The State of Today's Male Psyche
"We were taught not be our authentic selves."
By Psychology Today Contributors published March 7, 2023 - last reviewed on March 8, 2023
Why Men Struggle With Their Emotions
Understanding the Push to Keep feelings at bay.
By Assael Romanelli, Ph.D.
Like many men, it’s always been hard for me to know what I’m feeling. I would observe my behavior and then try to deduce what was going on inside me. I believe this difficulty might have played a role in my choice to be a therapist. Clinical training has taught me firsthand how to better recognize, own, and verbalize my feelings.
I’ve met hundreds of men struggling to feel. I’ve also met hundreds of their partners, feeling alone and frustrated by their emotionally unavailable men.
In his book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, psychologist Terry Real describes how boys endure the loss of the relational—being forced to separate from their feelings and their mothers on the way to becoming “men.” They learn to turn away from their fathers and their own pain toward work, money, success, sex, drugs, and other distractions. They covertly experience depression, which manifests mostly as numbness, boredom, apathy, cynicism, and limited emotional range.
Oftentimes these men already suffer from what is called normative male alexithymia, defined as a subclinical form of alexithymia found in boys and men reared to conform to traditional masculine norms that emphasize toughness, teamwork, stoicism, and competition, discouraging the expression of vulnerable emotions. It is considered normative to not feel or describe emotions. Normative doesn’t mean that it’s natural or good. In fact, boys are born just as sensitive as girls are. But through socialization, boys lose permission to feel and become disconnected.
When a boy is raised without the tools to identify and communicate his feelings, he initially might still be able to express different kinds of emotions. Yet over time, he will end up with a limited ability to express his full emotional range and will slowly become more emotionally anesthetized as he sinks into covert depression.
When a man suffers from depression and normative male alexithymia, he is not experiencing all his emotions and therefore experiences the world as hard, dull, and boring. Over time, his partner forms the impression that he is stoic, boring, and uninterested. Feeling unloved and alone, the partners may become bitter and look elsewhere for emotional companionship.
Feeling is natural. We’re born feeling. But disconnection from feelings is often imposed on boys. Here are some suggestions for those wanting to overcome this disconnect:
- Feelings make us human. The unique human essence is emotional. If you want to enjoy life to its fullest, you must dare to feel the good, the bad, and the ugly.
- Expand your emotional range. When you feel sad, feel sad; when you’re depressed, be depressed. The wider the range, the more you will live.
- The key to joy is pain; open yourself to dark emotions as well as light ones.
- Joy must be consciously practiced to rewire your brain and inscribe it in your life.
If you do this, you’ll feel free in your relationships, because after all, to love is to feel free. n
Assael Romanelli, Ph.D., is a clinical therapist and the founder of The Potential State Institute For Enriching Relationships. He is also the artistic director of the Or Chozer Playback Theatre Ensemble in Jerusalem.
Why So Silent?
Men’s fear of partner conflict may lead to withholding.
By Avrum Weiss, Ph.D.
Men can be reluctant to speak up about their own needs and desires in relationships because they have been socialized to be emotionally self-reliant and to feel ashamed of needing anything from anyone, particularly from a woman—research points to socialization as the primary cause, but it is likely not the sole cause. Another reason that men often silence themselves in relationships is the fear of conflict and, ultimately, the fear of abandonment. Men are often not confident of their ability to resolve conflict with their partner, so they are afraid and hesitant to speak up about their needs in relationships because they worry that speaking up will make things worse, maybe even much worse. To be clear, women also fear abandonment, but they often focus on adult concerns, such as the economics of divorce. Men’s fears of abandonment are often more emotional and primitive. Most men are raised primarily by women, and partnering with a woman as an adult activates their earliest attachment insecurities.
Men’s fear of abandonment in relationships is perhaps most visible in the lengths that men will go to avoid conflict. Some men monitor their partners’ emotional states constantly and carefully, scanning for signs of potential conflict, criticism, or disapproval. Men are socialized to believe that they are responsible for their partner’s happiness, so any evidence that their partner is unhappy or dissatisfied is often interpreted by men as criticism or failure. They immediately assume they have done something wrong, that they are in the doghouse, and will not return to favor until they figure out what they have done wrong and correct it. Reassurance from their wives that they are not “in trouble” is rarely sufficient for men to feel they are off the hook.
To avoid women being angry with them, men willingly contort themselves to almost any extent. It is not uncommon for men to become so conflict-avoidant in their intimate relationships that placating their partners becomes their raison d’être, the most important thing in their relationship. The childhood mantra, “If Mamma ain’t happy, no one’s happy,” is replaced with, “Happy wife, happy life.” Men can become so unsettled by their partners being angry or disapproving of them that nothing else matters until it is fixed. All they want is for her to stop being mad at them.
Over time, men can get so gun-shy about conflict in their relationships that they just stop trying. When men talk about the aspects of their marriages in which they are unhappy, I ask if they have ever talked to their partners about these problems. They look at me as if I were crazy because I don’t understand how scared they are to talk to her.
When men are willing to learn basic communication skills, they generally feel relieved. Being more emotionally open is not as difficult as they had feared. As a result, they feel much closer to their partner and grateful that there is less stress and conflict in their relationships.
Avrum Weiss, Ph.D., is a therapist and author of books, including Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships.
The Best Bromance Ever
Prioritizing and celebrating male friendship.
By Jett Stone
I meet men lost in love and recovering after love lost, both attached men and unattached men. I witness men morph into stay-at-home dads, stay-at-work dads, and juggling dads who are determined to right the wrongs of their absent fathers.
So many of these diverse males share a sense of alienation from other males. I label it “malienation.” While this is a made-up word, it’s an actual inner phenomenon. It’s a lesser-told story buried beneath the data on men’s disproportionately high suicide rates and steep declines in close friendships.
