I’ve gotten to a point, both as someone constantly engaging with social change and as a healthy human being, where I need to actively and thoughtfully incorporate men in my life. This might sound like a strange thing to announce, but it’s actually pretty important, for me and a bunch of other people. Obviously I’ve been close to men before, both as intimate partners and friends, peers and co-workers. As I dive deeper into embodying the change I want in the world, my relationship with men has become fraught. I notice power imbalances, harmful behaviors, and a general lack of understanding when it comes to how oppression and marginalization occurs in day-to-day interactions. While some people can go through their lives with men mostly on the outskirts or in limited quantities, how I move through the world isn’t accommodated by that. My interest in and need of anti-oppression work outside of gender and sexuality requires partnerships with men. The fields I work in are dominated by men, therefore it is likely that the majority of my connections will also be men. And possibly more importantly, I expect to date mostly men, and I want some base understanding that we change the world on the ground level, between people we care about, as much as we do on the policy and media ones.
What follows is a list of notes I created, sort of lessons from what I’ve personally learned from my relationship with men. I’m posting it publicly because I think it will be useful for others, and I want those I get close to in the future to easily find it. I don’t think men are lost causes, and if I refer someone to this list, it’s not that you are particularly bad. No guy is going to need every lesson on this list, nor any of them in the most literal sense. In reality, people of all genders can benefit from following all these thoughts I have, but I want to present them in the context of struggling with contemporary masculinity. As a precaution, I want to remind people that no one is required to educate anyone, especially at their own expense. I’m writing this and making an active effort because I’ve arrived to a part of my life where I do have the want and energy. I’ve tried wrestling with how masculinity affected my relationship with men in the past and realized it all went wrong because I didn’t have the time nor energy for it. No matter what, you, nor I, will be able to grow alone, and we have to learn where we can find opportunity for growth while staying savvy of social issues and how it continues to change us.
Don’t read this all in one go. Skim it, see what strikes you. I want this to be something that serves as talking points for multiple conversations over time, and it starts with awareness. This isn’t a paint by numbers, nor a how-to really. It’s more like some real talk, having it here in writing so you know it’s coming rather than a complete surprise. Some reads as accusatory, and it is a little, but a lot has to do with taking care of yourself. I know it’s long, so I bolded the main ideas in each part. It would mean a lot if you took the time to read it all however, I put work into it!
Where you are now
One of the most difficult things to do when becoming aware of power dynamics informed by oppression is the first: understanding what is immutably you, and what can change. The first line of resistance you will find will come in the form of “I’m just hardwired this way” or “it’s biological,” assuming that some aspect of yourself is just etched in stone and cannot change. While there are some biological and chemical effects that shape who you are, there needs to be a hard look at what you were socialized to do, and what is actually a product of your body. If you didn’t hear it from a personal physician or other medical expert diagnosing you, it’s likely that you haven’t challenged a concerning aspect of yourself enough to know that it’s something you can change. You aren’t bound to some sort of hunter-gatherer method of dealing with women, nor are you more prone to violence because of your hormones. You were trained to be a certain way through cultural socialization since the day you were born. Throughout life, you’ve built yourself around this socialization, so it’s difficult to imagine yourself outside of it. The good news is that there is a you outside of the harmful behaviors taught to you by society, and there are plenty of people in the world who actively resisted and crafted themselves as people to accommodate that. You going to have to fight a lot of “but this is just reality” impulses when it comes to challenging socialization, and it’s ultimately your call what goes and what stays. Just know that it’s going to happen so you can be intentional about what you do decide to keep and let go.
Before going on any self-improvement journey, it’s critical to not put yourself or your progress in a success vs failure binary. There is a particular expectation men have to always be successful and to lose sense of themselves when they are failing. When it comes to challenging how you perpetuate unhealthy power dynamics, you, everyone, will always be a work in progress. There isn’t an end-point, at least, not for us, so you won’t ever be a success nor a failure. Not only does this mean that you can’t frame yourself that way, to either feel complicit in what you accomplished nor eternally damned, but you also will see me that way, as a growing human being trying as hard as anyone else. Not an idol, not perfect, just human, like you.
This process is going to take a lot of self-awareness, a kind of self-awareness you’re not often asked to develop. You will have to have a good sense of your motivations and the reasons why you do things. Society has let you get by with certain behaviors as “quirks” or “that’s just how guys are.” It is important to double-check your gut reactions to see if you’re not throwing around power unintentionally. You’ve been allowed to insert yourself, take up space, and speak over others without comment because it’s expected of you to do it. This doesn’t mean you can’t speak or be places, rather that you’re making sure you’ve taken a second to recognize that you’re not intruding and trampling over others.
