I write a lot about relationships and how to build good and healthy ones. In the past few years my work has focused heavily on building a good marriage. Many of the men I have worked with I have met through the Married Man Sex Life Forum, where building a better marriage is what first attracts them into the same spaces as me. But there is one key thing that I believe must be said about relationships – and roles – that is critical to having any kind of healthy relationship:
Your relationships do not define you.
Being a husband, a father, a grandfather, a boss, and employee, and entrepreneur… these labels can be very helpful in describing what is going on in your life right now, but they cannot define who you are. Being a father or a husband says little about you. Being a good father, or a good husband might point us a little more towards who you are, but those labels are at best cryptic clues written on a treasure map; they distract as much as they inform.
What makes a man a good father or a good husband isn’t his devotion to the role – it is what he does to honor that role. What makes a good husband is the leadership he provides to his wife, the actions he takes to keep her safe, the ways he communicates that treat her with dignity and respect. What makes a good father is the lessons he teaches his sons, the discipline he teaches them by example, and the opportunities he creates for them.
If you are content to be defined as a “husband” or a “father”; a “boss” or an “entrepreneur”, you are choosing to be nothing more than a label – a pointer. Any man can be a husband, or a father if he tries. And he can lose that role with the stroke of a pen, because they are definitions that depend on the cooperation of other people. They are placeholders for an identity.
Many years ago, I worked as an assistant on a study to understand why mental health issues and stress-related illness had become so pervasive in one group of immigrants as they reached retirement age – and why they refused to use the free programs available to them that would provide mental health-care services, space, and companionship to them that could combat those mental illnesses.
What the head of the study discovered was that these immigrants came from a culture that defined people entirely by their roles – they had clear pictures of what a mother, father, grandparent, or head-of-household was. Their homeland had strict rules of conduct that kept anyone from straying from these roles. In a Western country, however, the younger generations had options and legal protections. They could, and usually did, refuse to participate in arranged marriages, wear ritual clothing, or observe many of the long, time-consuming daily rituals of their people. In effect the older immigrants were blocked from fulfilling the roles that defined them. Without the ability to follow the script they had expected their lives to follow, they lost the most important parts of their identity. They felt like non-persons: cursed, abandoned by their deity, humiliated, and undeserving of the care the government offered. Moreover, because Wester cultural mores made their loss possible, they came to believe that the country they lived in was ruled by cruel tyrants and full of evil spirits.
An identity built on a role can be taken away from you. In losing it, you lose yourself.
In a culture where we are afforded a huge range of freedoms, you cannot afford to define yourself by your roles. More importantly, in a society with a huge range of freedoms, we cannot trust that a role means one thing, and is carried out by every man in the same way. How do I even know that your idea of “good husband” matches your religion’s, mine, or anyone else’s but your own? We have thrown out the scripts, and rely entirely on making choices based on where our reason and actions take us.
We can only be defined by the choices we make, and those can only be known by the actions you make based on your choices. Thus, it is your actions that define you.
- You are not a “good husband” – you are a man who does [X] for his wife.
- You are not a “good father” – you are a man who has taught his children [X] values and skills.
- You are not a “man of honor” – you are a man who shows honor by never breaking his word.
- You are not an “entrepreneur” – you are a man who serves his community by providing [X] because you believe it is what they most need.
Nor can you honestly define yourself by your beliefs, your ideology, or your creed. The human mind is eminently skilled at letting us be two-faced, then make excuses for our behavior. Can a man honestly call himself a “good Christian” for example, if he repeatedly cheats on his wife? Well he can – and might even define himself as one – and make cunning self-deceiving excuses about why he is an exception to the rules of his religion.
You values can only define you honestly and without self-deception when your actions are in integrity with them.
Not your roles, but what those roles entail and how you live up to them. Not your values, but the character you show by action in accordance with those values.
I want to put a challenge to you:
Write a short biography of yourself. Just a few paragraphs. Then go over it and see how you describe yourself. Are you pointing to labels, or to actions. Do you focus on your values, or on living up to them?