Male Bonding is a Good Thing

Tom Matlack insists that it’s not a lack of emotion guys are suffering from, but rather the lack of understanding of what it means to be a man in 2012.

The sun was out Saturday afternoon.  A wedding moved up the start time from late to early afternoon (“Who would have a wedding in August?” one well known participant muttered at the inconvenience).  One newcomer had mistakenly waited inside rather at the outside bar for the game to start. We had to drag him out. Not having had a drink in over a decade, I came with three Cuban cigars. I was quickly down to just one as two friends raided my zip-locked bag.  The cards emerged just about the time a quorum had been established. The game was hi/low. Twenties and then coasters with IOUs flew around the wooden bar for a couple of hours. So did belly laughs.

Every guy in the place seemed to breath deeply for the first time all week.  I sat on the perimeter smoking my cigar, taking in the sun, waiting my turn to gamble and watching a dozen middle aged men do what they had done pretty much every summer Saturday afternoon for over a decade. I was down quite a bit early on some bad beats but fought my way back to the black. Near the end a wife showed up to snap a photo of her husband doing what he loved in a game that had become the focus of travel calendars and the psyche of the participants.

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It wasn’t an accident that this was the day that Augusta National announced that they were offering membership to Condi Rice.

There was a time when male-only meant more or less the same as white-only—power and privilege. While plenty of the guys at the Saturday afternoon poker game are successful in their professional lives, I didn’t observe them plotting to beat down the opposite sex so much as hoping to suck down some oxygen like they had emerged from a deep sea dive without air tanks.

As the end of summer approaches, I have a list of male friends I want to get on my calendar to have lunch with. Not to talk business, though that might come up, but to reconnect with about life.  Guys who know me and who can relate to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the gifts and struggles of being a middle-aged guy in 2012.

Too often the discussion of the male experience immediately gets hijacked into a discussion of the female experience.  None of what I am getting at here is meant to minimize sex trafficking, continued gender bias in the workplace, the challenges faced by moms, and the oppression of women in all forms that justifiably gave rise to feminism. I have an 18 year-old daughter and a wife both of whom I love with all my heart and who I watch navigate those issues on a daily basis.

But being a guy is no walk in the park at this point either. And saying that doesn’t, by definition, make me a sexist pig. On the contrary, attempting to find other guys with whom I can consciously bond increases the chances, in my view, that I can be a good dad and a good husband.

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If you’ve been paying attention to gender at all these past few years, the discussion has gotten nothing but more adversarial with cyber-feminists becoming more and more strident and men’s rights groups becoming more and more vicious in their counterattacks based on unfair divorce laws and the macro data behind the “End of Men” argument.

If anything, gender has become an even more complex issue with greater awareness and legal rights for those of varying sexual orientations and identity. God knows no two men are exactly alike, as are no two women. But gender is still centrally important to the human endeavor and, as such, the male experience is no less important than the female one, no matter what the history.

I’ve spent that last three years talking to men, writing about men, and collecting men’s stories.  What I’ve found is that men don’t generally share their experience exactly the same way women do. We are no less emotional or sensitive or nuanced than our female counterparts, but the code is somewhat different.

At the poker game or in the locker room or over lunch, we talk.  More often than not men are more than willing to spill their guts but they do it in the context of a story—either theirs or someone they know and care about. Man-to-man love is a somewhat more fragile thing. Not always as overt. Not as easy to see. But it’s just as important as women’s support groups.

I’ve sat with a man telling me the story of losing his wife to a freak infection while his toddler daughter played in a puddle nearby.  I’ve been encircled by a dozen men in the bowels of Sing Sing prison, each sharing in turn the point at which they decided to do something positive with their lives despite never having the chance to go free. I’ve hugged a member of the 82nd Airborne who survived the war but came home and had his daughter die in his arms.  I’ve stood beside an NFL Hall of Famer as he explained to a room full of teenaged boys what it was like to grow up in the poorest part of Newark with no dad, so that he had to learn Karate calm his mind and protect his family.

Each one of those guys was crying like a baby. And so was I.  So it’s not a lack of emotion that us guys are suffering from.  It’s the lack of understanding of what it means to be a man in 2012.

Photo courtesy of Images_of_Money/Flickr 

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Too often the discussion of the male experience immediately gets hijacked into a discussion of the female experience. So it’s not a lack of emotion that us guys are suffering from. It’s the lack of understanding of what it means to be a man in 2012.

    Thank you Tom. You get it.

  2. This is a pretty interesting endeavor you’ve embarked on Tom, and it’s fascinating to watch how this site functions as a forum for men to open up about their lives in a real, honest way. Something you and your team should be proud of.

    MRA vs. feminism or any other way of looking at the conversation as a battle with sides just misses the whole point. We are not here to compare ourselves to others, though we cannot avoid doing so. We are here to be the best people that we can be, and true, non-judgmental conversation with others is what helps us on that path. That’s true for men, women, trans, or any other category that our culture chooses to segment us by.

  3. No doubt about it—Every guy needs a brotherhood.

    Solid piece. Thanks for sharing.

  4. The phrase, “No man is an island unto himself” (or however that goes) comes to mind.

    Male bonding is a great thing to do and despite what others might say male only spaces are not inherently anti woman but that hasn’t stopped women from attacking male only spaces on that presumption and that presumption alone.

  5. Tom, the problem I have with your articles is that they are so on point, I have nothing to add. You’re an amazing writer. Glad you’re here.

  6. I agree that men don’t lack emotion – but they do generally struggle to know what they are feeling and how to express the right emotion at the right time. In many cases men have been taught to ‘suck it down’ and they need re-educating / relearn to express the full spectrum of emotions.
    Men- need safe spaces/people to be vulnerable – where they have no fear of shame, humiliation and put-downs.

    Jason says every man needs a brotherhood – Not sure I agree with this, but I do think every man needs people around him who he can feel safe to express the full range of his emotions.

  7. I’ve facilitated many male groups and I’ve noticed something. If I ask a man what he is feeling, the likelihood is he will struggle to put it into words. This is what many women complain about; inability to express his feelings under the pressure of a question. Yet, if I ask other men what a particular man is feeling, they are quite perceptive and can put it into words: they can empathise with another man, even if they struggle to put into words they feel inside themselves.
    Comparison to women’s (generally better) verbalisation of what they feel, merely serves to have men feel inferior, when in reality they might just be less practised at the female format, but just fine in their own format.

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