Teaching Our Sons Independence Above All Else is an Isolating Trap
Poor American parents, we’ve got the definition of strength all wrong.
It is a mandate of American culture that we teach boys to be independent even as we encourage girls to touch, share and connect. Around the time they enter kindergarten, American boys are expected to begin soothing their own wounds and winning their own battles in the world. They are expected to stand on their own two feet and “shake it off” because otherwise, they might end up weak. And weakness in boys is the night terror of American parents.
American parents fear a son who clings; a son who is needy; a confused, unmotivated lump of a man who is parked weeping on the basement couch at age thirty. It is the nightmare that keeps American parents awake nights. And so, we start early with our sons, privileging self reliance and emotional toughness over the encouragement of close physical contact and emotional expression. We gently but firmly wean them off hugs, kisses and talking about their emotions. We subject them to touch isolation because we don’t want them to be momma’s boys. We don’t want them to be cry babies.
We hesitate to reach out and hold them when they cry. We hesitate to talk about their sadness or their fears. We push them out into the world, in part to avoid the messy business of helping them navigate emotional complexity.
“Love me son, but do it over there. Love me from first base. Love me from the front of the class. Love me from the trading floor. Love me from Iraq.”
And the saddest part of this entire equation is the following fact: acknowledging our need to connect emotionally and having the ability to be cared for and comforted is a crucial human capacity, without which we can not live fully connected emotionally authentic lives. To know we all need care and comforting takes self reflection, to be able to ask this of the world takes courage and confidence.
Poor American parents, we’ve got the definition of strength all wrong. We’re so busy ensuring stoic independence in our little sons that we’re raising generation after generation of men who can’t create community. Who lack empathy and the ability to engage and appreciate difference. Who withdraw into isolated emotional bunkers from which to stand their ground. We have created an alpha obsessed, my-way-or-the highway man club that privileges financial Darwinism and conspicuous consumption on a scale which ultimately shuts down our public institutions and lays economic waste to our disconnected gated communities; casting baby boomer parents into the Dickensonian drudgery of Wal-mart greeters; eventually warehousing dear old mom and dad in bleak nursing homes, starving for the human contact they denied their own sons. A real estate bubble here. A shock and awe there. The American cult of independence has unleashed economic, cultural and political Armageddon against us all while holding itself accountable to no one.
The American cult of independence tells little boys over and over again to “man up” as if that is the answer to all the world’s problems. Not surprisingly, we are dealing with a lot of angry and violent boys, who, as an expression of their emotional isolation, lash out over and over again. Only now, they’re all grown up and running our country.
Dominating and bullying those who are weaker than us is not some simple extension of male energy. It is not biologically inevitable. But, when stoic independence is our society’s highest valued personal trait, bullying is culturally inevitable, because bullying is, at it’s base, an expression of loss, isolation, grief and jealousy. It is the rage of boys, who are wracked with confusion. “What is suddenly wrong with wanting to be held, comforted and kept safe? Yesterday you held me. Today you pushed me away.”
The echo of this litany plays out over and over in the collapse of our adult relationships. “Yesterday you held me, today you pushed me away.” The stress cracks and fractures of male rejection and insecurity run deep in our society. The voices of male anger rant across the internet; the voices of men expressing anger at women. Women who don’t connect. Women who are aloof and unkind. Women who simply aren’t there at all.
Its a withdrawal narrative.
These are the voices of men who have bottled up such deep seated pain that to now self reflect is seemingly impossible. You might as well stare into the sun. And so they blame everyone else. Unable to see their own pain in others, because no one saw it in them. And unable to connect emotionally after a lifetime of being conditioned to adopt tough male stoicism over warm male emotional connection.
And women are as responsible as men for privileging and perpetuating the American cult of independence. Treading the cartoon catwalks of gender even as they wax disappointed in the very male stoicism they are a party to perpetuating.
