As the song goes, “Look what we've done to the old mother tongue, it's a crime the way we've misused it”; and, seemingly, regardless of the arena in which we speak, whether that be sex, health, drugs, or ways of life, it can be tough to plough through the thick dough that is the English language.
Now, whether or not you agree with the earnest brilliance of Eric Bogle, who humorously highlights the fluidity of language and how drastically it can change over the years, he does suggest that we’ve strangled, mangled, frangled and abused language too.
Whilst I reckon he has a point, our language must grow, develop, and evolve just like people, society, and cultures do. Besides, blending and compounding words is fun and lets us be more expressive. However, can our “harmless” language actually be harmful?
Language is powerful and can be used to shape the world itself; it is used to inform and misinform, to rally crowds (for good and bad), to promote equality and inequality, incite violence or advance peace, start wars or overthrow empires, to think about others in a certain way; the list of the powerful results of language and how we act on it is huge. Therefore politically correct speech has its place as it can help to inform, rally and promote for the better. However, sometimes, some terms get overlooked or ignored.
Have you noticed the numerous clever slang words starting with “man-” (e.g., man-bag, man-cave, manscaping, respectively defined as a male purse, sanctuary, body-hair trimming) that have being doing the rounds a while now? Indeed numerous such words have been repeated and impacted on society so much that they have become legitimate words in various dictionaries (e.g., manspreading) and are often used to apply humour to many maddening and malicious situations like men talking or walking or being sick or, like, you know, sitting.
The trick goes like this: get an already accepted word, “cleverly” add or incorporate the prefix “man-” and bingo you have a new blended word that reflects poorly on men. Typically, these words suggest that the man in question is being impolite, offensive, aggressive, sexist, vain, weak, childish, or whatever.
Unfortunately, the misandry associated with these words is often overlooked. It seems to me that many blended words can dismiss and undermine many men for being male; it’s as if men are being slammed or ridiculed just for being male—now that is my preferred definition of “manslamming”.
Shape of Words to Come
Whilst I generally shy away from anything political, especially when we are told what “correctness” is, I do appreciate that words shape how we see our world; this in turn shapes us. The behaviourists call this Rule Governed Behaviour whereby the rules we or others make about things influences how we respond to these things. So if we hear of or believe a thing to be negative we are more likely to feel negative about that thing. Indeed, sometimes when we hear a thing enough times we’ll start believing it; the sad and common example is if you tell someone enough times that they are stupid or worthless they’ll believe it and then see their world from a “stupid me” or “worthless me” point of view.
It’s peculiar how society accepts derogatory language against a certain cohort of society (in this case men) and would denounce such language if it was designed and used for another cohort?
Consider any of the “man-” words above or any other “man-” words you might know. Ok. Would it be acceptable or nice to replace “man-” with a different word that refers to someone’s religious beliefs, sexuality, country of origin, etc. I suspect not: It might even be illegal (good! that’s not the “equality” I want to see). But it seems to be acceptable to “mansparage” (my makey-uppy-word—definition: the art of using socially acceptable sexist, belittling, and/or abusive language against men to control how they sit, walk, talk, seek help, or exist).
Using such blended words can demoralize or dismiss a man’s physical or emotional needs and his attempts to seek help and talk about whatever is getting him down. It can also diminish his ability to connect with others and therefore get social support. These words can compound his misery, his negative feelings about himself, and can be abusive and controlling. Seriously, if you couldn’t reach out to someone without being rejected or mocked when you have the sniffles would you feel safe to reach out when you are feeling depressed? And without anyone to reach out to, we are alone and unsupported, alone and vulnerable, alone trying to find a personal understanding of our own struggles.
Sadly, whilst most of these “fun” words are derogatory or scornfully mocking of men, they can also undermine and minimise the difficulties we face and jeopardise our attempts in overcoming and addressing problems.
Overall, the “man-” message is clearly unfair: apparently, if we are to believe what is commonly said, we are a group of childish, self-pitying, whiny weaklings (Mantrum, Manbaby, Manflu) who are aggressive, anti-social, patronising bullies who can’t sit, (Manspreading), walk, (Manslamming), or talk correctly (Manterupting, Mandermining), can’t possibly have wholesome and platonic male friends (Mancrush, Man-date), and can just about manage to wait outside the shops staring dopily into space until the missus comes back and tells us what to do (Manstanding). Even single-tasking is deemed beyond us sometimes; likewise serious issues which are considered a female domain like anorexia (Manorexia) and anxiety (Manxiety) and opening up about feelings and, God forbid, getting emotional (Mangina, Manopause). Such “man-” words are harmful; they shut down debate or conversation, are belittling, derisive, polarising, and sexist, and their overuse and incorrect use conceals when someone really is being aggressive, dismissive, creepy, or patronising. How’s that for Mansplaining?
However, seeing as a trend exists for blending words based on aspects of manhood, let's change words fairly. Nicely. Why not use “men-” words to acknowledge the good things about men? Let’s use language to unite, to open conversation and debate, and to promote equality, relationships and health. Let’s recognise the menthusiastic, menterprising, menlightening, mentertaining, menthralling, and menchanting nature of many of our men. Let them speak, share feelings, thoughts, and opinions without any pejorative “man-” word responses that could close communication. Let’s put men into mental health.
As the song goes, “He aint heavy, he’s my brother” and it seems that despite the length and difficulty of life’s journey, some men are willing and caring enough to help share the burden; some men are strong enough and able to help their fellow man. Fantastic!
Now, whether or not you agree with Scott & Russell, it seems that their main message is that it is a great thing to help our brethren; to step up when things get messed up for another. But hands up who’ll speak up and ask for help for himself? I reckon most of us find this difficult; to what extent though varies with each man.
Help Avoiding Behaviours
Men are often characterised as reluctant to seek help in many problematic situations; from refusing to ask for directions when lost to ignoring that oddly shaped lump on a delicate part of the body, we’ll stereotypically go it alone. We’ll deny, avoid, self-diagnose, self-medicate: we’ll mis-trust those who may have an answer and pretend we knew the answer all along when one is rudely thrust upon us. The audacity of some fellas who think they have all the answers. Really!
