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The Ten Commandments of Growing Up Male
We are a rule-driven society. Read some of the great Western philosophers like Rousseau, Locke, or Hobbes, all of whom were very concerned with social contracts that ensured that the powerful did not devour the powerless. Or, on a less cerebral level, rent a copy of the black-and-white version of The Lord of the Flies, the film showcasing what happens when a planeload of British schoolboys are stranded on a deserted island with no adult supervision. I will give you a hint: it looks less like Gilligan's Island and more like Survivor on steroids with an entirely new meaning for being voted off the island.
As a society we shy away from anarchy as a general rule. As a result, there are school rules, religious rules, traffic rules, etiquette rules, work rules, and so on. It is no surprise there are very specific ones that have been created for men—well-established societal messages that males receive about how to be a man—that I have identified as 'The Ten Commandments of Growing Up Male.' This might conjure up the image of a bearded Moses-like figure descending from the mountain with stone tablets in his hands; a hush falls over the crowd as he declares in a powerful, authoritative voice that these are the commandments for men, laws that all men must follow or punishments will ensue.
For many men, these commandments carry a level of authority that should never be questioned. They are ingrained into our culture as irrefutable truths. Sometimes men who have broken these commandments have received somewhat unsympathetic punishments from a society that can be uninformed about the struggles that men face. Subsequently, there is a trickle-down effect from cultural to familial law, when unwitting parents enforce the commandments through harsh reprimands. While parents think they are helping prepare their sons for the real world through conforming to the commandments, too often a boy's spirit or sense of individualism is broken as a result. These commandments cannot only have powerful effects upon men's emotional and physical well-being, but they also touch the people dear to them. If a boy or man feels weighted down as a result of following the commandments, those in his inner circle can also suffer.
Given the vast number of societal rules that have been created over the years, rest assured that not all of them are good ones; some are outdated, and others need to be rewritten. The same is true for the commandments for men. These societal rules and standards have taken a particular shape over hundreds of years. Greek mythology, the shift from pagan to Christian religion in the Holy Roman Empire, medieval mind-sets and philosophy, misinterpreted scientific research applied to gender roles, folklore, and social tradition are but a few of the cultural dynamics that play a part in shaping how we think men (and women too) should be. Without considering how culture has evolved, and with it expectations for both genders, some might assume things have stayed exactly the same since the cavemen era. As a society we can take many of the previously held truths and run with them, limiting both genders in the process. (For a more extensive discussion on the evolution of masculinity in Western culture, see my previous book, The Cultural Myth of Masculinity.)
The astute observer will note that many of these commandments are impossible to keep, even on a man's best day. Some of these are outdated and others are just downright dysfunctional, asking men to be someone they are not. Those of us who have spent our careers studying the secret lives of men have seen how men of all ages are negatively affected by these commandments in both work and love. After all, a man's sense of masculinity affects every avenue of his life. As we talk about each of the commandments, we will address where each one leads men astray.
From the very beginning, I want to stress that the secret lives of boys and men are full of struggles, but it should also be noted that there is the potential for joy and happiness as well. Sometimes men's secret worlds are primal and passionate, while other times they are noble and self-sacrificing. There isn't a 'man conspiracy' to keep you distant and confused, and by understanding more about the world of men, you, as a partner, parent, or friend, can learn better ways to give support, gently confront problem areas, and assist a man to be all that he can be. And by the way, these commandments are not set in stone; in reality, they are clay tablets ready to be rewritten—or broken.
'There is only one way to be a man.'
Boys learn from early on that there is a single, right way to be a man. Many of the Commandments for Growing up Male highlight what ideal masculinity looks like. It is usually some variation of an old John Wayne or, more recently, Jason Bourne character: tough, stoic, and self-sufficient. This version of manhood stresses the importance of being powerful and protecting your flanks at all costs. Taken together, all of these characteristics add up to stereotypical masculinity, the singular definition for how all men feel compelled to be.
