My wife, Carlin, invited me and my men’s group to share some of things about being a man with her women’s group. We’ve done this before and one of the things that helped women “get” men was the fishbowl process, where the men sit in the center and the women sit quietly around and just listen. It doesn’t take long for the men to engage each other and the female’s presence fades into the background as we talk “man-to-man.”
This reminded me of my first fishbowl experience nearly 50 years ago. I was at a conference for men and women and the leaders first had the women come into a circle with the men listening on the outside. I was entranced as I listened to the women talking about themselves and thought “they’re just like me and they’re oh, so different.”
When it was time to reverse roles, the women began moving out of the circle and the men moved in. The woman sitting in front of me smiled and patted the spot where she was sitting on the floor, a warm gesture of “your turn, have a seat.” I sat where she indicated, but it was like sitting on a hot stove. I literally jumped up and finally moved to another spot. All this took place in a matter of seconds as the women moved out of the circle and the men moved in.
I immediately burst into tears. As the men finally took their seats, here I was sobbing and nothing had happened yet, our sharing hadn’t even begun. The somewhat surprised leader asked, “So what’s happening with you?” Between my tears I was able to share what went on for me:
When the woman offered her spot, I immediately went there. It’s what I had been doing my whole life. Somehow, I felt I needed to plug into a woman’s energy in order for me to feel alive. Sitting in her spot energized me. It felt save. But I couldn’t stay there. In that moment, I knew I needed to find my own life energy, my own strength, separate from a woman. The tears were from the knowledge that I had to let go of my dependence on women and find my own power and energy. I couldn’t rely on “her” to energize my identity.
There were murmurs and sounds of agreement coming from the men and the women. Everyone had some variation of my experience. We hunger for connection, but feel there’s something missing in us. We look for our missing selves in another. Yet we still feel insecure and afraid. What if we lose them? What if we give ourselves away to them? What if there’s no real self to give away? These questions started me on a search to understand what men really need and how we can communicate to those we love.
So here are some of the things I’ve learned over the last 50 years that I want women to know:
1. We’re really more alike than different.
My friend and colleague, John Gray, wrote the quintessential sex and gender book, Men Are From Mars. Women Are From Venus. It was written in 1992 and has sold more than 50 million copies. It’s a metaphor that resonates with people, but makes us imagine that we are more different than we really are. We all hunger for love, to be seen and heard, to be cared for and supported, right here on Earth. We’re not all that different.
2. There are differences and we want you to understand and respect them.
In a world where differences often are taken to mean one person or group is better than another, where those in the “in group” can harm those in the “out group,” it’s not surprising that many want to see a gender-neutral world. But, there are important differences. “There are 10 trillion cells in human body and every one of them is sex specific,” says David C. Page, M.D., professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Marianne J. Legato, M.D., author of Eve’s Rib: The New Science of Gender-Specific Medicine, agrees. “Everywhere we look, the two sexes are startlingly and unexpectedly different not only in their internal function but in the way they experience illness.” Try to see me as I am, not through the prism of your own identity.
3. Men need to be intimate with other men.
Most guys grow up confused about what it means to be a man. Too many of us had absent or abusive fathers. We learned to fear intimacy with other men and were afraid to be, or appear to be, anything other than 100% heterosexual. Our early disconnections from our fathers and fears of getting close to other men have kept us isolated.
The poet Robert Bly captures the hunger men have for male intimacy. He said males of all ages need to be together in order to “hear the sound that male cells sing.” That’s why I’ve been in a men’s group that has been meeting now for 38 years. Being close to other men has helped me be a better man, a better father, and a better husband.
4. Men hunger for women, but are also afraid of them.
Most women have some fear of men. We’re generally bigger and stronger and can threaten them physically. Men hunger for women, but also feel afraid. I still remember the fear as a teenager at a dance walking across the room to ask a girl to dance, knowing that her refusal would send me spinning downward. But it isn’t just the fear of emotional rejection from a particular woman, but the fear we have of WOMAN, that archetypal goddess/mother/sex symbol that pervades our lives.
Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, speaks for me and most men I know when he says, “If the text of my life was ‘successful independent man,’ the subtext was ‘engulfed by WOMAN.’ The secret men seldom tell, and often do not know (consciously) is the extent to which our lives circle around our relationships to WOMAN. It takes half a lifetime of struggle for us to win a separate identity.
“We are haunted by WOMAN in her many manifestations. She is the center around which our lives circle. WOMAN is the mysterious ground of our being that we cannot penetrate. She is the audience before whom the dramas of our lives are played out. She is the judge who pronounces us guilty or innocent. She is the Garden of Eden from which we are exiled and the paradise for which our bodies long. She is the goddess who can grant us salvation and the frigid mother who denies us. She has a mythic power over us. She is at once terrifying and fascinating.”
Without a strong center of male identity, we are forever looking for it in a woman and afraid we’ll be engulfed and consumed. That’s why #3, above is so important.
5. Men are becoming increasingly depressed and suicidal.
Depression is on the rise for both men and women, but depression is men often goes unrecognized and untreated. In my book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression, I show that men and women experience depression differently. Men tend to “act out” their unhappiness and are more often irritable and angry. Women tend to “act in” their unhappiness and are more often sad and self-blaming.
Since we don’t recognize men’s acting out as a symptom of depression, the suicide rate for men is 3-18 times higher than it is for women and increases dramatically as men pass the age of 50.
6. Men want an equal partnership based on love, mutual support, and acceptance.
Let’s face it, we are at a time in human history where the world is changing so fast, we all feel uncertain, out of balance, and frightened. We need each other more than ever and a solid, successful, marriage can be a source of immense joy and life-giving support. Yet, too many relationships fall apart just when the couple could be enjoying their lives the most.
In my book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come, I guide couples through the difficult passage of the third stage, “Disillusionment,” so that the marriage doesn’t crash and burn. This is a time to focus on love and let go of fear.
I look forward to your comments and questions. Please share your thoughts below and join me on Twitter. It’s what makes it worthwhile for me to share my experiences with you.
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