I knew from the way she set her schoolbag down that the argument wasn’t over. Usually it sat on the floor next to her desk in our shared office, but tonight she’d left it out in the hallway. A habit that had taken me some time to decipher. The office was where I worked and she studied, but it’d become the venue for our heated back-and-forth over the past two nights. Leaving the bag outside was her way of saying ‘I’m not going to let your bullshit disrupt my focus.’
I took my headphones off, put my phone on silent, and settled into a chair, waiting to continue on the brink of the impasse we’d reached the night before. Hours long arguments with emotional outbursts and things better left unsaid, but vindictively wielded despite our better judgment. “We should sell tickets,” I thought. Better than Pay-Per-View. We covered the “How was your day” questions, the small talk about day to day vagaries in our routines, and then it began. I felt my teeth clench, the coldness that creeps up my spine during arguments, and the hyper-awareness settling it until every sight and sound and sensation seemed overwhelming. My arguments were lined up in my head, refined by a day of seething in solitude and seeking advice from friends. But despite my eagerness to deploy them, in my mind each one had an addendum that I would have to grapple with on my own: why do I even care about this?
In my mind, it was simply not manly to become emotional or even acknowledge feelings. If I, as the man, relinquished my sense of control and allowed emotion to influence my thinking, where would that leave us?
There was the fight we had when I received my acceptance to a yearlong Fulbright program in Brazil, and a running thread of arguments about my conflicts with her family over the holidays. There were many time when I chose to derail or disrupt an argument with my partner because of my hesitance to admit how strongly I felt. A declaration of “This is only a problem because you made me care about it!” steeped in false righteousness. In my mind, it was simply not manly to become emotional or even acknowledge feelings. If I, as the man, relinquished my sense of control and allowed emotion to influence my thinking, where would that leave us? Adrift in a sea of emotion that might allow for genuine connection and insight? On equal footing of vulnerability and honesty? Unthinkable. Like gaslighting, derailing arguments is a well-worn tactic in the standard issue masculine emotional toolbox. Nevermind the disagreement at hand or my role in causing it. Men’s own shock at the fact that they care enough to argue about something often becomes the crux of the debate itself. It flies in the face of everything that men are told we should be. Someone must have tricked us, deceived us into feeling anything beyond anger, ambition, or ambivalence. Society does not prepare men to create or value emotional intimacy that isn’t on their terms, if at all. Often, we are also unwilling to learn.
As a man who believes in feminism, I’ve learned all the right things to say and all the right ways to signal my commitment to an equal relationship, to go 50/50 on everything. But that was a false promise when my half-rested on a foundation of limited emotional capacity. The other person in the equation was always forced to contribute more just to make up the gap. It’s easy to read the right books and listen to the right lectures and learn how to talk the talk of gender equality. There are few guides for doing so, but one of the insidious thing about living in a patriarchal society is the way in which other people will do the heavy lifting for men without even realizing it. All you have to do is be a little earnest, a little humble. Follow the right Twitter or Tumblr accounts. Read the right books. Preface requests for advice from your friends by saying “I feel too concerned about hurting their feelings to say what I really want.” Be sure to ignore the fact that masculinity reinforced the idea of communal validation of male identity, so much that many of us struggle with acknowledging our emotions without a cosign or a second opinion. Go to the right events, but don’t say much, if anything at all. Just exist in the space and let yourself look good by comparison, even when you’re the only man in the room. Because other people will look at you and project a persona 100 times better than anything you could live up to, one that few people will expect you to actually earn. Actually walking the walk and translating that to emotional openness and reciprocity in relationships is more difficult. So how do we get men to actively undertake a project of transitional vulnerability while immersed in a society that encourages anything but?
For me, however, the prospect of dedicating myself to my partner for the rest of my life is bewitching. It makes me excited and nervous all at once.
For me, it took reaching an age where my Facebook timeline was comprised of nothing but announcements about engagements, weddings, and babies to notice the way in which I was sleepwalking through personal growth. It’s still weird to consider that I think about marriage almost every day. This is an unexceptional state of affairs, except for the fact that I am a Black man born and raised in the United States. By all popular stereotypes of traditional masculinity, men are so romantically cavalier that they don’t think about relationships that last longer than a prolonged series of snaps. For me, however, the prospect of dedicating myself to my partner for the rest of my life is bewitching. It makes me excited and nervous all at once. The more I consider that possible future, the more realizations unfold about commitment. Commitment must accompany a dedication to emotional depth, self-awareness, and deviation from harmful, limiting societal norms. Yet even that desire for growth and development always comes with the nagging voice, the creeping dread of “you shouldn’t care about this.” “Men don’t argue about these things.” “Caring is a waste of your energy.” Like running with a speed parachute strapped to your chest, the faster you try to go, the more it drags on you. Society tells men that we should be protectors, providers, and pioneers. Within the scope of those gender roles, we’re allowed to express ourselves, to feel, to widen the range of emotional consciousness. When we can’t, we tie ourselves in knots seeking a way to fit an emotional response into the framework of those traits.
