Men After #MeToo – Intimacy, Vulnerability, Myths and Tips
I have had the great privilege of meeting and interviewing many men over the last two years from different parts of the world and walks of life, on various topics including resilience, men and mental health, fatherhood, coercive control (yes they have been abused too) and more recently ‘British men on the frontlines’ (all articles available on blog).
I was very touched by these men, who trusted me and shared with openness, honesty and generosity their innermost thoughts and feelings, which is one definition of intimacy.
In this article I share the two most common themes and ‘urban myths’, which came out of these conversations. These myths have often been maintained by the media or TV/Hollywood movies unfortunately. I provide suggestions inspired by their shares and research, on how to bridge the communication gap. The two major themes (and urban myths) are about: ‘intimacy’ and ‘vulnerability’.
Myth 1: Men Are Confused by and Fear Intimacy
My first finding from conversations with these men from all ages, walks of life, backgrounds and cultures was that men do not fear intimacy nor do they avoid it. They do understand what it means and seek it out. In fact, if invited, in a spirit of genuine curiosity, openness and benevolence, will share openly what they think and feel. The structures and expected forms of relating, however, within which they operate are no longer ‘fit for purpose’.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy has often been confused with vulnerability or has been equated to a sexual relationship. They are neither but contain some of each.
There are many definitions of intimacy but I like psychologist’s Erik Erikson’s intimacy definition from his 8 stages theory of psycho-social development. Erikson highlighted the impact of external factors, such as caregivers/parents and the environment (society, cultural norms etc.) on personality development from childhood to adulthood. According to him every person must successfully go through a series of eight interconnected stages of development over the entire life span.
“Men do not fear intimacy nor do they avoid it. They do understand what it means and seek it out. In fact, if invited, in a spirit of genuine curiosity, openness and benevolence, will share openly what they think and feel. The structures and expected forms of relating, however, within which they operate are no longer ‘fit for purpose’.”
Erikson defines intimacy as “a person’s ability to form close and loving relationships with others” which he further defines constitutes “the primary task of early adulthood”.
According to him, stage 6 of the life-span covering ages 18 to 35, is known as “Love, Intimacy vs Isolation”. This is the first stage of adult development during which an adult will date, marry, start a family and form friendships thereby increasing the importance of intimate relationships with others. It is by successfully forming loving relationships with others that a person is able to experience love and intimacy as well as safety, care, and commitment. It is by successfully managing the intimacy versus isolation stage that an individual will experience “love”.
Intimacy lies on a continuum (or spectrum) of emotional, physical, intellectual, and even spiritual closeness. Furthermore, according to Erikson’s theory one can posits therefore that commitment goes hand in hand with the capacity to develop intimacy with ourselves and others.
Whilst the #metoo movement, is needed and important, it has unfortunately left a lot of men behind; men who also have been disenfranchised and been victims themselves of the same toxic patriarchal heritage, out-dated attitudes and societal norms, which have been so damaging to women. Things have moved on, a significant portion of men wish to be and are attentive to their partners, have emotional literacy, are more open to their partners, want to be better fathers (more men are seeking and taking parental leave), husbands, sons and friends and have become more vulnerable. Unfortunately, they have shared that showing their vulnerability or leading with it has not always been welcome or even been violently reacted to even by their most intimate partners.
Relating suggestion 1: Increasing Intimacy one step at a time
Intimacy is not necessarily reciprocal. This means that one person in the relationship can be intimate with another with the other witnessing this sharing without having to be intimate in return. However, from the conversations I have been privy too, and research on relating, whilst men are indeed undergoing a profound change, it is important to understand that men might still relate to intimacy within the context of power and therefore feel ‘vulnerable’ , ‘exposed’ or ‘weakened’.
This is of course a fallacy as it takes great self-confidence and courage to dare be vulnerable. However, it might be helpful to understand that many men might still fear being intimate for this reason. In this context, a man who has been intimate will therefore feel vulnerable and might appreciate a return of intimacy in kind in the early stages of relating especially. This exchange can take different forms and is very personal. This leads us onto the concept of vulnerability.
