From infancy, boys are socialized away from touch and emotional intimacy. Studies have shown that parents enforce gender stereotypes as early as three months old & others have shown that parents are more likely to hold baby girls facing inward and baby boys facing outward. Boys are taught to hide their feelings while girls are encouraged to express them.
Girls are given more room to be expressive with their emotions, clinging to their mothers skirts and being distressed are allowable but when a boy expresses similar emotions, he is often told to “suck it up” or is warned that he will be “given something to cry about”. By early adolescence, boys are given some very clear messages: only wimps cry, feelings are for pussies and they can feel happy in moderation, excitement for a limited range of things but anger is always cool.
Not only are boys socialized away from their interior experience, this also carries over into the physical experience. Boys are taught relatively quickly that physical touch between boys is forbidden — anything beyond a high five or handshake can get them tagged as “gay”. By the teen years, the most physical affection a boy gets is the touch he receives from other boys during sporting activities such as a smack on the ass or shoulder for a job well done. Other than that, the physical contact boys receive is often violent or aggressive.
Boys are taught to dismiss their feelings and receive little, if any, healthy non-sexual, non-aggressive physical touch.
Then, they become young men or grown men who encounter romantic partners who desire intimacy, communication and connection. Women have been socialized in a completely different way. Women are taught to talk, to communicate, express our feelings and that non-sexual physical affection is not only normal but also desirable. We can spend the night with our girlfriends, in the same bed, and it’s not seen as weird. We can hug, lie in each others arms, sit on each others laps, kiss on the cheeks, and walk down the street holding hands and its not seen as abnormal.
Men, on the other hand, don’t often have those platonic relationships. They may not have a guy friend they can call and be totally vulnerable with about their feelings. They may not feel like they can say “I’m afraid” or “I feel inadequate” or anything that may paint them as less than the most masculine version of themselves that they can portray. They don’t often possess the skills necessary to navigate the waters of emotions and intimacy because they have been socialized away from those skills.
In my practice and in my personal life, it’s not uncommon to encounter men who feel inadequate when it comes to their personal lives. It is not uncommon to hear men express difficulties in expressing themselves, or even identifying what they are feeling. They feel this constant sense of pressure to be better at emotional engagement, all the while getting the message that they aren’t good enough. Women often complain that they feel like they are shouldering the emotional burden of the relationship or simply become resigned to “this is just how he is” and feeling unsupported.
In our culture, this is the dominant narrative. Of course, this is the old story and it’s time to move into the new narrative where boys and men are encouraged to express their emotions, be in touch with their inner experiences and to have permission to learn/grow. They have to know that it is okay to seek progress instead of perfection. They need to know that it is okay to have touch that isn’t violent and/or sexual. They need to know that they can be human without feeling inadequate. They need to know that the old model for masculinity is outdated, harmful and hasn’t served them or the people they love. Masculinity isn’t about being tough, hard and unemotional, even though that’s what we have been taught. It’s time to shift the paradigm where masculinity is balanced; not too tough and not overly tender but able to be strong and sensitive when either is necessary.
As the mother of a boy who is quickly becoming a young man, I often look at him and my heart aches knowing what he will likely face in a world where his inner experience is not often welcome. I work to teach him how to identify his feelings and express them appropriately. I hope to teach him as he gets older that touch is vital, and not only between him and his lovers, but between him and his friends.
It’s time we change the model for what we call masculinity & stop wounding our boys. Wounded boys become wounded men and the cycles continue. Reach out to your male friends and start cultivating those intimate partnerships. Get into therapy. The first step to healing is acknowledging there is a problem and it is my wish with this piece that you will recognize that men aren’t awful, just wounded. May this be a call to the healing we all so desperately need.