Because a lot of socialization is centered around serving masculinity, people who aren’t men are given different metrics of success and relevance, as judged by said men. You probably have heard of objectification and exotification before, behaviors men display towards people who aren’t men that assesses their worth. On top of meeting the standards men create for themselves, objectified people must excel at one exaggerated function men find valuable (being attractive, willing to do unsavory manual labor) and exotified people must fulfill a man’s curiosity based solely on their stereotype (exaggerate certain physical features, act as ambassador to another culture). These attitudes are rarely obvious in day-to-day interactions, but they lie at the very base of how men construct their understanding of other people. This means paying more attention to someone in non-intimate contexts because you find them attractive while unintentionally shunning those you don’t, because their looks are at the core of how you’ve been taught to value them.
How you value
Men are taught to overestimate themselves and people like them. This is often construed only for men that are completely egotistical, but this also affects insecure, self-deprecating men. First, this leads you to assuming you don’t really need to learn or improve at certain things, especially if no one has brought it up to you enough. If you believe you are capable, and there’s a conflict of competency, this casts doubt on the other person instead of you coming to terms whether or not you should be asserting as much confidence as you are. Second, this sets you up for your own failure and losing a disproportionate amount of self-worth because you identify with being capable at everything. You won’t question the competency of people like you as much because of this overestimation, leading to homogeneous environments where everyone looks and acts the same.
In turn, you underestimate those who aren’t like you. If men surround themselves with, and in turn only seem to respect, people who are similar, then difference is seen as a deficit or risk that needs to prove competency. You are more likely to attribute someone being right or successful to luck or outside help if they are different to you. You can undermine other people by tasking them to constantly live up to another set of standards until you are satisfied, if you ever are. This probably sounds very confrontational, but in my experiences it comes out in small, well-intended ways, like doubting whether I can take care of myself or questioning my understanding of my career path despite my success.
Because you’ve surrounded yourself in that kind of dynamic, a homogeneous sorting of people similar to you and those who are different only appearing in instrumental ways, you’ve grown to assume that your logic and boundaries are normative. Since so many people think and act like you, then others are outliers or have problems, while the way you think and the opinions you have are more right because of an assumed widespread acceptance. This is particularly salient with safety concerns, like needing to reach a certain level of informed consent for intimate interactions to assuming that if you don’t feel threatened, no one should. Again, it’s not combative, it’s more that you don’t realize when you cross a boundary because you assume everyone has the same ones, and therefore, you don’t have a good sense of your own boundaries. It’s a challenge, but coming up against the idea that you’re normal, or the everyman, or even an iconic special snowflake that has a prescribed place will really open you up to internalizing that others aren’t inherently inferior to you.
To solve this, accepting that multiple viewpoints and experiences can be right will help decentralize yourself from places you shouldn’t be. Not in a liberal arts class “every opinion is correct” sort of way, but that what you don’t have the facts on isn’t up for your dismissal. Just because you can’t believe something to be true, since it’s never happened to you, doesn’t mean it isn’t. I find that this happens the most when it’s going to make a man feel shitty or that he’s done something wrong and wants to escape feeling guilty. This is particularly crucial to understand for when someone expresses their personal experiences, to not veto them out because they don’t match up to what you understand to be facts, but is instead most likely an incomplete picture. Conflicting personal experiences doesn’t mean one is invalid, work on understanding the world where both and others can exist.
Since we were young, we had different expectations depending on what gender people thought we were. You likely had lower expectations to be capable of skills and behaviors related to relationships and domesticity. Because of this, you unconsciously expect others to pick up that slack, as it is an assumption you wouldn’t be as good so the other should take charge. While it might seem like you’re admitting a weakness or it’s better off that you don’t mess things up, emotional and domestic labor is often forced upon others and not recognized. It is assumed that women in particular will take care of you, and no matter how independent or modern man you feel, you will expect for them to continue doing it for you since you don’t try hard enough to become competent yourself. This sets you and other people for stereotypical problems that disproportionately harms those with less power.
On the flip side, I find that guys expect acknowledgement and sometimes reward for things that should be done out of basic decency. It’s the “nice guy” routine, a guy who will feel ignored or spiteful if it isn’t commented on that he listens, helps, or does any emotional/domestic labor that men typically don’t do. This establishes an exploitative relationship where you will only be decent to someone if they fulfill you in some way. You assume that this is extra or going out of your way while you expect others to do it for you at all times. When you’re asked to do more of it, you will feel like you’re putting in more than you actually do.
Many people want to believe that they are intrinsically egalitarian. The typical man, and probably you, thinks that people of all genders should be treated exactly the same, and believe you’ve acted that way since day one. Unfortunately, what seems like egalitarian to you probably still works in your favor, where you allocate tasks and responsibilities that give you more power, time, and energy than others. You will still gravitate towards “mens work” which is valued more yet doesn’t deal with a lot of daily, unrecognized minutia. You will have to reorganize responsibilities to a system isn’t decided by gender expectations despite what you think your skill level is.