bell hooks once wrote that “patriarchal masculinity insists that real men must prove their manhood by idealizing isolation and disconnection.” In my past relationships, I followed that ideal of isolation to its logical conclusion of emotional unavailability more times than I can count. If texting and dating are largely treated as contests of who can care the least, then I took the gold medal in almost every event. My hopes for the future have motivated me to reject that rhetoric and move beyond it. Yet a society that caters to the desires of men almost exclusively offers little support for a version of masculinity that embraces emotional accountability and reciprocity. I forge ahead anyway, wondering if such a thing is even possible to manifest. Am I chasing a shadow? Will I always be one step behind? Like many men, I was taught as a child never to cry. Beyond the tired and sexist beliefs that associate tears with weakness, emotional outbursts were treated as distractions from the mission at hand. Men are expected to lead, to focus on the goal, to push through pain and hardship. But leaving emotion to be revisited means never developing the ability to be accountable to yourself or others in a time of need. Instead we resort to making promises, apologies, or excuses rather than interacting with the people they care about. It is no wonder then that so many men idealize the past or fixate on the future. Being emotionally absent in the present precludes us from any consideration of our place in it or responsibility to those around us.
Masculinity is a tiny, uncomfortable construct that many of us get shoved into and refuse to deviate from for fear of admitting that we find it unpleasant. The price of admission is your eternal allegiance, and the punishment for deviance is denial of your right to exist as an aberration. Yet no structure is invulnerable and piece by piece the edifice of masculinity has been cracking under pressure. The scope of what can be considered masculine has expanded.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “women are expected to drown in relationships that men will not step across a puddle for”.
The world has also been graced (or cursed) with man-therapy, male-specific hygiene products, and man buns or braids—a trend that embodies the masculine tendency to push forward despite all countervailing logic or common sense (never mind that braiding hair has long been a norm for males in Black culture, just as wearing your hair long or tied up has been for men in certain Indigenous or Asian cultures). Once those hair styles became desirable by white men, they were no longer seen as unprofessional (braids) or emasculating (buns).) Yet it is still necessary to qualify their popularity by making sure everyone understood that these were fashion trends meant for men and therefore not in any way outside of the realm of masculinity. Definitions of masculine image and identity are being challenged, yet that expansion comes with stringent qualifications rooted in gendered identity. Society’s overwhelming response is to constrain any boundary-pushing developments into the same tiny box of gendered expectations.
In terms of relationships, men are generally not encouraged, expected, or entrusted to show or value emotion, let alone allow it to be the driving force in their lives. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “women are expected to drown in relationships that men will not step across a puddle for”. A paraphrase on my part, but the weight of the statement is undeniable. Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of my adult life embodying this stoic, aloof patriarchal ideal of masculinity. Looking back with all the clarity of hindsight reveals often not only that I was unwilling to get wet, but also that I disputed the existence of the puddle. Denial of emotional involvement and investment was an easy way to avoid grappling with my own shortcomings. Messages of reductive masculinity are embedded the media we consume, even those which are considered to be emotionally sensitive. Anyone who has listened to a Drake track can tell you that his most sentimental lyrics are lamenting his inability to appreciate women who have already moved on, or his hope for a bright future with a woman not yet alienated by his behavior. He is far from alone or unique in this regard. Society allows men a certain access to emotions, but only on certain conditions. However, by that time, usually the opportunity for that romantic opportunity has already slipped away. It’s okay to mourn those lost chances. Society conditions men to only deal with emotions as abstractions, with emotional responses as more acceptable the further removed you are from the event.
It feels a little hypocritical to be writing this essay. I don’t want to portray myself as somehow more enlightened than other men, as a paragon of improved, upgraded masculinity. Mostly because I’m not. I fuck up a lot when it comes to relationships. I make mistakes, I say the wrong thing, I don’t always practice what I preach. My partner and I still have those week-long, combative arguments where I struggle to engage and be present and not shut down, shut myself and her out. There are no roadmaps or how-to guides for those of us who seek a path away from toxic masculinity. And there’s no guarantee that the destination, if one exists, will prove to be a paradise. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and, in trying, maybe find a triumph of sorts. That everyone forgets that Icarus also flew doesn’t lessen his accomplishment.
The image of a man as a bulwark against all the hardships of the world, as the one who cuts off his own emotions in order to “keep the bad men from the door” is outmoded and useless. We have to be willing to drift and be subsumed and find comfort in the surrender. We have to be willing to drown.
Masculinity, like any other gender identity, is a performance based on the standards society sets for us. To give it a new appearance without shifting the underlying structure is not enough. Men have to be willing to break away from the moorings of masculinity and stand in the waves of our own emotional sea. More than that, we have to be willing to do the same for the people in our lives. The image of a man as a bulwark against all the hardships of the world, as the one who cuts off his own emotions in order to “keep the bad men from the door” is outmoded and useless. We have to be willing to drift and be subsumed and find comfort in the surrender. We have to be willing to drown.