American women talk a good game about wanting men to connect emotionally, but it takes a strong women to care for a man in the same way that men are expected to care for women, because when the tears and insecurity of men are finally teased out, many women say, “You’re not the man I thought I was with. You’re just looking for your mommy.” Indeed we are. But the shock of that dirty little secret is only a challenge if we expect men to provide emotional care without providing any in return. When you open up the well of suppressed male isolation and loss, its a flood that will wash away every convenient macho Hollywood assumption about men you ever had. We are not strong. We are weak. Because we have not faced our own demons. And, in part, this is because when we attempt to do so publicly, we are shamed and rejected, often by our own wives and partners. Immediately. Made to withdraw and man up all over again.
Over and over men tell me that this is the baseline message they get about sharing their emotions. “Show me what you’re feeling, but don’t show me more than I’m comfortable with.”
The strength it takes to connect emotionally and to accept care from others is not easy to come by. To express emotion, display grief, show vulnerability and process pain requires a degree of personal integrity and self reliance that far outstrips what is needed to bully or dominate others. The capacity to be vulnerable in American culture is nothing short of super human. It’s the first step toward self reflection and we Americans don’t do self reflection because it smacks of self doubt. Real men always know what they think. They always know what to do. They never doubt themselves. Ever.
Never mind the fact that self reflection is the key to finding authenticity and connection in our lives. Instead, men (and women) bottle up self doubt and pain, fueling a limitless well spring of anger that makes them attack others and defend their point of view like it is God’s own truth.
We are a nation of bullies because that’s what bullies are. People who have avoided self reflection for so long that to do so now would be like lighting the fuse to a bomb. Better to keep a lid on it all. Better to attack anyone who says otherwise. And in America? Bullies are running the show. The wounded angry little boys are at the wheel and they are weakest of us all.
We are a nation of the emotionally shell shocked. The self medicating strategies and rigid binary ideologies we use to avoid admitting our lack of human connection, of meaning, are doing generational damage over and over again.
Meanwhile, men, isolated from authentic emotional connection by our emotion-phobic American culture, seek to satisfy a lifetime of need for connection through their romantic partners, a burden which few women (or men), no matter how loving, could realistically be expected to fulfill.
This is the reason that frequency of sex often becomes the single most challenging issue for couples. Men often key on sex as a way to bridge our way back to the gentle comforting connection of our distant childhoods, that, long absent, can never quite be recaptured or recalled. The orgasm becomes a surrogate for that lost contact, a moment of male safety and security when the white flare of pleasure leaves loss behind. For ten seconds we know peace. Maybe twenty. But like everything else with a potential emotional component in our lives, we American men are terribly prone to approaching sex mechanically, staring inward at our own flaring confusion instead of looking outward into the mysterious miracle of our partners. And in that moment, sex becomes another exercise in internalizing our experiences instead of surrendering to the interdependence which we have never learned to engage.
And surprise? In relationship after relationship, romance withers. Sex falls off. But we men continue to go to the well of cold mechanical sex, long after our lovers have lost their passion for it, because like everything else in our emotional landscapes, we have confused the ghost of contact with really connecting. Meanwhile, men and women alike are absorbing the generational impact of contentious and angry divorce, shattered relationships and the ongoing war between the sexes, which is typically informed by angry binary dialogues about sex, sex and sex.
Sex speaks to the wounded little boy and his endless appetite for me, me, me. And drowned out by our relentless emphasis on sex, every other gesture of caring in all the other parts of our relationships are not marked. Are not valued. Instead the only marker of a good relationship is frequency of sex. Which, because we avoid emotional intimacy, is fueled by the cartoon daydreams of porn instead of the deeper resonance of love.
It ain’t a pretty picture. And men and women share in what has been created.
When mothers and fathers alike cut their little boys off from comforting touch and connection, we sever their connection to the security they need to develop emotionally. This is what is behind the attachment parenting movement. This is why consistent physical contact; hugs and touch are so central to the healthy development of young children. And this is why we have to make space for physical and emotional connection with our boys in the same way we do with our daughters. Because the fallout of failing to do so can be catastrophic.
When I was six years old, my parents were in the throes of an impending marital collapse. During that time, they withdrew from my brother and me. My brother was a year and a half older. He had always picked on me, but when my father left our lives, his bullying became compulsive, habitual. As if what was happening all around us was all my doing. He became physically oppressive. Not only punching, but also breaking down my autonomy. About getting inside my boundaries and proving he could do so whenever he wanted. Early each morning, he would get up and force me out of my bed. Then he would get in it, saying, “this is my bed, now.” Standing there shivering, I had no choice but to get in his bed. I recall how his bed stank of him. His smell is what remains with me to this day.
