The Inner Lives of Men

Uncle Nikko, Otis & Mavis. Brooklyn. 

Uncle Nikko, Otis & Mavis. Brooklyn. 

In their inner lives, men carry secrets that are not talked about and are hidden from view. They're secrets that men might not even consciously be aware of, although upon hearing them, will recognize. 

Men get enlisted in a conspiracy of silence that begins in childhood. They learn that if you put yourself out there in a vulnerable way, you will get hammered for it.  To express yourself openly and honestly is to be at risk. If you talk about your feelings, there will be a sense of failure or inadequacy or fear that someone will use it against you. 

But it starts even younger. “The ‘manning up’ of infant boys begins early on in their typical interactions and long before language plays its role,” says Dr. Edward Tronick, who observed mothers trying to control their infant sons' emotions by physically withdrawing from them. This recent article cites similar studies and findings: mothers are more likely to use emotional words and topics with their daughters than sons; fathers sing and smile more to their daughters; parents are more likely to "direct" their sons and "explain to" their daughters. 

In America, men perform masculinity within a narrow set of cultural rules often called the Man Box. One of the central tenants of the Man Box is the subjugation of women, and by extension, all things feminine. Since we Americans hold emotional connection as a female trait, we reject it in our boys, demanding that they “man up” and adopt a strict regimen of emotional independence, even isolation, as proof they are real men. Behind the message that real men are stoic and detached is the threat of homophobia - ready to crush any boy who might show too much of the wrong kind of emotions. America’s pervasive homophobic, anti-feminine policing has forced generations of young men to abandon each other’s support at the crucial moment they enter manhood.

In her book about adolescent boys’ friendships, Niobe Way targets the central source of our culture’s epidemic of male loneliness. Driven by our assumption that the friendships of boys are both casual and interchangeable, along with our relentless privileging of romantic love over platonic love, we are driving boys into lives Dr. Way describes as “autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.” 

Her research shows us that boys in early adolescence express deeply fulfilling emotional connection and love for each other, but by the time they reach adulthood, that sense of connection evaporates. Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and their emotional sensitivity, put them at risk of being labeled “girly,” “immature,” or “gay.” Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with proving who they are not — they are not girls, little boys nor homosexuals.

This is a catastrophic loss; a loss we somehow assume men will simply adjust to. They do not. Millions of men are experiencing a sense of deep loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages and families.

“There is an epidemic of loneliness generated by the misguided idea that romantic love is the only solution to loneliness.” Alain de Botton

"The loss of my friendship with George set a pattern in my life that I am only now, decades later, finally conscious of,” reflects Mark Greene, of The Good Men Project, of his childhood friend. “I have walked past so many friendships. Sleep walking past men, as I went instead from woman to woman, looking for everything I had lost. Looking instead in the realm of the romantic, the sexual. And in doing so, I have missed so many opportunities to live a fuller life."

Men have to risk friendship at a different level. They very seldom talk about their personal lives, they usually focus on sports or politics or something else out there. If it's out there, it's safer. Begin to tell these secrets -- to yourself to start with. Face your fear, be honest with what is going on inside of you. Create relationships with other men which are reciprocal, caring, and supportive of each other.

However, it's not all on the men. Women often say they want men to be emotionally transparent with them. But Brené Brown, the vulnerability and shame expert, admits that many women grow uneasy or even recoil if men take them up on their offer. Other studies and anecdotal evidence jibe with Dr. Brown’s research, suggesting that the less men risk emoting verbally, the more appealing they are. Women are validating the mandates of the Man Box. I can see why it’s confusing for men!

Read my post tomorrow on how this is affecting our sexual desire …