By Lisa M. Jensen
Copyright 2005 The Grand Rapids Press
All rights reserved. Used with permission

Boys will be boys.

American culture says they play rough, love sports, hate dolls and don’t cry if they get hurt — unless they’re sissies.

If they grow properly into real men, they’re strong and successful and good providers and don’t empty dishwashers. They never would look their spouse in the eye when there’s a strange noise coming from the basement during the night and say, “Let’s flip a coin to see who goes down there, honey. I’m scared, too.”

Who wants to hear — or admit — that?

“Men often remember statements growing up like, ‘You’re all right, stop your crying.’ ‘Take it like a man.’ Or ‘Rub it off,’ ” said Randy Flood, a therapist and director of the Men’s Resource Center of Western Michigan at the Fountain Hill Center in Grand Rapids. “The problem is, a lot of things are rubbing off in the wrong ways.”

He knows. Since the center opened last year, he’s heard many stories from men who abuse alcohol and drugs, batter their wives, can’t hug their kids, suffer from road rage, pick fights in bars, make streets unsafe, work excessively, battle sexual addictions, fall into easy rages or emotionally abuse others.

The center seeks to offer different options for men to learn more about men’s issues and why they act in certain ways. In June, it held a men’s retreat. This fall’s expanded schedule includes workshops, professional speakers, a drumming session and group activities.

Flood can rattle off statistics about how men dominate the nation’s jails, die an average of 10 years earlier than women and are responsible for 90 percent of the violence perpetrated in homes and streets. He talks with a lot of guys who were taught by their dads and peers that to be anything considered feminine — sensitive, compassionate, artistic, unsure, afraid — was very, very wrong.

Flood sees men who are scared.

“You put up a sign at a church saying you need men to build a garage for the Smiths, and you’ll get a big group who’ll help in that mission,” Flood said. “Put up a sign announcing a meeting for men to get together to talk about family life and work in a supportive and intimate environment, and you’ll be lucky if two guys show up. There is fear in being vulnerable around other men, of being shamed.”

And there is confusion.

“We live in a culture that celebrates men for physical strength, sexual prowess, exerting power, controlling others, suppressing fear and dominating at work and in the home,” Flood said. “Climbing corporate ladders and being a good soldier requires detachment from your emotions. On the other hand, the new criteria for having a successful relationship is emotional intimacy, sensitivity and communication.

“But what training have we given men to access their emotions and talk about their feelings? Or to empathize with another person’s feelings?”

From the get-go, boys generally as babies are handled more roughly than girls, Flood said. They are fed a steady diet of Legos, action figures, trucks and balls. They’re encouraged to wrestle, like sports, climb trees, take risks and conquer their worlds. If they’re going to be tough and independent, they can’t cry, coddle and be a mama’s boy.

He recalled one man’s memory of being eight and coming home crying. The boy’s father stripped him down to nothing but a towel wrapped like a diaper and made him stand on the front porch in front of his friends, “if he was going to be a baby,” Flood said.

“When the boy came running back in, crying harder, the father — a police officer — handcuffed him that way to the mailbox. People wondered why this boy’s adult emotional life was in such havoc — he physically abused his wife. Why did that father believe he was doing his son a favor? Why did he go to such great ends to teach him that crying and vulnerability were bad things?”

There is little tendency for society to sympathize with men who harm women, children and each other, observed Charlie Donaldson, a colleague of Flood’s who directs The Men’s Resource Center of Western Michigan in Holland. “While they need to be held accountable for what they do, they also need to be understood,” Donaldson said.

Very often, men are misunderstood.

“Men just don’t act depressed the same way women stereotypically do,” he said. “They don’t withdraw or stop eating or get on the phone. They get angry. Anger is the one emotion they have for years been encouraged to have. So they become angry and often abusive when they’re really feeling hurt or afraid or isolated.”

They need to deal with their core emotions instead of hurting other people. Calling a friend on the phone would be helpful, like woman do, Donaldson said.

