How Men Can Help: Two Ways to Develop the Relationships and Strength You Need to Be Useful in Tough Times
One of Mark Greene’s latest blog posts is titled “White Racism is an Extinction Level Flaw in Our Species.” The word “extinction” caught my eye and wrenched at my heart. I’m wondering if it did the same to yours. Greene lists a number of serious and seemingly intractable problems that beset the human species: environmental collapse, war, disease, waning resources. We’ve known about all these crises for decades and meaningful action seems out of reach. Greene points to") numerous studies that show that diversity and inclusion are powerful catalysts for creativity and accomplishing ambitious goals. (Here’s a link to one of the studies he cites.)
Because individual prejudice and systemic racism prevent inclusion and diversity, they block the creativity we need to create change and meet our challenges. They also prevent the formation of energized, sustainable communities that we need to work together and avoid extinction.
White men in particular are more susceptible to hierarchical systems and get sucked into perpetuating misogyny and racism from an early age. No matter how loving and egalitarian our parents are, we grow up into a world where manhood means suppressing our emotions and our tenderness and “acting tough” instead. And one way to prove our manhood is to throw women and girls under the bus. This set of demands pushes men into an old model for strength and masculinity. That model depends on wielding power over others who are different while repressing what is unique about one’s self.
Our early and ongoing experience with the repression and discrimination makes it easy for us to fall for racist tropes and myths. Our struggles with the win-lose, dog-eat-dog world of the playground and the workplace make it easier to believe that we can only succeed when we’re holding someone else down. And so we become examples of the problem that Greene describes: men calling other men “sheep” or “pussies” for wearing masks that protect the community and the economy; men actively working to sabotage police brutality protests against police violence by turning them violent; men voting for authoritarian leaders because we secretly like watching them put others down. These are the behaviors that make our crises worse and dry up the hope in our hearts.
But I’m a white man and I don’t want to go extinct. I don’t want to be part of an “extinction-level flaw.” I’m guessing you don’t either.
Fortunately there’s still time for men - all men - to be an active, valuable, and effective part of the solution. If and when more men step out of the old model of masculinity and learn to exercise the “new strength” of compassion, inclusion, and vulnerability, we’ll disrupt the rise of white supremacism and break up the logjam that prevents us from implementing the solutions we already have. Imagine how, once men are on board, how quickly we’ll suppress the coronavirus, build clean energy infrastructure, reform our economy, and end police brutality.
For a man raised in the Man Box culture, fully becoming part of the solution is not easy or quick. There’s a lot of de-programing to do. I’ve been working on creating an authentic, anti-misogyistic and anti-racist manhood for myself for decades. But there are two concrete steps I can recommend for men who want to be part of the solution.
One: recognize when you are falling into the old ways - the old strength of put downs, discrimination, and power over. These behaviors are old traps set specifically to bring you down. It can feel powerful or at least a little thrilling to feel momentarily better than another. But when you play that game, you never really win. There’s always a million or a billion other men standing on your hands or head as you try to squirm up the ladder of hierarchy that old strength built. Better to step outside of the game and be free of the unending competition
Two: Start believing women and people of color when they tell you their stories. I found it - still find it - particularly hard to always practice this kind of “new strength.” I found it incredibly painful because the stories can be heart rending. I don’t want to believe the tales of assault, rape, and daily misogyny. I don’t want to believe the history of cold-hearted systemic racism nor the nightmare tales of bloody, violent oppression. For many years, my identity as a “good guy” depended on dismissing these truths so that I could live in a world where I and my fellow men were not complicit in terror and violence.
But something powerful and wonderful happened as I learned to sit there in the pain and distress as I listened. I grew more capable of handling the shame and anger that came up for me and more capable of being in relationship with people who had been harmed or oppressed. When I set down the tools and traditions of the old strength, I found new, better ones. By setting down my desire to feel power over others, I found out how to have power with. I became a much better leader, boss, and husband. And because I improved my ability to be in relationship with a diverse group of people I am now embedded in a supportive community. We celebrate each other and each other’s contributions to the whole and we can get more accomplished. I don’t have to be a fatal flaw, I am becoming part of the solution, and so can you.
In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of developing and articulating a set of shared relationship values. Values are the concepts, qualities, or ideals that we're just not willing to forget or forgo. When a pair of people recognize, share, and talk about important values, hard decisions get easier, more trust emerges, and a sense of teamwork develops. But all that goodness doesn’t show up automatically, we have to work at it, intentionally. It is all too easy to forget our values and stray from them.