And even when we do go to a doctor, for example, we’ll stockpile a list of ongoing worsening issues the length of a badly infected arm; issues that, if dealt with sooner, may get resolved quicker and not lingeringly fester and kill or maim us. However, there are lots of reasons behind our delaying or avoiding tactics which, sadly, is often crudely simplified as indifference or thrifty: whilst it is more complicated than self-disregard or saving a few bob, it is simple that such behaviour is losing us a few Bobs and Robs and Terrys, you name them.
Although health care could be more male friendly environments, our help avoiding behaviour is harming us, especially when we avoid caring for our mental health.
Help Seeking Obstacles
Basically, we’re not great at seeking help as barriers like opening times, how we are received, poor education about health, fear, financial difficulties, and a lack of experience communicating about health, are difficult hurdles for us to overcome. Naturally, such obstacles exist for women too; however, it is different for men.
Consider work. For those who do work, it can be hard to be down money or to get time off if the boss is not compliant; it might even jeopardise keeping or progressing in the job. However, as many men are likely to work full-time and/or have to travel far to get to work, this means that they’ll be working when most healthcare settings are open.
And consider healthcare education/systems. In general, the health system has evolved to provide more routine and regular check-ups for women who themselves are more likely to talk about their health and to be accepted for doing so by practitioners and friends too. Indeed, if a man talks about feeling a little ill or under the weather a common response is to joke about “manflu” which minimises the fact that he is poorly, dismisses how he feels, and jeopardises his future help seeking behaviour. Perhaps it’s time to give “manflu” the old one-two.
Unfortunately, men continue to get the message that they must be strong, not talk about how they feel, and not to see their health as a priority—which they don’t! Often, they only ask for help when it’s too late to deal with issues effectively or when they accept the influence (nudging not nagging) of their spouse.
Overall, men are less likely to talk about their health and to have limited repertoires, outlets, and experiences talking about health. Furthermore, health carers expect men to emulate women’s emotional processes and are more receptive to the language of women as they miss many verbal and non-verbal cues from men who may not be as direct or articulate about their issues as women are. Such will close down men’s expressing themselves before they’ve even gotten started.
Yet it seems that the biggest obstacle for men seeking help is the perception that asking for help “undermines” masculinity. For many, denying the plainly obvious problem is the go-to response; for some, this can be extreme denial whereby help (and even reality) is refused despite deteriorating health and abilities. The result is that many men suffer in silence whilst exercising great restraint: they keep a stiff upper lip, they bite their lip, they button their lip; they remain po-faced, poker-faced, straight-faced, let's face it, asking for help is considered girlie.
Traditional masculine beliefs holds health care and asking for help with health as feminine and contradictory to what men are supposed to be: it can be a challenge to admit a weakness, to open up and share a vulnerability, to change our ways, to be sick, to relinquish control, to allow help, to be protected, and to accept and enter a “female world”.
Consider when you (eventually) go to the doctors; typically, there are more women than men waiting to see the doctor; even the reading materials are more likely to be aimed at women. Likewise when you go to hospital, nurses and patients are more likely to be women. However, although the statistics just barely support such arguments, naturally, health care will be seen as a female area.
Similar views are taken for counselling: counsellors and their clients are more likely to be women—despite the long-time non-changing world-wide fact that more men die by suicide every year. Regarding Ireland, since the year 2000, 4 times as many men as women died by suicide per year—400 Men: 95 Women on average. Clearly, something is wrong here; but with men? with society? with the systems?—or with the whole shebang?
Health Seeking Behaviour Promotion
Whilst it is clear that men need to change how they go about getting help, it is also important that healthcare systems get better at helping men, rather than addressing the issues in terms of fault with men solely. Specifically, whereas it seems women “have” problems, men “are” problems. Such opinions which focus on gender only are more shaming and blaming and are counter-productive to improving the health of men in our families and communities. Furthermore, they do not address the real cause of the issues that leave men vulnerable, e.g., joblessness, fatherlessness, homelessness, poor education, severe mental health problems, and male unfriendly care services. Surely we can all do better! Well, it seems we can.
Clearly, there are costs to men not receiving help, e.g., rates of premature death, addiction, violence, abuse, and behaviour problems, are higher among males than females. But there can be costs to asking or getting help too, e.g., exposed to ridicule or reduced self-esteem. However, whilst research will highlight some potential problems these can be negligible to the positives received if the care is handled sensitively and properly from a male perspective.
Consider the following sections which attempt to clarify or reframe common issues with men.
Men are deterred from seeking help if they see their problem as abnormal. The irony is though that many of the “abnormalities” are actually quite normal. It all depends on experiences. For instance, a counsellor who regularly sees men who’ve been flattened by the demands of society realises (1) how common the struggle is for many men in coming to terms with “failing” to become a male “success object” and (2) how frequent a safe, private space to talk about their beliefs and attitudes towards life will provide a clearer plan to bounce back.
Unfortunately, our culture has been structured so that men become the clichéd and “normal” strong, silent types who don’t talk or share their thoughts or feelings about their concerns about their mental health, physical health, family, work, etc. In effect then, we end up with a bunch of men all individually holding a normal commonly held concern alone—erroneously thinking they are weak, inferior, or abnormal.
Thankfully, things are changing as more and more hugely successful, powerful, influential and popular people are disclosing and openly discussing that which is often considered taboo. This helps to normalise an issue. Take depression, for example. Surely when the likes of Bruce Springsteen, and many others, share that they suffer depression it can help change perceptions of what kind of men get depression—the fact that even “The Boss” gets blue should help make it ok, right? But we also need more everyday men talking about their depression too. And sadness. And anxiety. And distress, despair, shame, frustration, boredom, meaninglessness, what ever it is that is ailing us. We need everyday men to encourage others to talk about their mental health, to challenge the stigmas and negativity about talking about such things, to fight and not let such things beat us, and to share what it is that helps us cope.