The notion that there is only one way to be a man is a prime example of the confusing and misleading nature of the commandments. As noted above, research has shown that the definition of 'ideal masculinity' has changed over the course of history. Historians who study gender issues have noted that ideal masculinity has it fads and trends just like clothing. Sometimes the ideal man is the tough warrior or cowboy, other times the peace-loving and refined statesman, and still other times, the hard-driving capitalist or the man who goes from rags to riches. For instance, chivalrous knights during the Middle Ages curled their hair and wore tight tunics, pointy shoes, and other eye-catching adornments. Sounds a little like today's metrosexual men, doesn't it? This version of an overstylized man seems to come back into vogue every once in a while throughout the centuries.
Gender historians have also shown that at various points in time there have been multiple, competing notions of what an ideal man looks like. While there may be a singular, most popular version of masculinity, there are still multiple definitions of how to be a man in present society. In fact, scholars claim that there are at least six distinct forms of ideal masculinity operating right now in the United States. That is, there are multiple masculinities based on religion, social class, sexual orientation, political agenda, religion, ethnicity, and race. Even within these broad categories of masculinity, there are still more subfactions, multiplying the number of potential masculinities even further. In fact, we may further stretch this notion and say that there are potentially as many unique ways to be a man as there are different types of individuals. From my perspective, that is exciting news, because it means men may enjoy more freedom to be themselves and really develop their own notion of what it means to be a man.
So the idea that there is only one way to be a man is really off the mark. Boys may be aware of the most popular version of masculinity and conclude, just like their parents, there is only one way to be. They then may feel pressured by society or family to conform to that version, as if pushed through a giant cookie cutter. They feel the demands to do the accepted thing whether it genuinely reflects who they are or not. The consequence of conforming is that men cut away authentic parts of themselves that they determine are not acceptable to the popular version of manhood. In the long run, this has an impact on their ability to be successful at work and love. We will revisit the importance of men being true to themselves later.
'Fear the feminine.'
In part, males learn to be men through others telling them what not to do. That is the funny thing about learning to be a man; instructions are often heavier on the 'don'ts' than the 'dos.' This is because the rules for being a man are not entirely clear; some of them make no sense, while others are at times contradictory and confusing. However, there is one surefire rule that can be counted on: 'Don't do anything feminine.'
We usually associate the feminine with the world of women; the feminine comes to represent all those inherent aspects that are by their very nature womanly and so surely 'not male.' So when a man crosses the line into what is perceived as the feminine world, he knows this is a forbidden realm from which he should remove himself as quickly as possible. Historically, the feminine is seen as a corrupting force to masculinity. The worst thing that can be said to a boy is that he is 'acting like a girl.' I'm not sure who should be more offended: the boy being called a girl or the girl who is being labeled as what not to be!
But what exactly is feminine? Until recently, we could divide the world of emotions, physical or intellectual abilities, and career trajectories along gender lines. For instance, for some time there has existed an unquestioned notion of men's versus women's work. Others believe that men and women are so dissimilar in terms of their emotional needs that they could be from different planets. There are always eye-catching headlines that continue to promote this separatist line of thinking. However, over the last thirty years, these notions, once held as absolute truths, are being reconsidered. Those 'masculine' possibilities that society told women they could never attain, like moving up the corporate ladder or obtaining political or professional success, have been revised and/or abandoned. Likewise, men have challenged the notion that being a good parent or partner belongs exclusively to the realm of women. In fact, there has been a 60 percent increase in stay-at-home fathers in the past few years.
While some may see these changes as an erosion of an important distinction between the sexes that results in gender confusion, for me it highlights the truth that some things labeled as a 'woman thing' or a 'man thing' are really human things. We can all participate and be successful in matters of work and love. A man becomes handicapped when he cannot utilize his human skills because they are labeled as feminine ones, and consequently off-limits.
'Men must funnel all of their feelings into sex or aggression.'
Because men are taught to fear the feminine, they must avoid anything associated with it, and chief among these aspects are emotions. From the formative years onward, boys are placed into a bind because the emotional aspects inherited as a part of their natural birthright are deemed off-limits. Along the way, the commandment about fearing the feminine takes hold, and they learn that emotions are bad things. People might make fun of men for showing things like sensitivity, vulnerability, and tenderness; these traits are seen as aspects that corrupt a man's sense of masculinity. As a result, many men learn to keep their emotions in check. Or, worse yet, they don't allow themselves to experience feelings at all, and after utilizing this coping skill for thirty or forty years, some of them end up in the emergency room, thinking they have had a heart attack. The ER physician might explain that they have just had a panic attack and should go speak to someone about the pent-up stress they are carrying.
