Unpacking “Manly” Barriers of Connection

In light of the new “APA Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men”1 I have been thinking about how my own life has been affected in different ways based on what society expects of me. When I really get to thinking about the ideas from the report, it seems rather strange and a bit complicated that a set of societal norms affects me on such a personal level with friends, family, loved ones, and even how I manage the stressors of life. I looked back over the APA guidelines recently and one of the terms they define cause me to reflect a bit more about my own life.

Gender Role Strain

“Gender role strain is a psychological situation in which gender role demands have negative consequences on the individual or others.2 The negative effects of gender role strain are mental and physical health problems for the individual and within relationships.2,3,4 Boys and men experience gender role strain when they (a) deviate from or violate gender role norms of masculinity, (b) try to meet or fail to meet norms of masculinity, (c) experience discrepancies between real and ideal self-concepts based on gender role stereotypes, (d) personally devalue, restrict, or violate themselves, (e) experience personal devaluations, restrictions, or violations from others, and/or (f) personally devalue, restrict, or violate others because of gender role stereotypes.2”

The point that struck me this time was experiencing gender role strain by personally devaluing, restricting, or violating themselves. Particularly, I reflected on different ways that I have and still restrict myself. I think of the following roles and then consider restrictions are placed upon these roles based on what society says I should do…

  • Romantic partner/husband

  • Restrictions

  • Don’t get too close because you will be seen as needy

  • Don’t let anyone (your partner) influence you because then you will be seen as weak or spineless

  • Father

  • Restrictions

  • Don’t apologize even when you know you did something wrong

  • In the end, your strength or size is the only thing that can get a child to comply

  • Friend (especially same-gender friends)

  • Restrictions

  • Do not express your feelings often

  • Keep physical contact to a minimum

  • Don’t talk about your vulnerabilities or weaknesses

I start to see patterns with these restrictions in the various roles I play in life. A lot seems to center around the feeling that my internal emotional experiences have to stay inside. It seems like emotional openness is equated with weakness or not knowing what you are doing. That is funny when you think about it. There seems to be a larger narrative or story we are all telling ourselves, “you need to know what you are doing, and if you don’t, keep that to yourself or fake it.” As a parent and long-term committed partner, this just seems like way too much pressure. Not only do I want to have permission to not know what I am doing—more importantly—I want to be able to give myself the permission to be open about this vulnerability. I think this is where most of us men need help—I know I do.

Related resources:

  • I Don't Want to Talk about It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression by Terrence Real

  • The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

  • https://us.movember.com/mens-health/mental-health

  • https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/celebs-speak-out-men-mental-health#4

  • https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/March-2018/5-Myths-that-Prevent-Men-from-Fighting-Depression

  • https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-men/201702/mens-mental-health-silent-crisis


1. https://www.apa.org/about/policy/boys-men-practice-guidelines.pdf

2. Pleck, J. H. (1995). The gender role strain paradigm: An update. In R. F. Levant & W. S. Pollack (Eds.), A new psychology of men (pp. 11–32). New York, NY: Basic Books.

3. O’Neil, J. M. (2008). Summarizing 25 years of research on men’s gender role conflict using the Gender Role Conflict Scale: New research paradigms and clinical implications. The Counseling Psychologist, 36(3), 358–445.

4. O’Neil, J. M. (2013). Gender role conflict research 30 years later: An evidence‐based diagnostic schema to assess boys and men in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 91(4), 490–498.

Jimmy Bridges, LMFT is a couple and family therapist, and provides therapy and coaching services related to anxiety, mood disorders, LGBTQ+ affirming services, gender issues, faith transitions, and couple’s counseling. He offers online services for teens, adults, couples and families.

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