Men risk their lives serving in combat, fighting fires, and performing dangerous stunts, but we’re not fearless. Here are three non-life-threatening things that men find truly terrifying.
“There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety, and guilt. It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.”
—Elizabeth Kubler Ross
There’s a cartoon I’ve always remembered from childhood. In the middle of a storm, a little girl runs into her big brother’s bedroom, afraid of the thunder. She says something like, “I’m scared, Billy. Please keep me safe.” There’s another clap, and both children run into their parents’ bedroom. “Mommy, we’re scared. Please keep us safe.” Thunder strikes yet again, and the whole family turns to the father. “We’re all scared, daddy. Please keep us safe.” The father looks skyward and says, “Um, who’s going to keep me safe?”
The stereotypical role of men as fearless protectors and daredevils is solidly established and in no way suggests that women lack courage. Many women perform acts of great bravery. But while men deal readily with dangerous threats, other fears rattle us to the core in our intimate relationships. The fears that keep us up at night. The fears that can paralyze us when confronting tough choices. These fears are: rejection, irrelevance, and disappointment, and together they add up to the fear of failure—of failing to be … a man. The explanations of these fears that follow are not presented as a plea for sympathy. They’re an attempt to help women who want lasting relationships with men better understand what makes men tick.
1. Rejection. Fear of rejection is not specific to men, of course, but let’s face it, men are more frequently the initiators when it comes to dating, marriage proposals, and sex, and we therefore face rejection more often when women refuse our advances. You’d think since we do most of the asking we’d have a thick skin when it comes to rejection, but it’s just the opposite. No matter how much courage we’ve summoned, how firmly we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t care about the outcome, and how much healthy self-esteem we possess, hearing no hurts deeply on the inside. A graceful no hurts a great deal less, while cruel, dismissive, ungrateful rejection drives a knife through the male psyche.
“I’d never date a guy like you.”
“Come on, who are you kidding?”
“Come back when you’re all grown up.”
No words. Just laughter.
Even the dreaded, “I love you as a friend,” is preferable to words like those above that cause us to question our suitability, attractiveness, or worst of all, our masculinity.
Fear of rejection is one reason men get so turned on by women who ask or initiate (it takes the sting out of getting to yes), and it’s also—in my opinion—why many men settle for unfulfilling relationships and don’t fully assert ourselves, fearing we won’t find anyone else or that if we anger our partners, we risk their dumping us. Many men are left with the feeling, “I’m a lucky schmuck who doesn’t really deserve to be with this goddess, I’m tolerated only by her good graces, and at any moment I could screw up and end up alone in the cold.” This dynamic of unworthiness makes for weak men, not strong ones.
So how might women process male fear of rejection? It doesn’t mean you have to accept anything or anyone you don’t want. But it does mean we need you to be civil and kind when refusing a genuine offer of companionship and affection. Handling rejection with compassion is about more than softening the blow to an interested but uninteresting suitor. It’s also about improving the way men treat women. A callous dismissal that makes a man feel inferior can twist his respect for women towards bitterness and hatred. This doesn’t make women responsible in any way for a man’s hateful actions. But it does mean you can make a difference by helping us remain intact and feel whole when you’re saying no.
2. Irrelevance. Men thrive on relevance, whether it’s through doing meaningful work, providing for a family, or simply feeling wanted and needed in a relationship. Make us feel irrelevant, treat us like a piece of furniture, the handyman, or a walking paycheck, and a wound forms in the center of our being that grows with every slight. Unhealed wounds make for unhappy partners, and unhappy partners make for destructive relationships.
While we’re at it, let’s shatter the myth that women are givers and men are takers. Women are givers but men are givers, too, and just as much as women, we need to be recognized and reminded that we matter to you. Make us feel irrelevant in the relationship, and we’ll seek relevance elsewhere, by working late hours, spending more time with male friends, or ultimately finding a companion who makes us feel important and valued. It’s not that women don’t also need to feel relevant. But women on the whole tend to have larger friend groups and social circles, often spend more time fulfilling children’s needs, and typically receive tokens of affection such as flowers, jewelry, or other gifts more regularly than they give them. This expectation of recognition from men is embedded in dating and long-term relationships. If you’re a woman reading this, ask yourself when is the last time you gave your man flowers, a trinket, sexy underwear, or a just because gift?
“I’m better off without you.”
“You never do anything around here.”
“All you do is go to work and come home.”
“What do I need you for, anyway?”
And when you only agree to have sex with us if we treat you like a princess, you’re setting up an unhealthy dynamic of exchange rather than sharing and cheapening intimacy by expecting us to pay for it. As women, can you see how, if you tie sex to receiving an expensive meal or gift, you feed men’s expectations that you will put out after receiving those things and in turn fuel our anger when you don’t?
It’s not obligatory to say yes after your man does something special. But it’s highly advisable to show appreciation, to recognize your man as a full half of the whole, and to avoid setting up double standards that require things from him that you don’t provide. Most of all, we want you to understand our need to be acknowledged.
3. Disappointment. The truth is, we’re terrified of letting women down. Of making a mistake or oversight that will anger you, of forgetting to do something you asked us to do, of not giving you sufficient pleasure in the bedroom, of not being enough. We fear disappointing you because disappointment opens the path to irrelevance and ultimately rejection. Men may have an imbalance of privilege and power in the world, but women frequently hold the cards at home—through the giving and withholding of both sex and affirmation.
“You’re a poor excuse for a husband (or boyfriend).”
“You’re never around when I need you.”
“You never understand my needs.”
“I’d rather be alone than let down all the time.”
If a man is truly letting you down all the time, by all means get rid of him. But I encourage women to ask yourselves, how realistic are your expectations? Is he being a lout or just fallible and human? If he forgets to pick up the milk on his way home, is he “the worst husband ever” or just a guy who forgot to stop at the store? And ask yourselves, too, if there’s a double standard in place when it comes to your own behavior. Do your man’s expectations and needs matter to you, or do you treat them—and by extension him—as irrelevant and make him jump through hoops of fire to avoid sexual rejection?
The key here is not to stuff down your displeasure when a man disappoints you. It’s important to speak your mind. But it’s crucial you make it clear that you’re disappointed in our actions or omissions and not in us as a person or partner. Try “It sucks that you did that,” instead of, “You suck.” Chances are, we have disappointments concerning your behavior that we’re terrified of expressing, either because you might get angry and withhold or turn the discussion into a tit for tat bitch session. Unless your man is clueless and lacks all self-awareness, he already knows about the ways he’s failed you and wishes he could apologize in an atmosphere of acceptance.
When we engage fear, love disappears, and then we wonder where it went. I hope these words help restore love, trust, and intimacy in your relationships.
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