Central Part of Me
Research shows that men are less likely to ask for help when it reflects poorly on a major quality aspect of their manliness. So, for example, men who “just get on with it” would probably think that getting help with anxiety is a threat to their self-esteem or to their manliness. Some of these men however may see that a hitherto unsolvable problem ought not to be let beat them. Instead, getting help could be seen as successfully competing with one’s emotional self and reclaiming or maintaining control and mastery to continue in the role of provider and protector.
Payback and Pay-forward
When they deem it for a social good, men are heroes, rescuers, givers—often, you’ll see a man changing someone else’s car wheel on a roadside or freely training kids in a community sports club. Often though, men give because they believe in its worth, men give because it’s a part of who they are, men give because they are giving back. Others times, they are paying forward. It’s good karma.
Effectively, whilst an issue is more likely to be normalised when lots of men give to it or talk about it frequently, men are more likely to ask for or give help if others are doing or going to do likewise, i.e., payback or pay-forward. So, for example, when the floods or snow storms hit, the great human spirit of togetherness and rallying around to help increases, as do the chances of a man asking for help with keeping his property and family safe—the perception is that it’s normal, it’s widespread, and it’s possible to payback.
The same applies for social movements like the Ice Bucket Challenge and Movember. Respectively, these normalised what would otherwise have been seen as very peculiar behaviour indeed: throwing a bucket of ice cold water over your head became acceptable and moustaches returned to the everyman instead of just for the likes of Freddie Mercury or Tom Selleck. In effect, Ronnies and soakings became cool, conventional, and common and included the elements of payback and pay-forward.
However, the perception of being able to payback is less so for an issue like addiction or depression, for example, as many will view these issues as not normal thereby decreasing the likelihood of payback or even asking for help. Therefore, the challenge is to change this perception, e.g., through relevant groups and bodies.
For instance, whereas many volunteer groups recruit people who have not being personally affected, many volunteers get involved because they used the services themselves. Indeed, many men’s help groups incorporate payback into their systems to help keep their groups alive and to harness the sense of belonging and ownership but also to preserve their members’ masculine status, i.e., not in debt, still strong and competent.
Although it’s good to talk, it aint good to be an open book; we must choose wisely what we say, when we say it, and to whom. For those who belong to groups whereby “staying strong” and being a “man’s man” is key to belonging, sharing a vulnerability can risk a man’s status within the group; therefore, many choose not to express their true feelings when they are feeling down. Such groups might respond disparagingly and such responses will damage a man’s self-esteem if his peers’/family’s opinions are important to him. Overall, most men will conform to masculine norms if this is important to retain identity and belonging to the family, community, team, workforce, etc. However, the costs of not talking to someone could be detrimental for one’s mental health.
For the many men who do not share the fact that they suffer with depression, the likelihood is that their social group believes and states that depression, asking for help, tending to mental health are signs of weakness. Furthermore, although many of these men may have considered getting help their choices are minimised by the fact that their group doesn’t talk about it or “allow” it and will therefore bury the feelings and not seek professional help or support from family and friends.
However, some men belong to groups (e.g., Church, volunteer, work, training, sport, or help groups) whereby talking about feelings with family and/or peers is important and seeking help is encouraged. Indeed, if help seeking behaviour is encouraged and framed as part of who we need to be as men (to fulfil our role as protector, provider, etc.) it further normalises getting help. It’ll make it ok.
Losing Some Control
Clearly, getting help does require handing up a bit of control. For example, if a man goes to the doctor he might have to wait, deal with delays, deal with uncertainty, follow directions, come back again for results, undergo a medical procedure; indeed, he may be attending the doctor because his other half told him to. Similar applies for going to counselling whereby one needs to ask for support, clarity, acceptance, understanding, empathy, maybe guidance from another person. Either way highlights that something has gone out of control and it needs to be reclaimed with the help of another person.
Furthermore, a man may feel that if other people find out that he is getting help he might lose face or standing within his community as he will be considered weak (see above). Such relinquishing of control is why, some say, men will refuse to ask for or accept help. However, key to challenging that belief structure is highlighting that we often have to take one step back to take two steps forward: sometimes we need to re-learn how to gain control; sometimes we have to give up control to get control; sometimes we need help in fighting the good fight; sometimes we need a hand.
Whilst it’s hard to stop responding in ways we’re used to, it’s also hard to start responding in ways we’re not used to. Overall though, things can be improved for men if each of us tackle the problems within ourselves and within our families, communities, healthcare settings, etc. Keep the following in mind when “men and health” are (not) being discussed:
Although many of us are more inclined to give than take, eventually, we all need a bit of help. It’s worth remembering that whilst part of the traditional masculinity is to retain control and be a provider and protector, sometimes we need to re-learn or reclaim our abilities to do so. To be at the top of our game we need to see our health as a priority. To be our best we need to be able to recognise and admit when problems exist, to tackle them head-on, and to not let them beat us. We need to trust the opinions of others whilst not losing our own self-belief and our own ability in helping others. After all, whilst it’s good to share your brother’s burden, it’s good to let him help you likewise.
As the song goes, “Let’s stay together” and, seemingly, when relationships contain trust, support, freedom, and acceptance—whether or not times are good, bad, happy, or sad—they can forever fulfil many needs in a man; they can even be rejuvenating. Beautiful!
Now, whether or not you accept the evocative evangelising of the Reverend Al Green, he does raise an interesting question: despite all the benefits for people to be in a relationship, why do people break up? It’s hard to understand.
Benefits of Bonding
Whether through marriage, civil union, or cohabitation (thank God the judgmental term “Living in Sin” has been replaced, albeit with an insipid, sterile term), when two people enter a long-term relationship the benefits are plentiful, e.g., longer life, better health, better sleep, less stress, more fun, and a sense of belonging. The list goes on.
However, within traditional relationships (i.e., marriage between a man and a woman), which have been researched in many cultures around the world, men typically benefit more than women from strong healthy loving bonds—although both parties usually have better psychological and physiological health than their single peers or those in non-harmonious relationships. (Such findings also occur within all types of healthy loving unions.)
