|Lions Without a Cause - Page 5|
Fur and Bone
In modern culture, male protection is defined almost entirely in financial terms. Protector is practically synonymous with provider, and a man's worth is measured by how much fur and bone he can bring home to the cave. But the world has changed profoundly. Now few women have a choice between work and full-time motherhood, and more often than not, men aren't the chief source of financial support in their families. The psychological toll on men conditioned by nature and society to equate being the provider and protector with personal value can be devastating. The predominant cultural message continues to cast men as the dollar signs of families, only now it upholds a standard of breadwinning that fewer men than ever can achieve.
The harm of making the dollar the measure of the man is twofold. First, it undervalues the emotional support that men can—and many do—give their families. In fact, our therapeutic message to men can appear to be paradoxical because we ask them to give more emotional support to their partners at the same time that the culture undervalues it. Second, overvaluing financial support creates a sense of entitlement in many successful providers. They think all they have to do is make more money to earn the "services"—emotional, sexual, homemaking—of their wives. The fact that wives and therapists expect more from them than being a successful breadwinner seems inherently unfair.
Male Protection in Therapy
As a practical matter, it's useful in therapy to educate couples about the role of protectiveness in the male psyche as a way of normalizing the difficulties they have in forming a more perfect union. Couples typically find it particularly interesting that males remain connected to social animal groups by proximity to the females, even though they don't interact much, while the females enhance group cohesion by frequently interacting with one another. If the couple has had a boy and girl toddler, they can see this difference in social orientation for themselves early on. Assuming that the children are both securely attached, the boy will tend to play in proximity to the caregiver, always checking to see that he or she is there, but seeking far fewer direct interactions—talking, asking questions, making eye contact, touching, hugging—than the girl. As long as he knows his caregiver is present, his primary interaction is with the environment.
Similarly, a man can feel close to his wife if he's in one room—on the computer, in front of the TV, or going about his routine—and she's in another. He'll likely protest, sulk, or sink into loneliness if she goes out, which she may well do since he isn't talking to her anyway. To her, and to uninformed therapists, it seems that he wants her home so he can ignore her. But he isn't ignoring her; her presence gives stability to his routine.
This little example of why proximity to his wife is crucial to him works wonders in opening a man's eyes to that fact that his wife gives meaning and purpose to his life. In fact, we tend to think about meaning or purpose only when we're losing it, which is why men tend to fall in love with their wives as they're walking out the door, with their bags packed. Evidence for the drastic loss of meaning and purpose that men suffer when they lose their wives is seen in the effects of divorce and widowerhood on men: poorer job performance, impaired problem-solving, lowered creativity, high distractibility, "heavy foot" on the gas while driving, anxiety, worry, depression, resentment, anger, aggression, alcoholism, poor nutrition, isolation, shortened lifespan, and suicide. The divorced or widowed man isn't merely lonely—he's alone with the crushing shame of his failure to protect his family.
I'm able to use education about the effects of divorce on men clinically, because most guys know someone at work who's lost his family and become a shadow of his former self. As a quick way of accessing men's fundamental sense of the meaning and purpose of their lives, I ask each man to write down what he thinks is the most important thing about him as a person. "How do you want those you love to remember you," I ask. "Near the end of your life, what will you most regret not doing enough of?"
Because meaning and purpose are elusive psychological concepts—a way of describing why we do something rather than what we do—men will rarely hit the mark at first. They say they want to be remembered as a "good provider," "hard worker," "loyal man," choosing mostly protective terms. I then ask them to imagine that they have grown children and how they'd most like their children to feel about them when they're gone. "Dad was a good provider, hard worker, loyal, etc. I'm not sure he cared about us, but he was a good provider, worked, and was loyal" or "Dad was human; he made mistakes. But I always knew that he cared about us and wanted what was best for us." On a deep level, all the men I've worked with have wanted to be remembered with some version of the second statement—as both protective and compassionate. Helping men learn to express care and compassion directly to the people they love is the key to bridging the divide between their protective instinct and their reluctance to show their emotions.