Ken Explores the Emotional Health of Male Relationships

Affection toward other males does not come naturally to most men. We are conditioned from birth to show strength, typically physical strength, but most certainly to project strength of any type as a means to the ultimate end — that is, to establish a pecking order amongst ourselves. Who’s the best athlete, the smartest, the most successful, and most emotionally self-sufficient? This manhood formula is tried and true. Find a strength and play to it. Vulnerabilities are to be hidden; feelings are not to be shared.

But at what cost?

The intra-gender competition may be primal as much as environmental, and the silent sorting of ourselves may be to attract a partner in life as much as for self-esteem. Whatever the origins or motivation, however, the dynamic can be — and often is — an unhealthy trap. Mental and physical strength are admirable attributes, and arguably necessary, attractive qualities in life, for both genders. For men, though, many of us limit our definition of strength to one or two simple measures, like rams butting heads during mating season for the right to be the first in line to procreate.

The result? For many, our emotional growth is often stunted, frozen in time. We are prisoners of our childhoods. Whatever we gain from our perception of superiority over others, the loss of any truly deep emotional connectiveness with each other is perhaps even greater. To borrow from a pop-culture saying of the day, men’s concept of strength is often “fake-strength,” and we are worse off for it.

The male ability to express feelings and affection toward each other is a learned behavior, first modeled and hopefully nurtured by positive reinforcement from our parents. We would be less than honest, however, if we did not acknowledge that certain negative traits shackle us, as they are handed down from father to son (and yes, from mother to son). Fathers, in particular, tend to struggle to strike a healthy balance between toughness, affection and acceptance when raising sons. Instead of re-examining and re-inventing themselves, they do what they know, the familiar, captive to the modeling of their upbringing.

The subtle consequences are often a matter of degree. All of us know a good man who is lovingly dedicated to his dog, but limited in his ability to show emotion or feelings toward women or men. Or he shakes hands when greeting male family members or close male friends without the slightest thought of giving a hug instead. Or perhaps more often, he is only comfortable expressing his feelings to females rather than his own gender, because he fears damaging his perceived standing among men as a dominant, self-sufficient male.

And there, in a testosterone-filled nutshell, is the unhealthiest of traps. Men tend to equate the sharing of feelings or affection between males with weakness, and most of us are socialized to never show weakness to each other. Our manly dignity is at risk, or at least that’s our warped perception. Why tear ourselves down when we spent a lifetime establishing our position in the male pecking order? For some, the aversion to sharing is a fear of being miscast as gay. For others, the aversion is simply driven by fear of showing vulnerability. Ultimately, whatever the reason, men are often cut off from each other as a mental health resource in times of emotional crises.

At its worst, this unnecessary emotional firewall can lead to tragic circumstances. Compared to women, men do not ask for help well, particularly emotional help. And in the extreme, without an emotional outlet, men can become emotional islands when threatened at a primal level, a virtual pent-up volcano of anger or bitterness. Tragically, murder-suicides by men are all too common in divorces. And yet, who is perhaps best positioned to help in times of uniquely “male” crises, like a husband’s potential loss of the family unit? The answer: Fellow fathers. A guy’s outstretched hand can make “the” difference if men were socialized to reach back without fear, without shame. Instead, the “solution” for some is to end the pain of being rejected violently.

One doesn’t even have to point at extreme behavior to fully appreciate that the price for this unhealthy dynamic is a tremendous loss of richness in life — to our gender and to society in general. Fortunately, times are changing. The “tough guy” expectations of males (and by many females as well) that were once commonplace are subsiding, gradually. Of course, instincts are instincts. Males will always compete against each other. However, men are slowly learning that more often than not, acknowledging feelings is a strength, not a weakness, and the mere acknowledgment can lead to self-improvement. And isn’t that life’s ultimate goal, men — to be the best version of ourselves that we can be?

If it isn’t, what is?

"A guy’s outstretched hand can make 'the' difference if men were socialized to reach back without fear, without shame."