Whereas women will benefit from healthy relationships, they will also receive similar and other forms of support from a network of friends and/or extended family. However, as men are notoriously atrocious for creating and maintaining social support they will instead reap the benefits of acceptance, belonging, care, trust, etc. from their spouse mainly or solely. Interestingly, this trashes the evolutionary notion that monogamy is for women only and that men are hard-wired to be doggedly acquiring multiple partners—it seems survival prospects are enhanced by long-term, committed relationships.
Of course, all of the above is generally speaking, not applicable to unhealthy relationships, and doesn’t explain how staying together well is achieved and/or maintained. So, regardless of where on the continuum a relationships starts—an awkwardly bumbling, mumbling, fumbling, and, thank heavens, partly forgotten courtship or a sophisticatedly smooth, suave serenade—what’s the best way to maintain and stay in a relationship if you’re lucky enough to (still) have one?
For some, despite their belief that kismet, cupid, or the Gods aligned the stars to provide the perfect partner, it can come as a shock to realise that their newly acquired partner aint perfect. Nevertheless, many persevere and overcome the fallout of many disastrous discoveries, e.g., the ends from which their toothpaste tubes are squeezed, political allegiance, amount of ex-es, or whether or not toilet seats, heating, or forks ought to be up or down. The list is forking endless.
Over time, within relationships, each partner gets to know the other more; each becomes more aware of the other's “imperfections” and, hopefully, more aware of their own shortcomings too! Perhaps those things that were initially cute or endearing eventually become bothersome and set one’s teeth on edge: perhaps one comes to accept and appreciate the foibles, the quirks, the habits, the oddities, the differences, and see them for the perfect imperfections that they are.
However, whilst successful couples will accept and respect differences, they will also frequently express their fondness and admiration for and accept influence from their partner and be willing to share power and control. Ultimately, all of this helps to harness their sense of appreciation, belonging, closeness, excitement, love, and respect—all of which, when lost, are reported to be the main causes of separation.
Matched and Latched
Naturally, the “Getting to Know you Stage” never really ends. Whilst successful couples know a lot about each other’s psychological worlds (histories, beliefs, wishes, ambitions, dreams, favourite things, regrets, stresses, worries, even secrets) they will also regularly update their knowledge or maps of what truly makes their partner tick. Such strengthens a relationship.
However, discoveries can challenge a relationship too. But can you imagine a relationship that is “perfect”; never an argument or a problem? Yuck! Blah! Ha! And not only that, surely it would be a bit creepily false or a bit dangerously untrue; like the Wives from Stepford Wives or John and Mary in Father Ted.
Whilst there are many types of relationships, research (by John Gottman) suggests three types of supportive, successful stable relationships: (1) A “volatile” couple, who are supportive of each other’s independence, frequently tease and mock each other, and have big, passionate, expressive rows which they see as a sign of caring and enjoyment—but not as enjoyable as the make-up; (2) a “validating” couple, who place great emphasis on unity and companionship, are sensitive to the needs of the other, rather expressive and passionate in rows that may eventually erupt after a slow start, but will mostly focus and/or end with validations of their partner/relationship; and (3) a “conflict avoiding” couple, who explore rather than explode, agree to disagree, emphasise their friendship, acceptance, and admiration of each other, and rarely leave an issue unfinished. Regardless of the pairing, similarity in approaches is the key.
Ultimately, it’s the mismatches that require more hard work or most likely end in separation as they experience a disconnection in the relationship that overall feels “off” or lacking of meaning or true connection and plagued with negativity.
Matched and Patched
Of course, all relationships (even healthy ones) contain some negativity: it’s how the negativity is handled that helps partners to solidify their relationship, more honestly connect and interact, and to remain holding hands years down the line.
When negativity arises, it’s important to be able to attempt re-connections with one’s partner and to accept and respond positively to such attempts. Often, these attempts can be fleeting so being switched-on to and building awareness of these is of paramount importance to any relationship.
Managing the inevitable conflict well is helped by knowing how some problems can be resolved and by accepting that some problems can never be resolved. Regardless of which, consider the following 5 Points of Negotiation: (1) start an argument or a “conversation” about an issue softly and gently, not harshly as that makes it hard to turn around; (2) repair as you go along, admit when you get it wrong, acknowledge and appreciate partner’s attempts of kindness, respect, repair, etc.; (3) self-soothe, do something to relax like breathe better, go for a walk or a time-out, to avoid losing control of thoughts, speech, actions, etc.; (4) accept partner’s influence, his/her point of view, and the fact you may be wrong; and (5) compromise where possible, negotiate, and identify that which is non-negotiable to help keep your core values intact and your needs respected and fulfilled.
Successful relationships communicate well; they honour and explore each other’s perspectives and learn to laugh at themselves; they create a shared sense of meaning and knit their lives together; they frequently do nice things for partner/relationship; they use “Caring Habits” (says William Glasser, as opposed to "Deadly Habits") that are supportive, encouraging, trusting, accepting, and respectful; and they all have far more positive exchanges than negative exchanges, especially when managing conflict.
Matched and Dispatched
Yet, even in unhealthy relationships communication can be very clear—mostly, though, it can be very cutting and/or controlling. Many try to control their partners in various ways: from a disapproving glance, criticism, belittling, to a forceful threat. External control can look like this: punish the "wrong-doer" then reward him/her for changing behaviour. In whatever form or approach, it attempts to force another person to do what he/she might not want to do. Whilst insisting on controlling others brings unnecessary suffering into peoples’ lives, it is widespread throughout society and destroys relationships because it destroys personal freedom. Furthermore, for change to occur, it is best, healthier, and longer lasting when it occurs from within a person rather than demanded, forced, or orchestrated by another person.
Nevertheless, many men (and women) find themselves falling into the traps of trying to control a partner with “Deadly Habits”; watch out for the next time you find yourself performing or recieving any of the following behaviours: criticising, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, or bribing. As, respectively, the potential message to the other person is that you are better and he/she is unworthy or inferior, guilty or at fault, irresponsible, in need of change, and ought to be afraid or in awe of you. Or maybe you are on the receiving end of the above. Either way, such behaviour can be corrosive to relationships as well as one’s self-esteem.
