I have found that the men who struggle the most in their relationships are the ones that have an unsteady relationship with their own Masculinity. These days, it is easy to grow up with a complicated and uncomfortable relationship to being a man. Many young men grow up without fathers in their life – or have fathers who are so busy busting their ass at a 60+ hour per week job, that they can’t be a present as they like. Boys who are bullied by other boys, and boys who have had too much exposure to, and have internalized, the most toxic forms of feminism all can develop an unhealthy image of what it is to be a man.
We are long past the days when the men around a boy take on the role of mentor and ‘uncle’ the way they did in our past to make sure that the boy grows up right, and is welcomed into the community of Men in a meaningful way. And because we have all but lost those traditions, we also have lost some of our best tools for helping young men who are emotionally at odds with themselves, or who do not have a good male role model to live up to.
I’ve talked at length elsewhere about the emotional cost of not developing a healthy relationship to your masculinity, and the incredible benefits to your mental and emotional well-being of developing a positive image of the masculine. Today, though I am going to focus on the importance of having a positive and healthy relationship with your own masculinity in creating a better marriage.
Being a good husband means being a good leader.
Women look to their husbands to be leaders, decision makers, and peace-makers. There is a natural inclination in men to take the lead – we are generally more comfortable with risk, we tend to build relationships with people based on knowing their strengths, and we tend to use communication to solve problems, not process feelings.
A rational discussion of gender means that we must understand that culture and biology shape an inform one another. That our sex doesn’t determine absolutely who we are or what we want, but it does inform and shape it. And that however much we might want to change a practice or belief, that change will be slow, if it is possible at all.
And so whether it is expectation or instinct, women expect their husbands to lead. When they are the ones who have to make all of the decisions, it can be stressful. They can feel as if they are parenting an extra child rather than relying on a husband. I know many women who are resentful of their husbands not because he is mean or lazy, but simply because he just follows them all the time, when all that the woman wants is to get a break from an endless barrage of neediness and demands for them to make decisions.
In Western Culture we train young boys to be comfortable making decisions and accepting the consequences through team sports, cooperative games, roughhousing, and the sort of stories we tell them; a man that has grown up in the West usually only feels that making decisions is a burden when those decisions mean that someone else has to be let down or disappointed. Our greatest and most admired men in history have earned their admiration for being good leaders and making tough calls. Healthy masculinity and good leadership are inseparable in our culture. When we are open to the good examples on our culture and the men around us, becoming a good leader is much easier.
Being a good husband and being a good father are inseparable.
Whether is is your own children, nieces and nephews, or friends’ children, once kids are on the scene, a man’s ability to protect them, teach them, show kindness, and play with them becomes one of the ways a woman judges the man she is with. After all, no healthy woman wants to be with a man who would mistreat or neglect her own children.
She also looks to him to offer a different kind of parenting to her own. Men by both instinct and by training tend to focus on teaching children empathy, teamwork, independence, resilience, and ambition. A father prepares children to deal with people outside the family, and to be happy adults. He can only do that if he has those strengths himself and can be an example.
A man who is at war with his own masculinity is going to struggle to play with children in an authentic way. Watching a man when he interacts with children provides a revealing lens. It shows where he is not comfortable with himself, and where he is lacking in the very character traits men teach children the best.
Keeping conflict under control is easier when you have principles.
Masculinity has always been deeply connected with thinking it terms of universal principles, morals, and logic. Men often think of right and wrong in the abstract; and will often do what’s right even when it makes them and those around them unhappy. We understand that being good and decent often comes at the sacrifice of being popular.
This way of thinking has become denigrated in our society. We often talk about it as being one of the greatest flaws and weaknesses of men, and hold it up as an example of “Toxic Masculinity,” Young men who have been brought up by toxic and unhealthy men, often find their male role models were rigid, dogmatic, compromising, and unthinking. It it easy to throw the baby of principle out with the bathwater of dogma when the men who treated you poorly did so because it was what they believed was “right,” or when you were punished for asking questions.
A healthy man can be principled without being rigid or unreasonable. He can listen to reasoned arguments and make decisions, and he can communicate his thinking without putting his principles up for debate. A man who lives by a code and a set of rules; who can take himself out of the equation when he thinks about what the right course of actions can be trusted to honor his marriage vows, to make sacrifices to car for his family, and to deal honestly with those around him, even when it might pay to cheat. He might not get rich, famous, or powerful quickly, but he will go farther in the long run. It is easy to feel secure around a man who embraces the Masculine art of living by principles. And that makes conflict less likely to happen.
