Toxic masculinity is like a suit of armor. You feel trapped within. You want to caress, but all you can do is crush. You want to be seen in your humanity, but no one can see you behind all the plate armor, yourself included.
Today I want to take a closer look at the armor and explore the parts that make it up. This is, at the same time, to present a language we can use to talk about what it means to be a man today, and what’s actually happening when masculinity turns toxic.
Start with an interesting statistic, relating to disagreements between intimate heterosexual partners. I will ask same-sex partners in the room to decide for themselves how this might speak to you. The statistic comes from the work of John Gottman, Ph.D., who has revolutionized the study of marriage by using rigorous scientific procedures to observe the habits of couples. Through careful observation over many years, he has determined that when a couple disagrees with each other—doesn’t matter whether the marriage is happy or unhappy—a whopping 85% of the time it’s the wife who brings up the touchy issue and pushes to resolve it.
The wife brings up the touchy issue, and, 85% of the time, what does the husband say out loud? I don’t want to talk about it.
If she is successful in engaging him, and he’s in the conversation whether he likes it or not, what’s your best bet about what he’s thinking? I’ll do anything to make her shut up.
The man sounds like he’s feeling trapped. He might think it’s because of her, but it’s not.
Listen to what Gottman says:
“In 85% of marriages, the stonewaller is the husband. This is not because of some lack on the man’s part. The reason lies in our evolutionary heritage. Anthropological evidence suggests that we evolved from hominids whose lives were circumscribed by very rigid gender roles, since those were advantageous to survival in a harsh environment. The females specialized in nurturing children while the males specialized in cooperative hunting.
“As any nursing mother can tell you, the amount of milk you produce is affected by how relaxed you feel, which is related to the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain. So natural selection would favor a female who could quickly soothe herself and calm down after feeling stressed. Her ability to remain composed could enhance her children’s chances of survival by optimizing the amount of nutrition they received. But in the male, natural selection would reward the opposite response. For these early cooperative hunters, maintaining vigilance was a key survival skill. So males whose adrenaline kicked in quite readily and who did not calm down so easily were more likely to survive and to procreate.”
Gottman goes on to say, “To this day, the male cardiovascular system remains more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress. For example, if a man and woman suddenly hear a very loud, brief sound, like a blowout, most likely his heart will beat faster than hers and stay accelerated for longer. The same goes for their blood pressure — his will become more elevated and stay higher longer.”
The husband feels trapped when the wife wants brings up the touchy issue, but both he and she need to know that she is not the bad guy. There is no bad guy. It’s evolution. It’s biology. Male bodies experience emotional overload more quickly and more intensely than female bodies do.
Men’s bodies are softer and way more vulnerable than they know.
And when men don’t know this, or consciously work with it, they compensate with the armor.
One’s intimate partner wants to discuss a touchy subject, and the man, wearing his armor, stonewalls. Shuts down.
The toxicity is oozing here.
It would be far better if he simply acknowledged that he, by virtue of having a male body, experiences emotional overload more quickly, more intensely, and for a longer period of time than his partner. Maturity would then dictate that he’s going to proactively learn techniques for tolerating the fire of his emotions.
Genuine male maturity is just that. To be able to stand in the fire of your emotions and be calm.
One of the lies that men are told is that masculinity is about something external. Muscles. Paycheck. Sportscar. Lover on his arm.
No. Masculinity—mature masculinity—is fundamentally interior. When a man’s interior life remains unknown by him, he can never be mature. That’s when it turns toxic. He reflexively reaches for the armor, and what he does is not necessarily something big and egregious. He can do small, everyday things too. Pouting. Being sarcastic. Being critical. Being passive-aggressive. Being over-controlling.
This is toxic masculinity too.
Today we are turning our investigation inward, to understand why.
Consider this story from David Wexler, Ph.D., which he tells is his book When Good Men Behave Badly. That’s right—toxic masculinity is by no means the sole preserve of bad men. Here’s the story: “On a leisurely Saturday afternoon, I returned home from food shopping, put the groceries on the kitchen counter, and headed off to my daughter’s room to say hello. She was sitting and reading a magazine. She looked up at me with one of her beaming smiles. This is a terrific mirror.