Overall though, it seems that whilst there are many forms of negative behaviour, there are four behaviours (“4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” says Gottman) that are the main contributing factors for conflict and/or separation: criticism, implying something is wrong with the person; defensiveness, warding off a perceived attack; contempt, behaviour that puts one person “above” another; and stonewalling, withdrawing from a conversation.
Such behaviours can appear in all relationships, and performed by either partner but generally speaking, when compared to women, men are more likely to stonewall and less likely to criticise. So, whereas criticisms can be clumsy exaggerations that are hugely harmful and damaging to a relationship and a person self-esteem and can come in various forms, often they are repeated when underlining issues are not initially dealt with as one partner stonewalled another. Stonewalling can be hugely hurtful and frustrating too as one person leaves (physically or metaphorically) the conversation and rejects exploring the issue with the other person who then feels rejected and uncared for.
Seemingly, however, contempt, which is less likely to occur in stable, happy relationships, is the biggest indicator that a relationship is in trouble and, if present, in the form of put downs or even a certain kind of smile, really ought to be resolved or explored before it damages the relationship (further).
Regardless of the state of your union, whether good or bad or happy or sad, consider the following:
Ultimately, the relationship is an entity itself which requires constant care and attention. Becoming more aware of oneself and one’s partner in a relationship is an ongoing process and needs vigilance to update one’s knowledge of the other. The challenges of accepting influence, sharing power, and control and remaining true to own self can be tricky to negotiate but the benefits of a fulfilling, healthy, loving relationship are huge and wide ranging.
As the song goes, “It’s a bitter situation and it’s taken more lives than one” and, evidently, a covert life produces perils aplenty like shame, regret, uncertainty, and perhaps death; yet for some, it seems, it’s better than coming clean and coming out as gay. Heartbreaking!
Now, whether or not you accept the insightful indecisions of Tom Robinson, he does pose a difficult dilemma for men who want a conventional life yet yearn for an unconventional life: live a life of truth or live a life of deceit.
Throughout society (e.g., family, peer-groups, media, institutions) the clear message is this: “Homosexuality is wrong”. Whether in classrooms, boardrooms, or sitting rooms, and even bedrooms, research shows that (subtle and not so subtle) anti-gay language and behaviour is rife. Indeed, regardless of your own sexuality, how many times have you heard, seen, or partook in rude, prejudicial, or abusive anti-gay language or behaviour?
And what about unspoken messages? Consider typical advertisements that use happy loving couples to sell you, for example, coffee, cars, or (God forbid) beds; would those couples be straight or gay? Most often the underlying message for men is you will be more of a man if you buy the product and in addition you will get the woman—not get the man!
Similarly, stories on the telly usually explore the exploits of straights, right? Pretty much everything is geared towards the “normality” of heterosexuality. Of course, the common denominator in viewers of adverts and programmes will be straight, so, fair enough, heterosexual plots and themes ought to be more frequently represented—just not as frequently though, as it’s not representative of the population. And besides, homosexual plots can illuminate, educate, and demystify a sensitive and relevant aspect of society, an aspect that was once, and still is for many, a “dirty”, painful, and misunderstood secret.
When storylines are done right, fair, balanced, unbiased, smart, and/or witty, and even when done brilliantly, boringly banal, homosexuality can be shown for what it is: normal. It can provide templates—as distinct from stereotypes—of gay-ness: it can raise awareness and concerns about homosexuality; it can highlight responsibilities, rights, and ways of being gay; it can debunk myths and challenge the various forms of nonsense that surrounds homosexuality; it can highlight the importance of challenging homophobia whether perpetrated by oneself or others. Ultimately, it can enable more “Copping-On” and “Copping-Off” and less “Copping-Out”.
Cop-On, Cop-Off, don't Cop-Out
Of course, nowadays, gay issues and characters are often portrayed favourably on telly. Rather than mockingly depicting gay men as flamboyantly foolish bumbling buffoons extravagantly ticking every camp box (remember the “quintessential queen” Mr Humphries—“I’m Free”), we now see wise-cracking well respected openly gay men like Graham Norton and Paul O’Grady—whose performances aren’t about sexuality, despite media attention often reverting back to it.
Indeed, a cursory glance at pretty much all popular culture would highlight the changing attitudes towards homosexuality; seemingly, it has become more acceptable, common, and/or discussed—even Irish politicians and GAA stars are coming out as gay. Whudathunkit! Mind you, not many soccer stars have come out of the closet since the stark and sad end to Justin Fashanu.
Yet even inside the incredibly homophobic (and some would say homoerotic) world of soccer, long gone are the days of outrageous to-dos and unfortunate hoo-has when two men kiss (EastEnders 1987) or nearly kiss (Fair City, 1996). No longer would it be ok to refer to these landmark telly events as “EastBenders” or “Sin City” as they were in print media at the time.
Legally, too, things have improved for the homosexual community in Ireland: from decriminalisation and de-medicalisation in the 90s to the landslide referendum result in 2015, there are more rights for LGBT people. Yet, still there is a lot of pain and confusion.
Some Scary Stats
Although, in some ways, this may be the best and safest time to be gay in Ireland, that doesn’t mean it’s easy or without it’s perils—especially in more rural parts of the country with minimal access to Gay Scenes and people. Despite progressive changes, prejudices, stigmas and undercurrents of homophobia in society remain and further changes are required.
When compared with heterosexuals, gay men are more likely to be depressed and anxious, abuse substances, self-harm, take harmful risks, or attempt suicide. Such gloom is mostly due to society’s negativity towards homosexuality and the rejection felt rather than actually being gay. Essentially, gay men internalise the frequent negativity they see and hear which in turn makes social compliance essential and acceptance of own sexuality (near) impossible. Ultimately, such experiences decrease one’s self-worth, self-esteem, self-respect, and understanding of own identity, and increases one’s need to avoid, escape, and numb true fantasies, desires, and feelings, and remain “in the closet”.
