How to Redefine Healthy Masculinity
Being less masculine doesn't solve the problem of healthy coexistence.
Posted Nov 26, 2019
More and more men I’ve been talking with lately seem to be confused about what it means to be a "good man" in 2019, and what they should teach their sons about healthy masculinity.
Many behaviors that used to be considered normal are now being questioned on the basis of political correctness. Many companies I work with are going through mandatory anti–sexual-harassment training, which is an important educational step, but in its current form it brings up more questions than answers about what’s appropriate.
Men are either going extreme on social media about their views, or are extremely careful to avoid the topic as they are treading on thin ice. Teachers and company executives try to avoid inviting the opposite sex into their offices because it can be misconstrued. The New York Times recently featured an article in which women asked men to lean out and be more like women.
I believe the solution doesn’t lie in either women becoming more like men or men becoming more like women. This is the wrong way to ask the question. Treating each other right is a fundamentally human question.
We do know from the work of one of the greatest psychotherapists, Carl Gustav Jung, that the personality of someone who assumes the gender role of man has an inner feminine component, and the personality of someone assuming a woman’s gender role has an inner masculine component. Any path leading to a better understanding of the experience of men and women working together will have to go through the conscious recognition and healthy integration of the female and male components of our psyche.
In my upcoming blogs, I’m going to show a few different ways of approaching this intriguing question.
The images and archetypes of manhood and masculinity instilled into us through nurture and education are outdated. The movement called feminism was the result of a conversation that women were forced to have by society on what healthy femininity was. Men, however, seem to be avoiding the conversation about what healthy masculinity is, while remaining reactive as they experience significant events like the #metoo movement.
I believe that the denial of healthy masculinity cannot be the response to toxic forms of masculinity.
The 60s in America has brought about a new ideal of man—someone who was more aware of his feminine side and paid more attention to women’s sensibility. This initially positive trend, however, led to a new phenomenon that has been thriving ever since, and I call it the emergence of the manchild. The manchild is someone who has toned down masculine characteristics but hasn't really integrated his feminine side into his personality and actions.
There is a brilliant Swedish movie you may have seen titled Force Majeure. Without revealing the end of the story, it is about a family with two kids who are on a ski trip. In one of the opening scenes, they are sitting together on the terrace having lunch when the father notices an avalanche roaring down the mountain. First, they think it is a controlled, deliberately started avalanche, but within seconds, it becomes clear that it is real… everyone jumps up from their seats and panic breaks out. The father also jumps up, grabs his iPhone and flees with the crowd, leaving his wife and two children behind.
After a while, the commotion ends, as the avalanche hasn’t hit the restaurant, and people slowly start reappearing, some of them from under the snow. The father of two returns, too, and without saying a word he continues having lunch with his family, as if nothing has happened. From this point on, the wife continually tries to initiate a conversation about what actually happened. She fails in her efforts; they cannot seem to be able to have an honest, adult conversation due to the ignorance of the man.
The plot is an amazing metaphor for a current phenomenon I often experience when working with men. Since the breakdown of the toxic alpha male model for masculinity, for some men the pendulum swung out too far, and now there is a tendency for for men to choose to act as a child in many situations.
What this means in practical terms is that the woman assumes a “mother of all” role in the family, while the man adopts the strange, mixed role of financial provider and child dressed in a man’s body. I will keep referring to the manchild, so it is important to clarify that I'm not talking about a free child with a free spirit and a beginner’s mind. Children are great, and accessing their spirit as a positive ego-state by an adult is great, too. As Eric Berne formulated it, we all have the ability to move through various ego-states in each and every situation, and each of these ego-states comes with a whole set of gestures, body language, expressions, and habits.
The manchild is an adult who spends a lot of time in the ego-state of a sulking, rebellious child, or a hurt but adaptive child. According to Berne, in these so-called negative child ego states we don’t take responsibility for our feelings, needs, and actions; instead, we expect others to guess and satisfy them.
Here are some warning signs of a manchild:
1. He is unaware or is acutely aware of (identifies with) his emotions. Since he cannot name them, he finds it hard to express them authentically. You see this when someone is hurt but cannot say why, and whatever you or others try to suggest to fix the situation will be perceived as wrong.
2. He is often absent from family life or alternatively assumes a very present but servant role in which he can victimize himself and feel insignificant.
3. He does not reflect much on his actions. He finds it hard to say: "I’ve made a mistake." Instead of self-reflection, he will complain, over-explain, and blame others.
4. He often expects his spouse to take care of everything related to childcare and homemaking, as his quid pro quo is being the financial provider. This is typically not an agreement between two consenting parties but an assumed psychological contract that’s never been discussed.
5. He expects others to guess and mindread his wishes and what bothers him, instead of clearly expressing them.
6. He often finds it hard to give positive feedback to his spouse, but frequently notices and comments on what’s wrong.
7. He often avoids conflicts at work, but are quite irritable at home, or the other way around.
8. He is not able to hold strong emotions, instead, he is overwhelmed by anger and sadness. (There is a beautiful example of it in the film when the father cries so emotionally that it scares the children, and the mother, again, is forced to save the situation by acting as the only adult around).
This is, of course, is not to say that we should not be expressing our emotions. The art is to be able to hold them and keep them without being swept into the state of a hurt child or a scary judgmental parent.
Healthy masculinity, I believe, is in many ways a counterpoint to the above 8 points:
1. Learn to recognize, name and regulate your feelings.
2. Speak up. Talk about what you need and feel. Don’t expect anyone to read your mind.
3. Discuss roles and tasks with your spouse, come to an explicit agreement that’s mutually recognized as fair.
4. Acknowledge your partner as you are fulfilling the roles you have agreed on; driving the kids to school is of no lesser value than running a board meeting.
5. Learn to deal with conflicts in a nonaggressive, constructive manner. Learn to discuss what hurts now, in the present moment, rather than postponing it for tomorrow.
6. Discuss who you are, what motivates you and what you look forward in the next five years. Do this regularly. No amount of time spent together will make this a superfluous task.
7. Lead by doing it first, rather than by aggression, repression, and manipulation.
8. Seek the company of other men (too), and build authentic relationships with them so that you can express your feelings and share your challenges, instead of just discussing baseball, politics and BBQ ribs.
All of the above qualities and competencies are fundamentally human. Some, like doing something first and being assertive (7), are traditionally associated with male archetypes, while others, like expressing your feelings (2), are more associated with feminine archetypes. The key to a healthy personality is to integrate both sides and operate with a full command of your human potential.
Next month my blog will continue to explore other aspects of healthy masculinity and femininity.