As a woman involved in heterosexual relationships with men, there is a very familiar tendency that I have come to understand and know so well which is that men often find it very difficult to express their pain, their fears, their insecurities, their affection, and their vulnerability with loved ones. Unfortunately this is nothing new. However, there is a deeper pattern that is important to alert unsuspecting boys and girls to, a dynamic that I have experienced and been at the sharp end of one too many times. This repeated experience eventually led me to eventually tweet the image below - out of pure hurt, frustration, and exhaustion:
First of all, some context: From the day that we are born, generally speaking, we are over-simplistically sorted into two gender categories: male or female. More than just identifiers for genitalia, both gender categories come with a long list of social norms, roles, and expectations which not only socialise who we are inside and out, but also determine our ability to navigate our lives and this world in many ways. If you happen to be assigned ‘male’ at birth, whether you identify with this gender or not, there are both written and unwritten rules that society expects you to conform to - otherwise known as Tony Porter’s ‘man box’. The man box dictates that socially and culturally men should be strong, brave, dominant, the provider and protector, quick to anger, and emotionless. These stereotypes are so ingrained that you could ask any 7 year boy what it means to be a man and he would be able to paint you a very quick picture of toxic masculinity - perhaps without being able to recognise it for what it is in this way.
Fast forward 15 years and that young and impressionable little boy is now a grown man with all those societal expectations deeply embedded and manifesting in his psyche, in his interactions, and in his relationships. I have met that man and fallen in love with him many times over. As his partner, I see his silent suffering as a result of the self-limiting burden that notions of masculinity place on him. Inevitably, this burden creates a tension between us, increasingly resulting in our breakdown of communication, emotional or physical violence, and a whole lot of heartache. I ask myself (and my friends): Why is he so angry all the time? Why won’t he just talk to me? Maybe it’s me?
I think to myself, if only I could break through to him and let him know that he can talk to me about how he’s really feeling. And so, I take it upon myself to get him to ‘open up’ by putting in hours of stubborn emotional work, allowing myself to become his emotional punching bag and insisting to him that through it all, I’m here and will always be here for him, no matter what. Days, weeks, months. However long it takes, constantly reassuring him that he doesn’t have anything to prove. And then one day it happens: finally he tells me that thing that he has been carrying around for so long, never telling anyone. He reveals a sneak peak of the vulnerability and shame that he has kept bottled up for so long. It must be such a relief for him. And now that he knows he can trust me, surely his confiding in me will bring us closer together? I listen, I embrace, I tell him everything is going to be alright and how - finally - maybe he’ll stop being so angry now?
The short answer is… no. It doesn’t take long for him to start being annoyed and emotionally distant again. On top of that, he begins lashing out at me. He doesn’t want to talk about that thing he let slip anymore. My questions about it are met with short and strained responses like: ‘it’s fine’, ‘I don’t wanna talk about it’, ‘it’s not that big a deal, just stop going on about it’. He’s taking everything out on me and it feels like he’s punishing me for something. I cry, I tiptoe, I vent to my friends. Eventually I join the dots and realise that he’s angry because he feels like he’s said too much. He’s angry at himself because he stepped out of the man box and so that anger turns to me, the person who knows his secret, whose fault it is for helping him step out of the manbox, for threatening his masculinity. I’m his emotional punching bag again. He’s resentful at me and not only am I having to suffer at the hands of his inability to share his authentic self, but I’m being made to suffer when he does too. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
This is a catch 22 dynamic that I have found myself caught up in a number of times and it’s always the same. It has become so textbook that it’s now household conversation that comes with an eye roll between me and friends. We have many anecdotes to share teas and coffees over. It is so familiar that when I see the telltale signs of this dynamic when entering into new relationships, I do a very conscious cost-benefit analysis to ask myself whether it’s really worth going through all the mental and emotional gymnastics of bending over backwards to liberate my partner from his man box prison - only to be punished for it because I am the reminder that he cannot live up to the dehumanising, unattainable societal expectations of what it means to be a ‘manly man’. I have had men tell me that they love me, only in the same breath to tell me to ‘just shut up, ttyl’ and then they just disengage and disappear. Why? Why are teaching our men and boys to be affectionless and emotionless? Why, as a society, are we teaching them that the cost of being either of those things is unthinkable compared to their own mental health and wellbeing?
Dear Women: It’s not you and it’s not your fault. Remember that you don’t ever deserve to be or have to be anyone’s emotional punching bag. Centre yourself when you encounter these toxic dynamics and give them the ultimatum. Yes, an ultimatum. They either sort it out or they’re out. This ultimatum has saved me a lot of heartache and also a few relationships. When you give him the ultimatum, stick to it whatever the outcome - it’s up to him to decide how much he wants to change and commit to an emotionally mature relationship. If he’s willing to lose you to protect his manliness, then he’s already lost and he won’t change.
Dear Men: it’s time to investigate this behaviour within yourselves and deconstruct the anger that you wrap it in (because anger is the only emotion you have ever been validated in having). It is time to work with each other to talk about and deconstruct the man box as a social construct and the ways in which it is holding you and your relationships hostage. And it is time to give your partners (romantic or otherwise) a break, recognise when you are reinforcing a damned-if-they-do-and-damned-if-they-don’t dynamic and hold up the mirror to yourself. It is time to unlearn the impulse of lashing out and punishing your loved ones for something that is not their fault. Allow yourselves to sit with vulnerability and insecurity and affection and all the emotions that makes us human. Open your critical minds and loving hearts to the invitation, the possibility, of allowing someone in.
Vanessa Faloye helps change-maker organisations design and deliver anti-oppression education that builds, agitates, and transforms systems of power. As a freelance international trainer-facilitator, her curricula is rooted in intersectional feminism; systems thinking; and social action. Vanessa travels the world, bridging the local and global, to work with a variety of stakeholders including: community groups; corporates; NGOs and nonprofits, schools; and universities including Cambridge, Oxford, SOAS, Queen Mary, and University of West London. With much world experience gained along her somewhat unconventional career path, Vanessa has come to wear a number of hats including activist, educator, entrepreneur, and thinker - and will stop at nothing to see the world changed.