Tom Gardner

“What are you afraid of?” That was a question I wanted to put to a young friend whom most would define as courageous—a man’s man. He never flinched from tough, physical sports like ice hockey, or dangerous assignments connected with his work abroad. But he seemed to be running from something more challenging—a committed relationship.

Mind you, relationships are not for the spineless. They take a lot of work, and, most threatening of all, they require looking inward. They may require even reconsidering everything you thought you knew about being a male in this world. Why are men not well prepared for this challenge? Because traditional notions of courage that society associates with masculinity are not the kind we need in relationships. The flip side of tough is obstinate, and that makes it difficult to hear another person’s needs or pains. The tough-minded also have trouble hearing or voicing their own needs and pains. We are told that denial and stoicism are so much more functional when faced with threats and challenges. Vulnerability only creates an opening for defeat. Press on. Stuff it. We fear emotion, because it may
show weakness.

These standard notions of masculinity do not serve us well in the most important arena of our lives—relationships with others, especially close, intimate relationships with significant others.

One thing I have learned about relationships is that one must dig deep for the courage to grow as a person, to admit you don’t have the answers. You must open yourself to a vulnerability that says to your partner, “I want to grow with you.” Healthy masculinity rejects the superficial social construction of physical courage (though, at times, it may be necessary to draw on that form of courage) and replaces or supplements it with a deeper, riskier, but much more rewarding form of courage, the courage to examine oneself and grow. Committing to a healthy, loving relationship is a path to healthy masculinity and, more importantly, healthy humanity.

Tom Gardner teaches communication at Westfield State University in western Massachusetts. Formerly managing director of the Media Education Foundation, he served on the board of the Men’s Resource Center for Change for more than a decade.