Copyright © 2002 Terrence Real.
All rights reserved.
The relationship between men and women is in trouble, and it has been for over a generation. The relatively stable divorce rate over the past few decades indicates that the advent of couple's therapy in the 1950s has so far yielded nothing potent enough to affect the fate of the roughly one out of two couples who will see their marriage dissolve. We have enjoyed a period of unheralded creativity and prosperity. We marvel at new advances in technology and science that lengthen and strengthen our lives every day. No generation in history has taken so seriously issues of health and well-being both for ourselves and our children. And yet, nonetheless, we have never been lonelier. Our sense of community is breaking down, our sense of belonging has seldom felt weaker, and, silhouetted against this backdrop, couples that once loved one another have never had a more difficult time holding fast.
For over forty years the enormously influential women's movement has examined the oppression of girls and women in our society, the corrosive force leveled against our daughters to make them conform and the psychological cost of girls' compliance. We have just begun to extend similar empathy and support to our sons. And even now, as I write, it seems easier for us as a culture to empathize with boys than with grown men. But if we are to heal the enmity between the sexes collectively as a culture or individually in our own marriages we must begin to understand the forces that shape, and misshape, our husbands. The idea of opening our hearts to men will strike some women as opening the door to disempowerment. Being "soft" on men means to many a facile excuse for difficult, even dangerous behavior. There has been a split in our cultural attitude toward men. For a generation, feminists have held men responsible for privileged, insensitive, and at times offensive behaviors. But most feminists have not spoken to men's subjective experience of pain. Psychologists and those in the men's movement, by contrast, have begun to look at the cultural gauntlet through which our sons must pass, and the damage it does to them. But, in all their empathy, they rarely acknowledge the power men wield. One camp speaks of the violence men do, the other of the violence done to them. If men and women are to learn how to preserve the natural state of love and respect each deserves, both aspects of masculinity must be addressed the wounding and the wound.
Since the publication of my previous book, I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, I have spent a fair amount of time on the road, speaking and giving workshops throughout the country to both health professionals and to the general public about men and what ails them. Wherever I have gone, I have been struck by a burgeoning desire, almost a sense of urgency, about "figuring men out" how we can help struggling sons, husbands, fathers, in much the same way that women collectively began helping daughters, wives, and mothers a generation ago.
The latest research on boys and their development tells us that, despite our raised consciousness and good intentions, boys today, no less than ever before, are permeated with an inescapable set of highly constricting rules. Those boys who try to "step out of the box" place themselves in harm's way since, even today, our culture's tolerance for young men who deviate from what we deem masculine is limited, and our intolerance expresses itself in singularly ugly ways. The great bind is that those boys who do not resist, who choose or who are coerced to comply, do not escape either. Avoiding attack from without, those who adopt the traditions of male stoicism and "self-reliance" risk injury to the deepest and most alive aspects of their own being. The consequence of opposition is psychological and often physical brutality. The consequence of compliance is emotional truncation, numbness, and isolation.
"Good-bye, Justin," I say as I drop my thirteen-year-old off at school in the morning. Unlike his ten-year-old brother, Alexander, Justin averts his face from my farewell kiss, concerned that we will be observed. Though Justin is ebullient and vivacious at home, his expression visibly hardens as the low-slung school buildings come into view; his voice drops to a near monotone. I watch my son dampen down, toughen up. I watch him try to fit in. Despite his best efforts to hide his openness, older boys, bullies, have picked up the scent of emotional vulnerability in him, like a pheromone, and episodically over the years they have tortured him for it. The school protects Justin, and his mother and I arm him, as best we can. But in the mean game of inclusion/exclusion, ridicule and praise, in the socialization fields of the playground, Justin knows better than anyone that it is he alone who must make his way. Who am I to tell my son that he should keep his heart open as he threads his path to the classroom? And who am I to tell him that he should not? I don't begrudge Justin the emotional armor he dons each morning, the mask of feeling less, caring less, than he really does. It just makes me sad.
In the voices of those I work with in therapy, the men and women in the workshops I lead throughout the country, I hear a hunger for a way out of the dilemma of traditional masculinity, a roadmap toward something brighter, more whole.
If we weren't awake to the violence entwined with masculinity before, startling eruptions like those in Littleton, Colorado; Atlanta, Georgia; Santee, California, have made it difficult to ignore. "The fears of the father are transferred to the son. It was from my father to me and from me to my son. He already had it...I had to take him with me." So wrote a seemingly normal Atlanta stockbroker before he took his son's life, along with the lives of nine innocent people.
The alarming rise in men's violence and in boys' violence at first seems incomprehensible. But there is an old saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: "Hurt people hurt people." The transmutation of agony into rage, fear into attack, is neither foreign nor new to manhood. As a teacher and practitioner of family therapy for the past twenty years, I have seen the wages of what I call "toxic masculinity" the legacies of drinking, womanizing, depression, and fury sweep through whole generations like a fire in the wood, taking down everyone in its path until one man in one generation is graced with the courage to turn and face his demons, stemming the tide of injury passed from father to son. I write this book as one contribution to that force of courage and grace. I write as an emissary of a revolution, with the express purpose of engaging as many of you as I can to join in, to empower yourselves and those around you to shake off the illusions we have lived within for centuries. For, surprising as it might seem, what so profoundly alienates men is no different than what has disenfranchised women the system of patriarchy.
When the term patriarchy first entered the popular vernacular back in the 1960s and '70s, it conjured up images of male chauvinist pigs and radical, angry, bra-burning women. It was taken to mean the oppression of women by men. But early feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem also understood that the dynamics they unearthed did harm to both genders. The revolution of which I consider myself an emissary stands on the ground laid by that generation of women, and seeks to extend its insights.
