The four wounds of men

 

 

Introduction

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Twenty years of doing therapy with men has led me to three conclusions about us as a psychological species.

First: 

Most of us don’t feel like men at all. 

Secretly, we feel like boys.

Second: 

This feeling is more or less inevitable,

given how we are socialized.

Third:

We’re all bleeding from the same

four emotional wounds.

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The wounds are losses.  Most of us spend our lives trying to recover from them.  Most, it seems to me, spend our lives failing.

What follows is an attempt to describe these four wounds and how they drive the controlling behavior of the members of my species.

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I. The mom-wound

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Men lose their moms in a way women don’t.

Most of the women I know seem to retain emotional connections to their mothers that their brothers and husbands have not.

Why?  Because at some point most men conclude that they can’t stay too emotionally attached to their mothers if they want to become real men.   (Whatever that is.)

So we cut ourselves off from Mom, emotionally and psychologically, often even while living under her roof.

In so doing we leave behind not just our personal mothers, but all that mothering itself represents: nurturing, caring, affection, gentleness, kindness, empathy.

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We leave all that behind to enter the world of men, the world of hunters and soldiers and workers and other big boys who don’t cry.

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This damages us in three ways:

~ It splits us in two, forcing us to disown our own capacity for feeling, our own feminine side.

This split sets us off on the familiar but dismal path of self-ignorance and emotional starvation that has been described as “the old paradigm”:

Don’t feel. Die younger than women. Don’t talk. Don’t grieve. Don’t get angry.  Don’t rock the boat. Don’t trust other men.  Don’t put passion before bill paying.  Follow the crowd, not your bliss. [1]

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~ We become terrified of feelings themselves — which, should anyone discover them in us, might expose us as being too feminine.

As a result, our emotional lives come to be governed by fear. Every man I know is secretly scared shitless of being perceived (or, worse, perceiving himself) as not Man Enough.

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Often we defend against this fear by overcompensating in the opposite direction.  We become hard, rigid, controlling, stubborn, insensitive, sometimes even abusive or violent.

We may use sex as a means of achieving status or exploiting women rather than expressing love, tenderness or vulnerability.

We may scorn emotional men as “wimps,” “bleeding hearts” or “gay.”

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Some of us may even mock or abuse homosexual men, just to prove just how un-gay we are.

Finally, because denying needs doesn’t make them go away (just drives them underground),

~ We transfer our emotional needs to the women in our lives.

men-woman-comforting-427x500-croppedWives, girlfriends, daughters, female friends — we expect those women to heal our wounds, to make up for what we’ve sacrificed.

We do this, for the most part, unconsciously.  As a result neither we nor the women really understand what’s going on between us or why our relationships are so frequently disappointing.

Though women certainly sense it.  At some point in nearly every marriage therapy I’ve ever done the wife exclaims in frustration, “He feels more like my son than my husband.”

Confusion, frustration, hurt and rage on both sides are common.

Many men end up disappointed with and resentful towards the women in their lives without really knowing why.

Many woman end up feeling both inadequate and betrayed at the same time.

men-distance-fr-womanAnd if it goes unacknowledged and untreated too long, the man’s mom-wound can become the invisible rock upon which his relationship gets wrecked, sometimes fatally.

 

II. The dad-wound

men-w-dad-3-500x500Men lose their fathers too.

We accept it as normal now.  But I’m told it was not always thus.

Before the Industrial Revolution sent fathers off into factories and offices to make their livings, boys grew up seeing, hearing and smelling what grown men were all about.

Sons working alongside fathers in fields and workshops absorbed a felt sense of adult masculinity by means of psychological osmosis.  More than mere instruction or role-modeling, this transfer of male energy provided a sort of emotional road map, a path the son could follow out of his mom-dominated boyhood.

Robert Bly describes the process:

Standing next to the father, as they repair arrowheads, or repair plows, or wash pistons in gasoline, or care for birthing animals, the son’s body has the chance to retune. Slowly, over months or years, that son’s body-strings begin to resonate to the harsh, sometimes demanding, testily humorous, irreverent, impatient, opinionated, forward-driving, silence-loving older masculine body. Both male and female cells carry marvelous music, but the son needs to resonate to the masculine frequency as well as to the female. [2]

3a-teaching-2-453x500Then society changed.  Men went off to work in offices, and boys went off to be educated in classrooms, mostly by female teachers.

And sons stopped hearing their fathers’ music.

Like mom-loss, this caused permanent damage, in the form of three specific deficits:

~ Men are left hungry for fathering.

This hunger is experienced, when we acknowledge it, as a craving for male attention and acceptance and praise.  We need those things the way a plant needs sunlight and water.  Without them, something inside us dries up and shrivels.

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Father-hunger can also be felt as a physical one.  I remember being twelve years old and standing next to my sweaty basketball coach and feeling a strong impulse to hug him.  The impulse startled me, partly because I didn’t even like this guy much, and partly because the urge seemed to rise from such a deep place inside me.  At the time my own father was physically and emotionally missing in action, and I realize now that some part of me was reaching out for an emotional food it was lacking.