Indeed, even if a man is “out” and open about his sexuality he may still be damaged by the (perceived) threats of rejection and/or physical harm from family, peers, and society. This can manifest in various ways, for example, shame and compensation, before he becomes real in who he is.
Overwhelmed by Shame
Society’s constant heterosexism and homophobia creates an immense sense of internalised shame in the typical homosexual man. This stage of life mostly includes the “in the closet” period whereby one hides, denies, avoids, or rejects his sexuality.
Numerous homosexual men recognise their own difference (same-sex attraction) when they are young (majority pre-puberty) and experience society’s homophobia around the same time…and many quickly realise that it’s safer to keep schtum. Research of gay secondary school students show that whilst virtually all report regularly hearing homophobic remarks from peers which are generally ignored by teachers, most experience verbal, sexual, and physical harassment too.
Regarding the family, children form their identity through perceiving and rejecting or accepting parental values. For many who “come out”, mismatches in parent/child values leads to various negative reactions—e.g., (i) estrangement and rejection, (ii) physical/verbal abuse, and (iii) increased suicide ideation—which affects their own understanding and acceptance of self. In such cases boys/men may become ashamed of their own sexuality and may even pretend to be straight.
Such anti-gay bias and threat is rarely corrected and is caused by peers and authority figures. Consequently, many boys/men (i) hide their sexuality to avoid similar negative reactions and (ii) internalise societal and familial values and deny their own needs. In essence, they feel ashamed and have internalised the homophobia.
Indeed, throughout life, gay men often feel they need to hide their sexuality and adopt heterosexual mannerisms and behaviours. Of course, there are times when to keep safe, men need to conceal their homosexuality as there often can be a danger to do otherwise. Sadly, many men never reveal or act on their sexuality and disregard its importance; this internalised heterosexism is horrendously damaging to their true identity; but some men do “come out”.
Compensating for Shame
For the men who’ve accepted and disclosed their homosexuality, they may still need to overcome the obstinate sense of shame due to years of frequent, prevalent societal invalidation. For some, despite coming out and (partly) accepting their gayness, they fail to silence the shame and futilely compensate in many forms—from excelling in vocation, material wealth, sexual prowess, aesthetics, etc., to being the most out and proud, most flamboyant, exuberant, zealous gay man possible.
Such shame-compensation is extremely evident in the gay community with body image and contributes to increased incidences of body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviours, and gruelling exercise and diet regimes. Essentially, perceived invalidation begets attempts to attain tangible, aesthetic, or persona “perfection” to overcome psychological “imperfection” and hinders true personal growth as authentic validation is denied.
However, at some point, many will have a crisis of meaning—remain as before (behaviour is repeated/enhanced) or, ideally, achieve authenticity.
True identity and sexual expression grows through resolving feelings of uncertainty, turmoil, hesitancy, fear of rejection, punishment, and/or shame. When aiming to becoming more real with oneself, behavioural repertoires built on avoiding and compensating for shame are redundant. Instead, ambiguity grows as shame-fuelled behaviours are slowly replaced with new behavioural repertoires whereby more trusting, authentic relationships are formed.
There are various factors involved in achieving authenticity. These include healing past relationships traumas (abandonment, abuse, ambivalence, betrayal, etc.) and exploring acceptance, respect, and passions. The main factor, however, is integrity; specifically, being true to oneself and others, blending private and public selves, and resolving past hurt and trauma.
However, families (and social networks) can hurt and heal; therefore, controlling information (and potential repercussions of coming out) and synthesising public and private selves is essential. Whether coming out or controlling the information one reveals, integration of one’s sexuality is crucial to becoming the true you.
Come Out and Belong
Coming out is not a single event but a process of tentatively and continually assessing the environment and its people’s reactions. Although varied, theories suggest that gay men typically experience uncertainty and turmoil, denial, avoidance, and comparison with other homosexuals, tolerance, acceptance, anger with society’s prejudice, and self-integration/identity formation.
A sense of belonging is key to becoming authentic; belonging to a minority culture can even further harness validation, well-being, and self-acceptance and ease familial and societal alienation. Specifically, within a supportive group of gay people, nurturing and respectful friendships can be formed which promote the belief that one’s homosexuality is normal, can be fulfilling, honourable, and self-affirming, and can counteract society’s homophobia.
I’ve spoken with lots of men who’ve felt invalidated by years of homophobia and tried to overcompensate with futile goals of “Success” or “Perfection”. However, they realised that it gets better. By finding a safe place to truly explore their own real self, to be accepted for who and what they are, and to feel normal was fundamental to their well-being. (As it is for everyone.) Things to consider which can be helpful include:
Ultimately, healing the hurt and coming out safely are challenging but worthy processes; becoming open and real is enriching and precious; and shedding the shame is liberating, as it allows one to earnestly say “I’m Free”.
As the song goes, “Boys don’t cry” and, it seems, that regardless of the pain, sorrow, loss, misjudgements, or plain stupidity, the best thing to do is to conceal the hurt with laughter. Super!
Now, whether or not you agree with the approach of The Cure’s Robert Smith, who says he will do pretty much anything to get his lover back—apart from say sorry, remain truthful, explain the errors of his ways, beg forgiveness, or declare his love—he is hindered by trying to conceal his pain; avoiding showing his tears. But I reckon his point is typical of many of us because when was the last time you saw a man cry?
We're Told not to Cry
Picture the scene: a little boy of four or five years is running along and falls over, a minor scrape, nothing life threatening but he is hurt and a bit frightened. What will the adult caregiver say when he or she goes over to the boy? Would the adult response be different for a little girl? What would other boys say?
Traditionally, many men today would have been told when they were children to conceal the tears: “be a big boy”, “don’t be a softy”, “don’t be a girl”, “be strong”, etc. From a young age, we have learnt that our painful emotions are open to condemnation, are invalidated, and “ought” to be hidden. We’re accused of being weak, charged with being feminine, or publicly prosecuted for not being man enough—even boys must be manly it would seem. So we learn fast to suppress our feelings whilst ensuring that our facial expressions never give us away.
