The other day I was at the post office buying some stamps. They were for save the date cards for my upcoming wedding. I looked through the stamps and found an appropriate black and white flower with a heart near it. Seemed reasonable enough to have a loving flower as a stamp to announce an upcoming wedding. I took the stamps in my hand and walked back to my car. As I walked by a group of construction workers I suddenly felt anxious that they may see the flowery stamps and what they may think. “Is that guy gay? Why did he get flowers on his stamps.” I started to rationalize how I could explain that it was for a wedding card and that putting a stamp of a basketball player on the envelopes (my first impulse) would seem strange. The truth was I was dealing with my own homophobic tendencies and my willingness to conform to the masculine hegemony.
What is the masculine hegemony? Any attempt by a man to show any form of sensitivity to the world can be seen as feminine and thus may be evidence that the “man” in question is homosexual. Men, as I felt in my story above, are struggling to constantly prove that they are not lacking masculine power when they feel like hugging their kids or watching a romantic comedy. This, however, is one of the insidious ways that men and boys are kept in line.
As a result, men are denied their full humanity. I feel uncomfortable wearing a pink shirt. I fear the judgment of other men. I worry that wearing a pink shirt, buying stamps with hearts on them or admitting that I enjoy dancing to Taylor Swift songs would out me as a potential homosexual.
Stuart Miller in his book, Men and Friendship speaks to this problem:
“Surely the great tradition of male friendship, celebrated in the West by Homer and Aristotle and Cicero, by Montaigne and Shakespeare and Pope, was what people would think of when I said `male friendship.’ Yet even those who study boys and men draw a link between emotional expression, vulnerability, and sexual orientation.”
They “draw a link” between telling another man how I feel and sexual orientation? What strikes me as strange about all of this is the need to sexualize men’s behavior. What does any of this have to do with sexual orientation? The answer is…nothing. And yet, I can see all around me the message that it is girly, wimpy, or “gay” to show your feelings.
I realize that my willingness to conform to this male heterosexual hegemony is also homophobia at its worst. I’m really saying to gay men out there that I don’t want to be like you. I’m willing to limit my range of experience so that I don’t have to be associated with gay men. It is also saying that gay men are lacking in masculine energy, which, is clearly not true.
I continue to grow up in my life and let go of the need to prove my masculinity. I want someday to be free of this insidious belief that sentimentality and emotional expression tell something about my sexual orientation. I want to reach out to others with different sexual orientations and say, “I’m sorry for my ignorance.” “Please forgive me.”
The real struggle in my own experience is the unconscious denial of sentimental impulses that arise. I may want to be more affectionate with a male friend or tell a close friend that I love him. Instead my acculturated mind gets pulled back into line. I miss out on the possible human connections that are around me waiting to create more satisfaction and happiness.
Recently while listening to a Radio Lab segment on American football I was struck by the realization that interest in youth sports seems to be declining among boys in America. The obvious reasons are sports safety, increased interest in more sedentary activities like video games and television as well as the lack of discipline in this current generation (a self-righteous argument that, it appears, most previous generations like to foster on the generation below them). Near the end though there was something that caught my attention. Jad Abumrad, the host, talked about the possibility that the current generation of children was attempting to send a message to the current one. That maybe, just maybe, these sports, that were highly invested on competition, were not how kids wanted to be. Maybe the children of today are saying they want to be with each other in a different way that isn’t so focused on winning or being better.
Previously in the show a young boy named, Parker talked about his reluctance to continue playing football because he felt bad about how he had acted toward another player. Parker, who is the descendant of former National Football League players, had decided that playing football was not the way he wanted to be with other children (he was considering a career in synchronized swimming). He described a moment where he made another kid eat dirt (his coach was yelling at his players to do this). Parker said that he felt really bad about this and instead wanted to have fun but not show off and prove he is better than others. It was quite an admonition coming from a thoughtful eight-year old.
It made me wonder about the paradigm shift that is happening now in science about the nature of humans. Or maybe you could say the lack of nature. There is this belief about boys and girls that goes something like this: “boys and girls are fundamentally different. Boys are born with testosterone and are more aggressive and less relational. Girls have more estrogen, are more relational and in touch with their feelings.”