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(I didn’t act on the impulse, of course.  Big boys don’t hug.)

~ Men end up estranged from other men.

knife-266x500Without dads to model male nurturance and connection, we’re left in basically competitive relationship to other males.

And without the ability to talk honestly about our experience — without the knowledge and validation that comes from hearing what other men really think, feel, fear and desire — we end up suspicious and scared of each other.  We expect other men to reject the inadequacy we secretly feel.

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The bridges between men are basically burned. We may have male friends during boyhood and adolescence, but most men I know are trying to navigate adulthood without any real male friends.

Finally,

~ Men are starved for healthy models. 

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Many of us derive our ideas of manhood from models offered by, god help us, popular culture: John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump, Jack Kennedy and George Bush Jr., Barry Bonds and Tupac Shakur.

Without real men to learn from, we absorb these cartoonish models into the deepest parts of ourselves.

Then we either try to copy them or consider ourselves failures for being unable to.

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One last word about male education, or the lack of it:

Once upon a time there were established ways of turning boys into men.

Traditional cultures provided initiation rituals which helped boys cross the psychological threshold from childhood into manhood.

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Usually this involved some ordeal or testing.  Kikuyu boys hunted lions using only a spear.   Native American braves undertook vision quests without food or water.   Australian aborigines went “walkabout” in the wilderness for six months at the age of thirteen.

Often initiation involved visible changes to the body, like circumcision or scarification.  Afterwards the initiate was transformed, inside and outside.  You could look at him and tell he’d been initiated.

He was also accorded full adult status by his community, given all the rights and responsibilities of a full-fledged man, could marry, own property, vote in council, go to war.

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We have nothing like that now in ordinary civilian life.  (Military boot camp and gang initiations belong to fairly limited subcultures.)  The closest I know of is the Bar Mitzvah, the day after which the 13-year-old initiate returns to living with a mom still reminding him to pick up his socks.

Thus many men never experience themselves as mature, or as (in Robert Moore’s phrase) fully-cooked.

Regardless of education, income or accomplishments, they go through adult life feeling like half-baked impostors, burdened by a chronic sense of inadequacy and self-doubt and wondering when the hell they’re going to finally feel grown up.

And when they never do, they decide it must be their fault.

 

III. The feeling wound

So the typical man loses his mom, and then he loses his dad.

And these losses leave him with a pile of painful feelings.

And, if he remains typical, he probably carries these feelings around inside him, unhealed and unconscious, for the rest of his life.

 Why?

Because of the third of the four wounds.

Loss of feelings is the wound most obvious to therapists. Most men arrive in my office unable even to identify what they feel, much less express it.

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But they don’t come to therapy for help with feelings.  They come the way you go to a dentist when a toothache gets intolerable. Their symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, ruined relationships, chronic anger, a pervasive sense of despair or bewilderment — have simply become too painful to bear.

And then there are other problems that flow from the same wound:

American men, on average, live for five years less than women do.

They have twice as many vehicle accidents, twice as many fatal heart attacks, three times as many deaths from injuries, twice the deaths from liver disease.

Over 90 percent of convicted acts of violence are perpetrated by men, and men account for over 70 percent of the victims.

Over 90 percent of prison inmates are male.

In schools, 90 percent of kids with behavior problems are boys, as are more than 80 percent of kids with learning problems.

Men and boys commit suicide at five times the rate of girls and women. [3]

Despite all this pain, it takes real courage for a man to enter therapy. He’s been taught since boyhood that needing help means he’s failed, somehow, at manhood. (He is not taught that such failure is inevitable.)

Loss of feelings is the main complaint women make of men. I could retire tomorrow if I had a nickel for each time I heard a wife or girlfriend complain “He never tells me what he feels.” But most women misunderstand the problem. They seem convinced that men know what they feel, and simply choose to withhold it. They don’t realize that the blank look a man gives you when you ask how he feels isn’t dishonesty or secrecy. It’s ignorance.

The fact is, most men wouldn’t know a feeling if it bit them on the butt. Ask a man what he’s feeling and he’ll tell you what he thinks.  Poke through his answer for some hint of one of the four basic emotions — mad, sad, glad, scared — and most of the time you’ll end up as clueless as when you began.

But he’s not lying.  He’s not even hiding. 

He’s numb.

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He learned to numb himself long ago, in self-defense.  Maybe it began the first time he got hit in the face by a basketball, and his eyes filled with tears and his teammates saw the tears and giggled. Lesson 1 for all boys is: Bite your lip, suck it up, or you’ll be sorry.  You learn this fast if you want to survive boyhood.

But if you hide your feelings regularly enough, eventually the day comes when you forget where you put them. So many of us go through life in a state of emotional numbness.

And others of us can identify one feeling only: anger.

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Now, men’s anger has legitimate roots. Behind all anger is pain, and men’s wounds produce plenty of that. But being forbidden to acknowledge (even to recognize) emotional pain as such — or to relieve that pain by grieving or crying or talking — leaves many men condemned to a sort of chronic, lifelong pissed-offness.