In my work with men and women I distinguish between political patriarchy, which is the sexism that has been the target of most feminist writing, and what I term psychological patriarchy. Psychological patriarchy goes beyond the relationship between actual men and women as individuals or as a class. Psychological patriarchy is the dynamic between those qualities deemed "masculine" and "feminine" in which half of our human traits are exalted while the other half is devalued. Both men and women participate in this tortured value system. Psychological patriarchy is a "dance of contempt," a perverse form of connection that replaces true intimacy with complex, covert layers of dominance and submission, collusion and manipulation. It is the unacknowledged paradigm of relationship that has suffused Western civilization generation after generation, deforming both sexes, and destroying the passionate bond between them.
Here is the good news: the latest empirical research on both early infant relations and on adult optimal health indicates that, as a species, we are inherently wired for, and operate best in, a state of active, authentic connectedness. Even the tiniest infants, both male and female, show themselves eager, active participants in intimacy. Studies demonstrate that young children are innately connection-seeking, naturally sensitive readers of others' emotions, inherently compassionate and honest. In another domain, research on resilience, both physical and mental, reveals that rich authentic connection is one of the most salient factors in continued good health, outweighing such decisive forces as nutrition, exercise, even the absence of smoking. We enter life whole and connected, and we operate best when richly attached. Intimacy is our natural state as a species, our birthright. And yet, while the push away from genuine closeness occurs at different points in their development, and in critically different ways, neither boys nor girls are allowed to maintain healthy relatedness for very long.
As a culture, with no malevolent intent, following strictures we have all been raised within, we force our children out of the wholeness and connectedness in which they begin their lives. Instead of cultivating intimacy, turning nascent aptitudes into mature skills, we teach boys and girls, in complimentary ways, to bury their deepest selves, to stop speaking, or attending to, the truth, to hold in mistrust, or even in disdain, the state of closeness we all, by our natures, most crave. We live in an antirelational, vulnerability-despising culture, one that not only fails to nurture the skills of connection but actively fears them. Few of us have emerged from healthy, psychologically responsive families because the patriarchal norms all families live within are profoundly skewed against emotional sensitivity. While you may have your particular story and I may have mine, what we most likely share is longing, a sense of inner emptiness. Part of that emptiness is spiritual, existential, our "human condition." But a great part of the troubling sense of dis-ease comes from a profound missing of the abundant well-being we find in authentic connection. The wound of being torn from that state represents nothing less than the core environmental contribution to most psychiatric and behavioral disorders. Some of us react to this internal deficiency with depression, others with fear. Some try to fill it with food, or erase it with achievement, or alcohol, or desperate romance. Some of us feel victimized by our own misery, projecting onto others the resources we lack and hating them for it, lashing out in torrents of hurt, helpless, rage. We starve, we glut, we kill ourselves, we kill others. We don black trenchcoats and plan media-adoring shooting sprees. All in reaction to the great deformity, the thing we should have gotten and did not get.
We enter life as children, the poet Wordsworth tells us, "Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of Glory." The men and women whose stories I tell have not forgotten that. Unwilling heroes, they are in crisis and, as any family therapist knows, in crisis lies opportunity. Unlike some others content to live lives of quieter desperation, these fortunate ones have allowed themselves to be thrown to the wall. They have come to a choice-point in which they must risk either change or disaster. It is not uncommon for the men and women who enter my office to present themselves initially as victims, but I see them as just the opposite. In the core of their dissatisfaction, their refusal to "adjust," lie unrecognized seeds of resistance. Angry, lonely, bruised, addicted, they carry within themselves intimations of passion once possessed, like clouds of glory, no matter how dimly recalled. And they share this in common they want it back.
It is time to recognize that patriarchy does damage not just to girls and women but also to boys and men, that the psychological violence leveled against our children does harm to each sex and renders sustained, truthful connection between the sexes virtually impossible. It is time for men to come in from the cold. And for a generation of women, who have labored so mightily to reclaim their power, to now bring their full selves back into relationship with their lovers and husbands. Men and women will not completely love one another until both recover the state of integrity in which they began their lives. From there, each must proceed to hone and nurture qualities and skills that may well have stopped growing from the age of three, four, or five. The cultivation of our nascent relational skills is the kind of help all of us as children deserve but few of us receive. Instead, girls are taught to submerge their own needs in the service of others, while boys are taught to ignore their own and anyone else's needs in the service of the great god, achievement.
A generation ago, women across the West united in an unparalleled collective movement to support one another in reclaiming the half of their humanity assertion, public competence, independence that patriarchy denied them. Now, empowered, they are insisting on levels of relational skill from their spouses that men have in no way been prepared to deliver. They are also concerned for their sons desperately wishing for means to help keep them intact, and yet mistrustful of their own influence.
It is men's turn to recapture that half of our humanity receptivity, emotional expressiveness, dependency that has been denied to us. But the reclamation of wholeness is a process even more fraught for men than it has been for women, more difficult, and more profoundly threatening to the culture at large. The work of relational recovery does not say "Men are intrinsically this, and women are intrinsically that, so therefore one should learn to accept or accommodate..." It says, "Most of what you have learned about being a man, being a woman, being in love, is wrong. Throw it out! Go back to the beginning! Turn your ear to a deeper, younger, voice that has never left you...and learn."
Excerpted from How Can I Get Through to You? by Terrence Real. Copyright © 2002 by Terrence Real. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.