My dad was what you might call a “typical male” father figure. He worked a ton, was rarely home and expressed feelings other than anger or frustration minimally (if at all)—a stereotype that unfortunately has loads of truth in our society. When I became an adult, we got “closer” and our relationship improved a bit. (How close can you get to a porcupine before you start saying, “Yeah! We’re close.”) The closeness we experience now has been incredibly transformative for our relationship. I am both grateful and frustrated and here is why…
The closeness I experience now would have had a sustainable impact on me had it occurred in my childhood. Instead, I took on many of my dad’s emotional distancing behaviors (something I imagine he picked up from his male figures, and so on, and so forth). I should be fair. My dad is not completely (if at all) to blame, per se. This distant, emotionally stunted way of interacting with the world is reinforced in society through music, movies, television, ads, literature, cultural values and so on and so forth. We men have a difficult time escaping it, regardless of how hard we try. I have said it is like a white man like me escaping racism, or escaping sexism completely.
What is worse, it’s pedestalized in a really strange way. In many of the heterosexual couples I have met within therapy, there seems to be a common narrative. “She’s the emotional one, and I’m the more rational one.” Female partners often feel like they are overreacting, crazy, or overemotional—“It must be my fault because he is always so calm and logical.” Often the reality is he is just as anxious, scared, or depressed as his female partner. Once he eventually comes out about all of this in therapy, it is a bit of a shock to the female partner and a bit of shock to him too. Please do not mistake the above scenario as something I am impervious to because I am a therapist. I understand this process because it is so familiar to my own experience.
I continued to see this in clients and recognized it more and more in myself. I started asking myself what men feel they are risking if they get too close or become vulnerable. Often it is such an unfamiliar thing to do that the discomfort of the unknown is enough to run. In addition, there seems to be a fear that goes “if I go there with someone I may not be able to stop…I’ll go crazy…or…maybe worst of all…they won’t care.” When we men allow these thoughts to take over the result is often silence, which means more isolation. When times get tough, isolation typically leads to expressing feelings in the only socially acceptable male way, through anger. Anger becomes the main outlet, which is unfortunate because it often points the finger outward, which in a family setting typically means the partner and/or kids.
I have found that intervention when emotions are the most intense or when they have already done the damage is pointless. Instead, for myself and other men I work with, I try to consider what I can do differently earlier on to cut off the powerful messages society would have us believe—that emotions should be kept to yourself and vulnerability kept to a minimum, because, well, it’s not the “strong” thing to do. The following include considerations for men wanting to address the messages that inevitably get in the way of deep connection.
If you exercise when angry, frustrated, sad…keep doing that
Find positive male role models that express themselves with a wide range of emotions.
Expand your emotional vocabulary and use it with loved ones (start with someone you trust and refer to the feelings wheel link below)
What are the main messages the media you consume communicate about boys and men?
Reflect on your own male figures in your upbringing
Did they express themselves in ways other than anger, frustration, or impatience?
Did they open up to you or other adults in front of you?
When you became sad, frustrated, or angry were you treated differently than female siblings at home or female peers at school?
I don’t want to talk about it by Terry Reel
Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
Men in Therapy by David Wexler
Jimmy Bridges, LMFT
Jimmy is a couple and family therapist, and provides therapy 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.