3 Ways Toxic Masculinity Could Be Hurting Your Relationship

The term “toxic masculinity” has been getting a lot of attention from the media lately.  Toxic masculinity is a term to describe dominant and stereotypical gender roles that are often culturally assigned to men that promote aggressive behavior, avoidance of vulnerability and emotion, and may include a dominant presence and personality.  Toxic masculinity is a systemic and cultural norm that is taught to boys in their childhood and adolescence by their parents, teachers, peers, and society. They are given the messages, “boys don’t cry,” “boys will be boys,” and taught that vulnerability and emotions are weak and “feminine.”  

When we teach boys not to process their emotions and give them the message that vulnerability is a weakness, then the only difficult emotion that is socially acceptable for them to show is anger. Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy and author of Hold Me Tight, explains that often anger may be the outward and immediate emotion.  When time has been given for reflection, anger is often on the surface with sadness, fear, or shame as the primary emotion underneath.  If our culture is teaching men to use anger when they’re feeling sad, fearful, or ashamed, we are doing them a giant disservice in how they communicate and relate to others, especially in their intimate relationships.  

Toxic masculinity can be damaging in close relationships, especially in romantic relationships.  It can interfere with how you relate to your partner, how you express your emotions to your partner, and whether or not you even allow yourself to feel a certain emotion.  This emotional disconnect between yourself and others can impact not only communication and conflict resolution, but also your physical intimacy. Here are three ways in which toxic masculinity could be hurting your relationship:

  1. Communication, especially during an argument.  Effective communication between couples requires active listening, expressing understanding, providing empathy, and learning the skills to articulate how you’re feeling.  Most of us aren’t taught these skills from our parents or from society, and from my work with heterosexual couples, I notice it can be difficult for some men to identify what their partner is feeling and ask about the feelings as opposed to become defensive or angry.  On the other hand, a man may have his feelings hurt by something that happened, and he may struggle with how to express himself without coming across as angry, aggressive or avoidant. By not teaching boys and men how to communicate when they’re hurt or upset, we are hurting them in their communication and how they connect in their intimate relationships.  

  2. Physical Intimacy.  The same way society puts unrealistic expectations and pressure on women about their sexuality and libido, we also place a great deal of pressure on men.  Men are often labelled as “sex fiends” or needing to have an insatiable sexual appetite, or there must be something wrong with them. Men are taught that they must easily and quickly have and maintain an erection, or they’re a failure in the bedroom.  These pressures coupled with no emotional outlet to discuss stress and anxiety can often cause erectile dysfunction and anxiety related to sex and other physical intimacy. Such pressures can place further strain on the relationship causing partners to become emotionally and physically distant.

  3. Expressing vulnerability.  Being able to express vulnerability in your romantic relationship is a key factor in building trust, maintaining security, and feeling emotionally and physically connected.  Vulnerability can show up in all types of ways in your relationship, and often, we don’t see it as a missing piece after an argument or when something is feeling off. To take accountability for your actions and offer a genuine apology is extremely vulnerable because you have to admit to yourself and your partner, “I messed up” or “I hurt you.”  Vulnerability also plays a major role in connecting physically. If you see being vulnerable equated to being weak or something to stay far away from, you may be inadvertently sabotaging your relationship.

Toxic masculinity can be harmful to yourself and to your relationships; however, it can be improved upon and changed with intentional self-reflection, work, and time.  Toxic masculinity can be combated by examining messages you’ve received about what it means to be a “man” from your family, your cultural background, your religion, and so forth, and by reflecting on what is helpful and relevant to who you are today and what isn’t helpful or what is an outdated message.  Many of the cultural and societal messages we give to men about what it means to be “masculine” or a “real man” can be harmful and can cause men to feel disconnected and confused as to how to handle difficult emotions in intimate relationships. If you are struggling with how to combat toxic masculinity individually or in your relationship, I challenge you to take action. Finding a therapist for yourself or for your relationship, joining a men’s support group or simply starting to open up to loved ones are good starting points in experiencing deeper intimacy in your relationships.

