The Emotional Lives of Men

Relationship is as essential to life as oxygen, water, and food.

For the last couple of years, in conversations with men, I have found occasion to say, “I think men are in trouble today.” To my amazement, every man I have trotted out this statement to has immediately agreed. No one has looked quizzical or puzzled or asked what I meant.

What is going on here? What is happening with men today?

My purpose in asking this question is to start a conversation about the emotional lives of men.  I hope that you as readers—both men and women—will join in this exchange and bring to it your own perspectives and experiences.

There are all kinds of men, just as there are all kinds of boys. Like women, they display a huge range of interests and predilections that cannot be easily categorized. I do not subscribe to the view that there is an “essence” or “norm” of maleness or femaleness. I stand against patriarchy in all of its forms. In my psychotherapy and social work practice, I have worked extensively with survivors of male violence, including women, men, and children, and with perpetrators. 

So why then am I writing about men? Because I do believe that many men today are in trouble. 

Here is a deeply alarming statistic that gnaws at me: men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide, and the group at the highest risk of suicide is white men over the age of 65. Their suicide rate is eight times higher than women in that age bracket. 

How do we understand the deep, profound despair underlying such tragic numbers?

Men and Vulnerability

I believe that there are constructive, positive ways forward for men. But before we explore them, let’s survey something of the landscape of men’s interior lives.

So much about male and female experience is common. After all, all of us are human beings with the same need to attach to parent figures and to significant others. We are all fundamentally relational creatures. We are wired by God our Creator to connect, to belong.  Neurobiologists are clear that relationship is as essential to life as oxygen, water, and food.  This is equally true for men and women throughout the trajectories of our lives.

Some of where male and female experience differs has to do with culture, especially with the culturally defined gender roles, norms, and expectations in which boys and girls are raised.  These role expectations can prove to be obstacles to our development.    

When it comes to boys and men, we live in a culture that tends to not want men to be vulnerable. We seem to work hard to separate boys and men from their feelings. The message is that “being a man” involves standing up to discomfort and pain. “Giving in” to internal distress or “being emotional” is perceived as weakness—certainly not “manly.”

Psychiatrist and family therapist Frank Pittman has argued that our culture promotes a heroic “male mystique” which, to be attained, requires that men deny and reject the “weakness” of their vulnerability. In his book Man Enough: Fathers, Sons and the Search for Masculinity, Pittman claims that to be “man enough,” to achieve this mystique, men tend to fall into one of four patterns, three of which are negative. He describes controlling men, who must dominate and control their spouses, children, and environments in order to be what they understand to be “man enough”; competitive men, who must compete with and come out on top of all other men to be “man enough”; and philandering men, who, to be “man enough” must conquer any number of women.

But then he describes a fourth pattern: partnering men. These men have learned to partner with their spouses, their children, their co-workers, their community. They have learned to love and genuinely serve others, to stand up for justice, and to bless life. But for men to learn how to be partners, they require the active involvement and blessing of other men, especially men older than them, to help model the way.

The Missing Community of Men

And there, for me, is the rub. It’s why many men experience themselves to be in trouble today. The degree to which we as men are emotionally isolated from each other is extraordinary.  There are very few spaces, venues, or platforms where it is acceptable for men to meet and share their vulnerabilities together. As a culture we even seem to be frightened by such a prospect; it is almost a cultural taboo. But never, in my view, has it been more important for men to find opportunities to come together in emotionally meaningful ways.  

I often talk about the “missing community of men.” Men are intensely hungry for the company of healthy men. They have a need to attach to other men. In this they are not unique; I believe the same need manifests itself in the desire of women to attach to other women—a desire that so many women fulfill admirably. Mark Twain once said that at the age of 12 a boy starts to imitate any older man who pays attention to him, and then he simply continues to do so for the rest of his life. I think he’s right, except that it starts much earlier. But in the absence of living communities of men where men share their hidden shame and joys with each other, they tend to turn to women to get certain needs met that only other men can adequately meet.

What Can the Church Do?

The large majority of men, in my experience, want to be real partners. But in today’s world there are very few opportunities for men to gather together and have real conversations about their emotional lives and their struggles to be healthy, life-affirming, life-giving men. 

What an opportunity for churches! Surely churches can serve as venues for real, authentic conversations where men of all ages can, in safe ways, share their experiences of vulnerability and shame, in the context of God’s acceptance, redemption, and grace.

Consider just one practical suggestion. As a man in your church, gather together a small group of men who may be open to exploring these themes. In a circle, invite each man to speak to the following questions (drawn from Shalem Mental Health Network’s “restorative practice” work in churches):

  • Which men have had the greatest impact on your life (positive or negative)?
  • How have they impacted you? What would you want to pass on to younger men or boys, and what would you not want to pass on?
  • What is the hardest thing for you about being a man today?
  • What do you think are the main issues?
  • What will be your next step(s) in moving forward positively as a man?

May God bless you as together all of us, both men and women, seek to explore the meaning of being wholehearted human beings in this world. Thank God for the gift of women and men. And thank God for the many men who know the meaning of sacrifice and who serve as remarkable partners with all of God’s creatures on the journey of life.

 

Questions for Discussion

  1. What surprises you (or does not surprise you) in reading about the trouble with men today?
  2. Can you think of any biblical examples of powerful figures embracing vulnerability--unlike our culture’s tendency against men being vulnerable?
  3. Our culture tends to elevate the patterns of controlling men and competitive men as models of success and leadership. How do we ensure that we do not succumb to these patterns in our church leadership?
  4. What are some ways your local church can help fill the gap of the “missing community of men”? How can your church foster the growth of partnering men in your congregation?

 

About the Author

Mark Vander Vennen is the executive director of Shalem Mental Health Network based in Hamilton, Ontario. He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Cobourg, Ont.

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