Manning Up and Leaning In to Marriage

egalitarian marriage

Photo Credit: PernilleLouise via Compfight cc

It’s a Sunday afternoon, I’m a suburban dad, and my oldest son has a double-header scheduled in his indoor baseball league. I line up in the bleachers with the other dads, and we all shout tough, competitive, guy things to our boys on the field.

But then I pull out my wife’s scrapbooking materials, and I begin to cut Christmas trees out of green construction paper. The other dads glance at me sideways. I swear a couple of them cough-laugh.

I breathe deeply and I remind myself I’m still a man.

I’m a man married to a tenured professor of psychology. I fell in love with her tenacity and her deep sense of vocation and when we stood on our wedding altar, I knew what I was getting into — an egalitarian marriage. Which means, if we’re two weeks away from Christmas and she’s grading final exams and our kids’ Christmas party craft needs to be prepared, I’m toting the scrapbooking supplies to baseball. I’ll also be the only dad at the Christmas party.

And all of that can feel a little…emasculating.

But thirteen years of striving for true equality in our marriage has convinced me of at least one thing: having your manhood called into question can be a good thing, perhaps even an essential thing. And ten years as a psychologist has confirmed it: the number one obstacle for men to personal healing, emotional health, and loving marriages is what most of us call masculinity — this idea that to be men we have to be strong, unflappable, and invulnerable. When I ask the question, “What would you have to give up to be vulnerable and honest, to be forgiving and gracious, to be empathic and caring?” the most common answer I get is, “My manhood.”

When men talk about manhood — and when most of us talk about masculinity — those words and ideas and experiences can all be code words for something else: ego.

This is the beginning of a guest post I wrote for Disney’s Babble.com, in conjunction with the #LeanInTogether campaign. To read the rest of this post, click here.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    I love this! There are so many ways that men’s behaviors are scripted, screened, and checked for their adherence to dominant ideas of masculinity and that is a heavy weight to bear. Still the harder road is allowing this near-constant policing to rob boys and men of the joys that should be open to people: choosing to like what we like, to be close and loving with those we feel love for, to caretake and to be taken care of, and to act authentically without wondering if it comports with others’ sense of how we “need to be.”
    My son has long enjoyed children’s toys and children’s books — which means that some of them are designed to be marketed to boys and some to girls. As he moves through school and sees his friends who are boys policing the boundaries of what his masculinity should look like, we needed to brainstorm ways to handle his preferences and choices. He considered not playing with the things he liked that were pink. He thought about hiding them. And ultimately, we concluded that our ideas about masculinity require space for being “my own man.” He has decided that John Wayne wouldn’t take a poll to find out if other guys liked something before he finally told people he liked it too. And so being his own man has meant reading books designed for girls, bringing dinosaurs and baby dolls to Show and Tell, playing with the kids he likes best regardless of gender during a very gender-divided year at school, and telling his detractors, ” I’m my own man.” All three and a half feet tall of him.
    Thank you for writing this piece, Kelly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Awesome, Shel! I love the intentionality you are giving to your son. What a gift. “I’m my own man” is a great way to frame that for a young boy. Thank you.

  • Alexandra Encarnacion

    I come from a very old fashioned, male dominated family culture. Which means as a first generation American, I’m not going to have anyone understand me when I say I don’t need a man to show me he cares because he gives me money or stuff. But because he shows me he cares and respects me and my capacities as a grown woman with her own mind that doesn’t expect her prince charming to show up on a white horse. That I see he respects our relationship when we’re not together, cuz really, in today’s selfie obsessed culture, you know you’ll get caught! If we’re both short on funds, we can find ways to have a good time because, woah! We know how to and like conversing with eachother. Imagine that. I love that more and more men have stepped up to not be served and deffered to. There are other people that need just as much attention. That they do feel we are supposed to be a team, not a dictatorship. Going against my family’s ideas and listening to my own inner voice, intuition and remembering my past experiences’ outcomes has led me to make a much better choice when choosing a partner. Once I felt ready to contribute positively to a relationship. Meaning, I unloaded excess bagage! Marriage is not the end of a good relationship because now the man thinks he owns you, per my mom. Marriage is the end if you don’t think past those vows in front of those people, to when there’s a problem and you don’t know how to say or don’t feel empowered to say, here’s my take on how we could manage this, what do you think partner?

    • Alexandra Encarnacion

      Sorry, I cut myself off. My point is that I think this is leading us all down the path of raising a whole new generation of men that don’t make you feel like you have to chose between them and your own happiness, unless, it’s one of those ” even if I lose, I win situations “. Cuz really, your a man if you’ve got a penis, and from there, it’s up to you to be the best person you can possibly be. Thanks for writing this!

      • drkellyflanagan

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Alexandra! I get excited about the idea of a generation of men who don’t have an either-or mentality about happiness in a relationship, but instead focus on cultivating a both-and sense of satisfaction. Thanks for articulating that!

  • CJ

    I would have enjoyed this post more if the examples of how men can let go of their egos had not been all about chores. I agree- a real man is a full participant in the life of his household, from A to Z. But my experience has been that men not only avoid chores to maintain their ego fiction, they avoid emotional and sexual intimacy, conflict and genuine communication so their egos can remain protected. Doc, I hope you write about your views when it comes to men, masculinity and relationships. I’d rather pick up a pair of dirty socks now and then, than live in a constant struggle to have contact and connection with a guy who takes and never gives anything of himself.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good point, CJ. It certainly wasn’t my intention to imply that equality is all about household mutuality. It’s also about emotional mutuality.

  • Melynda Brown

    I always enjoy your articles, usually reading them during my lunch break. It was interesting to read the comment from Alexandra a first generation American. Male dominance doesn’t always come from men. As a young girl from the 50’s raised by a mother from the 30’s our household was completely male dominated and this came from my mother. She was raised that way and then raised her daughters in the same way. My life became very different from my own mother’s and I raised my children (a son and a daughter) with different attitudes. Attitudes of equality based upon being human not a male or female. And yet I remember through the years each child hoped to receive special “privileges” for being a boy or a girl when they wanted to do or not do something requested of them. So we do learn everywhere we go……..from everyone we meet.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Great observation, Melynda. You’re right, masculine ideals are not communicated only by men, but by a whole culture. Which is why coming together to change it is so important.

  • Mike Gates

    Doing what you committed to do (scrap booking) shouldn’t feel emasculating. I understand the conditioning that gets us there, but it is BS. There is nothing MORE masculine than doing what you say you will do. Keeping your word. “being your own man” as Shel so wonderfully put it. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about being a man that I find inspiring. The ideals in it have more to do with masculinity than any silly ideas about pants-wearing.

    Much of what you described – it seems to me – is more accurately stated as “roles and responsibilities” rather than ego. In that context I can see it being conflated with the idea of ego, since men so often self-identify with “what they do” = “who they are”. Of course, I may not understand the definition of ego. However if we are going to use that word, then here’s the thorny question: why aren’t women encouraged to let go of their egos? You are very consistent in the message of surrendering ego as a path of growth, but that should not be limited to “humans with penises.”