Emotions are hardwired human parts, and we all have them, but men learn in their 'man-training' to cope with them in ways that are consistent with the commandments. Men feel compelled to mask them, funneling their entire emotional range into two socially acceptable 'male' emotions: sex and aggression. These traits, which can disguise other, more vulnerable, off-limits feelings, allow men to maintain a tough exterior. In short, sex and aggression are the quintessential male emotions. What can appear as a stunted emotional repertoire often gives the impression that men are emotionally devoid of real feelings, or at best, that they are simple creatures who are only concerned with primal matters. But we will see later that even with this masking of emotions, a man's feeling function is still multidimensional and complex. The emotional realm of the secret lives of men is complicated, and we will spend time sorting through it.
'Affection is always associated with sex.'
We begin to see how some commandments are interrelated. If you fear the feminine, it has a direct effect upon how you express feelings in the form of sex or aggression, which in turn skews the definitions, limitations, and boundaries of some emotions. A prime example of this is that men are taught early on that emotional intimacy is interchangeable with physical intimacy. So if you feel close to someone, it means you also want to have sex with them. This misunderstanding about emotional and physical intimacy causes lots of trouble. It can lead to some complicated questions for men and women, such as can men and women be 'just' friends? From this perspective, they can't, because if a man grows emotionally close, sexual feelings are inevitable (at least from the man-training perspective).
This fallacy about tender feelings always equaling sexual ones also affects the closeness between two good male friends; after all, the same formula is present. This makes men uncomfortable about getting too close and stirs up homophobic reactions. Many straight men try to circumvent this issue when they get together so that any ensuing emotional intimacy can be explained away through drinking too much or through the joy of playing sports together, where hugs or pats on the butt are just a part of the game. Men are invited at many points in their lives to rethink these issues and see with clearer eyes that love and sex are not always synonymous.
'You big ape: boy society is based on power, strength, and paranoia.'
Boys grow up in a culture that stresses the outward appearance of strength and power. Young men feel compelled to jockey for position on the social ladder as if they are in some Darwinian survival of the fittest. This male hierarchy is based on how well a boy can adhere to the commandments. If he is successful, he can earn masculine currency to put in the bank. And what does he think can be purchased with this big man's bank account? Well, just about anything he wants: a beautiful wife, more power and success, eternal youth, and everlasting happiness. Confirmation of the 'more masculine currency = lasting happiness' equation seems pervasive. After all, look at movie stars and professional athletes––they are all happy, aren't they? But let's say, for instance, that a man doesn't measure up to the commandments—what then?
The legacy of the big ape mentality can affect a man's (boy or grown-up) life expectations and his ability to secure a mate or have a chance at long-term success or happiness. This is one of the reasons men feel especially emotionally walloped when they lose their job: they imagine that someone has made a run on the bank and drained all their man-currency from their account. What do they do now? Who would be willing to love them? One of the struggles men face is learning they are more than the adolescent version of masculinity that was presented to them when they were growing up and that their virtue as a man is not entirely tied to being the biggest, most fierce ape on the block.
Another offshoot of this misguided big ape mentality is that a man becomes more of a man by taking from others. In fact, some have argued that this process is a rite of passage that ushers in manhood. This applies to all manner of things, like seizing someone else's property, wealth, significant other, and self-esteem. Built into this rather off-balance way of growing up is an understandable level of paranoia. Men learn to never show their vulnerable side and always give the impression they are in control, so as to fend off potential attacks. If others smell his inferiority or weakness, they will surely be ready to pounce. We will look at how this level of suspicion erects barriers that affect all forms of intimacy.
Another troubling aspect of the big ape mentality is the sheer futility of being able to sustain that bulletproof pose. Even men who are more naturally inclined toward the commandments cannot keep them all. Researchers note that keeping all the expected, traditional rules of being a man is like walking a tightrope that literally no one can stay on; what ensues is something referred to as 'male gender role conflict,' the psychological strain related to being a man. In fact, gender role conflict, which has been explored for more than twenty years, is associated with a wide assortment of problems, such as increases in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and various interpersonal problems. Male gender role conflict has even been found in boys, creating a similar psychological strain for them. This suggests that the man-making process can have a cumulative effect, one that weighs heavily on boys and men.