The husband who constantly criticizes his wife, Flood illustrated, often wants her to feel so badly about herself she actually becomes thankful her husband keeps her around.

“Then he won’t have to deal with fear of abandonment,” Flood explained. “He figures if he builds up her self-esteem, if he nurtures her talents and helps her reach her goals, she might go out and find someone better.”

Because men desire intimacy as much as women but too often are trained to cut themselves off from their emotions, Flood said, they can become obsessed with sex as a way of achieving intimacy in their lives.

“But if you don’t have access to your emotions,” he added, “you’ll feel like you’re just going through the motions, jumping through whatever hoops to get that sex.”

Men are taught not to ask for help, Donaldson said. They don’t stop to ask for directions.

“For a man to stop and ask for help about an emotional problem he’s having is about the farthest thing on his mind,” he said.

Where men Find new Footing

Still, there are men who break out of the Act-Like-A-Man Box, with its expectations about who men should be, how they should act and what they should feel and say, Donaldson said. “And they reap the benefits.”

A 1986 Rockford High School graduate and current Rockford resident, Chuck Johnson served as captain of the basketball team, was named the football team’s most valuable offensive player and wore the homecoming king crown. Still an avid athlete, Johnson serves with his wife, Sheryl, as a leader for a couples’ small group Bible study through Lake Bella Vista Church.

“It’s very difficult for a lot of guys coming in to discuss things that aren’t right,” said Johnson, adding that growing up in a spiritually strong family enables him to share. “You know, men are supposed to solve problems on their own, without letting the whole world know about it. In the group, we’re called to create a safe environment. We have people here who are committed to keeping things confidential. When you feel safe, you feel comfortable talking about your challenges in life.

“You find that what you’re struggling with, another guy is struggling with too, or has survived the same struggle. The progress you can make is amazing.”

If you want to become physically fit, Flood said, you have to tolerate physical discomfort. If you want to develop yourself intellectually, you have to experiment and take risks.

“The world’s greatest innovators and creators were people who could experience failure and discomfort and keep moving on,” he said. “Emotional development is like that. There’s fear and insecurity. That’s OK. Stay there. Feel it. But rather than acknowledging their discomfort, some men criticize it and say support groups and counseling are crap or for women.”

Walking into a room of other men and sharing insecurities is courage redefined, Flood said. It usually takes time to recognize that.

“A new guy will walk into a domestic violence group and say, ‘Man, I didn’t do nothing. I shouldn’t have been arrested and have to come into this damn group,’ ” Donaldson said. “And then someone will answer, ‘You sound like I did 13 weeks ago when I first came in.’ ”

Not that change can be expected overnight, or even after a 26-week open group program for men who have problems with abuse, control and anger in the home.

Don Hunderman, a Grand Rapids resident, completed the program he voluntarily joined two years ago after deciding against suicide.

“The day my wife of 24 years had taken the kids and left me, I had physically abused her,” he said. “I had been a rotten person. Once I saw my oldest son at age 11 go after his mom with a baseball bat, after eight years of watching his dad be angry all the time. That anger gets handed down.”

Men in the groups are committed to breaking the chain of abuse and control, said Hunderman, who reunited with his wife after two years of hard work.

“I see now whatever I feel and do affects a lot of other people,” he noted. “I’m able to talk with people now, to other guys who have problems with their wives.”

Milk still spills in Hunderman’s life. But he handles it differently.”While my wife and I were separated, I had the boys over for dinner one night, and the oldest one knocked a glass of milk off the table,” he said. “The looks on their faces — they cowered back and waited for me to blow up. But I went over to them, to make sure they weren’t cut, and just cleaned it up. I’ll never forget how shocked they were.”

Hunderman speaks out against domestic violence. He does his share of household chores.

And when his young son gets knocked especially hard at football practice, he forces himself not to say, “Don’t cry.”