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Relational Heroism

Terry Real introduced the term relational heroism in working with men in his book I Don't Want to Talk about It. I tell men that, every day, they have an opportunity to give to their loved ones, including their kids, a man who's generous, empathic, and honorable. A man can choose to inform his partner about what he's feeling, rather than just withdrawing or acting out. I call this, or any of a thousand other "unnatural" pro-relationship behaviors, an act of genuine heroism. To choose a path that's hard, unfamiliar, awkward, and even frightening—but which is more in keeping with what really matters to them—takes the kind of courage and resolve that characterizes, well, real men.

What could be more heroic than that?

In one of my men's groups, Robert described a "relational hero" moment that the casual observer might not notice. He and his wife had separated after months of tension and discord. By mutual consent, she'd taken their 6-year-old daughter with her to stay with her family in another state for a couple of months. Then she and Robert decided they were ready to give the relationship another try.

When his wife and daughter arrived back in town on a Greyhound bus, Robert met them at the station. His little girl came running up to him, yelling "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!" with the kind of gusto that only a 6-year-old girl can generate. He swept her into his arms and hugged her tight, then turned to his wife, who was walking more slowly toward him, to embrace her. She turned away and said she was hurt because she should have been the one he hugged first.

Later Robert described his thoughts at that moment: What a bitch! What am I supposed to do, not hug my own daughter? I can't believe this shit! But instead of retaliating and venting, he made a decision to stay calm. He told his wife that he was sorry. He didn't mean to hurt her feelings. He was really glad to see her. He reassured her, "I really love you, and I'm really happy to see you!"

She paused for a second, then smiled and reached out for him. Just like that, it was over—he'd passed a test. Maybe she shouldn't have reacted as she did to his hugging their daughter first, but that's the way it goes sometimes in all of our imperfect relationships. He can either tell himself he won't put up with it and dig in his heels, or he can try and find some way to reassure her. Robert found a way, and it brought out the best in both of them. At that moment, he was a relational hero.

Men perk up when I implore them to act like heroes or reward them for doing so—rather than simply telling them to be more sensitive or more accommodating.

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