I have this memory of being in a discussion about gender expectations in school that seems really mundane but really twists my guts when I think about it. We were talking about the sexual double-standard between men and women when it came to amounts of sexual partners, where it’s understood that men are allowed to have many and feel good about it while women are shamed for the same behavior. When asked how he felt about it, a classmate of mine said he always knew of the double-standard, and benefited from it, “but that’s just the way things are.” There are more subtle examples of this, such as not questioning that it’s disproportionately women volunteering to run events while you get to participate in them, or a partner staying over your place because you have the more pressing job to get to in the morning. You need to question whether something working in your favor is fair, even if someone doesn’t speak up about it.
Through both research and my own experience, I’ve found that men don’t have very strong emotional support networks. It’s important that you have a few deep one-on-one relationships with others who are not your intimate partners. Men tend to reserve all their emotional unloading for partners, and this is a really unhealthy habit since you might not always be in a relationship or you have feelings about your relationship that requires an outside perspective. Someone you just do activities with or those you only see in group settings don’t count, it’s a person who you can call up and will immediately listen to all you have to say and allow you emote in every way you want to. Don’t require sexual engagement with someone in order to talk about your feelings.
When reviewing the state of your social support network, there are a couple of things you need to keep an eye out for. First, do you have deep platonic relationships with other men that can talk about issues without usual “man’s talk” about feelings? I find that men are embarrassed to talk to their guy friends about emotions in the first place, but even when they get there, keep it in a crappy “we’re totally not gay” realm where sexism and other harmful attitudes keep spaces between them. Secondly, is your network diverse or only people who are like you? If you can only talk to other men who are most likely in your same position but not willing to admit it, you will be stuck in a toxic echo chamber that doesn’t actually help you and goads you into trying to work things out on your own. You have to make an active effort to have different people around you who have different strengths and can spot when you’re being held up by harmful socialization.
Don’t reserve your “true self” for intimate relationships. While it might seem romantic, it encourages you to keep distant from others and not invite the social support you need. It also pushes you and your intimate partner in a trope-filled “woman tries to fix broken man” situation which is a sure recipe for disaster. It’s common in my experience for men to not feel present in relationships unless it becomes intimate, which commonly marks others as less worthwhile because they are not sexual objects to them. You need to practice being open and forthcoming at every opportunity, and it’s better to do that in low-stakes situations like friendships than waiting and failing in an intense intimacy.
Related, it’s often the case that men aren’t thought of as particularly caring people, and eventually people will assume you don’t really have the capacity to care when you don’t make an effort to show that you do. This means partaking in a lot of the emotional and domestic labor you are accustomed to receiving but not giving, making sure a relationship on any level isn’t one-sided. You tend to only focus on the state of the relationship when it has a clear benefit for you or it’s in danger of being lost, and that is prevented with regular maintenance. You can’t assume that someone knows you care because you are probably not socialized to express it in ways that are visible to others.
Wrestling with vulnerability
This is where it actually gets tough. I haven’t had more struggle with men than when it comes with being vulnerable. In short, you need to become more comfortable with vulnerability, both in feeling and expressing it. Vulnerability comes from strength, not weakness, and you need to tell that to yourself over and over again. Find opportunities where you can practice it safely, and eventually be able to share vulnerability with another person when opportunities come up spontaneously.
You expect people different from you, especially women, to be vulnerable while simultaneously associating vulnerability with weakness. It is exploitative to stall out until the other person opens up and you retain control and power while you decide how much to reveal of yourself. This isn’t necessarily a conscious strategy nor do you do it out of malice. It is another expectation for someone else to do emotional labor for you while you keep everything at your own pace. You ignore the needs of someone else by placing your comfort over theirs, forcing them to pry information out of you until you completely shut down on them.
There is a famous quote by Margaret Atwood that pertains to your relationship with vulnerability: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” There is no doubt that we all feel anxiety and pain and have wounds from our past. You, however, inflate the risk and potential pain of being vulnerable while other people have legitimate, material effects from theirs. It is more likely that a woman will get abused or killed by her intimate partner, date, or friend than by a stranger. Other marginalized people run great risks of being physically harmed or socially destroyed by being vulnerable, and often you don’t run anything near that risk. It’s important to recognize that you feel pain and hurt, just realize that it just takes a band-aid to heal yours while it would take hospitalization for others.
