Men and what we expect of them… (Must they really play the role of Superman?) Men and the way they define themselves… (Is it even possible to generalize?) Men and their insecurities… (Will they admit to them? Will women accept them?)
Have women continued to demand “traditional” behaviors from men, while piling on new performance expectations?
It occurs to me that our days of anticipating Prince Charming are far from over. We have only to look to popular media and entertainment to see it: He is tall, dark and handsome; dashing in his heroic deeds; comfortably (or wildly) well-heeled; and accomplished in the bedroom. Our superhero is also required to exhibit sensitivity, humor, unconditional support (for our dreams), and be quick to step up to his share of domestic duties and parenthood.
My, but that’s a full plate! Of course, I might say that these are the expectations of many contemporary women.
Still, how much of the male self-image derives from stereotypical requirements of power in the boardroom and likewise the bedroom? Despite contemporary conversation on, well… conversation… is the measure of a man still all about money and sex?
My Value, My Paycheck
Someone said to me once that unemployment was less scarring to a woman than to a man. I took exception to the remark. Having lived through more than one painful period without pay coming in — not only frightening as a solo parent, but devastating to my identity — I begged to differ.
I spent 20 years sacrificing a great deal for my career, and was determined from childhood never to be financially dependent on a man. Interdependent? That was another story. And when unemployment struck, my sense of self-worth was shredded. Without a paycheck, I felt fragile. I saw myself as deficient in some profound, defining core. In so far as I couldn’t provide for my family, I felt like the worst possible kind of failure.
I’m recalling a conversation about money and identity. At the time, I was bothered by the fact that I was being paid well below market for my services, having agreed initially as a favor and believing it to be a temporary situation. Among other things, I had mixed business and pleasure (never a good idea), and found myself in a quandary as to how to rectify the situation.
Men and Money
“It feels personal,” I had explained to a male friend, when discussing the issue of my problematic compensation.
“It isn’t personal,” my friend replied. “It’s business, or at least it should be. So just take care of it like it’s business.”
I knew he was right.
“You don’t have these grey areas over money, do you,” I said.
“No,” he answered, and that was that. Like every man I’ve known (as I think about it), money to him is black and white. Money is never personal. Money is to be earned and then protected. And he does take a sense of identity from the money he earns, and at times, I sense insecurity that it isn’t as much as he would like.
In this way, he fits the mold I’ve known most of my life, though there is far more complexity and richness to his persona than his stance or standing on money.
Do Men Talk About Their Insecurities?
Knowing this old friend well — his relationship history, his professional life, his tall tales (and those I imagine to be true) — I recognize his unwillingness to even hint at his insecurities. I think back to my last amour and the one before, as well as to my marriage.
Expressions of vulnerability?
Nada. Nyet. Nary a mention.
Unlike my female friends who openly share their private concerns, the men I have known rarely speak of regrets — much less failure. Nor do they admit to aspects of feeling like they don’t measure up.
I will exempt my sons (Millennials) from the following statement. With only one exception, the men in my life have largely assessed their value in terms of financial assets and bedroom conquests, which doesn’t mean they don’t fully appreciate humor, intellect, creativity, playfulness… or for that matter, family, politics and sports. Stereotypes indeed…
In contrast, I’ve observed that women are more likely to put ourselves through self-examination and then to reflect — ad infinitum. When we’re carried away in these churning analyses, we do ourselves no favors.
Men and Low Self-Esteem
I have experienced the occasional glimpse into the “male psyche” — the male psyche of a certain age, that is.
“Women aren’t the only ones who are insecure,” a man friend once told me. “Men have esteem issues, too. Some of our insecurities are the same and some are different.”
Sure, generalizations abound. We hear stories about short men needing to prove themselves, so they tend to be more aggressive or even more tied to notches on the bed post than their taller counterparts. We also know the measure of a man is too often in inches — and I don’t mean their in-seam — as again, overcompensation of various types may result. And yes, appearance issues come into play for the guys, too — thinning hair, ballooning belly — increasing preoccupations over 40.
Sometimes, the men in our lives who suffer low self-esteem may withdraw or snarl when we become successful. Sometimes, they may act out in typically passive-aggressive style. Sometimes, they turn to other women in order to feel better. Sometimes, they cave when we need them to stand strong, though we may have stood strong for them.
Why would I be more comfortable if a man — friend, lover, significant other, husband — could be more open about his insecurities? Why would I feel more loved, more accepted, more “equal,” which does not mean I wish us to be alike?
As I ask myself these questions, it seems to me that in our society of increasingly blended gender roles — something I believe is good — we nonetheless demand too much of both sexes. Some of us, sexual orientation aside, continue to expect Superman and Superwoman in terms of our partners being “all things to all people” and most particularly, all things (including Prince Charming) to us.
If “conventionally” raised women were to chew over our flaws and worries less, and conventionally raised men felt comfortable enough to expose their vulnerabilities, I for one would be more at ease. I would be comforted by a greater sense of shared human frailty, and I wouldn’t be left to a guessing game (or emotional minefield), the result of insufficient information.
Do People Change?
Having once married a loner who never shared any of his innermost thoughts, I like to think that I have learned to recognize men who are better at communicating feelings. Then again, “communicating feelings” is too broad a phrase; some people are able to articulate positive feelings, but less so anything that troubles them.
While I might wish we all felt more at ease speaking from a place of vulnerability, I don’t think I can change a man who keeps his issues close to the vest. Others cannot change us; only we can change ourselves — out of a desire to do so and plenty of hard work. And some of that change may involve exercising more discerning choices.
Nor would I seek to change any man that I know or meet, though it’s useful to remind myself that despite a strong or even blustery front, any one of us may act out of insecurities and fears, whether expressed or not.
Men, Women, Sexuality, Beauty
I imagine that men will continue to measure themselves by virtue of their sexual performance — be it a numbers game or something more private with the people they love. Women also derive a significant sense of self from their powerful and tender sexual side, not to mention our ability to please. In addition, we carry the burdens of youth and beauty as overly emphasized determinants of value.
Naturally, there will always be practical considerations and individual differences in relationships, the importance of money and sex among them. And I would like to think that all of us are increasingly dedicated to the inherent value of participating in family, as well as acting responsibly toward our larger communities.
As for the measure of a man — or for that matter the measure of a woman — I have arrived at the place where character and values speak volumes, where bread-winning and sexuality are not unimportant, but surely they are secondary to intimacy of a profound and connective sort. What impresses me, and what I hope to do a better job of cultivating in myself — what the individual creates of each day, be it an acknowledged misstep, a quiet triumph, a shared offering of joy, or a moment of forgiveness. These are the acts that I find heroic.
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