This, of course, has other consequences.

Many men misunderstand why they’re so angry, and unfairly blame their jobs or their wives or their children. Often their anger scares away those they most love, increasing their loneliness and desperation. Finally, they may believe they have no right to be as angry as they are, which leaves them guilty and trying to conceal it.

As a result most angry men face a lose-lose choice: (a) act out your anger (and risk ending up isolated, divorced, fired or arrested), or (b) hold it inside (and get anxious, depressed, drunk, stoned, or workaholic).

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A song lyric reminds us, You have to be carefully taught. Most men are carefully taught to never answer the question of feelings.

Most of us are taught to never even ask the question.

 

IV. The freedom wound

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This last wound operates in two spheres, public and private.

In the public sphere men are expected to sacrifice their freedom for others: to go to work for the family, to go to war for the nation.

Where historically a woman’s role in the family required her to remain emotionally alive and responsive, a man’s role requires just the opposite.  Marvin Allen writes,

Our culture maintains — and rightly so — that men are more efficient workers and warriors when they are not inconvenienced by tender feelings….   [For example, a man] rarely has the luxury of working when it pleases him or selecting only those tasks he enjoys. The weather, the economy, or his boss dictates what he does, when he works, and how long he toils. Historically men have had to put aside what they really wanted to do and spend most of their waking hours providing for their families. This has required them to shut down their senses, dampen their emotions, and focus on the task at hand. [4]

Provider and Protector.  That’s our assignment, and woe betide those who can’t measure up.  To fail is to be less than a Real Man.

Inevitably, of course, this public role seeps into the private sphere, where men — no less than women (who since the advent of feminism are much better at talking about it) — lose their freedom to be the human beings they really are.

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*

That, in fact, is what this whole book has been about — the ways in which men’s needs get denied or neglected, which in turn robs them of  their emotional and psychological freedom:

~ how the mom-wound splits them off from their feminine side and confuses their relationships with women,

~ how the dad-wound deprives them of deep masculine knowledge and the chance for healthy, nurturing connection with other men, and

~ how the feeling-wound buries their deeper selves, without access to which no human being can experience real joy, confidence or integrity.

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It’s as a result of these four wounds that

Most men don’t have a life. Instead we have an act, an outer show, kept up for protection. We pretend things are fine, that everything is cool, and sometimes we even fool ourselves. But ask a man how he really feels or what he really thinks, and the first thing he thinks is, “What am I supposed to say?” The average man is deeply unhappy, but he would be the last to admit it. [5]

 

Conclusion

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What to do about all this?

Well, I’m a therapist, so my answer grows out of that context.

At its best, therapy is about going past surface appearances to deeper truths in an atmosphere of safety.

That’s what men need to do, with themselves and with each other.

This was a more popular idea some years back, when the Men’s Movement was begun in hopes of freeing men in the way feminism tried to liberate women.

The interest may have waned.  The need remains.

Men still need to open this can of worms and start to untangle them.

We need to finally learn how talk to each other about what we don’t usually talk about, in places that make that a safe risk to take.

We need to have the courage to at least attempt this.  And we need to seek out other men with the same courage.

Our health and our happiness depend on it.

So does the health and happiness of our sons.

6a-father-son-3-249x500So do that of our wives and our daughters.  Because finally the wounding of men and boys is inseparable from the wounding of women and girls.

It’s never been easy to be a human being.  And men can’t avoid getting hurt by life any more than women can.

But all this suffering-in-silence?

Enough already.

 

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Notes:

[1] John Lee, At my father’s wedding: Reclaiming our true masculinity (New York: Bantam, 1991).

[2] Robert Bly, Iron John: A book about men (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1990).

[3] Steve Biddulph, The secret life of men: A practical guide to helping men discover health, happiness, and deeper personal relationships (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2003).

[4] Marvin Allen, In the company of men: A new approach to healing for husbands, fathers and friends (New York: Random House, 1993).

[5] Biddulph, Ibid.

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About the author

STEVE HAUPTMAN is a Gestalt-trained, Buddhist-flavored therapist who has practiced on Long Island for twenty years.  He graduated from Adelphi University’s School of Social Work, trained at the Gestalt Center of Long Island, and specializes in a unique control-centered approach that combines elements of psychodynamic, Gestalt, cognitive-behavioral and family systems theory in the treatment of anxiety, depression, addictions, codependency and relationship problems.  A leader of Interactive Therapy groups, he is a cartoonist and creator of the blogs Monkeytraps: A blog about control, Monkey House, a forum for discussing control issues, and Bert’s Therapy: Adventures of an Inner Monkey.  He is currently at work on the six-book Monkeytraps Series, which will include Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), Monkeytraps in Daily Life: A Guide for Control Addicts (2016), Monkeytraps for Adult Children, Monkeytraps for Couples, Monkeytraps for Parents, and Monkeytraps for Therapists.  He can be reached at fritzfreud@aol.com.

 

 

 

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