Given this, it’s imperative that you take the first step in initiating vulnerability when it’s appropriate. You run lower risks, such as being embarrassed, than I do, such as being socially ostracized and/or killed. This will begin to reverse the cycle of you expecting emotional labor and establishing a power dynamic that allows you to keep distant. This could mean speaking up when someone does or says something shitty when a person would risk being silenced and you wouldn’t. This also includes being involved with someone’s safety in environments that are potentially hostile to them, especially if you brought them there.
Not only is it a pervasive trope, but it is well researched that men don’t have as strong communication skills that they expect women to have. So, to put it simply, you honestly need to learn how to communicate emotions well. You hear it all the time, that communication is the most important part of relationships, yet you put off actually understanding what that means and how to get yourself to be a deft communicator. This means learning to reflect, identifying your emotions, and sharing them with someone else. We all communicate in different ways, but expecting someone else to read your mind or just not care about feelings at all is actively harmful and a common thing men do.
While speaking and contributing your input is important to communication, listening is so much more. Listening isn’t just hearing what the other person is saying, it’s understanding why they said what they did, believing what they feel, and remembering it for when it’s relevant. When someone is speaking, you shouldn’t be selective about the information you choose to hear so you can form a rebuttal, even if it’s to help them. Sometimes people don’t want your input or to do anything other than listen, and listening should signal that for you. Listening is doing something.
As I’ve said before, socialization affects you to your core, down to how you conceive and understand yourself. You’re trained to control and numb your emotions instead of feeling them, leaving you distant and unsure of how anything actually affects you. You have to resist this impulse, and it will be difficult (but that’s what you have a support network for!). Instead, you need to lean into what you’re feeling, letting it overtake you so you can accept it for what it is. Sometimes this is going to feel uncomfortable, or give you a moment of shame or embarrassment, but especially around people who are important to you, it’s vital to actually feel the full range of your emotions and be able to name and share them.
There is this pernicious free pass we give to men in being ambiguous or misleading about their intentions, especially when it involves intimacy. I’ve found this exists because you were socialized to objectify and exotify people you are intimate with, and that instrumentalizes your relationship to them. You are willing to lead others on as long as you’re getting what you want, and cutting out before they can demand too much of you. Again, this isn’t some villainous plot and you probably aren’t actively thinking this way. Instead you believe you’re just independent, wanting something like sex but not intimacy, or interested in some experience but not looking to actually invest in the relationship like the other would want. It is important to be 100% forward, without being asked, about your intentions with other people, even when you suspect the other person might not be completely on board if you divulged your true feelings.
In both what I’ve experienced and studied, many of men’s problems stem from being unable to ask for help. You are socialized to take care of yourself and that needing help is a weakness that diminishes who you are. There are going to be many times where you think it’d be inappropriate or bad to ask for help, and you have to fight those impulses. Again, asking for help comes from a place of strength, not weakness. The mistake is overestimating yourself and paying for it in the long run, not relying on other people to help you out.
Asking questions is vital for communication, especially understanding someone who is different from you. Not only does this make you seem interested and present, but it allows someone to fill in information where you probably have a stereotype or something misleading you learned through media. Be sure to offer as much information as you are requesting so the interaction isn’t one-sided and turns into you keeping control of the exchange.
You need to be careful of the kinds of questions you ask of the people who are different from you. Don’t treat someone as subject to your idle curiosity and ask something invasive. It seems like an extra step, but you should ask someone if they are comfortable with a particular line of questioning before you potentially exotify them. This also involves seeking consent in all situations that involves someone’s personal space, such as being touched, using their things, or wanting intimate information. A general rule of thumb is don’t ask for anything you wouldn’t be willing to disclose yourself, and to not assume what another person is comfortable with sharing.
Men are likely to skip out on their regular physical and especially mental health, and that compounds on your ability to deal with new things such as practicing vulnerability and confronting hostile masculinity. If you can afford it, get regular physical and mental check-ups instead of waiting to see a doctor when there’s a crisis. If you haven’t given therapy a go, you really should give it an earnest try. Find a man about your age that can relate to you and your problems and use that time to express things you’re not ready to share with friends and intimate partners. Going to professionals isn’t just for the explicitly ill and it takes strength to seek help of any sort.
And there you have it, one huge list of things I’ve tracked over time on what I believe affects my relationship to men. Some things are just what you need to be aware of, and others can be put on a to-do list. You’ve probably read or heard most of this advice already, but now it’s framed on how being more self-aware isn’t just for your benefit, it’s also to help out people like me as we continue to fight for respect in our society. We may be budding friends, colleagues, or lovers, and I’m bound to bring this up at some time or another. So I figure it’s best for this to be out there, so you can visit it and just check in with yourself about what you can do to help us both out. Because I really do believe change starts from the connection between two people, and I’m ready to make a difference with the people in my life, including the guys.
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