“Can we overcome years of brain signals that
told us one thing and now tell us another?”
Who are we?
As men, our earliest messages were likely about being independent, self-sufficient, tough and resilient. If we fell or got knocked down, we were expected to get back up and try again–and get it right. Even Mom would shout from the sidelines of a baseball game, “Shake it off. You can do it!”
My generation bought heavily into the John Wayne tough guy model. Not only were you to be fiercely independent, you were supposed to be fearless as well. And talk like it. Part of the persona was also to avoid showing emotion. Especially do not show weakness or even flexibility. Avoid connection. Always be tough. Like a rock. Never
vulnerable. If our fathers exhibited these traits, we may have adopted them as well.
Unfortunately, those traits do not work in intimate relationships where collaboration is expected and cooperation is essential. So it happens that guys who have bought into the John Wayne “tough guy” persona might find a clash they had not expected with a partner whose expectations are very different. This model doesn’t work in the office either when teamwork and collaboration are core values to be measured against. You can get labeled as “not a team player” and your days may be numbered.
I have a lot of empathy for men who find themselves in this conundrum–how to be the kind of man you were taught to be and also be tender and gentle with a partner. And while workplace managers might demand “teamwork,” they also send a clear message to be a self-starter with a bias for action and to press ahead and get things done. Be tough. Forceful. Decisive. However, you are supposed to change your personality 180 degrees when you cross the threshold of home, becoming collaborative, gentle, soft-spoken. That’s really hard.
If you’re unclear about what we are talking about, here are some illustrations and some notes about both the good and questionable implications:
Good: We can make decisions for ourselves, not depending on anyone else.
Questionable: Not involving key people, especially our partner, can result in poor decisions and conflict.
Good: We can take care of ourselves and get things accomplished on our own.
Questionable: Appearing unrealistically self-reliant can be off-putting to others, making them feel you have no need for others.
Not dependent on anyone
Good: This means we can stand alone and be our rugged selves. We make it clear we can do whatever is required.
Questionable: No one is likely to hang around waiting for a chance to help out or connect. Family members may keep their distance.
Good: You are not a burden to anyone, you take care of yourself.
Questionable: Being a lone wolf can get pretty lonely and it sends the message to stay away.
Not to be tamed or harnessed
Good: This sort of “wild spark” might inspire you to try new approaches (alone).
Questionable: Your whole persona can be sending the message that your independence matters more than relationships. No one gets close. You’re seen as self-centered.
Good: You can find ways to get things done while others are talking about it.
Questionable: Your solution is likely incomplete unless you are a genius. The input of others can make your solution stronger. It’s easy to become oversold on yourself and believe you have all the answers.
Good: Shows bravery and willingness to take on challenging, even dangerous or threatening assignments.
Questionable: The sort of bravado required to maintain this image is tiring and disingenuous. Courage gets confused with macho behavior.
Good: Willing to accept the consequences of choices, especially bad ones and somehow make it work.
Questionable: Appearing infallible is a barrier to interaction and collaboration. Compensating for your own self-doubt can be a full-time job.
It may be helpful to see this issue of independence on a spectrum ranging from totally independent to totally collaborative rather than an either/or problem. The goal is to move along the spectrum to more of a collaborative, power sharing approach, a place of genuine dialogue with our partners about the key issues in life. So rather than locking in to a position that seems right to us, we start with a solicitation of our partner’s input. No commitment, just asking for input. Then mull it over and objectively see if her position doesn’t have something to offer, perhaps a compromise position or collaborative solution suitable to both.
Can we change? Should we?
If the kinder, gentler, collaborative man is what we are asked to model at home, can we do that? Can we overcome years of brain signals that told us one thing and now tell us another? Neuroscientists in numerous studies are pretty clear that old patterns are hard to break.1 Those neurons have carved deep ruts in our brain traveling the same path day after day for years upon years, and that has shaped us. Yet most women today are demanding qualities which would have made The Duke cringe—and likely require us to fight our brain’s efforts to maintain the status quo.