Knowing how to set (the right) strong boundaries makes others feel safer with you.
Fear of being a patriarchal tyrant, being ashamed of our own desires, or a need to cooperate in hopes that others will love us are dangerous pitfalls that can lead a man to being too flexible and too willing to compromise, even when it goes against his principles to do so. They can also make him a pushover who is willing to take abuse, bad behavior, and rudeness from others rather than take the risk of starting a fight.
Men who allow their need for others to like them, and who are willing to make constant compromises to accommodate others show with their actions that they don’t feel that they deserved to be loved, and will do almost anything to feel loved at the same time. And while men do this to try to make others feel safer around them, it has the opposite effect. We do not love or respect a man who will do anything for us. We love and respect a man who knows how to say “no”. We love a man who is willing to risk us not like him to do the right things. And we trust a man when we know where we stand with him, which we can never do if he is always saying “yes.”
When a woman is faced with a man who will do anything to make her feel loved or “comfortable” with him, and also will do anything to avoid an uncomfortable scene, she is right to be suspicious. After all, how can she know that he won;t commit a crime to please his boss? How can she know he won’t go hire a prostitute or cheat on her rather than risk being rejected when he asks for sex? How can she be sure he won’t throw her under the bus to look good to his family? How can she be certain he lovers her, when he could be just saying that to get sex and affection from her.
The moment we say “no” to someone, they know they have gotten a view of our character. They know that there is some things we won’t do, even if it means hurting their feelings. A man who says “no” when unreasonable demands are made of him is someone we can trust is not a fool. A man who says “no” to emotional blackmail is someone we know we can trust to be loyal. And a man who says “no” to someone he cares about is telling them that he won’t do anything for love… and that the love he gives them is based on genuine affection that they have earned, and is not something he is giving just to get tit-for-tat. For a wife this is critical to knowing she has a good and loving husband.
To feel really worthy of love, and thus secure enough to stand up to the people you love when they overstep requires you to believe you are a good man. You cannot do that if you do not have a good and healthy view of being a man. You mus see it possible for a man to be worthy of love, and you must know what kind of man is worth loving. Then you have to see yourself in that kind of man.
Having the measure of what it takes to be a Good Man makes us secure and emotionally stable.
A man without a strong sense of what it means to be a Good Man is going to be insecure. We all need to think of ourselves as being good human beings. If we don’t have a good role model or ideal of masculinity by which to measure our goodness, we have no choice but to measure whether or not we are a good man by how others interact with us.
A man who knows what a good man looks like and strives to live up to it approaches conflict in a very simple and effective manner. He starts by looking at the other person and asks “Is this person being disrespectful of me?” And if that person is being disrespectful, then that leads to another question – “Was I acting in a way worthy of being respected?” he can then pause and ask himself if he measured up to his picture of a man who is worth respecting. If he didn’t, he can start by beginning to live up to it now by apologizing and acting better. If, he was acting in a way that is worthy of respect, then he can only come to one conclusion “This person’s behavior tells me more about what is going on in their head than what I was doing.”
By comparison, a man with a shaky image of what a man ought to be has a far less reflective approach. He starts by asking “does this persons actions make me feel like a good man or a bad one? Do they make me feel like I am worthy of respect, or are they making me feel disrespected?” And if he feels disrespected, then he has a choice – challenge the other person for being disrespectful and make him stop, so that he can feel like a good man again, or internalize the disrespect and feel bad about himself.
The latter man, based on which of those decisions he makes can either become a thug and a bully who lashes out at anyone that makes him feel bad about himself, or he can become a downtrodden misunderstood victim, or like someone who is rotten and doesn’t deserve to be loved. In marriage, you can see the former in the form of guys who get into screaming matches with their wives, who force their children to act like little soldiers, and who abuse their authority at work. You can see the former in guys who are constantly trying to please their wives by spoiling them with obsequious and saccharine displays of love and affection.
Neither is a formula for a happy marriage in the way a man who is secure in his idea of masculinity is, and is honest about whether he lives up to it can be.
So how do we find the lessons that our culture has to teach us about Masculinity, and where do we find good role models? How do we create an ideal that we can measure ourselves by and live up to? I’ve got some practical steps on that to share tomorrow.