A few months ago, Kelly and I spent a morning choosing and honing our current relationship values. They are:
So now we set aside every Wednesday night as Enrichment Night. We still sit on the couch, but we leave Netflix off and instead spend time going over our spending and savings goals. (We use a program called You Need a Budget and we recommend it highly.) Part of that budgeting work includes deciding how to distribute our charitable and political donations (an action that helps us live into another value of Giving). If we finish the financial work, we enrich our relationship further by either playing a card game or watching educational videos.
I admit there are many Wednesday nights that we both wish we could just watch another episode of Queer Eye and call it a night. But because this new habit is linked clearly to a relationship value, we acknowledge its importance and give ourselves to it.
The regular habit of Enrichment night means that we never neglect our finances (which we know is one area that lots of couples fight over) and it means we are supporting each other in being our best selves, most aligned with our lofty values. We encourage all of you to establish concrete habits tied to your values, whether or not you are in a relationship.
What is one habit you will try one that will engage your values? If one of your values is health, will you walk everyday? If your relationship values include intimacy, will you make a practice of breathing together? If a value is beauty, will you commit to going to a museum or gallery every month?
Let us know in the comments what habit you aim to create.
We are born to screw up. No matter how careful and conscious we are, our clumsy attempts to meet our own needs will combine with our low-grade selfishness and distractibility to cause harm, anger, or frustration for the people around us.
And, because we want to get out of trouble, minimize the damage, and move on, we apologize. We say, “I’m sorry.” We may even do so sincerely. But we notice that the words that we were trained to use from toddler-hood don’t have the magical power we thought they did. The other person is still angry, arms crossed. So we try again with emphasis, “Jeez! I said I was sorry!” Still no good. Partner, sister, or BFF is still hurt and withdrawn.
I’ve made some mistakes in my relationships. I’ve been inattentive, messy, forgetful, and, occasionally, mean or nasty. And I know how quickly I want to get out of the doghouse and back in the good graces. I want to minimize my bad behavior, make it clear that it doesn’t represent me and move on to forgiveness and forgetting as soon as possible. So I apologize quickly.
But I’ve learned how hollow and ineffective apologies are when they come out of my needs to escape shame and blame. All of the apologies that are motivated by my needs are centered on the wrong person. They almost always start with the word “I” and then go on to ask for more emotional work from the person I hurt. “Please understand my intentions, please trust me not to do that again, please forgive ME.”
Fortunately, I’ve found what really works is to apologize with a focus on the person I hurt, attention to their experience and needs, and a determination to lean in and support them. And if you can do the same, even a little bit more, your relationship will repair more quickly, will contain more trust, and be more resilient.
Next time you mess up and realize you hurt or angered someone you care about, go ahead and notice any feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment that come up. Notice any impatience or anxiety that arises. Those feelings make sense - no one except a sociopathic narcissist wants to cause pain or mistrust. Go ahead and validate your own feelings but keep them to yourself. Take a deep breath and ignore them. If you can’t manage this step, go for a walk, talk to a friendly third party, or journal until the intensity of your own defensiveness or fear has lessened.
When you are ready to apologize for the right reason - because you want to understand and be present for the one you hurt - go ahead and give it a try. Then focus on the feelings and needs of the person you hurt. Do your best to make a guess about what happened and how it landed on your friend, sibling or lover. “I’m guessing you’re feeling really X because I did Y. Is that right?”
Your guess might be wrong… you might think your sister is mad because you forgot her birthday when she’s actually really scared about how you swing your niece around the living room. It doesn’t matter that much… In most cases your guess will show your intentions to be present for her and her experience.
When you feel like you understand what is really going on for the other, then you can apologize. “It sounds like it really frightens you when I swing little Josie around the living room. You’re scared I’m going to let go and you imagine her hurtling through the window into the cactus outside. I get it. It would be terrible if Josie got hurt. Thank you for telling me how you feel. I am so sorry what I did scared you. I’ll stop swinging Josie inside.”
Notice that the apology came last, after you made it really clear you understand your sister and her concerns. It doesn’t matter whether you intended to scare her, whether you're sure you have a firm grip on Josie, or whether you think the window is thick enough to prevent Josie from ending up the cactus bed. What matters is that your sister now knows that you know her, that you don’t want her to be scared, and that you are on her side again.
Next time you mess up, do your best to apologize not because you want to get out of your shame, but because you want to understand the other person and want repair the relationship by leaning in and empathizing. Don’t forget to breathe.
Dig Up and Share Your Values
Here's another way we use to make our relationship rock solid
-> Find, dig up, unearth, articulate, your shared relationship values. Values are the concepts, qualities, or ideals that we're just not willing to forget or forgo.
The relationship values we are working on are:
We know we have more thoughtful work to do to always
What are your relationship values? If you are single, do you have other non-romantic relationships that have bedrock values underneath?
Once the initial attraction, the ZING of a new romance fades, what can keep a relationship together? How do we prevent time, and the successive revelation of our mutual flaws, from driving us slowly apart?