“Then I looked around her room. World War III had descended: clothes everywhere, books and papers strewn—all parents know this story. I shook my head and smiled and said, ‘So when’s the maid coming?’ I knew better. My wife and I had made a firm pact to leave the issue of the darn room alone and, like all intelligent parents, keep our battles to the big ones. But I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
“My daughter’s smile turned to ice. She glazed over and gave me a dismissive wave. I left, feeling stupid. And injured. Her glazed and scornful look was like the broken mirror, and it reflected back a picture of myself I didn’t like.
“So I walked into the kitchen, where my wife was putting away some of the groceries. She said casually, ‘Oh, I wanted those little yogurts. The ones you bought are too big.’ On the scale of nasty and critical comments, with 100 being horribly insulting, this was about an 11. But I exploded nevertheless. ‘Fine! You don’t like the way I shop, I’ll just do it all over again. Give me those yogurts! Give me the receipt! I’m going right back there and getting them exactly the way you want them!’ My wife looked at me and said, ‘What the heck’s wrong with you?’
“I stormed out to the store. I came back in a huff, slamming there door, new yogurt in hand. My wife was sitting on the couch. She calmly repeated, ‘What the heck’s wrong with you?’ We talked for a while, and it all fell into place.”
And that’s the story. Let’s now get to the place where they eventually got, sitting there on their couch.
Did you see how Wexler put on the armor? “Fine! You don’t like the way I shop, I’ll just do it all over again.” This is a good man behaving badly.
But why? Something about broken mirrors, something about feeling injured.
Wexler is using language from a theory called “self-psychology.” The theory paints a picture of where a person’s sense of self comes from. It’s never self-created. It’s never do-it-yourself. It’s always created through interactions between people. As in: The young child says to his mother or father, “Look at me! Look at me!” And he’s doing this because he feels a deep internal need to look into the faces of his parents and see himself reflected back. He needs to see their eyes bright, which say to him You are wonderful. He needs to see their smiles, which say to him You make me happy. He needs this to happen over and over again, until a positive contagion has taken place, and he is able to create these feelings for himself: I am wonderful. I am happy.
Most people probably know what it takes to learn how to ride a bike. But few people really know what it takes to learn how to have a functioning self.
Self-psychology tells the story.
It also helps us understand why there are so many selves out there and in here that sometimes—even most times—don’t feel vital and worthy. Selves that are like leaky cups. Joy is poured in, and it isn’t held, it drains out, the cup has cracks. The mirrors that were supposed to mirror vitality and worth back to us were unreliable. Sometimes whole, sometimes broken. Even in the best of situations, the mirroring we received while growing up could have been incomplete. “The child thus develops,” says Wexler, “gaps in his sense of self: he mistrusts and disrespects his own internal signals and states; he doubts his own self-worth and competence. He desperately turns elsewhere for validation and he becomes excessively sensitized to signals that might suggest that he is unappreciated, unneeded, or unsuccessful.”
Wexler is a good guy. And like all good guys, he’s got gaps in his sense of self. The mirror of his daughter, when she beams that beautiful smile at him, feels so good. But when her smile turns to ice, it gets through a gap in his self and it stabs at his very heart, and he feels crushed by shame. Which is intolerable. The shame feeling is like being choked to death. So you fight back, ferociously.
All this is as true for women as it is for men. It’s just that men are far less likely to be aware of these dynamics and they are far more likely to withdraw or act out when their needs are not being met.
And there’s a third thing, too. It has to do with the uniquely powerful role of intimate partners in a man’s life. Wexler’s daughter just set the stage. It was Wexler’s wife, when she made the comment about the yogurt, that made him explode.
Because of the look of love, and what happens when it goes away.
Remember that song? “The Look of Love”?