Turns out these differences are not created when the sperm meets the egg but something that is nurtured by years of gendered stereotyping.
In her book, Deep Secrets, Niobe Way paints a heart-warming picture of the early adolescent relationships between boys. Way describes these loving relationships as critical to the boys’ well-being. It’s as if these relationships seem to fly under the radar in a culture that does not, or cannot, see them because of the inherent homophobic fear of what male to male comradeship may infer.
“Set against a culture that perceives boys and men to be activity oriented, emotionally illiterate, and interested only in independence, these responses seem shocking. The image of the lone cowboy, the cultural icon of masculinity and the symbol of independence and thus of maturity in the West, suggests that what boys want and need most are opportunities for competition and autonomy. Yet the vast majority of the hundreds of boys whom my research team and I have interviewed from early to late adolescence suggest that their closest friendships share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies.”
However, by the point of late adolescence something else begins to happen. The ties of male bonding start to loosen and a shift toward female partnerships (for heterosexual males) begins to become the focus. The importance of male companionship is lost. What has changed?
It appears that the cultural norms have reared their ugliness and begun to force boys back into their cage of dampening down their feelings and limiting any chance of being seen as homosexual.
As boys become men, having close male friendships becomes linked to sexuality. Boys who had had close friendships in early adolescence claimed not to be “gay” when asked the same questions about friendships during late adolescence. Jason, however, adds at the end of the interview that he “wouldn’t mind” having a close male friendship like the one he had when he was younger.
The loss of all of this is the young man’s ability to be fully engaged with his own inner emotional world or develop the relationship skills to be with another. As the authors of Raising Cain point out:
“The majority of boys are not prepared to manage the complexities of a loving relationship because they’ve been shortchanged on the basic skills of emotional literacy: empathy, conscience, the vocabulary for meaningful emotional expression, and the idea that emotional interdependence is an asset-not a liability.”
This leads to a real deficit of happiness and satisfaction for both people attempting to navigate the challenging waters of marriage or long-term commitment. Men are faced with the troubling bind of, either losing relational connection, or becoming more emotionally vulnerable and losing their sense of manhood.
Yet this is not due to some genetic difference between men and women. According to Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist, the reality is that human beings are naturally empathic and relational. When we think of early homo-sapiens in their dangerous environments we consider their willingness to fight and destroy other animals as the key to their survival. De Waal’s research reveals that the real evolutionary adaptation is not creating spears and throwing them but the ability to band together. What kept us alive in these times was our willingness to work together. This togetherness is fostered by an empathic connectedness that allows humans to feel both their own experience and the experience of another.
This way of being in the world is our human birthright. American boys are losing this due to a hyper-masculine commitment to rationality and reduced emotional experience. This loss is overwhelming young men. It takes its toll in the form of relational turmoil and divorce among many other problems.
I have no idea if young boys are dropping out of sports to protest the overemphasis on competition. It appears that the rate of girls in sports is also dropping. I do think that there is a new sense of masculinity that is emerging. This new masculinity sees the power of being fully human and accessing both our emotional, physical and rational sides. It allows men to have close connections with each other and celebrates this without having to sexualize the closeness. It is a masculinity that is focused on integrity and living out our deepest values. This new form of manhood is accessible to anyone because it is not how we are, but how we choose to be, that is our destiny.
This is a link to the Denver Post’s article on the mental health situation in the state of Colorado. The big take aways are the lack of care that prevents mental health crisis. Colorado’s system is built mainly for crisis care. The state is not investing in a system that helps get people well but takes people into the system when there are no other options. This lack of preventative care and supportive mental health policy likely creates much greater expense down the road. Beyond the expense is the extreme amount of pain that comes from an unwillingness to deem mental health a priority.
“Colorado ranks near the bottom in per-capita psychiatric treatment beds reported by hospitals, and in the bottom half in per-capita state and federal spending on mental health.”
We can do better Colorado. The reality is that mental health should not be different from any other health issue. The stigma of mental health is what causes people to wait till it is too late to get support. Feeling depressed is no different than having a heart condition. Experiencing panic attacks is the same health issue as having a broken leg. In both cases people need professionals to provide care.