It is not a matter of if a man will stumble and fall in regards to traditional expectations, but when and how many times a day. So a man will feel compelled to cover up his shortcomings through the use of man defenses and coping skills. One of the tools men use in moments of vulnerability—moving toward others in an aggressive way—is learned in boyhood. Man defenses can involve brutality, displacing pain onto others, or emotional and physical withdrawal. Boys are not the only ones who utilize these skills; when grown men find themselves in moments of uncomfortable, interpersonal vulnerability or evaluation, they are prone to make use of their old defenses. Feeling they are under the microscope pushes men into what seems like a dangerous space. This makes receiving legitimate feedback from wives or bosses difficult. More in-depth ideas about how to give constructive feedback will be given later in the book.
'A boy needs a male role model or his sense of being a man is flawed.'
The idea that a boy must have a male role model is deeply embedded in the cultural lore, which says that boys learn how to be men by cutting ties with mom and imitating a grown man. The adult male gives the boy instructions for what is proper and improper behavior based on the commandments and, in particular, with regards to fearing the feminine. The male role model is seen as a sort of initiator who turns the boy into a man. This model of making boys into men is so well accepted that it has become the stuff of TV holiday melodrama and primetime sitcoms. Even when it is presented as a satire, it still reflects the culturally accepted premise that boys can only learn about manhood through the successful tutelage of a male role model. If he does not have this experience, he is presumed lost.
While the potential for disaster in using this model for forming men can make the Homer Simpsons of the world nervous, many moms are apprehensive of it as well. Wives worry that their husbands or other potential male role models are too distant physically or emotionally to provide this training. And what about Mom? Is she supposed to help in some way with her son's journey to manhood? After all, she has no doubt been exposed to men's fear of the feminine and wonders if her presence really is corrupting to her son's sense of masculinity.
We will look at some of the shortcomings of the male role model idea later, including the idea that forcing someone to imitate another person's version of masculinity does not help a male of any age find his own authentic notion of being a man. In lieu of the male role model approach, we will talk about a new perspective for helping boys and grown men. This is based on the idea that all males need guardians; guardians can be of either gender and are invested in males developing into their own sense of being a man, not imitating someone else's version. After all, that is what we should value the most about our man: his ability to be himself.
'If your father is rejecting, you must learn to please him.'
While the male role model theory is fraught with potential liabilities, there is another part of the man-making equation that deeply affects males. One of the most difficult legacies involves a boy who did not receive his father's blessing; that is, a boy who did not feel affirmed as a 'good man' by his father (or father figure). In cultural lore, the father is the prototypical male, carrying the most significance. A boy may learn skills from a male role model who is not his family member, but his father is the ultimate source of masculinity.
Many men carry painful memories of not living up to their father's expectations, most of which are somehow related to not keeping the commandments. Men may feel they disappointed their father figure, and because of this, his approval was withheld. There may be specific messages about what needs to be done regarding achievements or behaviors before the father can give his blessing. When this scenario is played out, it can seriously affect the father/son relationship, resulting in hostility, hurt, or emotional coldness. The specific repercussions upon the unblessed son are that he feels incomplete and unworthy.
Many men wonder what is wrong with them; what tragic unlovable flaw do they carry that their father could not or would not bless them as a good man? The son concludes he is not worthy of love, respect, or care. Sadly, even if the son has many others around him who see the good in him and let him know it, his father's perceived disapproval can trump them all. He continues to operate in that frozen little-boy mode of thinking, looking to see if this latest round of accomplishments finally brings him up to snuff.