Malienation isn’t just about men longing for men; we make up half the population, after all. It’s deeper than that. It’s the estrangement from an embodied and vulnerable brotherhood. A built-in understanding of what it’s like to joust with fallen tree branches, evade bullies, build forts, heave yourself atop a pileup of bodies to test the threshold between play and aggression, share secrets, and wipe away your snot but leave your tears. Malienation is mourning this love, this synergy between emotionality and physicality.
What some advantaged men have gained in family time by working from home during Covid, they’ve let further slip away in full-bodied, wholehearted kinships, which are such a far cry from an occasional quip on a high school group text.
Men are particularly avoidant in fostering same-sex friendships, especially those who’ve sunk deeper into their couches of romantic, parental, or professional commitment. While men may desire close friendships, they often loathe or feel ashamed of this want. Planting and nurturing male friendships may sound appealing but seems like an outdated privilege, unjustified with 60-hour workweeks and diaper duty.
Men need more and must power through ambivalence and trust that diversifying their portfolio of intimacy is a decent return on investment. Men must tap into boyhood wisdom to reimagine their changed, adult social worlds.
The Saturday Night Live skit “Man Park” satirized how men in heterosexual romantic relationships struggle to make new friends. In one scene, a woman exasperated by her romantic partner pleads, “I need you to go out of the house and make a friend, so you talk to other people about this stuff and not just me.”
“Where would I even go?”
Prioritizing friendships enriches men and those around them and can even help recalibrate the invisible labor imbalance within families. When men fill their buckets of belonging through some combination of physical and emotional interactions in men’s groups, poker games, or pickup basketball, their romantic partners or moms don’t have to be their default containers for pent-up aggression, work stress, and insecurities. Loved ones—more likely than not, women—then become less burdened with the heavy lifting of impromptu coaching sessions or social planning. Men become animated and energized through connection. And they’re less likely to dump or displace their neediness.
Jett Stone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in psychotherapy with men.
The Boys Are [Emotionally] All Right
Gen-z Men know that it’s ok not to be ok—and that it’s ok to talk about that.
By David Rettew, M.D., and Jackson Rettew
Important changes have unfolded over the recent decades regarding the content of a man’s worries, the intensity of that stress, and noticeably, how young people cope. For me, David, growing up Gen-X often meant figuring things out myself. My stress tended to come from universals such as romance, appearance, friendship, doing well, and an annoyance that I wasn’t turning out to be as bold as I had hoped. My coping strategies included fixing the problem with good old-fashioned escape—or avoidance. When I was broadsided by my parents’ divorce, I coped by joining a friend on the Maine coast. I rowed a small boat, explored beaches, ate too many fluffernutter sandwiches, and did things I wouldn’t let any pre-adolescent today do. I’m not sure that was entirely bad. There is a time to face, examine, and discuss worries, but there’s also value in spending time out of our heads. Just having a fishing buddy in total silence was therapeutic.
In the past, what it meant to be a man had to do with predefined ideals, including a narrow range of appearance, interests, skills, and behavior. If a man fell short, the anguish was experienced privately, at least until it became a joke among peers or criticism from family. Today, those ideals and even the definition of maleness are being questioned. While it would be wrong to claim that gender-based stereotypes, bullying, and judgment no longer exist, there’s a noticeable trend toward broader acceptance of non-traditional norms.
At the same time, Gen-Z men and adolescent boys have been told that they are not entitled to experience stress. Their privilege as males and their doting “helicopter” parents are viewed as advantages that preclude such stress. Ironically, young Gen-Z males are probably more aware of how privilege has affected their lives than were prior generations, and when they stumble or fail to attain their goals, this awareness of privilege can lead them to blame no one but themselves.
I, Jackson, see both the positive and negative consequences of the focus on male privilege. The concept can feel belittling and invalidating at times. On the other hand, the notion may have helped combat toxic masculinity, by highlighting areas where men could benefit from some growth and maturity.
Technology is no less critical than changing norms when comparing how different generations deal with stress. Tech offers access to activities that relieve stress—the ability to connect with friends or strangers, novel videogames, new ways to make art, streaming on demand, and creating and listening to music. Conversely, technology’s easy access provides its own challenges; we struggle with how to escape these escape tools.
Luckily, dealing with stress is becoming less of a solitary challenge. Gen-X adolescent males struggled with societal norms by being stoic and appearing invulnerable. As time went on, the idea of It’s okay not to be okay became more widely accepted. Talking it out with a trusted friend or health professional is more common now than before. Questions like “What it means to be male” are less of a lonely soul search and more of an open discussion. Other difficult topics such as gender identity also find their way into conversation more easily.
Adolescence and early adulthood can be tumultuous periods. While many sources of stress persist, Gen-Z has found healthy ways to manage it. These strategies rely on a community to support honest communication, and it can take time to learn the new tools. Here, older generations may have something more to offer than simply scorn or judgment, as we all move together to face the uncertainties of a changing world.
Psychiatrist David Rettew, M.D., is the author of Parenting Made Complicated. Jackson Rettew is a recent college graduate who works at a supported living residential facility.
How to Help Your Partner Make a Friend
- First, urge him to make the effort. Encourage him to reach out—with a phone call or by asking the new neighbor to meet for coffee. If he doesn’t have the time, he could make time.
- Encourage your partner to be more open and curious. (Remind him: No, you do not have to be trusting to the point of recklessness.)
- He should get comfortable with starting conversations; striking up a chat with a new coworker is a good example.
- People make friends with those who have similar interests—perhaps at the synagogue, running club, or pottery class.
- Make friends through friends. Throw a dinner party and ask your guests to bring a plus one.
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