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:
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.
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.
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