Ultimately, we quickly find that expressing vulnerability or caring is discouraged and is seen as the domain of the girls; and to do otherwise, runs the risk of being demoted in the eyes of our brethren and ourselves. Moreover, because we have had limited exposure to such things, we get awfully awkward when other men break convention and express vulnerability or caring: often, we’ll abort the conversation, we’ll mock or criticise, we’ll look down at our feet, or we’ll change the subject. After all, how do you know how to respond when you’ve had limited experience in talking about emotions? Indeed, how do you know how to feel if you’re not allowed to have emotions?
Despite it being a social construct whereby each of us gets a version of gender training, many of us think of masculinity as a natural thing. Naturally, there are differences in male and females but young boys and girls don’t differ much: many differences accrue when they meet with societies attitudes and values, e.g., we get gender specific names to be called, colours to wear, toys and games to play, and we get denied or granted the right to express our feelings: the divisive list is endless.
Men are discouraged in expressing their emotions and instead are told to keep schtum; they are encouraged to sacrifice their emotions by diverting their energies into wholesome and not so wholesome pursuits and to merely remain another cog in the wheel; they even get spun a load of codswallop in the glory that can be had in sacrificing (their) lives as a duty for a Cause, Country, God, Monarch, whatever. The message is clear; men’s lives and emotions are dispensable—and many of us struggle to find our way to be and to understand.
Hypermasculine and Hypomasculine
It’s a confusing, bewildering, map-less road to becoming a man. We each need a suitable male role model to lead a way (not to lead us away). Not that there is one definitive way that suits all; rather, a way that suits each man being true to himself. Without a father figure, we’ll falter, we’ll flounder, we’ll fade, we’ll fail.
For instance, many men overcompensate as they are unsure what being male is. Such men tend to become hypermasculine, exaggerating their masculinity. Oh you know these guys; the frantically uber-male who’s crass and cocky when he measures up and cripplingly cranky when he doesn’t. He’s a high achieving, ultra-competitive, non-relaxed, top dog who doesn’t respond well to simple demands. Down boy!
Such men are unfamiliar with non-competitive friendships or any real friendships at all perhaps; sadly, they have a limited ability to be vulnerable or to co-operate with other people and cannot cope with others being equal to them.
Then there are those who abdicate: they (partly) abandon their masculinity, preferring to remain as an adolescent and to avoid responsibility, growing-up, and stress and challenges of any kind—despite the fact that such avoidance is hugely stressful and challenging in itself; perpetual Xbox playing is their Call of Duty.
And of course there are those amongst us who were/still are a bit of both hypermasculine and hypomasculine, even if we’re not aware of it. For example, the Don Juan who demands his mammy washes and irons his clothes.
For years, children were raised primarily by women in a culture that said females were best/primary care givers. Maybe they are—I aint touching that one! Nevertheless, mainly, and for various reasons (whether they be personal, political, societal, vocational, etc.), men had limited to no contact with their children. Obviously, this minimised fathers being close enough to teach boys how to be men and reduced the amount of domestic male role models to show men the way to care for themselves and others.
Furthermore, children with limited access to suitable role models at home (or nearby) may have had few opportunities to see the interplay within relationships, thus curtailing their repertoire of how best to be in relationships: e.g., supporting, encouraging, listening, accepting, trusting, respecting, and negotiating. Worse for those without a suitable male role model who would most likely see adolescent machismo as a way of being and not a rite of passage; they neither know how to treat a lady nor how to be a man.
Overall, identifying how to be good and caring to oneself and others is fundamental for us and our relationships with others.
Seeking or Avoiding
In my counselling work, I see many men who come to me for different reasons. Some men recognise that by addressing their own psychological needs they also improve the needs of others in their family—such, they say, is their responsibility as a father, husband, son, etc., i.e., we need to care for ourselves to be our best for others. Other men, it seems, need a bit more persuasion to come to therapy and often, after a few resentful sessions, are glad they stuck with it as their well-being, relationships, and lives improved.
Whilst it’s fair to say that the stigma of men attending counselling is reducing it’s not gone entirely. Other barriers includes (non) coping style, not recognising there is a problem, being unable to talk about problems, and the perception that being “strong, silent, and unemotional” is incompatible with therapy, and the belief that one loses control and manliness over entering a “female” arena—it aint a female only place lads!
More and more men are entering therapy as they realise that society has stacked the deck against them by giving impossible rules to achieve and maintain their masculinity. We are starting to realise that masculinity is not solely measured by fighting, winning, providing, and/or protecting and that we are more than mere competitors and suppliers: we are more than our jobs or money or amount of stuff; we are not limited by our prowess, strength or any stereotype. Instead, we are realising that maintaining and/or acquiring mastery and control in our lives can be achieved by personal and in-depth explorations of who or what we are with a professional consultant. Many of us are exploring such things with our friends and/or family too—because we’re allowed.
So can we create modern rules of masculinity whilst truly honouring our own real manliness? I reckon we can but it needs to be unique to each man whilst recognising the strengths of others. Let’s not re-invent the wheel here. We got to be willing to safely talk about how we feel and to accept it when others do likewise. Let’s not chastise, criticise, or correct, and let’s take the responsibility for our own self-care.
Let how we feel about ourselves be dependent on who we truly are and less about how well we believe we conform to masculine norms. Let’s be able to pass on the wisdom of how to be a man to those who feel we are role models. After all, wouldn’t it be awfully sad if you had nothing to share? Ooops, I’m perilously close to showing some sadness here. I’m welling up. I might even cry.
As the song goes, “This is a man’s world” and, it seems, if it weren’t for men and our list of burly, brawny, brainy achievements we’d still be stagnating in some rank and wretched pool of backwardness of our own (non) making. Thanks lads!
Now, whether or not you accept the enlightened words of James Brown, AKA, the Godfather of Soul (or Sexism, or whatever you’ll have yourself), he does end his homily with an interesting point: despite the achievements, man is lost. I think Jimmy may have had a point because it can be tough being male.