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT

Low Libido Blues

One of the most common sexual issues couples experience is desire discrepancy. And when I say common, I mean almost ALL couples experience this issue at one point (or multiple) throughout the course of their relationship. So, what is desire discrepancy? In a nutshell, it means that one partner wants to have sex more than the other. But what are the causes of desire discrepancy and why is it so common? Let’s break it down.

There is always a low desire partner and a high desire partner (Schnarch, 2010). You are two different people which means your sexual desires will not be in sync 100% of the time. The low desire partner is the deciding factor as to whether or not sex is going to happen. The feeling of not having control can deeply frustrate the high desire partner, especially having experienced rejection over and over again. For the low desire partner, pressure to perform can be a big issue, and may contribute to their lack of motivation to have sex. Do you see that pattern? And because we are rarely educated about effective partner communication, let alone sexual communication, couples can get into some deeply hurtful arguments, leaving both partners feeling lonely, sad and confused.

Here’s the reality. Mismatched desires can stem from a number of emotional, psychological or physical issues in a relationship. And reasons for mismatched desires will vary by couple. An important factor to consider, and something I tell clients every day, is that context matters! (We can thank the brilliant Emily Nagoski, PhD for writing an entire chapter in her book, Come As You Are, just on this topic). What does that mean, you ask? It means that when intimacy is initiated (usually by the high desire partner), your environment, mood, energy level, to-do list (I can keep going) all matter! Are the kids in bed? Did the trash get taken out? I’m still pissed at you from our fight yesterday. See what I mean? All of these things matter when it comes to shutting off your distractions and focusing on getting physical.

What’s a couple to do? If efforts to communicate about this issue have not helped, considering an investment in sex and relationship therapy is a great start. Especially if you are both feeling confused about how to handle such a sensitive topic. We sex therapists know a thing or two about desire discrepant couples. We understand that barriers to intimacy are real and need to be handled effectively with empathy and understanding. Integrating intimacy building interventions (both emotional and physical) are staples to this process. And while being caught in a relational dynamic that’s impacting the quality of your sex life can be frustrating, it’s absolutely possible to improve your dynamic if both partners are willing to show up, look at their contributions to the problem, and make appropriate changes.

~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

 

Schnarch, D. M. (2010). Intimacy & desire: Awaken the passion in your marriage. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications.

Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

On Being a Sex Therapist

I was recently at an event in Chicago where I was mingling and meeting new folks while taking in the city views. In the typical back and forth of new people conversation, an inquiry of what I do for a living came up. This is where the conversation can get interesting. You see, I’m a Certified Sex Therapist. I work with people in the greater Chicago area who are struggling in their emotional and physical relationships. Pretty normal stuff for someone like me. Not so normal for someone who has never met a sex therapist or even heard about sex therapy before. Once that cat is out of the bag, I typically experience the conversation going one of two ways. While some people might be a little intimated by what that means (which I totally respect and understand), others are naturally curious and will start asking a lot of questions. And I get really excited when people ask questions.

So why do I tell complete strangers what I do for a living? Because I understand that at some point, they may need a therapist like me. A specialist who can work with their deeply personal issues in an informed and non-judgmental space. Someone who has the specific qualifications to work with them so they can feel confident and fulfilled again.

Here’s the thing, relationships are hard work. They demand consistent efforts towards intimacy building, self-awareness and vulnerability. And when people run into issues in their relationships, they typically experience issues with their sex lives. For a lot of people, sexual intimacy problems can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and a whole lot of other stuff. So, when I tell people about my job, I want them to know that this kind of resource is available to them, if and when it’s ever a need.

There are multiple reasons why someone may seek sex therapy. The most common issues I see in my practice are mismatched desires between partners (i.e. one partner wants to have more sex than the other), sexual dysfunction, low sexual self-awareness and sex after trauma or illness. Other issues range from sexual communication issues to painful intercourse. I love educating people about their sexualities, breaking down not-so-correct social constructs and creating a space for a new and healthy narrative. I value my job and the people I work with.  Every day, I am impressed by the work my clients undertake to improve their lives. I will continue to spread the word about sex therapy because there’s no other profession I’d rather be in. 

~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

Sex therapists are trained to work with a variety of relationship configurations and sexuality preferences and problems. There are a number of wonderful helping professionals out there in the sex therapy community. If you are looking for a qualified professional in your area, please visit the professional directory page at the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).