The world is askance that Ryan Lochte’s mother would knowingly reference her adult son’s intimate life at all. I believe, she has made less a comment about sex and more a comment about her idea of success. Her idea and ours. Ileana Lochte simply underscored a cultural norm about our expectations of men. About her Olympic superstar son, she cavalierly says, “He goes out on one-night stands. He’s not able to give fully to a relationship because he’s always on the go.” Whether she meant hook-ups or not, she is referencing the price of success, the price of manhood—a disconnect from relationship.
Our societal norm mandates that men are to achieve and women are to relate. As mothers in our culture, we want our sons to be successful; we want our daughters to be eligible. Unfortunately we see one value in exclusion to the other. We see them as gender-defined. Work and love; purpose and connection; autonomy and closeness are essential to the every individual. But from early ages we perpetuate a dichotomy by gender that troubles committed relationship down the road.
“Female identity, our culture is telling us, is forged by the girl’s relating to others; male identity is the boy’s ability to differentiate himself from others,” write Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum in The Courage to Raise Good Men. Seventy-five percent of men are distancers in relationships with a correlation of seventy-five percent of women being pursuers. Distancers find more intensity in life outside their relationship often in their endeavors. Pursuers want more intensity inside the couple relationship. When individuals are far apart on the continuum, their positions are more rigid and role-defined. They break rather than bend and are unhappy. The middle position is flexible; each partner appreciates and respects the different needs and strengths of the other, neither smothering nor neglecting. Husbands, who are emotional distancers and sexual pursuers, frequently have wives lamenting that the loss of their heart’s connection with their mate is what gets in the way of their body’s desire.
When we wonder about why more men are distancers than women, Silverstein and Rashbaum offer an argument beyond biology. They suggest that we might “question not just the usual definition of autonomy but also the social construct that values disconnection and autonomy as prerequisites for success, and success as the chief prerequisite for achieving male identity.” Currently we accept and propagate that male identity must come with relational and emotional cut-off. While we’ve made some gains in the last two generations encouraging achievement and success for women, we still denigrate relational ability as “female.” And the idea of a male, not focused completely on success, can make us nervous. Sit-coms still make a joke of the stay-at-home dad. Women still complain in session about being less sexually-attracted to their husband if he is not the major bread-winner.
Silverstein and Rashbaum believe that while women want a relational male as a partner, as mothers we anxiously cut our ties with our adolescent sons lest our estrogen poison them and prevent them from growing into real men. Obviously, our cultural ideals of maleness are also held by all the major influencers of our sons, including fathers, uncles, grandfathers and other maternal figures. Ideally, a dad could relate lovingly to his son and demonstrate connected relating with the boy’s mother. But with some irony, at the brink of adolescence, when our boys are just exploring the world of relationships, sex and dating – we, as mothers, are often afraid that their attachment to us, their tenderness with us will blunt their chances to make it in the real world of men. We think we will make our sons soft. Fear of being sexually seductive to our adolescent sons can make us frantic to avoid continued expressions of love, affection and interest. In fact, Dr Ruth jeers at the Lochtes for an implied incestuous connection. Developmentally, when a male child becomes a fully sexual being, his mother cuts him off emotionally just when he might need her to explain the world of women.
“Masculinity in our culture is defined as the opposite of femininity. Its foundation is the expectation that boys separate from their mothers, and in so doing deny and reject any quality within themselves that is associated with femininity. The genders are not opposites, however,” state Silverstein and Rashbaum. Staying connected to our sons means we instill the qualities necessary for a full human experience and balanced relationship. The authors call for change with, “The good man, like the good woman, will be empathic and strong, autonomous and connected, responsible to self, to family and friends and to society, and capable of understanding how those responsibilities are ultimately, inseparable.”
Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum, The Courage to Raise Good Men, 1994, Penquin Books Ltd.
Link for more help from Laurie Watson with SexTherapy in Raleigh, Cary, Greensboro and Chapel Hill, NC. Laurie’s book Wanting Sex Again is available on Amazon!