Who men are collectively, and how we got to the place we are now is not a pretty story. We are suspended, rudderless, between our long history of male privilege and the newer, more diverse masculinities emerging from decades of social and economic upheaval. For this generation of men, there will be no quick or easy way forward. It will take generations for us to free ourselves from what was done to us, by us, for us, and through us in the name of traditional American masculinity.
Put simply, how American men perform manhood is killing us and those we love. Our mothers, wives, daughters, our sons, our fathers and our friends are all paying a terrible price. Which is why this conversation about manhood has to happen. If we can not do this for ourselves, straddling what was and what is to come, uncertain of simple moral imperatives, angry and defensive, then we must do this for those we love. We must find the courage to shift this culture for those close to us, for our children and grandchildren, who deserve to grow up in a world free of the brutal inequality that we, by our collective indecision, are maintaining.
Understand, I’m uncomfortable writing this, telling other men to step up. My culture has taught me not to do this. Not to have this conversation. If you’re a man, you’re likely uncomfortable reading it. But I can only offer you this. My condemnation of our culture of manhood is NOT a condemnation of men. I do however, hold us responsible for our damaging culture of manhood if we fail to create something better.
We must learn to deal with our conditioned discomfort because being uncomfortable is likely going to be par for the course for men for the rest of our natural lives and how we process our cultural anxiety will impact our families for generations to come.
The history of the world is one in which men have been taught to leverage our authority over women; authority granted simply by virtue of our being male. For my father’s generation, men didn’t learn to negotiate as equals in their personal relationships because they controlled the economic power in the family. Men didn’t learn to deal with the daily uncertainty of not knowing because they were free to declare what and how things should be. Whether we use it or not, this legacy of privilege has been handed down to us.
Accordingly, for many of us, developing our more nuanced relational capacities faltered or failed utterly, preempted by manhood’s blunt assertions of dominance. And even when we attempt to navigate the complexities of equality in our romantic relationships with women, always behind the carrot lurks the stick of our power as men. It takes only the slightest bit of empathy to imagine the rage this would create for us where our positions with women reversed.
Beneath all this male anger lies an avalanche of fear.
A cursory glance at the makeup of the U.S. Congress will verify that men continue to hold the levers of power in government. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five women report being the victim of rape. Almost a third of women experience physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. Across the U.S. and globally, men threaten, brutalize, and murder women with shocking ferocity. Presented with these easily verifiable facts, men’s defensive anger surges up from the disconnect between the privilege many of us continue to leverage and the calamity that is modern life. Surely, this is someone else’s fault? Immigrants. Socialists. Feminists.
The wave of chronic trauma we are all confronting has taken generations to form and will take generations to spend itself, if it ever does. For men and women alike, every action we take either adds momentum to this wave or decreases its impact on the generations that will follow us. And because women’s and even children’s voices are growing louder and more insistent, men are slowly coming to a painful realization. There is nowhere to hide from the collective trauma all around us.
Whether it is video of gunfire in our schools or the cries of terrified children at our borders, our trauma is universal and ubiquitous. It is the air we breathe, it is the water we swim in; so universal as to be background noise, numbing us to the grislier realities of famine and war. If ignored, chronic trauma will be the defining legacy we leave to our children and theirs. If ignored, it may well be the end of us all.
The Deep Well of Male Loneliness
Male rage is rooted in the collective self-alienation and isolation that is part and parcel of our culture of manhood. In her book “When Boys Become Boys,” Dr. Judy Chu of Stanford University documents how our sons are taught to hide their early capacity for being emotionally perceptive, articulate, and responsive. Starting in preschool, our young boys learn to align their behaviors with “the emotionally disconnected stereotype our culture projects onto them.”
“Boys are taught to hide vulnerable emotions like sadness, fear, and pain, which imply weakness and are stereotypically associated with femininity,” Chu writes. They are hiding and suppressing what would normally be natural parts of themselves.
Our culture tells our sons “don’t be a sissy” or “be a man” but the message is clear: Don’t be a woman, women are less. As early as age four, boys are already being taught to reject the feminine, constructing a version of themselves that integrates women’s second-class status into their masculine identities. This drumbeat condemnation of the feminine is the perfect trap, cementing in place the interlocking double bind of misogyny and self-alienation that is the man box.
The deep irony of all of this is that the men don’t feel empowered by male privilege. What they feel is trapped in silos of social and emotional isolation, under siege, as millions of women and other men rebel against an antiquated social contract that systematically cuts us off from deeper, more authentic human connection.
Niobe Way, author of “Deep Secrets,” documents how we shame and bully our adolescent sons into giving up their loving friendships in order to prove a destructive and isolating set of negatives. In Way’s words, “rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not, they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay. In response to a cultural context that links intimacy in male friendships with an age, a sex (female), and a sexuality (gay), these boys mature into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.”