Consider the following sad sobering stats: when compared with females, males are more likely to have severe problems with their behaviour, learning, or mental health, and more likely to be an addict, a convict, or a target of multiple nasties. Furthermore, whether by the hands of fate, oneself, or another person, men die younger too. Such doom and gloom in such a brief snapshot: as I said, it can be tough being male. If only we’d share our thoughts more on the important things: the stuff that gets us down or wears us down or is hard to shake, as well as the things that help us cope, gives us hope, and makes us better, happier men. If only!
But do we often share how we truly feel? To me, it seems, we are more likely to talk football than feelings or hurling than hurting and more likely to talk politics than say what makes us tick. Overall, we’re probably more likely to go to court than go to counselling.
Naturally, talking politics, news, sports, what have you, can provide a great sense of catharsis and understanding of the world. It helps us bond too. Similarly, attending big sporting, music, and social events can give a sense of belonging, purpose, and an avenue to express our emotions. But can we go further within and outside these arena? Can we really talk?
For generations we’ve been socialised to follow Gender Roles which said that a “Real Man” is strong, silent, unemotional, and immovable; you know, like a statue on Easter Island. A “Real Man” is competent: A hero who gets the job done; a no fuss, no wuss, kick-ass bad-ass with a shaken martini and steady nerve. Think Bond, Eastwood, Cooper, Wayne, the Marlboro Man. Simply put, a “Real Man” is a mythical creature who relentlessly wins when he fights, continuously protects and provides, and constantly retains mastery and control. Naturally, he never asks for help or direction, he never loses, and he never, ever cries (that’s for girls or when Ireland beat England in football, rugby, well, anything really).
So, to avoid negative evaluations or condemnation from others, a “Real Man” must always internalise his hurt. He keeps it all in until his immense stress, anger, or pain culminates in a peptic ulcer, a heart attack, severe depression, a drink problem, you name it; he withdraws, he becomes socially and emotionally isolated, he’s weighed down, he angrily erupts and verbally or physically damages his relationship with himself, family, and/or his community. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, lurking in the back of his mind are various indelible wonderings of life and his place in it, e.g., “what it’s all about?”, “Is this it?”, “If only I could...”
This glorified masculinity confuses men and women and gives impossible goals and exaggerated views of what masculinity ought to be. (Personally, for example, I could never master being a brave, tough, philander, who was also sensible, kind, and monogamous.) We therefore struggle throughout life with the contradictory ridiculous demands of masculinity, comparing ourselves to the myths of other men and pretending to be what we are “supposed” to be. Ultimately, we become embarrassed or disappointed with our own “limitations” and reduce our chances to become truly close to women and to other men and to be the best role model we can be to our children and other men.
For many of us, we adopt personae, we pretend, we become a stereotype whilst trying to become a society accepted “Success Object”. We focus more on gaining stuff and winning games than on how we feel. Done for long enough, this becomes our way of being and we limit/lose the ability to express how we feel—the fancy word for this is alexithymic; but I wonder if this really exists.
Rather, do we men just go a different way about things? Just because we don’t say it doesn’t mean we don’t know it or do anything about it (and please, we are a lot more complex than the oft ascribed 7 Dwarfed Developmental States of dopey, grumpy, happy, horny, hungry, sleepy, and solitarily withdrawn).
Sometimes, we take action, we overcome, we work side by side with other men, we take the scenic route to expressing how we feel. Sometimes! However, I reckon we do need to open up more, share, seek and accept support before, or when, the proverbial hits the fan because the stats for us don’t look healthy.
Cracks Appear: Barriers Fall
In my counselling work, many men tell me that they feel boxed in and lost; they’ve been socialised to believe that they must be a “Success Object” and/or a certain kind of man. Whether symbolic, social, or financial, they are trapped, they say, and it’s hard [not impossible] to escape to live a preferred way. Although the pretence is constant and hard, early signs that something is wrong with life appear when one is vulnerable, real, awestruck, or happy, e.g., during an endurance test, with a lover, alone on a long walk or a mountain top, or playing with children or pets. Often it’s lovely and fleeting and forgotten too soon.
Other times, one gets winded, dumbfounded as reality delivers a sucker-punch (e.g., a relationship split, death, kids in trouble, etc.) and the realisation that “I haven’t being living true to myself” is as profound as it is overwhelming. Whatever the calamity or malady life flings at us, one is left reeling in the aftermath and adaptation to the inevitable change is necessary. Easier said than done: Easier done with support.
Importantly, the main factor in accepting, beating, coping, developing, overcoming, or understanding the challenges we face and how we face them is social support.
Support from our family, partner, and/or friends is second to none. Not only does it help us to belong it also helps us to be real as it allows us to live a life of our own truth. What gifts to be able to genuinely express ourselves without shame or contradiction, to safely explore, to follow our hearts, and to be understood. Without these gifts, some say, illnesses are just the final blow as one was dying already. So, if you’ve got social support cherish it, if you haven’t, cultivate it and seek the help wherever you can get it.
We men need to be more comfortable with sharing our vulnerabilities whilst retaining our masculinity. Therefore it’s important to readjust what our concepts of masculinity are and to challenge any nonsense we see and hear. We don’t have to follow the “proper” behaviour scripts; scripts change because people change them, e.g., Irish identity, Anglo Irish relations, hugging a male friend in public, or celebrating with exuberance—thank God, Allah, Charlton, or whichever deity you prefer for Italia ’90.
And what is masculinity anyway? Well, it’s hard to define yet it’s variously defined. For example, masculinity is defined as qualities and activities (mostly implying strength or force) that distinguish men from women. It’s influenced by society, biology, motives, abilities, learning, conditioning, strivings, situational pressures, luck, and random events. (Naturally, these vary across societies, cultures, families, towns, etc., yet men must sing off the same hymn sheet.) Simply, it’s what is expected—not so simply, it’s a fluid, intangible concept that is impossible to completely fulfil.
So create your own, ahem, Him Sheet or Hymn Sheet if you prefer. A few tips: