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Man Up! Our 'Male Code' Fails Boys and Men

Recent research shows how the male code impacts men's mental health.

Simon Migaj/Pexels
Source: Simon Migaj/Pexels

At a Red Sox game, I observed a woman plopping down into a wet seat while her male partner hesitated. She said, “Man up!” which prompted him to sit. I, with others, laughed. I recall at the time being impressed with her quick wit. In hindsight, I feel compassion for him.

The patriarchy we live in defines masculinity in a way that hurts men and women. Yet we perpetuate those beliefs. The #MeToo movement has raised alarm about patriarchal masculinity, revealing how women have been seriously hurt. But our culture still perpetuates the idea that to be male, men end up paying a serious price…the sacrifice of their emotional self and relational strivings. One powerful arena to provide serious change to this harmful belief is in how we parent boys.

The Man Box Study

For maybe forever, men have been pressured to follow the “male code” and a 2017 study reveals its detrimental effects. This study addressed, “What does it mean to be a man in 2017?” in which it examined the attitudes, behaviors, and understandings of manhood” of young men ages 18 to 30 in the US, UK, and Mexico.

The study’s findings revealed that "most men still feel pushed to live in the "Man Box”—a rigid construct of cultural ideas about male identity. This includes being self-sufficient, acting tough, looking physically attractive, sticking to rigid gender roles, being heterosexual, having sexual prowess, and using aggression to resolve conflicts.” (Heilman, et al.)

How Masculinity Rules Are Communicated

The male code gets communicated through shaming and rewarding. Men and women who parent live under the same cultural pressure to raise boys to follow the male code in order to be an acceptable man. To do so, behaviors and attitudes that conform to masculinity are praised and reinforced. Behaviors and feelings that depart from “manliness” cause the boy and later the man to become shamed. (Lipton/Medley)

Boys and men can experience shame when they: show weakness, appear vulnerable, fail, look defective in some way, appear soft, show fear, be wrong, or fail to fight back—you’re a “pussy.”

When men strive to fulfill what is deemed masculine and succeed, they are highly rewarded. We only need to look around us to know that men have power, money, and dominance in our culture. Patriarchal behaviors reward men with social acceptance, admiration, and status. But at what cost?

Findings of the Man Box study

“The harmful effects of the Man Box are severe and troubling. The majority of men who adhere to the rules of the Man Box are more likely to put their health and well-being at risk, to cut themselves off from intimate friendships, to resist seeking help when they need it, to experience depression and to think frequently about ending their own lives.”

A Consequence of Patriarchal Masculinity: Emotional Neglect

Men experience “culturally sanctioned emotional neglect,” says Lipton at a recent conference I attended, “Feeling Like a Man.” In his work as a psychotherapist, he brings serious attention to men's need to address their shame and heal the trauma they experienced being raised and influenced to live up to patriarchal masculinity.

Two findings from the Man Box study illustrate how mental health improves when men no longer adhere to the rigid constraints of being a “man":

  • 41% of participants fulfilling the male identity of the “man box” met the screening standards for depression. This reduced to 26% for men free of the man box.
  • 40% of the participants in the “man box” reported having thoughts of suicide in the last two weeks. This reduced to 17% for the men free of the man box.

Boys Need Their Mothers to Step Up

For us to change patriarchal masculinity there are many fronts to work on—but one thing we can do now is to start at the beginning and how we raise our boys. Helping our children navigate changes is a power that parents hold.

Mothers play a vital role in either carrying out patriarchal masculinity or raising a son to know himself emotionally and seek connection with others. There is much research on how boys are treated differently from infancy such as being held and cuddled less than girls. If we prioritize paying thoughtful attention to what we do or don’t do for our sons, we can play a central life-saving role in bringing up boys to be emotionally available men.

My Own Experience Raising a Son Differently

When my son was young, I was acutely aware of how men in our culture are discouraged from experiencing their emotions. This restriction can cause the child to lose or never develop the capacity to empathize with others.

In 1991, my parenting was helped by Steve Bergman’s published paper on men’s psychological development from a relational perspective. (Work in Progress series through the Stone Center at Wellesley, College)

Bergman coined the phrase “relational dread” as the experience that boys and men feel that’s brought about by an early and expected move away from the close emotional connection with their mother to identify with the male traits of their father. Bergman cites how this move from their place in a relational context causes them to become immobilized in the face of emotion and relationships. In the disconnection from the mother, boys and men don’t learn what to do and how to be in relationships. This causes empathic exchanges between boys and men hard to do.

Bergman suggests that the emotional connection with the mother needs to continue while she joins in supporting her son’s identification with his father. Boys benefit from both.

I decided that to raise my son to have feelings and compassion for others meant he needed to be in what I called at the time “empathy training.” From time to time, I would suggest to my son that he put himself in the shoes of the other person. A memorable moment is when his fifth-grade male teacher stated that Cory is the first student he has ever taught who recognized that teachers have feelings too. I was proud of my son then and of the man he is now.

When men can have or regain an unguarded openness to emotions and expression, then we know we’ve moved away from patriarchal male to a male that leans into emotional connection with a capacity for compassion and empathy for themselves and others, a place beneficial to both men and women.



Bergman, S. J. (1991). Men’s psychological development: A relational perspective (Paper No. 48, Work in Progress series). Wellesley, MA: Stone Center, Wellesley College.

Heilman, B., Barker, G., and Harrison, A. (2017). The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK, and Mexico.

Lipton, B, Medley, B. AEDP New England presentation: “Feeling Like a Man: Using AEDP to reclaim emotion, overcome shame and heal attachment trauma with men.” Febrary 1, 2019.

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