When we men get together, it’s frequently at a bar or ballgame, or in the cushioning presence of our female partners; situations in which a re-thinking of our gender-based patterns is unnecessary. In my 40s however, to my great good fortune, I began spending time in men’s groups where frank and open discussions about what it means to deal with life’s challenges – as a man – were encouraged.
These experiences were pivotal in helping me understand the consequences of patriarchy, not just on women but on men as well. In this article, I describe its impact on men and offer strategies for overcoming them.
Men – We Make Complete Sense!
First of all, let’s be clear. Biology isn’t the issue, a conclusion persuasively documented in Lise Eliot’s 2009 book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain. So what is going on? It’s the culture – and that’s actually good news since, while changing our biology is next to impossible, changing habits of living, even deeply ingrained ones, is very doable.
So what are these ingrained cultural norms? Consider this scenario: A 3-year-old boy falls down in the supermarket and his eyes fill with tears. The stereotypical response? An adult rushes in, telling him “Everything’s fine, brush it off, be a little man”; a response very different from the cuddling and gentle stroking a 3-year-old girl, in the same situation, would likely receive.
And while the gendered differences this story exemplifies have softened somewhat in recent years, let’s not kid ourselves. Our boys continue to be exposed to a torrent of messages – on TV, the Internet, the playground – that reinforce this message: Suck it up, be tough, don’t be needy, hide your fears and vulnerability. And never forget that intimate sharing and emotional comfort are unmanly, the province of girls and sissies.
Viewed in this context, the key gender specific behaviors that mark men as different make complete sense.
Our Sexual Behaviors
By the time we reach puberty, we boys are already emotionally isolated, having learned not to cry, seek physical comfort, or share our fears and vulnerabilities. But things are different when it comes to sex. Indeed, our emerging sexuality – at least insofar as it means scoring with girls – is a badge of honor. So for boys, the subliminal (but powerful) message is that hugging, stroking, and nurturance are not ok – except, that is, in the context of sex.
As a result, for men, far more than women, affection is deeply intertwined with intercourse. And, often, this fusing of affection and sex persists throughout life. We’re preoccupied with sex, not because we’re pigs ready to “screw anything” but, instead, because the culture’s relentless message is that this is the one area in which we can get the physical and emotional nurturance for which we, like all other humans, so deeply long.
How We “Do” Intimacy
For women, intimate conversation is a place of comfort. For us men, however, it’s an invitation into unfamiliar, emotionally unsafe territory. So when our spouse says, “We need to talk”, it signals risk – of fear of being judged and shamed.
This difference explains why, when we interact with one another we talk sports, crack jokes, exchange insults, or engage in side-by-side activities that create companionship at a comfortable distance. We are, in effect, creating a space in which fear of a female partner’s shame-inducing judgment has been banished. No one is humiliated, even when he gets falling down drunk and vomits all over the bathroom floor.
But what is lost, sadly, is real intimacy. Too ashamed to expose our vulnerabilities to our buddies, we far too often find ourselves alone and isolated even when our problems are spiraling out of control.
Why We Lash Out
Given the ways in which we’re socialized, we men are far more conversant with aggressive emotions – anger, annoyance, and frustration – than with more vulnerable ones such as hurt, sadness, fear, and confusion. But what is less obvious is how we use our aggressiveness to shield ourselves from these less familiar, less comfortable emotions
Anger is like a little hit of crack cocaine. Its negative consequences can be severe, but in the moment it feels better. Why? Because it shifts our bodies into action mode, pumping cortisol and adrenaline into our systems and blood into our large muscle groups, giving us a sudden jolt of physical energy. At the same time, anger shrinks the reasoning parts of the brain – the parts that could engender uncertainty in a moment of crisis – leaving us with a heightened (but false) sense of clarity.
Trained to be assertive but not open and vulnerable, we men – when vulnerable emotions come up – tend to “fast forward” through this uncomfortable territory, seeking instead the short-term relief that annoyance or anger offers. Over time, this pattern becomes so automatic that many men are not even aware of the underlying hurt, fear or confusion that triggered it.
Our Nitty-Gritty Work
Handy reasons for side-stepping the work needed to break out of our gendered straitjacket have always been around such as, for example, the view that we men are inherently limited. A more recent version: In the last few decades, the problem’s been solved; sexism is now a thing of the past. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Thus, for example, a recent study of highly educated, economically privileged couples – poster children, you would think, for gender equality – reports a persistent 60-40 split in time spent on housework and childcare, on a typical weekend day, with 222 minutes for her and 170 for him. Almost an hour more – every day!
Note, crucially, that work to overcome patriarchy is as much ours and theirs, a reality that grows out of the deeply reciprocal nature of our gendered roles. Thus, on their side, a key part of the work is to be more comfortably assertive. But if they are, women will frequently feel at risk of exploitation. Why? Because it’s hard for a woman to be both nurturing and assertive – the goal to which we all aspire – if her male partner just keeps demanding more.
To avoid this dilemma, we men need to treat her caring choices, not as deserved or taken for granted concessions, but as opportunities to reciprocate by ramping up the care and attention we offer her. When we do, her sense of an either-or choice – nurture him OR stand up for myself – will shrink dramatically. Trusting us, she’ll more comfortably make choices in either direction.
Another key element in our work as men is getting beyond “equality with an asterisk”. Yes, her career is as important as mine. But if someone needs to be at the teacher’s conference or at a sick relative’s bedside, the default position, still, is that she’ll do it.
Another example? Being a “dutiful lieutenant” who willingly take on the tasks our partner assigns to us. If we hope to break out of our gender-assigned role, more is needed. We need to be “co-general”, fully understanding what needs to be done, and then just doing it.
We men also need to be alert to our tendency to talk in dismissive, authoritarian ways.
- Her: I am thinking about buying a new car. Him: No way. It’s not in our budget.
- Her: The movie seemed to be getting at X. Him: No, that’s not what it meant.
- Her: I left my keys at my friend’s house. Him: Why are you so disorganized?
In each case, the underlying assumption is that the man has the right to judge his partner’s thoughts and actions. And when she resists, his reaction, far too often, is annoyance at being contradicted.
Still another challenge we man face grows out of our logical, problem-solving mindsets. “Hey, now that I get it, I’ll stop doing it”, we say to ourselves, sincerely believing that change will naturally flow from our new cognitive understanding. Doing so, however, we deeply underestimate the importance of enlisting our emotions and heart wisdom in the ongoing effort to change our ingrained ways.
The ideas I offer are not, needless to say, a comprehensive to do list. Hopefully, however, they will “prime your pump”, prompting you to think about your gender-based habits and how to change them. Doing so, always remember that, while this work is a gift to the women in our lives, it will dramatically change our lives as well – shrinking our tense, “need to be in control” habits, replacing them with the more intimate, relational ways of being for which we, like all humans, truly long.
So do the work for you and not for her, knowing that if you do, you’ll no longer have to settle for the thin emotional gruel to which our traditional male role consigns us.