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Most people have images in their heads when the word addiction comes up. For me it used to be someone drinking alcohol, smoking and looking less than healthy. But that’s changed. Recently I see a man in front of a television watching football.
Football addicts? Really?
Our culture has developed football addiction as a response to the threat of being ostracized for being effeminate.
For forty years I’ve watched my counseling practice shift to men. Understanding and healing my clients’ and my own family conflict and dissolution has led me to identify the most damaging factor in American families: men’s emotional isolation. The damage appears in consistent cycles: emotional thirst for connection, arguments, resentment, sense of worthlessness, anger.
Millions of American men sip from their beers and televisions to satisfy their natural need for a sense of inclusion. Football watching offers this. When the game is on, I know who I am because I know who my team is. I know I am included. But in my own house my team loyalty isn’t so easy.
What if, at a crucial moment during the game, say kickoff or fourth and goal, a squabble breaks out between the kids in the next room? What’s the call dad? Punt or go for it?
What do I become? Anger, frustration, holding onto the game? Or embracing and taking responsibility for resolving the kids’ conflict? Do I turn away from the guaranteed identity with the team and claim my role as my children’s emotional teacher? Do I manage the conflict in my home or continue to cheer for the team to resolve their conflict?
Each family is an organism. It’s a combination of pieces designed by nature to thrive, adjust, grow, enjoy together. Emotional nutrition is part of this. Families with fathers who guard their emotions, their own and their familes’, start to dry up. The connective juices—affection, understanding, humor– evaporate without emotional connection.
In these circumstances normal conflict and suffering which accompany all life become magnified. Without dad’s full emotional wisdom, the whole family’s rhythm and grace are imbalanced.
Without fathers’ full-feeling wisdom, each person is shortchanged. Kids feel unworthy. Wives feel devalued. Dads feel disconnected. The most damaging part for fathers is not understanding our own selves, and then not trusting and loving our children and wives completely.
Healthy families share emotions and ride out the choppy waters. Families with chronic pain like depression, personality disorders, substance dependence, angry conversations, are those where emotions don’t flow because they are resisted.
Learned emotional inferiority
Resisting emotions starts young. It’s a subtle thing this emotional dodge we are taught as boys. Averting our own vulnerability leads us to many unhealthy pursuits, with football and family conflict among them. As we continue to live out the boyhood value of dominance in our families, our boys learn it. Our girls learn it. Our women move away. The children are watching us ignore our connection to them in exchange for loyalty to people we don’t even know.
Willingness to be humble
Teaching boys emotional acceptance instead of dominance requires a willingness to change. Just as we have done with slavery, war, cigarettes, we are learning to look at ourselves with intention to change for the better. Behaviors which damage our families are the focus. Distance from our families’ need for our emotional presence is the problem. Understanding our role as emotional teachers is necessary if we are to develop a healthy answer.
And through football. How could this sport be child abuse when it gave me friendship, experience, confidence? The answer lies in understanding that anything taken to extremes can be damaging. For example we need to take in water to survive. Too much water will kill us.
Learning rejection of our own emotions
We all know that our bodies are fragile and temporary. Males have been taught to act like they are neither fragile or temporary. We have been taught, by being humiliated and threatened, to deny and ignore our frailty. Admitting we are fragile or temporary borders on admitting we are not ‘manly’. And if we do that, we’ll suffer at the hands of the manly. In response many boys risk their bodies and ignore their fear of running into each other at full speed. Innocent and afraid they will strap on a helmet and go out to prove they are guys, not girls. They are not afraid, even though they are. Whether they play football or not, all the thirteen million boys in high school this year will all be swimming in a stream that equates dominance with masculinity, and submission to femininity. And they will all be facing the challenge of self definition. What makes me worthwhile? What do I teach by watching football?
Our culture has developed football addiction as a response to the threat of being ostracized for being effeminate. It’s a way of self defining. So what can I do if I don’t actually play football? Well, a lot of the guys cheer and watch. Watching the game has become a way to be included in the guy-dominance thing. Men who don’t feel manly can get their socially approved dose of testosterone and avoid their own sense of separation by giving awareness to the game. We know that dads’ disconnected emotions feed children’s suffering. The ‘normal’ family has conflicts, upsets, harmonies and uplifts everyday. The healthy family adjusts. The healthy father adjusts, and does so by being available, involved, and emotionally honest. Are you as committed to your family’s emotional balancing act as you are your team’s effort to win the game? Are you available to your family emotionally? What would you do if you skipped the game?
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