Traditional masculine norms haven’t always taught men how to have quality interpersonal relationships. In fact, this is often a core reason that men seek therapy, or why their spouses have encouraged them to go to therapy. Traditional male stereotypes are often stoic, aggressive, tough, dominant, self-reliant and non-relational. Congruently, as a society we have raised our boys to be men who restrict and suppress emotion, who strive to be independent and non-relational. As a result of these stereotypes and cultural expectations, men and their families have suffered from a variety of difficulties. Men experience higher rates of substance abuse and involvement in violent crimes, as well as much higher rates of suicide than their female counterparts. In fact, the struggle that is associated with traditional masculine norms has been dubbed toxic masculinity. With this, non-relational men might find it difficult to be the best husband, father, brother or son, further perpetuating this cycle of toxic masculinity.
With the perpetuation of this epidemic cultural issue, today’s world calls for modern, conscious men. The 21st Century Man should be one with unbridled integrity, empathy, passion and an ability to be in touch with themselves, as well as with the people in their lives. While society will continue to battle troublesome cultural norms, today’s men can work towards being the men that their families need them to be. By bringing awareness to this issue, men can work to show-up in their relationships in ways that will be positive not only for their own well-being, but also for their family, friends and neighbors. By starting with these simple ways that men can show up in relationships, you or the man in your life can work towards being a present and relational human being.
Learn to Feel
Believe it or not, men often come to therapy with no concept of what it means to have a feeling. This developmental deficit truly limits their ability to experience the world, especially in social environments. Often, boys are not engaged in discussions surrounding feelings and as a result, men lack the vocabulary needed to talk about their feelings. Boys are taught that emotion is weakness and are often bullied or redirected when tearful. Anger and aggression is one of the few emotions that is acceptable in male social groups, and as a result it often takes the place of sadness, embarrassment, guilt or shame. Without the expression of emotion, displaced emotion can result in poor coping strategies such as substance abuse, and the kind of outbursts that contribute to domestic violence. Without an understanding that it is important to talk about and experience emotion, the consequences of suppressed and displaced emotion become detrimental to healthy relationships, as well as society at large.
When men come to learn that emotion is an important part of our life experience, as well as a normal experience for even the toughest of the tough guys, men are often able to engage more fully in their relationships. So, how do we learn to feel? A good place to start is by learning to recognize the ways that emotion presents in the body. Emotions are more than some abstract concept related to our thinking; emotions are a holistic experience related to our physical body, as well as our thoughts and life experience. Men can better learn to feel by beginning to notice what body sensations arise during different emotional experiences. For example, with sadness you might experience pressure in your chest and a lump in your throat, or with pride you might notice that your shoulders feel strong. It’s helpful to understand that emotions are important information that communicates what is happening in our environment. For example, feeling guilty might be letting you know you’ve wronged someone, while feeling sad might let you know that you’ve lost something important.
Finally, sharing your emotional experience with others is a great way to build relationship. Those important people in your life will be honored that you’ve shared something deeply personal, while this also allows for them to understand what might be happening for you in various situations. In addition, as a large proportion of men simply shut down in regards to their emotion, it is worth noting that shutting out negative emotion only leads to shutting down positive emotions as well. In an effort to better show-up in relationships, men benefit from being in touch will all emotions, pleasant or unpleasant.
Once you learn to feel, it is important to develop a habit of uncovering this valuable information. Making a habit of checking-in with both yourself and others is an excellent way to strengthen your ability to utilize the important information that feelings have to offer. It can be helpful to create a routine of checking-in with yourself regularly throughout the day. Notice what you might be feeling first by noticing what physical sensations you might be experiencing. Next, attach a feeling word or two to your experience. Sit with this feeling and spend a few moments reflecting on the emotion and any associated thoughts. Not only will being able to check-in with yourself allow for you to better meet your needs, it will allow you to better interact in your relationships with an understanding of where you stand. In addition, building this awareness contributes to a greater ability to communicate your needs, thoughts and feelings to the important people in your life. This is where we become better able to check-in with others. By appropriately expressing how you feel you can offer a great deal of valuable information to others. In a similar way, checking in with others allows for you to better understand where others stand and how you can be supportive. Through regular check-ins with both yourself and others, men can work to strengthen bonds and show up in relationships.
With a greater awareness of emotion, as well as an improved ability to check-in, it becomes increasingly important for men to allow for vulnerability in their relationships. When discussing vulnerability with men, they’re often unsure what this refers to. Vulnerability in relationships refers to our capacity for being open to others in regards to our innermost thoughts and feelings. This can be a scary thing for men, especially considering that vulnerability is not reinforced according to standard masculine cultural norms. As a matter of fact, men are often taught that vulnerability is weakness and that they should be tough enough not to experience painful emotion or insecure thoughts. Unfortunately, this stereotype is truly the source of toxic masculinity. Suppressed emotion can lead to poor coping strategies, angry outbursts, poor relationships or even suicidality. Additionally, with 80% of completed suicides being men, society must work to address the issue of toxic masculinity and associated fear of vulnerability. This can be done by welcoming vulnerability and supporting men in their experience. As men become more comfortable with their own vulnerabilities and are better able to share these with others, they may develop improved coping strategies, as well as stronger more mutually supportive relationships. Everyone needs someone, as men become better in touch with their need for their loved ones, an increasingly strong mutual connection can be constructed. In this way, getting in touch with vulnerability can truly help men to show up in relationships.
Communicate for Connection
Typically, men are familiar with communication in terms of strategizing, business meetings and problem solving. Because these forms of communication are consistent with masculine cultural norms, this form of communication is reinforced, while relational communication is forgotten. By consciously making an effort to drop the business talk and move towards communicating for connection we can strengthen our relationships and experience greater intimacy in our lives. Research has shown that relational conversation does in fact foster intimacy. Problem solving is certainly important, but so is relationship and communicating for connection is a simple strategy for showing up in relationships. You might ask, “If you could travel anywhere in time and space where would it be and why?” Or, “If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?” Communicating for connection is a powerful tool for bringing you and your loved ones closer together.
In the hustle and bustle of daily living, it can be easy to get caught up in the many tasks and responsibilities of our daily lives. With this, it becomes challenging to make time for the important people in our lives and to truly be present in the time we spend with our loved ones. If we are unable to be present with our loved ones the time we do spend together is often all for naught. By being present we are able to offer our relationships the kind of attention that they truly deserve. Some suggestions for being more present with loved ones include not multi-tasking, when you’re with your family just be with your family, be deliberate and intentional about the time you spend together, focus on what’s happening in the present moment, listen to what they have to say and make eye contact when interacting, or simply slow down, breathe and enjoy your time together. Notice as you’re able to be increasingly present in your relationships, you will be better able to strengthen those oh so important bonds. Finally, if you or your loved one is struggling to maintain healthy relationships, seeking the support of a qualified psychotherapist can help you to get back on track. For men, a variety of challenges can prevent quality relationships, working with a therapist familiar with men’s issues can jump start your growth as a modern man.
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