I want to notice something out loud. And that’s all. Meaning, my intent is not to render a criticism, but to invite The Reader to examine something with me. It intrigues me. Befuddles me. And I’d love to know what you think.
Often I speak and write about how modern men manage vulnerability – grief, love, need, insecurity, joy, mortality … you name it. I stand by my observation that men are ever-so-much more sensitive than they appear. Or that they will let you know. And often more sensitive than they themselves are willing to know.
Men who are walled off from their own vulnerability are invariably symptomatic. Their children, as adults, lament that “It was hard to get close to my father.” Or, worse, will say “I never really knew my father.” Wives and girlfriends will repeatedly complain about the emotional distance they feel from men who so carefully guard and deny real human vulnerability. And these men, at various points, experience isolation, depression, inexplicable irritability and moodiness. Anxiety, with all the accompanying psychosomatic symptoms. Some of these men turn to compulsions, addictions, acting-out behavior. Drinking, gambling, porn, affairs. Choose your poison.
I concede that this journey for men – how to navigate vulnerability in the seeking after meaningful intimacy with mates, family, friends, and their children – is in large part confounded by the way we rear and acculturate men. That is, our culturally preferred ego-images of the masculine teach a man to withhold, deny, and hide vulnerability. Again, even from himself.
I also concede that it’s pathetic. Now, please, I am NOT using that word as a name-calling. I’m using it literally. Pathetic – that which walks in pathos. Some of the most courageous men I know never find the courage to feel. To be naked. Exposed. Vulnerable. And many of us will never admit we’re afraid of such things. Instead we’ll tell you what we’ve convinced ourselves: what you’re seeing is “strength.” That to do otherwise is weakness.
To assume this struggle is simply “pride” or “machismo” is over-simplified, disrespectful, and misses the whole of a much deeper dilemma.
So, this is a modern masculine struggle. And men are ultimately responsible for how they manage that struggle. But …
I want to notice something out loud. I want to know what you think. I want to notice that men are not in this dilemma alone.
I notice that the women who purport to love these men are often up to their eyeballs in their own contradictions about men and emotional vulnerability. And that, often, women project these contradictions on to their men in a way that painfully double-binds those men. Literally hogties them, interpersonally speaking. Makes me think of the sadistic horror film series Saw, wherein the villain/monster gives the hapless protagonists choices that, no matter what you do, there is no right choice.
On the one hand, women consistently urge their men to “be more vulnerable.” They complain to girlfriends how much they’d love to meet a man who could “be more emotional.” How much they would respect “a man who could cry.”
On the other hand, I see and hear things from those same women indicating great discomfort in the face of a man’s raw vulnerability. A tendency themselves to see a man’s vulnerability as weak! A sense that, on some level, women, too, are more comfortable when men agree to take their grief, insecurity, self-doubt, fear, and wrap them up in the one emotion that is EXPECTED of men – anger.
Anger, rage, contempt for anything weak – maybe, in the end, these things are more familiar and therefore more comfortable for both genders. I wonder if women are made insecure by a man conversant with his own vulnerability. Perhaps now he can’t protect her. Be strong for her. Be manly.
I’m saying I think women are ‘bought in’ to this pathos, too. I’m saying one of the reasons men are so skilled in hiding vulnerability is that we’ve been conditioned to do so. By men, yes. But also by women. Our vulnerability is not entirely and always welcome in the company of The Feminine.
So, to men I would say there are no shortcuts in the journey of authenticity. We pay a terrible price for foreswearing our very human vulnerability. Whenever I see the statistic saying men die some 12-20 years sooner than women, and preponderantly of issues surrounding our hearts … well, I think it’s a perfect metaphor for the plight of the masculine.
And to women I would say, gently but firmly, you can’t have it both ways.
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal Priest. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)