaborative–these are the things that make for good relationships. Unfortunately, these are the things we weed out of young boys as they become men and instead encourage being individualistic, independent, tough and assertive.
Most often we get our view of masculinity from our father who likely got it from his father. Think about that. Your view of masculinity could be out-of-date by two generations! What is expected of you and me as a husband, father, or brother has changed dramatically in that time. Women are no longer content to be married to someone who can provide well for
them–they expect deep emotional closeness, collaboration on decision making and some openness and willingness to be influenced on most issues––and rightfully so. (See Introduction). This willingness to be influenced may be the most valuable quality to strive for in your relationships and it is not just being a “nice guy.” It is a new permanent way to operate because it reduces the need for her to “dig in her heels” on a position.
A significant problem in many marriages is that of a man seeing his role only as the breadwinner with little other responsibility or interaction in the family. It may not seem fair to realize that the long hours we put in at work and the impressive job we do providing for the family is seen as not nearly enough. And yet many of us were taught that if a man provided well for his family, he was fulfilling the marital contract quite successfully.
According to Terrence Real in The New Rules of Marriage, that model of masculinity went away decades ago, and yet many men continue to operate as though it still works. He also notes that women’s roles have changed even more than men’s roles have, which causes confusion.1 It seems many men think of marriage as though it were an appliance–you plug in it and it should be good to go for about 20 years.
Maybe you have received feedback from your partner about the way you relate to her or the family. You may also have received feedback about how open you are (or are not) in conversation with your partner. These should be red flags for you to investigate and make changes accordingly, especially if you are using a communication model similar to Dad’s.
A really good reason for you to change is the likelihood that your sons are observing the model of masculinity you project and are subconsciously making a decision about what it means to be a man, and how a man is supposed to treat women. That alone is reason for you to investigate how you might revise your view of masculinity. (See the lesson on Our Attitude Toward Women.)
Our narrow view of masculinity also may inhibit us from expressing emotion where it is clearly needed. I can think of a time when I was in the presence of a young boy on a group camping trip when he received news that his father had died. For whatever reason, I simply sat there as a spectator when I should have immediately gone to him, embraced him and reassured him as best I could. Inexplicably, I was silent and unemotional, maybe unsure what to do, like all the other men present. I think many men can identify with that experience. Expression of empathy is probably the least used and yet possibly the most important emotion we can summon in many circumstances. Most women do this automatically, but we tend to freeze up when it is required of us.
It is sad that we even sometimes have trouble with grief–even natural grief that follows the loss of a job or going through divorce. We have not been taught how to experience or express grief other than at funerals. However, my experience is that men are typically very grief-stricken by divorce or even a casual relationship breakup. We cover it well or at least try to because we believe that’s what is expected.
It’s not that we cannot display emotion — just look at how we behave when we are angry. We’ve said society gives us permission as men to be angry, but we don’t believe it gives us permission to express other emotions, especially tender emotions. For example, I have heard from many men who are not able to enjoy play activities with their children, and their reason is they feel it makes them look less masculine. What could be more masculine than participating in child play with your own offspring? If you’re that concerned about your male image in this most important yet tender activity, there’s a good chance both you and your children will one day be regretting those missed opportunities.
What do women want?
Based on the research, women are clearly expecting more emotional connection in relationships. This may make us feel “pressured” to be expressive when we are not feeling like being expressive, or feel we don’t know how. It may seem that women are putting extreme pressure on us to accommodate them emotionally. Actually, they have every right to expect us to be fully present and emotionally interactive with them and the family. Yet this concern about potentially appearing vulnerable, especially with our partner, keeps us at a distance and makes true intimacy impossible. In other words, we maintain our distance emotionally to protect our ego and our (outdated) view of masculinity even though it eventually weakens or destroys our relationship with the one(s) we love. Where is the logic in that?
If this pressure to be more open with our loved ones causes us to feel emasculated or less than our masculine selves, it is probably time to do some soul-searching. Think about it. What is lost by being emotionally expressive with your wife and children? By contrast, what is the payoff of this behavior? It’s not as though someone is making impossible demands of us. It is just that we have been taught to keep our emotions at bay and never give anyone ammunition they might use to hurt us later. This approach may have been helpful in prehistoric times since you were in constant competition with every other male to provide food for your family. But it doesn’t make sense to hang on to that idea in the 21st century, does it?
Here’s something else we lose with our narrow view of masculinity: We give up our interest in things that may appear feminine such as art, music, or cooking when, actually, we might excel at and enjoy those activities. How often have you heard of men who, late in their lives, decide to become chefs or musicians or artists working with flowers? By this time the spiritual urge to be more complete insists on being heard, and the result is a more whole and fulfilled individual. “Men need to understand they can be nurses or hairdressers without losing their masculinity.”2 The so-called mid-life crisis is also a sign of a “spiritual anemia,” a longing for something with real meaning. More on this in Lesson 6 Why Our Focus on Career Robs Us of Connection.