“What I want to do is normalize mental health care. Separate systems of care perpetuate that stigma,” he said. “I dispel myths quite a bit — ‘Those are the crazy people. Those are the people who shoot up our malls and kill our kids.’ We want mental health to just be another facet of health.”
I have seen in my clients struggle with mental health issues. They are not dealing with some personal choice issue. Mental health is not something you can deal with on your own. It is usually caused by brain traumas that happened at an early age. I saw this trauma working with men who suffered from childhood sexual abuse . At times some of these men could not function. Why do you have to get in a car accident or fall off a cliff for it be deemed legitimate brain malfunction? When emotional boundaries are disrupted (especially at an early age) the human brain suffers the consequences. It can be irreparable damage in some cases. It also can be healed through the same relational dynamic that caused the damage. Having a loving, caring, professional can provide new neural pathways to grow and help bring great relief to a sufferer of emotional trauma.
This video is more about the impact of film on girls and boys. However, if you watch it all the way through, Colin Stokes brings in how he views the definition of men. “A real man is someone who trusts his sisters, respects them and wants to be on their team.” Colin is reacting against the manhood that encourages the patriarchy, that allows for sexual assault and that does not respect women or girls. This video shows how films are not helping boys to understand this new definition. Instead it is up to fathers to both model and teach their young sons how to act.
I thought this short video was hilarious. However, I don’t agree with Mila being against men saying they are pregnant (and I know she was joking). I think the “we” of being pregnant is important. Yes, men will never know of the bodily changes or the discomfort and extraordinary pain that women go through. We men will never have to deal with the extreme emotions and the nausea.
Being a man today is stepping fully into supporting a woman through her pregnancy. It is seeing that this is not an experience that is separate from the man, but one that is integrally connected and a critical part of the child’s development.
I like the “we ” because it means there are two people having different experiences and doing it together.
Men Have a Unique Experience During Pregnancy
Our energy is felt outside the womb. As a dad, we are usually trying to instill feelings of safety, love. It’s a one of a kind way of emitting support and stability that fathers can provide uniquely from mothers. Honoring dads who want to own their part of the pregnancy is a noble way to support fathers. Don’t dog on men saying they are pregnant Mila (funny though, watch this video for a laugh especially if you’re an expecting dad).
As part of my practice, I work with fathers and soon-to-be dads on how to be the best version of themselves to reflect to their families. It’s a balancing act to be a great dad, get good nutrition, proper mental health support, and maintain a successful career. I work with men to be bold, authentic and create positive relationships in their lives. Contact me.
This is a powerful talk by Esta Soler. Witness the amazing work she has done to end domestic violence.
In my practice, I work with couples who are working on their relationships. Effective counseling can help to stop damaging behavior from escalating. Domestic violence is a showing that something needs healing, badly. There are ways to channel anger and frustration into other outlets than resorting to violence. If your tension has been alarming, even to yourself, or your relationship is in a constant state of turmoil, consider reading this article about healthy anger (yeah, it really can be healthy when used in a certain way).
Domestic violence is never okay, yet it has existed since ancient times (unfortunately). In modern times, we can turn the tide on domestic violence, as Esta Soler points out. It takes documentation and public knowledge sometimes. Once the Polaroid was available widely, taking pictures as evidence helped put a face to domestic violence. The internet today has taken documentation of domestic violence even further with video, both live and captured. It’s not something we can hide in the closet with technology like this. And, it’s helped to change public perception and awareness. This in turn, has led to dramatic drops in cases of domestic violence. Soler states that in 30 years of technology, reported cases have declined by 64% in the United States.
It starts at home and inside you. Unhappiness, low self-esteem, unresolved issues, hurt. They all lead to pain in some form. Inwardly, and outwardly projected onto someone else at times. Taking care of your pain immediately and healthily (and maintaining it regularly) is the one way to stop emotions from becoming negative actions. You can learn coping skills to do this on your own, or you can get support to make sure you stay on track. Having someone to validate you and give you a place to blow off steam can help you avoid serious consequences from not taking care of yourself and blowing up at someone you love.