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Fathers and Sons: Masculinity, Men, and Relationships

Father's Day highlights the tricky nature of relationships between men.

Father's Day beckons us to show our fathers love and appreciation, not just for their role in our conception, but in raising us. Interestingly, I have found in my practice and in our culture at large that daughters seem to have an easier time expressing affection toward their fathers than do sons. Though men are more prone to discomfort expressing emotion in general, that discomfort doesn't seem to interfere with our ability to express love and affection toward our mothers, on Mother's Day or other days.

Why the emotional block for sons with our fathers on Father's Day?

Cognitive psychologist and cultural anthropologist Steven Pinker (2012) explained that for thousands of years boys have been socialized by their fathers and male elders to comply with the unwritten rules of the "pecking order" of male social groups. To survive in this pecking order, boys are trained — particularly by their fathers — to avoid traits, like tenderness and emotional sensitivity, that might make them vulnerable. Not only do these traits leave men exposed in the pecking order, but they also present obstacles to many of the burdensome tasks — like hunting for food and fighting in armed battle — that men have traditionally performed for millennia.

The socialization of boys in the pecking order has led to them cultivating traits of masculinity that, according to political scientist and gender researcher Heather L. Ondercin in a recent New York Times article, include aggressiveness, assertiveness, dominance, and forcefulness (Edsall, 2022). The adoption of these traits has helped men to fulfill the duties that traditional societies have bestowed upon them, but in today's world, these traits make it difficult for men to express love and affection to other men in the pecking order, including their fathers.

In many ways, the struggles of fathers and sons to express tender emotions to each other are as old as time, or at least as old as Oedipus. However, the notion of father-son conflict has been pervasive throughout history, so much so that Freud constructed an entire theory to try to explain the psychodynamics of these conflicts. If you're looking for a more contemporary poster child for father-son conflict, in this or any other galaxy far, far away, look no further than Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars movies In fact, the evolution of Luke's relationship with his father Anakin (aka Darth Vader) offers many lessons in the progression of relationships between fathers and sons.

Mirko Toller / Wikimedia Commons
Father and Son: Locked in an Oedipal Battle
Source: Mirko Toller / Wikimedia Commons

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke tries to pull off an Oedipal coup, but he is no match for the older, stronger Vader. Despite Vader trying to pull his son into a league with him to "rule the galaxy as father and son," Luke has only contempt for his father, refusing to join him. But in Return of the Jedi, Luke has matured and is now as powerful as his father. Though he now has the chance to kill his father, he shows restraint. Vader then sacrifices himself in an effort to save Luke from the Emperor. In the scenes that follow, with Vader about to die, Luke is finally able to express tender emotion to him.

For so many men, it's not until their fathers become weakened with age or illness — embodying the proverbial lion in winter — that they feel safe enough to express tender, heartfelt emotion to them. There are many reasons why relationships between fathers and sons are complicated. However, if you are a son reading this now, and the only thing standing in your way of expressing love and appreciation toward your father is the unwritten code of traditional masculinity, it is my hope that you don't wait until your father is old or ill to do so. Father's Day offers an opportunity to deepen your relationship while it's still early enough to enrich both of your lives. May the force (of love) be with you.

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Check out my discussion of this article with Mike Thompson on The Father Show

References

Pinker, S. (2012). The Better Angels of Our Nature: A history of violence and humanity. Penguin Books, New York.

Edsall, T. (2022). What We Know About the Women Who Vote for Republicans and the Men Who Do Not. The New York Times, March 30, 2022.

Di Bianca, M., & Mahalik, J. R. (2022). A relational-cultural framework for promoting healthy masculinities. American Psychologist, 77(3), 321–332. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000929

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