He would pin me down and dribble long gobs of spit in my face. He would twist my arm behind my back until I submitted to whatever he wanted in the moment. He was always a ticking angry time bomb. Always ready to go off and do something. An unending threat that my mother and step father seemed unable or unwilling to curtail. My mother’s solution was to tell us over and over again to “work it out.” How does a six year old “work out” being attacked?
I can smell him now, forty years later, sitting here typing. What he did has made an imprint on me that I can not shake. And although I have not spoken with him over the last three decades, I need not look very far inside myself to find him there. I can still feel his anger. His rage. His breath on the side of my face. His presence was always too close, too oppressive, too sensory. My arrival must have deprived him of something central in his young life.
I think I understand my brother even as I remain haunted by the rotten luck of the draw that condemned me to grow up with him. He is a huge symbol of loss. He deprived me of something I needed terribly. A big brother I could count on. A male role model I could aspire to. That, coupled with the absence of my father, left me with no model for what it means to be a good man, or, for that matter a man at all. But I still understand.
We both needed comfort and connection. Someone to simply talk with us about what was halppening. We needed to process the collapse of our little worlds. Instead, the divorce resulted in the adults in our lives withdrawing further. Its was a vast wasteland of silence.
Perhaps his attempt to control me was the only source of interpersonal agency in his life but it exacted a high price from us both, creating a rift that will never be healed. Someone should have given us guidance. Helped us talk through it. “It’s not your fault. We still love you.” These words mean so much. Someone should have been there for two boys who could not process what was happening on their own.
For me, this is the story of my brother. He just needed connection.
Connection is what our culture of independence strips out of our young boys lives, because we don’t know ourselves how to deal with the messy complexity of their vibrant, tumultuous, exhuberant and sometimes unhappy lives. So we set them adrift. We convince ourselves that emotional toughness and stoic independence is a core American value and a viable central philosophy for creating a good life. It is not.
Independence of the kind that says we don’t need to rely on others is the illusion of strength. Our cultural obsession with independence as the prime masculine virtue is fracturing our society because it teaches us that we don’t need each other when, in fact, we do. We are, in fact, hard wired to be INTERdependent. We need each other emotionally, physically and spiritually and the vast majority of men and women are, in fact, starving for interdependent connection in our lives.
From which springs meaning.
There will always be men who are comfortable with what might be called traditional masculinity. Good for you guys. If that works for you, go with it. But we need to insure there is a much wider cultural space for men who want to perform masculinity differently. We have to break out of what Charlie Glickman calls the Man Box. And as part of breaking out, we need to stop privileging independence over INTERdependence. We need to connect in the full range of ways that make sense for us. And, equally importantly, we need to find partners in our lives who will do the same. To any man or woman out there, if your partner seeks to suppress your emotional expression and discourages your self reflection, dump them. Because they’re poison, plain and simple.
In its most positive sense, independence isn’t located in the capacity to function without reliance on others. True independence comes from being emotionally literate and relationally intelligent, giving us the ability to engage the widest possible range of communities, contexts and interpersonal connections. True independence comes from being fully engaged and connected with others in the world, so we can choose our path, not based on avoiding what we fear as unfamiliar, but instead, what we know from a wider range of diverse experience is right for us.
When we live in a robust web of interconnection, we are no longer at risk for being cast out, economically lost, or spiritually isolated. The web of humanity is too vast. There are always places we can shift to and seek new ways to be resourced. The wider the range of connectivity we have in our lives, the wider the range of options for dealing with adversity. This alleviates fear and provides security. This is the true power of being human.
At the heart of connection, is our willingness and capacity to hold and care for each other. This is a central life lesson we can simultaneously learn from and teach our young sons, by keeping them close instead of pushing them away. And a generation of boys who can connect physically and emotionally will help heal the world for us all.
Originally published by the Good Men Project.
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