I initially fell in love with Kelly’s creative spark, her nimble hands as she made art, and in the way she smelled. And while all those gifts remain, those superficial attributes are not enough to maintain a marriage or long term relationship.
Early on, though, Kelly and I stumbled onto an important element that keeps our relationship fresh, invigorating, and meaningful - a shared project that serves others. When we met, I was the executive director of a youth mentoring program. Kelly jumped in and worked with me to develop this young organization's two premier fundraising events. We so enjoyed working together and, for Kelly, it was a unique opportunity to use her talents to support a cause. Our partnership on these projects continued for six more years. A year after our last musical fundraiser, participants and audience members are reposting pictures and reminiscing about those uplifting moments.
When it came time to seal the deal and get married, Kelly and I decided to create an event that was about more than just ourselves. We felt strongly that a wedding can have deeply spiritual, psychological, emotional impacts on all participants and serve as a ritual to knit a community together. We worked for months, producing hand-made decorations, canning jams and syrups as give-aways, designing the temporary wedding structure, and printing invitations. We made sure to involve others in the preparation and execution of the shindig, too. Kelly’s best friend did the flowers. Another friend catered. Part of the entertainment during the reception was an open mic for music, poetry, and story. Six years later, our friends and family still tell us it was the most memorable wedding they’ve ever attended.
And now, after leaving the nonprofit world, Kelly and I are still dedicated to collaborating on projects that serve others. We co-host a weekly podcast dedicated to individual and community growth. We run a growing Facebook group to support more growth and engagement. Kelly produces “emotional support” sock monsters and I facilitate their give-away. Even though we are both introverts, our relationship remains deeply committed to engaging in the community.
Lots of research indicates that happy couples are the ones that find ways to:
Kelly and I found that collaborative projects, especially those aimed at serving others, are perfect ways to cover all those “best practices.” The projects we choose involve lots of talking, exploration and novelty. And, because of their period (weekly, monthly, yearly) nature, there are lots of opportunities to celebrate success and praise one another. Creative collaborations are powerful to do together because service brings out the best in humans. Working together on these projects means that Kelly and I get to see the best, most engaged, most uplifted versions of each other. That’s attractive!
Those long-term relationships that raise kids have a built-in “service project.” Although many couples argue over child rearing and experience lots of stress when the children are young, they find intense satisfaction and relationship happiness as the children grow older. They know they are in a relationship that is bigger than each of them and their usual small selfishness.
For those of us without kids, or for couples whose kids have flown the nest, finding or creating a project that serves the community can bolster happiness and shared commitment. Here are some brainstormed suggestions:
What other ideas do you have for projects that serve and can be accomplished as a couple? Please leave them in the comments.
One of the things I like best about my relationship with Kelly is the sheer number of "Thank you's" that I hear in our house (and in the garden, and in the studio). The other day, I was standing in the backyard, pondering the growing corn, when Kelly stopped, looked at me and said, "Thank you for bringing so much green into my life and our world." I was a little taken aback. I plant things on the porch and backyard because it feeds my soul, it connects me to my father and grandfather, and because it keeps the Covid despair just ever-so-slightly at bay. I am not digging and moving rocks out of any obligation or duty in our relationship.
But Kelly's real, heartfelt gratitude had a big impact on me. I felt seen. My work felt seen and appreciated. Not that I needed the external validation, but it felt great and it made me lean in toward Kelly, emotionally and physically.
Without ever talking about it, Kelly and I seem to have agreed to offer far more gratitude than correction, criticism, or even requests. We thank each other for everyday activities like emptying the dishwasher or doing the laundry, tasks that are so regular and mundane one could easily take them for granted. We thank each other for important behaviors. “Thank you for being so responsible with the bills.” “Thank you for always caring for the cats.” And, critically, we thank each other for courage and vulnerability. “Thank you for telling me you felt scared.” “Thank you for sitting and listening to me.”
And the beauty of offering frequent gratitude is how it affects both the giver and receiver, knitting us each tighter into supportive relationships. The receiver of the “Thank you” gets validation, acknowledgement, and a bit of motivation to keep at it. The giver of the “Thank you” gets to live in gratitude, gets a moment to see the abundance or ease or safety in the house anew, afresh.
There are lots of things to complain about in this house. I am not easy to live with, I am sure. And I have a few beefs with how Kelly does things. But we choose to live in “Thank you.” And that choice, repeated several times a day, makes the little quibbles fade. Plus, I just much prefer to hear gratitude rather than complaints come out of my mouth. Like Stasia Rivera says, “Vote for the person you want to be.” I vote for grateful and appreciative.
Are there things or people in your life that you would like to thank more?