“Man (sic) must learn to think of himself as a limited and dependent being; And only suffering teaches him this.” — Simone Weil
We tend to admire independence and look down on dependency as weakness, a dangerous vulnerability. It is said that men are so reluctant to ask for help that they would rather stay lost than let anyone know they can’t figure it out for themselves and ask for directions. When men need help they often try to manage it on their own so as not to “be a burden” on others, even though they would eagerly step in to provide the same help for someone else.
The cost of men’s aversion to dependency in relationships is readily visible. Thomas Joiner in his book Lonely at the Top talks about how men have made a Dorian Gray-like trade of a deep sense of loneliness, emptiness, and disconnection for success in the external world. In addition, because men often insist on solving their problems on their own, they are more likely to be less effective or even overwhelmed by life struggles that might have been more easily resolved with support.
Irene Stiver suggests that we are so critical of dependency because in our patriarchal culture we see dependency as a feminine characteristic, and we identify independence with masculinity. We are, after all, the nation of great frontiers. Our myths are about those hearty souls who settled the west, homesteaders who claimed a piece of land, built a cabin, and made their own way. From this perspective, dependency is thought of as a dangerous over-extension from the safe base of self-reliance.
Research has linked excessive dependency with depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychosomatic disorders. It is true that some people struggle with being excessively dependent in their relationships, and it is no surprise that those people would have a number of psychological problems as a result. However, we tend to consider only the problems created by excessive dependency, and not those perhaps more common difficulties created by excessive self-reliance, or the impaired capacity to be appropriately dependent. We lack an understanding of, and value for, mature dependency, or interdependence.
Psychologists suggest that the capacity for a truly mature independence rests on the capacity for a mature dependency. Independence that does not rest on mature dependency is only a pseudo-independence, more of a pathological self-reliance. When children are young, their parents try to be as available as possible. When children cry, their parents hold them; when they’re hungry, their parents feed them. Most parents are not overly concerned about their infants being “too dependent.” As their children grow older, the parents begin to differentiate between what their children are capable of doing for themselves and what they still need help with, offering help when it is needed, and encouraging more independent functioning as children are more capable.
There is a remarkably similar process that happens in most adult relationships.
When couples first come together, there is often a period of mutual, intense interdependency. Each person’s life is changed, being with their new love consumes their waking thoughts, and they want to be together all of the time. Separations seem threatening, whether they are physical separations or the kind that come when you realize your new partner has his or her own thoughts, sees the world differently from you, and sometimes enjoys being separate from you.
For most couples, that intense mutual dependency becomes overly restrictive over time and can’t be sustained. Gradually, most couples grow out of this stage and find their way to a more mature independence that retains some of the intensity of their initial dependency while making room to be independent people with independent lives. Some couples struggle with this transition and remain stuck in an enmeshed relationship that feels suffocating to both of them.
For a number of reasons, some of them psychological but most of them socio-political, it is more often the woman in heterosexual relationships who has a more difficult time relinquishing the safety of dependency and risking more independence in relationships. Men, on the other hand, more often struggle with allowing themselves to surrender to the deep levels of interdependence that make intimacy possible. The problem is that mutual dependency is one of the requirements for intimacy.
When men pretend to be self-reliant, not needing anything from anyone, it gives their partners no place to feel connected to them. Being vulnerable with another person is what makes intimacy possible. The more that men struggle to allow the kind of vulnerability that would allow them to connect, the more insecure and dependent their wives/partners become. Men’s struggles with dependency are what make women look excessively dependent.
Some men can only allow themselves to be dependent when they are sick, which gives them an excuse to let someone else take care of them, even if they could do it themselves. They are missing out on one of life’s great experiences, which is surrendering to the delicious regression of dependency—using pet names, cuddling, sleeping in each other’s arms, or talking about what’s troubling you just because it feels good to have someone to talk about it with. Many men are reluctant to acknowledge that, while they might be able to do it on their own, their lives are inestimably better because of their wife/partner, and they need her to be most fully themselves, to be their best interdependent selves.
Click here to submit your story about men’s fear of vulnerability so we can all learn from each other’s experience.
Join The Good Men Project Community.
“Here’s the thing about The Good Men Project. We are trying to create big, sweeping, societal changes—–overturn stereotypes, eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia, be a positive force for good for things like education reform and the environment. And we’re also giving individuals the tools they need to make individual change—-with their own relationships, with the way they parent, with their ability to be more conscious, more mindful, and more insightful. For some people, that could get overwhelming. But for those of us here at The Good Men Project, it is not overwhelming. It is simply something we do—–every day. We do it with teamwork, with compassion, with an understanding of systems and how they work, and with shared insights from a diversity of viewpoints.” —– Lisa Hickey, Publisher of The Good Men Project and CEO of Good Men Media Inc.
The $50 Platinum Level is an ALL-ACCESS PASS—join as many of our new Social Interest Groups, calls about life in the 21st century, and classes (writing, platform building, leadership, social change) as you want for the entire year. The $25 Gold Level gives you access to any ONE Social Interest Group and ONE Class–and other benefits listed below the form. Or…for $12, join as a Bronze Member and support our mission.
Register New Account
*Payment is by PayPal.
Please note: If you are already a writer/contributor at The Good Men Project, log in here before registering. (Request new password if needed).
ANNUAL PLATINUM membership ($50 per year) includes:
1. AN ALL ACCESS PASS — Join ANY and ALL of our weekly calls, Social Interest Groups, classes, workshops and private Facebook groups. We have at least one group phone call or online class every day of the week.
2. See the website with no ads when logged in!
3. PLATINUM MEMBER commenting badge and listing on our “Friends of The Good Men Project” page.
ANNUAL GOLD membership ($25 per year) includes all the benefits above — but only ONE Weekly Social Interest Group and ONE class.
ANNUAL BRONZE membership ($12 per year) is great if you are not ready to join the full conversation but want to support our mission anyway. You’ll still get a BRONZE commenting badge, a listing on our Friends page, and you can pop into any of our weekly Friday Calls with the Publisher when you have time. This is for people who believe—like we do—that this conversation about men and changing roles and goodness in the 21st century is one of the most important conversations you can have today.
We have pioneered the largest worldwide conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Your support of our work is inspiring and invaluable.
Photo Credit: Getty Images