The look of love
Is in your eyes
A look your smile can’t
Well it takes my breath away
I can hardly wait to hold you
Feel my arms around you
How long I have waited
Waited just to love you
Now that I have found you
You’ve got the look of love
It’s on your face
A look that time can’t erase
Wexler says that this look is one of the most potent forces in the psychology of the male. Men crave to be seen like this by their intimate partner. To be seen like this is to look into a mirror that reflects back an image of a man who is sexy, smart, competent, important, wanted. Men give so much power to this look, that when it does go away (despite what the song says), when the mirror is broken, when the honeymoon is over, when your wife tells you that you got the wrong thing of yogurt, it’s truly, truly shattering.
So you put the armor on, to defend against the shame.
I really want us to hear this part: how heterosexual men invest incredible power in the women in their lives, so much so that a woman can feel oppressively burdened by this and a man can feel humiliated by the degree of his dependency on her.
It is a twisted-up dynamic.
For one thing, women, for men, can trigger emotional awakening. In the presence of his beloved, a man feels emotional aliveness and freedom. Straight men can express themselves with women in ways they never would with other guys.
For another thing, women, for men, are often the definers of manhood. You know you’re a man if your woman says so. “All my life,” says one of Wexler’s clients, “I have been sure that I was weak, a coward. Because I never stood up to my abusive old man…. But when I start to tell Jeanette about these feelings, and she looks into my eyes and starts tearing up, and she tells me how much closer she feels to me, it’s like she believes in me. If she sees me as being okay as a man, then maybe I am.”
It’s so understandable, that a man would give so much of his power to his woman.
The problem, again and again, is the toxic masculine armor, and what causes a man to put it on.
Wexler’s wife tells Wexler that he didn’t get the right yogurt, and he explodes because she does not look at him with the look of love, but he needs that look desperately, to feel validated as a man.
It’s not just yogurt we’re talking about here. It’s his manhood at stake!
As for Wexler’s wife, afterwards, she’s just sitting on the couch, going “What the heck just happened?” She’s missing her partner. She never signed up to be where the buck of Wexler’s masculinity and general self-worth stops. She just wants someone to be her comrade in a challenging world, where messy daughters can make you want to pull out your hair, and where much, much much worse can happen. (The suicide of people you love.)
That’s what she wants, and that’s what the partners of all men want, gay or straight.
Here is what men need to do, to achieve a more mature masculinity.
Number one: know that true masculinity is about what’s internal, not what’s external. Don’t show me your paycheck, show me how you soothe your vulnerable male body when you’re feeling stressed out. Show me how, when you are in an argument with someone and the wheels of your composure are coming off, that you know how to take care of yourself, and the way you do that is to ask for a 20 minute time-out. To ask for what you need.
Number two: take back some of your power from your intimate partner. The look of love and its absence will always be a tremendous influence, but we need to get real. Our partners have complex lives of their own, worries and fears and flaws of their own, and they do not necessarily say things or make decisions in ways that are purely calculated to hurt us. It’s not always about us! But isn’t that the self-talk we can indulge in, to explain how we’re hurting? She said the thing about the yogurt because she wanted to make me feel bad! No! “The realistic goal,” says Wexler, “is for you to become more resilient and flexible about the quantities and qualities you need in order to feel reasonably fulfilled. In other words, to learn to focus on the half-full glass of what you do have rather than on the half-empty glass of what she was supposed to offer all the time but doesn’t.”
Finally, the third thing men need to do, to achieve a more mature masculinity: cultivate a “we’re in this thing together” attitude with your intimate partner. I’m not sure it’s possible to cease from desiring the look of love from one’s intimate partner. I’m not sure it’s possible to be unaffected by its absence. But what is possible is to intentionally bring yourself back to the image of you and your partner as comrades in a world full of challenges, and if she’s not looking at you right now with the look of love, don’t allow your hurt to make you think she’s the enemy, and therefore you put the armor on, and you criticize, you say sarcastic things, you pout, you go all passive-aggressive, and so on. What you do instead is you take a deep breath, and you say to yourself, “We’re in this thing together. She’s in a foul mood and has been under a lot of stress lately. But she won’t be like that forever. It’s just temporary. She’ll bounce back. We’re partners. We’re in this thing together.”
One, two three. Do these things, and you have just taken the armor off, and you’ll keep it off.
Because you don’t need it.
A better life is waiting for you.