Into my 40s, I did what a lot of men do. I kept my feelings mostly to myself – except with my girl friends and, then, my wife.
That said, my way of sharing with my romantic partners was not very skillful, to say the least. I was able to express anger and annoyance, but sadly – for her and me – my deeper fears and longings were expressed in equally reactive ways: “Why can’t you get off the freakin’ phone,” instead of “I’m missing you and hope you’ll be fully available to me soon.” I pretty much had it figured that I was an insensitive jerk: A victim of testosterone poisoning; not very good at that emotional stuff; hopelessly aggressive; far too focused on sex.
At lot of good things have happened in the ensuing years. One very important part of my healing journey has been time spent with other men – not at ball games or in the cushioning presence of our spouses – but in settings that allowed for frank and open conversation about life’s challenges and what it means to deal with them as a man.
I have learned a lot. One of the central lessons: We men are fully capable adults in every sense of the word – emotional as well as practical, empathic as well as assertive.
In this Reflection I focus on an issue that has become one of my abiding passions: Why we men make complete sense and why, understanding this, we are fully capable of pushing back against the gender based myths and stereotypes that consign so many of us to sad, isolated, and reduced existences.
The key to mounting an effective response to our assigned gender roles is to remember that biology is not the issue. In Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It, Lise Eliot reviews in detail the evidence of gender based biological differences. Her conclusion? The differences in our physiology are minor and, standing alone, inconsequential.
So what is going on? As James Carville might put it, “it’s the culture, stupid.”
We live in a world that accentuates these small genetic differences, pushing each sex toward certain capabilities and vulnerabilities and away from others. In the process, it shrinks the humanity of both. When it comes to gender, the culture’s message – relentlessly reinforced – is that for girls, intimacy and nurturance are fine but assertiveness isn’t and, for boys, the opposite is true.
To illustrate this point, Terence Real and Carol Gilligan tell the following stories. Ask an 8-year-old girl what kind of pizza she wants and she will tell you. Ask an 11-year old girl and she’ll say, I’m not sure. Ask a 13-year-old girl – now fully socialized to her assigned gender role – and she is likely to say, “what do you want?”
On the other side of the equation is the 3- year old boy who falls down in the supermarket, his eyes filling with tears. What happens? An adult rushes to tell him everything is fine, brush it off, be a little man; a response that is far different from the hugging, cuddling and gentle stroking a 3-year old girl would typically receive.
The message that is communicated to our boys through a myriad of cultural cues, incentives and sanctions – and with increasing intensity as the years go by – is this: Suck it up, be strong and tough, don’t be needy, hide your fear and vulnerability. And never forget that intimate sharing and emotional comfort are unmanly, the province of girls and sissies.
Needless to say, the emotional price we pay as boys and men – like the price our sister’s pay as they absorb their assigned story – is enormous.
This intense cultural conditioning makes sense of so many of the male behaviors that women, often with withering judgment, find so perplexing. And, understanding that they are learned behaviors is a powerful reminder to us men – and to the women who love us – that they can be changed. As the women’s movement has so persuasively demonstrated, our culturally defined gender roles are not a life sentence.
Working through the implications of our assigned gender role, here is an explanation of why some of the things that we men do, in key areas of living, make complete sense.
- Our sexual behaviors.
By the time we reach puberty, we boys are already emotionally isolated; having long since learned not to cry, not to seek physical comfort, not to share fears and vulnerabilities.
But we can be sexual. Indeed, our emerging sexuality – at least insofar as it means scoring with girls – is seen as a badge of honor. So what we learn as boys, and carry into our lives as men, is that hugging, stroking, and nurturance are not ok – except in the context of sex.
Viewed in this context our pre-occupation with sex is entirely understandable. It’s not because we are pigs, ready to “screw anything that moves.” It’s because this is the only socially sanctioned arena in which we can get the physical nurturance we long for.
It also explains the male tendency to leave after having sex or to abruptly disappear from a relationship. While the sex is going on things are simple. Singled-mindedly focused on the sex act, we men naively (and, often, inaccurately) assume that is she as well. In our minds, there is nothing to complicate the equation, nothing to be said, no complicated choices to be made.
But then orgasm occurs and everything changes. Now suddenly we are naked, and nose-to-nose, with another human being. Moreover, this is a person whose experience with intimate interactions is far greater than ours. From that post-coital moment of transition forward, we are prone to feelings of confusion, unease, and vulnerability. So we flee, not because we are insensitive louts, but rather to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that flood us, now that we are forced to inhabit this far more complicated world of intimate interaction with another human being.
- Our ways of being intimate.
Because of the ways in which women are raised, intimate conversation is, for them, a place of comfort. But for men, with their very different socialization, it is an invitation into unfamiliar and, therefore, emotionally unsafe territory. When our spouse says, “we need to talk,” it signals, for us, the risk of being judged and shamed. Small wonder, then, that our instinct is, so often, to resist the invitation.
Our socialization also explains our typical ways of interacting. Talking sports, cracking jokes, exchanging insults, hanging out – doing these things, we are creating companionship at a distance that feels comfortable. What we create are shame-free zones where the danger of being judged has been banished. In this environment, no one is shamed, even when he gets falling down drunk and vomits all over the bathroom floor.
- Our aggressiveness.
Given our cultural conditioning, we men are far more conversant with aggressive emotions – assertiveness, anger, annoyance, and frustration – than we are with more vulnerable emotions such as hurt, sadness, fear, and confusion. But what is less obvious is how we use our aggressiveness to shield our selves from these less familiar, less comfortable emotions.
As Steven Stosny points out, anger is like a little hit of crack cocaine. Its negative consequences are severe, but in the moment it actually makes us feel better. Why? Because it shifts our body into action mode. Adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into our bodies and blood rushes to our large muscles groups, giving us a sudden jolt of energy. In addition, the reasoning parts of the brain – the parts that could breed indecision at a moment of crisis – shrink, leaving us with a heightened sense of clarity.
So a typical man, trained to be assertive but not open and vulnerable, predictably falls into this emotional pattern: When, as is inevitable, more vulnerable emotions come up, he “fast forwards” through this unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, seeking instead the short-term relief that anger and annoyance offer. And, over time, this pattern becomes so engrained and automatic that many men are not even aware of the underlying hurt, fear or confusion that triggers it. In this area as well we are not perverse, inexplicable beings. What we are doing is an understandable – if flawed – adaptation to our culturally assigned gender role.
Knowing that the ways in which we act are culturally and not biologically determined brings with it this vitally important understanding: We men are not flawed and limited beings. To the contrary, we are fully capable humans who can become, if we do our healing and growth work, comfortably conversant with the full range of our emotions and entirely capable partners in intimacy.
A description of key, “how to” aspects of this vital work are explored in Reflection 69: Moving Beyond Patriarchy, and Reflection 72: Men’s Moment(s) of Truth.