Author and social commentator Maggie Hamilton tells us the wellbeing of our menfolk requires a change in the demands our society places on them.
Several years ago a number of incidents came in quick succession that prompted me to question the way I looked at men.
It began a journey that has forever changed the way I view the world of men and boys – a journey that was surprising, illuminating and at times shocking.
Needing to know more, I began looking at the lives of men. I wanted to get under their skin, to understand what made them tick, why they could be so frustrating sometimes. As I talked with men they kept saying ‘I’m not a typical man’. What I came to realise is that they were not as society sees them. Most men, I found, were not.
To understand men we need to go back to their childhood, to see how parents treat boys. How parents want boys to be strong, to stand up for themselves, and how in the process parents stifle any sign of upset or weakness. Early on boys get the message they’re to keep their feelings to themselves, to appear strong at all costs. So begins what eminent psychologist Dan Kindlon calls the ‘emotional miseducation’ of boys, which impacts the lives of boys and men’s daily.
Boys and sensitivity
If a little boy is repeatedly told to deny what he is feeling, he soon learns to push his emotional needs aside. He also becomes less interested in how others are feeling. As no one is interested in his experience, he assumes that’s how the system works. Yet the irony is that boys are exquisitely sensitive, and that too often parents, families and teachers fail to see this sensitivity, to nurture and channel it into ways that serve boys well.
The result? Boys feel isolated from early on. ‘There was a time when my father would carry me around on the top of his shoulders,’ tells Tony 26. ‘It was great. Then there was the awkwardness, like he didn’t want to touch me any more.’ Each of us needs touch, needs connection. Why do we assume boys are different? Tragically for many boys this often acute sense of isolation will last a lifetime.
‘Each of us needs touch, needs connection. Why do we assume boys are different?’
When feelings are denied a boy, something inside him closes down. His emotions are buried deep. What then happens to these emotions, as emotions don’t go away? Often they emerge as anger and, as these emotions have been stored up for some time, the anger is explosive. ‘It’s a struggle as a young boy,’ explains Jason, 22. ‘A lot of young boys find it hard to control their anger. They are in a pretty powerless situation – it can be very frustrating.’
What happens to the many boys who continue to suppress essential parts of themselves when they grow up? They struggle on. The last thing these men want is to ask for help. They’d learned early how important it was to appear capable, even when they were feeling vulnerable or unsure of what they were doing. So they battle on, never revealing their emotions, never seeking help, never showing weakness of any kind.
Sooner or later most men fall in love and everything changes. Often for the first time, they take a risk and reveal their true selves.
Cut off from feelings
Sadly, women don’t realise what it takes for a teen boy or grown man to allow himself to be this vulnerable – especially when he’s spent his whole life cut off from his feelings, living in a world that doesn’t feel particularly safe or nurturing, that shows little regard for his feelings. Then, when a relationship doesn’t work out, these men are devastated.
Because they’ve no idea how to deal with the hurt; they’re unable to express how they feel. Those around them then assume everything’s fine.
When I asked men what they wanted from relationships it was everything women seek. Many didn’t even mention sex. They talked of wanting to be ‘supported and held’, to have ‘somebody to share things with’, ‘encouragement’, ‘trust, honesty and a friend’, ‘loyalty, affection and love’, ‘forgiveness, admiration’, ‘shared goals, ambitions, hopes and values’, ‘a friend, soul mate, guide, partner and bed mate’, ‘a companion and a lover.’
It’s very easy to write men off as emotional cripples, never asking ourselves how they came to be this way.
Inability to respond
Often women talk at men, lecture men, make fun of them to try and get through to them. We talk to them in ways we’d never talk to girlfriends, because our girlfriends have feelings, and we’d never want to hurt their feelings. As one man observed about his partner, ‘she takes away my ability to respond’. Others admitted to letting the women in their lives think what they liked, even when they were wrong, because it was too hard to do otherwise.
Working with men and boys I’ve been amazed at how expressive they were, when they felt able to open up. Harrison, 15, told of how his mum ‘helps give his dreams wings’, and Toby, 16, confessed to how important his dad was to him, how he idolises his father for the amount of support he gave. Other boys talked of how ‘sad’ it was for boys who didn’t have a dad, or a dad who’d been away a lot. ‘My daughter can still touch me like when she was born,’ said Ray, 50.
Scratch the surface and you’ll be amazed at the tenderness of men. Time and again they told me things they’d never spoken of. New fathers talked about the physical ache they felt when they went back to work after having a new baby.
Others told of how much they wanted to make their relationships work, but how kind gestures were passed over or taken for granted. Others spoke of the huge responsibility of being the breadwinner, of keeping their partner and family safe.
Men need to be heard. We need to learn to listen, to understand that men have a different way of expressing themselves. So we need to pay attention to what men leave unsaid, as much as to what they do say. Even inappropriate jokes can be enlightening, hinting at a discomfort men have around certain issues.
Men also need time out. Time with male friends. I was intrigued by how many men talked of how affirming time with good male friends was, time with men who’d let go the need to compete, opening up instead to true friendship.
‘It’s time to honour the good men in our lives, to allow them to give voice to their stories, needs and concerns’
‘Affirmed as a man’
I came to see that men need time to be with other men, to go away with men and do men’s stuff. ‘Sometimes I feel a sadness when I get there (with my men friends),’ admitted Cameron. ‘I realise how much I’ve missed them. I feel enormously affirmed as a man (when I am with them). It’s a wonderful thing to be.’
Bad things happen to men and boys who don’t have this level of support, when they can’t make the journey to greater wholeness. That’s when they descend into violence or risk-taking in everything from business to fast cars. Or they end up killing themselves, because they don’t see any other way out.
As a society we’ve become conditioned to the fact that so many men and boys die before their time, deaths that are unnecessary, that need not have happened.
‘Being male is now the single largest demographic factor for early death,’ says researcher, Randolph Nesse, of the University of Michigan. ‘If you could make male mortality rates the same as female rates, you would do more good than curing cancer.’
It’s important we realise that it isn’t just boys and young men who are at risk of suicide, so too are men in middle age, men facing separation and divorce, and older men.
Most men aren’t ruling the world. They’re simply trying to get by. They’re fiercely committed to their families and communities, even if they find it hard to articulate how much they mean to them.
Connection and meaning
We each want to belong, to have our lives count for something, to be useful, valued and loved. Men are no different. They ache for connection, for meaning. It’s time to honour the good men in our lives, to allow them to give voice to their stories, needs and concerns.
I owe a great deal to my dad who worked at back-breaking jobs to help put me through university, and to my wonderfully supportive husband. What do you owe to the men in your life?
Behind the cynicism and black humour is a great deal of frustration and pain. We need to keep moving, to keep broadening our view. There’s a lot to be done to break down the barriers that exist between men and women, between men and other men – to see men as they are, and not as we assume them to be. We can only do this by meeting men where they are at, so that together we can enjoy a more empowered future.
Further Information: Maggie Hamilton gives frequent talks; is a media commentator and observer of social trends. Her books, published in Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Italy, China, Lithuania, Korea, the Arab States and Brazil, include What Men Don’t Talk About, which looks at the lives of real men and boys. www.maggiehamilton.org