Some time ago, my husband told me about personal issues that he was experiencing. When I asked him how long he had been grappling with them, he said it had been going on for a few months. I was a bit surprised: why hadn’t he mentioned anything sooner? So I asked him. He explained kindly that he didn’t want to burden me further: I had been immersed in my own personal issues at the time, and he was trying to look out for me.
Yet even though my husband thought not telling me about his issues would relieve me of further drama, I found myself feeling sad and confused. I wondered if I had monopolized the space in our relationship for talking about emotional problems. So I immediately asked him to keep me posted on his emotional struggles, no matter what I was going through in my own life.
It was then I had a major realization: there is a lot, a lot of pressure on men to remain silent about their inner struggles and to constantly have a “stiff upper lip.” I hear many women complain that they are unable to find “real men.” They often suggest that the men they meet don’t cut it for them, that they are lacking in some way, that they don’t fulfill a rigid list of “requirements.” But where do these requirements come from?
Recently, I came across a quote from John Lennon that struck a chord within me. It said, “Woman, I know you understand, the little child inside of the man.” I wondered how many women today are willing to acknowledge “the child” inside of men. Is there space in our society to acknowledge that just as there is often an inner child within a woman, there is an inner child within each man, too. All of us are just hoping to find resolutions for our deep human needs that haven’t been met yet.
Gender roles in our society are quite fixed, despite our progress. Often, many of us struggle when others deviate from norms, even as we ourselves try to push back against them. Part of being “masculine” is to be strong, powerful, stoic and resourceful. If a man ever deviates from these qualities then we have a list of names for them, such as “wuss” or “pussy.”
Of course, more and more women today are discussing and pushing back against the pressures put on them by society. But there is a lot of pressure on men to display certain characteristics, to fit within a very narrow definition of what it means to be a man. How does this impact them? How many men simply long for the child inside them to be seen and heard? If we start to ask these questions, we can all change these narrow definitions — for both men and women — together. I know how at times I long for the child inside me to be seen, to make up for the times she wasn’t seen many years ago. All of us want to, and need to, be vulnerable sometimes. This includes men.
So how many women are willing to nurture and recognize the vulnerability in the men around them without judgment? How often are women willing to forego the strict definitions of what we expect in our men and allow them to be themselves, whatever that might mean, however much it resists our society’s gender roles.
Perhaps it’s time to give the men around us a chance to answer the question of how they want to be seen. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to let go of the rigid expectations of those around us to behave in certain ways and make space for deeper self-expression and authentic happiness. Is it possible to start a conversation with those around you to understand what they really need or want, and to make time to honor their answers?
We can’t always get it right. But we can try. So let’s all begin by putting aside our inflexible ideas of who other people should be and how they should act. We may just get to have a deeper and more connected relationship with our partners, and really everyone else around us … even ourselves.