Nonetheless, if we are to become more fully human and more in touch with ourselves and our families, it does seem some change is called for. The good news is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is replete with examples of people changing everything from their obsessive hair pulling to smoking cessation.2 Using a disciplined approach involving small changes over time, hundreds of people now have better lives coupling this approach with good counseling. There are several good approaches on the subject listed in the resource section. There are other good therapies as well, some of which you can do for yourself.
If keeping your marriage and family isn’t motivation enough to change, perhaps some deeper thinking is called for. Professional counseling is always available to help with this and there are great resources on the Internet geared to this idea of personality change (goodtherapy.com). You may not believe it, but your relationships are never going to be totally fulfilling until you have dealt with “your own stuff.” This means getting to the root of problems you have carried around for life. We can’t get by with “that’s just me” or “that’s just the way I am.” A psychologist friend of mine once said, “The only time you can be yourself is when you’re by yourself.”
For partners, this is an area where your man can really use your tender prodding and encouragement. Reward the good behaviors you notice without criticizing the old ways. Soon some change can begin to happen. Encourage him to talk about his ideas regarding independence and manhood and how those were formed.
It is reassuring to know that when we talk about vulnerability in men, we are not talking about becoming a rag doll or totally giving up independence. We’re talking about “appropriate vulnerability” for the circumstance and workable independence. And the requirements of an intimate relationship are a good crucible in which to practice becoming “a new kind of man.”
Independence is very important to most men. It’s usually a sign of our masculinity and our “take charge” natures. It can serve us well in a work environment but can be counterproductive at home. Being overly independent can come from resistance to sharing power. Likely our partners need us to be less “tough guy” and more tender in our dealings with them. This can sound counter to what we have been taught about being an independent male, but can make our lives and close relationships far more meaningful. The good news is that we don’t have to totally give up our independence or masculinity to accomplish this. But it does require us to adopt a new way of relating to those we love.
The Balanced Approach
You can maintain a lot of independence and still be open to and solicitous of the ideas of others.
- What did you learn as a child about manhood and independence? Were they appropriate lessons?
- How might the “tough guy model” inhibit closeness and openness with your partner?
- Are you genuinely willing to let yourself be more vulnerable and open with your partner? What would you do, specifically?
- What are your fears or concerns about being more collaborative? Are those concerns valid or just habit?
- Are you clear about the boundaries of independence and vulnerability?
- Can you see yourself in balance–appropriately independent and yet very relationship-minded?
- How important is it to you make some change in this area?
- What “payoff” can you see in making this change? What help do you need?
Action Steps Men Can Take
- Ask for feedback about this topic from your partner. Be willing to listen without getting defensive.
- Investigate CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) or other therapies to learn more. Buy or borrow a book about men’s issues. (See Resource section)
- Work on being more collaborative and less independent in decision making. Remind yourself to involve others.
- If appropriate, apologize to your partner and/or family for not being more sensitive to their needs.
- Map out a plan for change. Keep it handy (on your phone?). Chart your progress but keep it private.
- Initiate a discussion about this topic with a men’s group or Sunday School class.
- Record your commitments on the Personal Action Plan on page 194.
Action Steps Women Can Take
- Engage your man in a discussion about this topic. Get him to define where he got his ideas about manhood and independence.
- Praise any change you notice that is headed in the right direction.
- Never nag, but when you are comfortable, say, “Here’s what I would like more of from you….”
- Coach other parents to let their boys be themselves and not push kids to absorb hurt “like a man.”
- Think about how your father showed independence. Is that a model you would want for your husband or son?
- Instead of starting with a complaint, try “I’m wondering if you would be willing to listen to me for a few minutes?” Then talk about your concerns in a non-accusatory way.
- If your partner already demonstrates a good model in this area, tell him directly.
|Keeping your balance
On the scale below put a ^ mark where you think you are in your focus on independence and another ^ where you would like to be and will work toward.