The hard work that many of these sons need to do involves getting to know their fathers as real people beyond the role of parent. This will open their eyes in a compassionate way to the notion that their fathers also have their own hang-ups and conflicts about being men. The commandments affect each age-group, and tragically, the pain from one generation of men is often passed on to the next. If a man's father carries his own wounds, this has no doubt impacted his ability to give the blessing his son deserved; it had nothing to do with the son's worth as a man. In fact, often a father unwittingly tries to make his son a better man in the areas in which he himself falls short. Depending on the father's own level of conflict in these matters, it can sometimes lead to over-the-top reactions when he sees his son following in his footsteps. The deeper spirit of helping his son 'do better' can originate from a good place but can come across in damaging ways. Later, we will explore how sons of all ages may have to deal with this issue, grieve, and make peace with the 'father wound.'
'If you don't please your mother, you must marry someone like her.'
The smothering mother is another idea built into cultural lore. It usually conjures up an image of boys tied to mom's apron strings. However, if we look closely, this smothering is not really gender-specific and can occur with either parent. It involves a caregiver who is unable to keep his or her own needs and biases in check when it comes to the son. Smothering is really about squelching a budding sense of individualism and authenticity. This can take a number of forms, and one stereotypical version involves a boy being lulled into a rather unhealthy relationship with his mother. Because of unfinished work on the mom's part, including not having an emotionally fulfilling relationship with her romantic partner, she may turn to her son to help with the empty feelings and loneliness. Mothers with smothering issues dress their boys up as the little man they always wanted but never had. They elevate them from the status of son to emotional partner. Moms confide in and depend on them in ways that are not appropriate. Some may even be more than a bit jealous when their boy begins to take note of other girls.
This is a destructive arrangement for everyone involved. The ultimate outcome of the situation is that both the son and the mother will remain emotionally unfulfilled. The son cannot really assume the role that the mom needs and is left with an emotional legacy. He may feel angry or put upon when he thinks about his relationship with his mother. There may be struggles to put distance between him and her so he can live his own life. Some of this may follow him into adulthood. You would think that when he comes of age and begins looking for a romantic partner, he would run from anyone bearing the slightest resemblance to a smothering caregiver, but sometimes the exact opposite happens. He chooses someone who also has some smothering tendencies—not because he is a glutton for punishment but because it is what is most familiar to him, what he is comfortable with in an uncomfortable way. In other words, he has unfinished psychological and emotional work to do that centers on his own worth as a man. The unconscious hope is that by replaying old scenarios with new people, there will be a different outcome. In this case, he wishes to be in a loving relationship without the risk of losing his sense of identity. We will look at the legacy of a son's relationship with his caregivers and how it can unwittingly guide men in many avenues of their lives.
'Being a man is a 24/7 job.'
Researchers have noted that trying to fulfill all the duties related to being a man can become a strong preoccupation. One of the difficult things to appreciate is that being a man is a 24/7 job. You really are never off duty, and you're always on call. A man never knows when someone or something will ask him to account for his manliness. When this happens, he can't say, 'Well, I think I will take a holiday from being a man today.' Not only is he taught the stringent rules for being a man, but he must follow them at all times.
The closest thing a man gets to a break from the commandments is when he is sick. I am sure you know the widely held impression about tough men acting like babies when they are under the weather. Colleagues may look at them in disbelief and say, 'What is wrong with Sonny today? He looked kind of misty and told me how much he really valued our friendship . . .' 'Well, he has been sick lately; must be that bird flu going around.' For a man to deviate from the commandments, he needs a written doctor's excuse. When a man is given the social nod of approval to show off-limit parts of himself, like vulnerable emotions or neediness, there is usually a flash-flood event; after all, these natural parts of being human have been pent-up for a long time.
Added to this burden of constant self-scrutiny about measuring up to the commandments is making sure that others (and sometimes oneself) are not aware of any shortcomings. Much effort and work is invested in keeping all of this stuff hidden from view. Sometimes I ask male clients to envision what they would do with all the leftover emotional and psychic energy if they were not so preoccupied with adhering to the commandments. I often see a light go on in their eyes as their imaginations run wild. They could get to the novel they always wanted to write, really connect with their partner and kids, or finally chart a course that feels authentic and rewarding. If you are a partner or wife, you might also feel this same exciting jolt at the prospect of your man having more freed-up resources. This may transcend the ultimate 'Honey-do list' where his surplus of energy moves beyond finally cleaning out the gutters or sometimes watching the kids to entering into a new phase of life where he is able to connect with you in ways thought impossible before. Everyone benefits when a man finds peace with the commandments.