The Health Impact
In 2010, the AARP published a study which shows that one in three Americans aged 45 and older is chronically lonely. That’s equal to 42 million Americans. Studies show that the health impact of chronic loneliness is akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The result of chronic loneliness is much higher rates of diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and more. Our culture of masculinity suppresses our sons’ relational capacities, making it a major contributing factor to the epidemic of loneliness in America.
By training our sons into foregoing authentic relational connection and expression, what some call living in the man box, our culture blocks them from the trial and error process of growing crucial relational capacities, even as it simultaneously coaches them to police and bully other men to conform.
At a time when boys should be expressing and constructing their identities in more diverse, grounded, and authentic ways, they are brutally conditioned to suppress authentic expression and instead cleave closely to the expression of male privilege as identity. And so men brag about hook up sex and ghosting women, seeking to bond via the uniformly degrading and contemptuous narratives of locker room talk.
The result is far too many men who are bullied and shamed into being half anti-women and half anti-self, suppressing the authentic expression of who they are, even as they compete to parade their male privilege. The impact, of women’s steady progress toward equality, on these men’s anti-woman side cannot be underestimated. Because women’s empowerment is antithetical to how the man box constructs manhood, too many men are now fighting to overturn the progress women have made.
In a culture that blocks boys from developing a robust community of relationships; the parts of us naturally designed to create connection atrophy from lack of use. So, as isolating as it is, we fight angrily to maintain the part of their identity built on priviledge, sensing the alarming lack of any deeper identity to fall back on.
What’s the Way Forward for Us?
We are confronted with a choice. We can allow the policing of ourselves and others, driven by the trap of the man box, to continue, or we can start making space for more options, for a much more wide-ranging set of masculinities. Millions of men are already doing this work. Rigid, limiting performances of manhood are giving way to much more fluid expressions of gender, especially among millennials. Millions of fathers are taking on the role of full-time parents and primary caregivers. Homophobia, long used to enforce the man box, is in decline among the younger generation.
But men are facing a double bind, the second half of which will require even more courage to confront. Many of us understand we must work to end the systemic violence created by a culture of masculinity that has clearly privileged us. It’s a man’s world, right? As men, we may even know that we cannot sidestep our part in creating everything from #MeToo, to the ugly culture of white nationalism in Trump’s America. But because our man box culture has bullied and shamed each of us into siloed, isolated lives, we have developed none of the relational capacities needed to repair the damage that has been done in our names.
In order to break the man-box cycle of isolation and abuse, men must take everything we have been taught about gender and flip it on its head. Which means we are facing the very task we have been conditioned to avoid at all costs. We must activate the parts of ourselves we have been trained to suppress. We must call on every relational skill we were taught to deny, previously degraded and wrongly gendered as feminine, including empathy, play, compassion, collaboration, connection, and that greatest of human challenges, bridging across difference.
One way to help boys and men break the cycle of male disconnection is to do so generationally by teaching our children to grow their relational intelligence within the family. This is why I co-authored a book with Dr. Saliha Bava titled “The Relational Book for Parenting.” Our book applies powerful relational articles, storytelling, play, and games to help our children (and ourselves) understand and grow the powerful relational capacities we are all born with.
Author Judy Chu has this to say about Bava’s book. “It is a perfect, timely response to the question so many parents are now asking. Namely, how can we counteract the detrimental effects of socialization, particularly problems related to our emotional disconnections and isolation from others?”
Far too many of us have been nothing short of relationally castrated, but we must rediscover our empathy and much more. We must rediscover nothing less than the art of being in relationship. We must come in from the cold and focus on growing our relational intelligence, learning daily to negotiate, explore, and play within our relationships in the context of a world that remains trauma-inducing and trauma-informed.
We must activate the parts of ourselves we have been trained to suppress.
Men, we can no longer avert our eyes from what is deeply broken in ourselves and in others. We can no longer cater to our discomfort, avoiding at all costs the challenging conversations required of us. We must do the work of connection and self-reflection, knowing all the while that the trauma we seek to address will not likely be fixed or resolved in our lifetimes.
We must learn to sit with the uncertainty created by this lack of closure, not knowing what is emerging while the human heart does its mysterious work. In a world where men have been trained to fix instead of host, repair instead of engage, we must learn to hold the challenging emotions of others, possibly for years. We must understand the power we have when we listen. We must learn to sit with issues that will not be easily resolved and in doing so, perhaps, some day, resolve them.
Human beings heal in the back and forth of relating and connecting. We don’t heal in isolation, we don’t heal others; we heal in relationship. It can seem cruelly ironic for men to be asked to learn to connect after being brutally trained, all our lives, to disconnect, but the benefits of doing so are very real. When we learn to connect in the back and forth of sharing our stories, something remarkable happens. We’re not alone any more. We become family. We become community, and any of us — regardless of our histories, our challenges, or our past sins — can begin this work.
It’s time for all of us to gather our courage and connect. We must do this work for our children, our partners, our communities, our world, and ourselves.
We must do this before it is too late.