By Mat: We are baffled by the men in our lives, particularly the older ones. Men can behave in ways that confuse and infuriate us, sending us on a seemingly endless search for an explanation. And yet, when we try to explain the frustrating behavior of our men as mere selfishness, egotism, or arrogance, we are often left feeling like this only tells part of the story.
We are tempted to see men as simple creatures, driven by instinct and desire. Food, sex, money and prestige seem to motivate men’s behavior for the most part. We find ourselves hoping that our men will one day reveal their emotional, sensitive natures, and that we will experience greater intimacy with them as a result.
And yet, if we do choose to patiently wait, at times we can find ourselves waiting for what seems like forever. Time and again, our attempts to open channels of communication with our men, to talk with them about their inner lives, are met with one of two responses – anger, or more often, silence. This can be painful.
These situations can send us into spirals of confusion, and in extreme cases, despair. But rather than give up, there is a way that we can understand the behavior of our men which allows us to explain their rage and indignation without excusing it.
This way has to do with how men process trauma. Those of us with boys and young men in our lives will often see a different emotional picture to the one painted by older men. Our sons, grandsons, brothers, and nephews often display great sensitivity, and a range of emotions which extend beyond mere anger. From my experience, the point at which youth meets adulthood is the point at which men accept the messages that they are given throughout their young lives.
Those messages can frequently be boiled down to this: vulnerability equals weakness.
Though we may not agree with this message, and though we may in fact make a great effort to teach our men the opposite, we are seldom the only source of truth in our men’s lives. Our societies generally bombard men, young and old, with different versions of this same message, mostly through advertising, but also through the stories that we tell our men.
Look at any Hollywood blockbuster of the past 30 years, for example, and you will more often than not see a leading man who embodies the glory of the strong, silent type. These men are in control: they are decisive, fearless, and seemingly invincible. They are also completely made up.
Like most male role models, the man in this example is a fictitious character – a plot device, a made up person, with qualities that no man can possibly hope to attain, at least not for any decent length of time. This is an impossible ideal that men nonetheless strive to attain, at great cost to themselves and others. When men fail to live up to this impossible ideal, they are left feeling vulnerable and weak, as though they have failed on a deep, profound level.
Teaching our men not to show their vulnerabilities also means we also don’t teach them how to constructively process the disappointments and failures we as humans are bound to face in our daily lives. As a result, instead of seeking help from those around them when faced with difficulties, our men instead seek to reinforce the dominant story that our societies have told them: that vulnerability equals weakness.
Rather than forgiving themselves for their human frailties, our men are more likely to believe a story that has no basis in real life. Rather than face the reality that they are hurt, in pain, and need help, they are more likely to feel that the failure is theirs and theirs alone.
This does not excuse destructive or hurtful behavior on the part of our men. Taking responsibility for one’s actions, and doing the necessary work to improve oneself is always the job of the individual, and our men are no exception. Instead, my hope that this insight allows us to understand the behavior of our men more, to situate that behavior within a context that extends far beyond individual instances where the reasons for our men’s behavior leaves us baffled and hurt.
The love that we feel for the men in our lives often motivates us to acts of forgiveness and compassion worthy of sainthood. In understanding men’s behavior in this way, we are given the chance to guide our responses, to open channels of communication for healing, and to re-educate our men, teaching them not only that vulnerability does not equal weakness, but that it more often equals strength.