'A man must follow the commandments even if it causes him to be emotionally stunted or leads him off track.'
The commandments can leave many men at risk for becoming emotionally stunted or simply lost. I have discussed elsewhere the notion of the 'fragile masculine self'; this is when men miss out on the emotional sustenance needed to become their own unique person and instead carry a sense of brokenness inside they feel compelled to hide even from their closest relations. As noted in a previous section, the strains related to being a man (i.e., male gender role conflict) have been charted for some time and reflect serious troubles.
However, recent research suggests that men begin to feel the brunt of male socialization as boys. Starting in the formative years, a man learns to bend himself to others' whims, which gets him off track in terms of being his own man. The values that should form the basis for his core sense of identity and be a source of strength throughout his life instead get misplaced or mislabeled and cast aside. When a partner, parent, or friend asks who he really is, he might have more success describing the persona he feels pressured to assume rather the actual makeup of his own internal world and values.
It is ironic that one of the things society values most is a man who has his own unique style and sense of individualism, yet the commandments can actually separate him from that foundational aspect of who he is. Men are taught to conform at all costs instead of becoming their own healthy versions of what it means to be a man. Unfortunately, we have been grappling in the dark for a while now, trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all version of masculinity. Many pop psychology books will tell you otherwise, but the truth is, there isn't such a thing. As long as we ask men to adjust to the newest and latest fad of masculinity, they will continue to be lost to themselves and to those they love.
I'm offering a different and subsequently more difficult path, a tailor-made version of masculinity based on who a man actually is—his genuine values, disposition, and character—in short, his true sense of self. Let's stop asking all men to fit into a size forty-two regular. Instead, we can value a man for finding his own healthy fit and style; this in turn will help propel him on to success and contentment in both work and love. Instead of lifeless zombies or frustrating man-children, imagine a mature, grown-up man who is a fully functional, responsive partner, able to be his own man and yours too. If you are reading this book, no doubt you have a vested interest in this outcome. By helping your man find his way, you will enrich your life as well. While a man must ultimately do this work himself, this book is a guide to assist you in the process. Welcome to the secret lives of men.
'The Commandments of Growing Up Male'
-Toolbox Tip: Challenging the Commandments
The astute observer may notice that many of the commandments are interlocked and interrelated. For instance, the second commandment, 'Fear the feminine,' causes many men to funnel all their emotions into sex or aggression (the third commandment), and this in turn causes affection to always be associated with sex (the fourth commandment). If these commandments stay in place, they can keep a man imprisoned within a dysfunctional structure.
But imagine some big game of Jenga, or pulling a bottom support from a house of cards, and how that affects the whole structure. The same can be done when a man begins to question, or better yet, replace the commandments in his life with healthier beliefs. This may cause the outdated structure to collapse, freeing him up to examine his life and begin living on his own terms. While in theory that may seem like an easy enough task, some men may really struggle with letting go of even one of these commandments. It takes a lot of determination and hard work; after all, these are 'truths' that have been ingrained in most men in their formative years, which means they are particularly hard to shake. Adding to the difficulty is that many of the commandments have a painful emotional legacy attached to them. To work through these commandments means revisiting raw past events that helped create them. You, as a partner, parent, or friend, can learn to be there for the man in your life as he struggles through each one.
Take a moment and consider the man in your life; go down the list of commandments and check each one that seems to apply to his particular struggles. You may even write down a specific example that illustrates the conflict to determine the commandment's intensity. Both the number of commandment conflicts and their intensity will give you a rough estimate of the impact they have on him. This in turn will also give you an idea of how much work may lay ahead for him. Conflicts that are long-term can have a draining effect, not only on his notion of being a man but also on his ability to give extra energy to other areas like work, love, and connecting with you. Think about how we all have a limited amount of psychological energy. If he burns a good portion of it trying to keep old conflicts and struggles at bay, it will eventually have an impact across the board. After all, he runs into his notion of being a man in every single aspect of his life from employee/employer, to husband, father, and friend.
©2008. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Secret Lives of Men by Christopher Blazina, Ph.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.