I’m not sure how this became a masculine trait, but it appears to be: the emphasis on being “right.” Many men are willing to
go to the mat to prove they are right, and some have paid for it with their lives. Think about what happens if we carry this
idea too far in our marriages or close relationships. Suddenly, we’re seen as insensitive men who must have their way at the expense of others or whose ego is too weak to admit a mistake. Either comparison is unflattering, to say the least. The need to be right, by the way, is closely tied to the unwillingness to forgive. When we refuse to forgive, it is as though we have decided to carry around indefinitely this huge weight the other person has likely already forgotten about. But our insistence that we have been wronged allows us to stubbornly persist in consuming a lot of energy and time for no good reason. As noted elsewhere, forgiveness is not something we do for the other person. It is something we do for ourselves.
Years ago, I was with a group of men chatting informally over coffee. The movie Brokeback Mountain had recently been released. One brave man brought it up for discussion mentioning the close relationship between the two main characters. It soon became clear that the other men did not want to talk about the movie. He persisted. “If you took the sex out of it, could you see yourself having a lifelong close relationship like that with another man?” he asked. No takers. The other men were too uncomfortable to even entertain the question. Sad.
I was with another group when one older man, who had recently become somewhat disabled, volunteered that he had to call in an electrician to change a bulb in a fixture on a high ceiling. “I had to leave the room while he did it,” he said. “As a man, I just couldn’t stand not being able to fix it myself.” His identity as a man was very rigid and he was embarrassed to be unable to do “manly” things. Since I know his family, I am certain that his daughters and wife never considered this incident to be related to his masculinity.
What do YOU want?
I think what men want most for themselves is to be authentic men. Not the image society places on them, not the roles family or job gives them, but free to be who they are—men in the truest sense. No need to clean up your act, be more politically correct, conform to someone’s idea of what a man is. The cruel irony here is that the path to being more authentic involves just the kind of things we are discussing in this book. The first step on this path is to reject the stereotype we have been prisoner to, and, in concert with a loving partner, redefine ourselves more holistically and less narrowly. That is why a conversation with your partner is both essential and liberating.
Following are some suggestions as well as hard questions to ask yourself about your view of masculinity and whether it deserves another look. My suggestion is that you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to think honestly about this issue and what price you may be paying by hanging onto an outdated concept. If you really want to know the truth about how you are perceived, be brave enough to ask your wife or partner. Let her know you want brutal honesty in her answer and likely she will give it to you. Just remember not to defend your behavior or make excuses. All you can say to the feedback is “Thank you.”
It is likely we copied the model of masculinity we saw in our fathers and other men in our early lives. It is also likely that model is no longer working for us. Today, women are expecting a lot more from us and that includes genuine closeness, expression of our emotions, and true connection. Whether we admit to needing that connection as well, our lives are much richer when we allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable with the persons we love. A conversation with our partner is a good starting point to assure her that we understand how important this is to her and begin to learn how we might change to better meet her needs.
The Balanced Approach
There is plenty of room to strike a balance between a tough guy, macho, warrior style and one of openness and willingness to be genuine with your loved ones.
|Keeping your balance
On the scale below put a ^ mark where you think you are in your view of masculinity and another ^ where you would like to be and will work toward.
- Are you willing to have another look at your ideas about masculinity? Are you willing to enlist your partner in discussing this?
- Does the idea of pursuing interests such as cooking or painting or writing seem less than masculine to you?
- Are you willing to quietly work on allowing your “softer, gentler side” to show, at least at home with an openness that may allow vulnerability?
- Does the fact that there are great male artists, writers, poets and chefs influence your thinking about what is masculine?
- If you have sons, are you comfortable with them adopting your model of masculinity? If you have daughters, are you comfortable with their future husbands adopting your model?
- Have you ever felt you were “missing out” in some emotional events, such as a sad movie or a funeral, because you could not let your emotions show?
- Where are some small ways you can begin to be more demonstrable emotionally as you try on new behaviors?
- Objectively, what are the reasons for/against making a change?
Action Steps Men Can Take
- Check out some books about masculinity. (See the Resources section or visit the Men in BalanceTM)
- Talk to your son about how he sees masculinity and listen for how he sees you in this regard.
- Bring up this topic in a discussion with another man. Compare views. Be open, non-defensive.
- Ask your partner for thoughts about this topic (not whether you measure up to some standard). Prepare to be surprised.
- Google the topic “masculinity in different cultures.”
- Talk openly to your minister or a counselor.
- If you are really brave, seek out a gay man to talk with. Gay men, out of necessity, tend to be more plugged into their emotional side.
- Record your commitments on the Personal Action Plan on page 194.
Action Steps Women Can Take
- Initiate a discussion with your partner about masculinity. Share your ideas about the topic. Talk about behaviors, not abstract concepts. Be patient with his struggles in this area.
- Get a book on this topic and read it with your partner, pausing frequently for discussion.
- Be firm, but empathic, with your man if you believe there is more to masculinity than macho behavior.
- Above all, assure your partner that his feelings about this topic are safe and confidential with you. NEVER violate that.
- Be on the lookout for movie or TV characters displaying a non-traditional view of masculinity. Discuss with your man.
- Check out your children’s views on this, especially teens. Probe for details. Compare their ideas to your own views.
- If your partner already demonstrates a good model in this area, tell him directly.