Randie Shane Tollefson discovered that the clearest window into men’s emotional lives may be through their songwriting.
“Songwriting is sort of the last sanctioned outlet where men are allowed to talk about their feelings. It’s like men are telling us something important about who they are in music that I think deserves special attention.”
This is what I said in my Kickstarter video when explaining my idea to do a show where I, as a woman, stepped into a man’s experience of love through the music of some of my favorite male singer-songwriters. I was actually putting theater and performing behind me to focus on getting my Masters in what turns out to be my true passion, Marriage and Family Therapy. But my studies had planted an idea in my head I couldn’t quite let go of, a way to combine my two selves.
In my studies, I discovered the work of Susan M. Johnson, one of the founders of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. She speaks compellingly about the idea that all of us, male and female, have the same, fundamental fear that we are ultimately unacceptable in some way, that we are somehow unworthy of love and will be rejected and abandoned by the person for whom we care the most.
She describes how, when these fears are triggered, we tend to cope in one of two ways; we either heighten our needs and feelings in an attempt to influence the other to heal our pain (“Pursuers”), or we tamp down our needs and feelings in order to try to eliminate our pain (“Withdrawers”). Though people of both genders fall into both of these categories, the truth with which most of us are familiar is that women more often tend to pursue, and men more often tend to withdraw.
But why is that? It may have to do with the extent to which the genders experience what is referred to as “flooding” or hyperarousal, which is a kind of sensory and emotional overload that makes it impossible to think clearly. Drs. Patricia Love and Steven Stosny, in their book “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It” describe how men’s heart rates skyrocket more intensely and for longer than women’s during conflict. And it may also be about the different relationship we teach our boys and girls to have with their emotions; women are taught to lean into our feelings, men are taught to lean away.
So this is the background in front of which I began my search for what I referred to as “my hero’s journey” in music. I wanted to find songs that took him from love found, to love lost, to love sought for and found again. And I was so excited to find that many of the songs on which I landed spoke mostly to that common experience of love and heartache. Lyrics like “No one understands me quite like you do, through all of the shadowy corners of me” (Landon Pigg, “Falling in Love at a Coffee Shop”), and “Now I understand what every step is for; to lead me to your door” (Elbow, “Mirrorball) could be sung by anyone in the throes of love. And lyrics such as “Do you want to make me want to cry” (Dan Wilson, “Cry”) and “I don’t want to get over you” (Magnetic Fields) and “I’d rather be a mystery than she desert me” (John Mayer, “My Stupid Mouth”) seemed to me almost entirely genderless expressions of heartache as well, regardless of pronouns. And lyrics like “I’ll be taken for a fool”, and “A lesson once learned is so hard to forget” (Sting, “Be Still My Beating Heart) are as easily sung by a women scared to love again as a man.
But then there were lyrics that felt more foreign to me as I sang them. In Dan Wilson’s “Cry”, he sings, “Don’t you want to make me feel I’ll never fail, I’ll never die?” Robin Thicke sings “Tell me you depend on me, I need to hear it” in the middle of yet another of his sex ballads (“Lost Without You”). Later in “Be Still My Beating Heart” Sting sings, “Never to be wrong, never to make promises that break”. And pretty much the entirety of John Legend’s “This Time” is about a guy who failed to step up to the needs of his relationship and now would give anything to have a second chance. In these lyrics, there is a preoccupation with the idea of failing the person they care about that seems uniquely male.
In that book by Love and Stosny, the authors talk about how men trigger women’s fear by leaving them emotionally alone, and how women trigger men’s fear through shame. This really resonated with me, as I had felt that fear myself, and had used shame as a weapon of influence in response. And, as we have been learning from researcher Brene Brown, shame never works, because it “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change”. It shuts us down. And there it was in the music; if a man’s biggest fear is that he is failing us, the quickest way to shut him down is to tell him that he is.
It did not occur to me to question this fear. My feeling was that if men and women want to have better relationships, it would be better to accept and honor these fears, and therefore be mindful of when we are triggering them. And so my intent with my show was to honor the male narrative by acknowledging his desire to be a hero – after all, I love that my husband wants to be my hero, and he is, even if I am not a damsel in distress. I did not see the point in calling into question the way a man sees his value in the world. But now that the show is over, I find myself wondering, is the hero narrative helping anyone? Does it do more harm than good? And if it is a problem, how do we change it without robbing men of their sense of worth?