In a recent Man Rules podcast, with host Dan Griffin, Randy Flood discusses how growing up male can create unique problems, belief systems, ways of doing relationships and of identifying oneself in the world. Through male socialization, society provides specific ideas of what being male means: Strong, taciturn, stoic, immutable. Vulnerability is not on the list. Flood sees those ideas of masculine identity changing in subtle ways. A new generation is discovering the freedom to be who they are and to express themselves in ways that help build long-lasting friendships, stronger intimate relationships. They, and some of their elders, are now asking the question, “can being vulnerable be good for men?” Here are excerpts from the conversation.

Men’s Struggle with Intimacy

Flood: What we talk about is that a lot of us are socialized into half of our humanity and trying to reach the pinnacle of masculinity. So even men who don’t have issues with violence, let’s say, can have problems with relationships with other men. They put all their eggs in one basket, shall we say, and their intimacy needs and their sense of human connection comes from their wife. A lot of times men will experience loneliness ’cause they don’t have connections with other people because there’s so much about masculinity about not getting close to other men and doing shoulder-to-shoulder activities but not face-to-face, revealing feelings, sharing thoughts, feelings, vulnerabilities, insecurity. So I think we have men who also struggle with the high bar of masculinity, of always questioning whether they’re man enough, whether they have the masculine prowess to be able to be considered part of the man-pack as we call it. So a lot of men secretively struggle with self-esteem issues because it’s an unrealistic bar that we give men about how to be a real man.

And then the other issue that we see is that men will have emotional literacy issues in that we’re not trained to be emotionally literate ’cause feelings are for sissies, feelings and emotions are for girls, and so a lot of men don’t have a good relationship with their interior life. And so, it’s important that men, who are listening, begin to see that it’s not your fault when you’re socialized into these areas where you might have some deficits and struggles, but there’s ways in  which you can reclaim your full humanity, ways to work on yourself and to be a fuller human being with deeper connections to people, a more introspective life, even though you might not struggle with violence or addiction.

Male Socialization

Griffin: The male socialization piece has always been so interesting to me. You know, that’s where I talk about the man rules. And I was doing a training one time, and a woman said something – after we do these multi-day trainings and overnight give these assignments – and for women it’s to just have an open conversation with your man about the man rules. And her husband said “You know Fight Club, the movie Fight Club, the first rule of Fight Club?” “What?” “You don’t talk about Fight Club.” And what the man said to his wife was “the first rule about the man rules is that you don’t talk about the man rules.” And so how do we … for men who are at a point where like this is not even on their radar and it’s not something that they really want to talk about or know how to, how do you get some movement there?

Flood: That’s a really good point and I think that that’s one of the reasons we run groups because there’s so much pressure on men to not talk about it, as Terry Real identified in his legendary book, “I don’t want to talk about it.” That’s part of the masculine identity. As this person was saying, “we don’t talk about Fight Club,” is that we don’t let women and other men behind the curtain you know to see the little old man working the levers of the Great Powerful Oz. They’re not allowed back there.

And so there’s a lot of men that keep that curtain drawn, and the rule’s very clear that I deal with my insecurities, I deal with my fears, my anxieties, my sense of loneliness, my uncertainty, all of that I deal with on my own because that’s what a real man does. A real man is a Marlboro man, he makes it on his own. He doesn’t burden people with his problems. That’s what women do. That’s what sissies do. That’s what weak men do. You figure it out.

Until you can break down that rule and have men understand that there’s strength in being able to reach out to other people; that we’re born for intimacy; we are pack animals; and there’s ways in which we become stronger and better people when we can make connections with other people and let people into our lives. That’s not weakness; that’s wisdom. And I think as we move into the 21st century, into a connection economy, a service economy, where relationships are essential to being a fit individual, I think we will, hopefully, begin to cultivate a different kind of masculinity that’s not so rigid and narrow that leaves men alone and armored and with masks on.

A Different Masculinity

Griffin: When I do my trainings and I have conversations, people are telling me all the time, what they say is, “well that’s already happening Dan. I mean, the younger generation, it’s a different masculinity that’s showing up.” And my response often is, “yes, that is true, but I don’t know how consciously-engaged these men are in really understanding the depth of male socialization and how much that can show up in their lives when they don’t necessarily see it.” And so that’s what the challenge is I think for the younger generation who, when I talk to them, they do have a different sense of masculinity but what they don’t seem to have a sense of is how powerfully those man rules, those traditional ideas, still impact them. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Flood: Yeah. I would agree that we are making progress. So, it is a hopeful notion that we are moving, and the younger generation of men, the Millennials, if we want to call them that, are showing greater ease at making connections with each other, less homophobia. I have a son who’s 28 years old and he grew up hugging his friends and that’s just something you know, growing up in the 80s you just didn’t do that, you know you were called a “homo”. There was just so much prohibition around men showing affection to other men because, again, in the man culture, we equate the desire for human connection with wanting sex. What a limited view of human connection! Pretty anatomical; not much soul and heart in that.

And so, I do think we are making strides and changes, but I do think it’s slow and I think that to shed some of those old beliefs about what it means to be a man, it’s gonna take time. And you have some men, some factions of men who are more evolved and further along in that process and we still have a whole host of men in middle America, in rural areas, in other situations, that they’re still buying into the traditional view of masculinity. So I can say that. And I’ll just say that I think although we see men reaching out and making connections with each other, I still think there’s a lot of the rules about vulnerability and seeing that as weakness and men struggling to share on a deep, deep level their vulnerability. And I think that there’s still a lot of competition and males functioning in hierarchy and they don’t feel safe being vulnerable with other men because they feel like they’re going to be marginalized or seen as inferior. And so I still think there’s work to be done on helping men be more vulnerable with each other.