Urban Myth 2# Men Are Afraid of Being Vulnerable
Men want to feel longing for their partners and deep love for their significant others, children, parents, friends. They crave passion, intimacy, to protect and cherish. They do not necessarily equate this with weakness.
However, the structures (society and societal expectations, the media, work environment) they operate in, they feel are obsolete, and so they continue ‘acting the part’ in certain contexts but long to break what they consider ‘chains which are holding us back’.
They confide that it does not always feel safe to remove their armours even with their closest partners and their employers and so they push their emotions and feeling away, they ‘man up’, ‘tough it out’. Moreover, they know that ‘something’ is missing. When they can not be authentic (and intimate) a relationship with a partner, friends, family or even co-workers will lack vibrancy, passion and interest. They know they must truly become vulnerable in order to be intimate, and from this secure base where they can truly be themselves be the protectors they want to be.
What is vulnerability?
I have written extensively about vulnerability (see article here) and Dr Brene Brown’s research.
After interviewing over 1000 people for her research, Dr Brown was surprised to discover that there was only one variable separating the group of people who felt a strong sense of love and belonging from those who did not. She discovered that they believed they were worthy of love, belonging and connection. She felt that “wholeheartedness” best described the shared experience of this group of people. In her own words, findings from her research highlighted:
“Wholehearted people live from a deep sense of worthiness. What they had in common is a sense of courage, from the Latin word “cor” meaning heart. They had courage to tell the story of who they are with their own heart. They had the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to themselves first (and then with others), and they had connection as a result of authenticity.
They were willing to let go of who they should be in order to be who they are. They also fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They did not talk about vulnerability as comfortable or excruciating (as in those felt shame). They were simply willing to do something where there were no guarantees.”Dr Brene Brown
Relating Suggestion 2 – Daring to be vulnerable moment by moment
Echoing Dr Brown’s research, the men I spoke to spoke to confided that when intimacy and vulnerability were present in relationship, they felt strengthened as a men, sometimes even invincible, ready to take on the world and ‘close those big deals’.
Dr Brown states that:
“The effect of feeling vulnerable when we are intimate comes from the world we live in and not the intimacy itself: any emotion that is considered tender, gentle, kind, or open is interpreted as weakness in our culture.”
Our men appreciated that whilst it did not feel appropriate to display these sides of themselves in all spheres, especially the business world, they longed and craved to be emotionally vulnerable in their intimate relationship with their partners and loved ones. They want to be daring, to try, and fail but walk home and be honoured for their courage. But they are smart and they know that their vulnerability is still not fully welcome.
Dr Brown’s insightful suggestions from her research:
- Encourage your partner to be vulnerable.
- If they do, respond with respect and gratitude. What every single one of us wants to hear in a relationship is, “I see you, I see all of you, and I love you.”
- Take a risk and share something imperfect about you. Dr Brown said that at first she used to hide bad reviews from her book from her husband. She then decided to share them which brought them closer.
- Learn to tolerate and even love your imperfections: Dr Brown found in her research that we can’t offer people more compassion than we have for ourselves. In order for us to tolerate imperfection and vulnerability in other people, we have to be able to accept what is imperfect in ourselves.
A relationship is a system where each must take 100% responsibility for their 50% of the system As partners we can either embrace and support each other or push each other away.
It has been heart-warming to listen to and learn from all the men who have dared to open their hearts and minds with me. They have and continue to inspire and surprise me. They have shown me how little we still know about what it really is like to be a man today. Whilst “macho attitudes” still exist, codes of relating have long changed so have men. My sincerest and heartfelt gratitude to all those who have shared with me.
(Please note that by “men”, we refer to those who prefer to identify as a man according to their internal/psychological sense of self, regardless of what sex was assigned biologically at birth. “Gender” is a social construct determined by the roles, behaviours, activities and attributes considered appropriate by the given society for men or women) and “sex” as a biological characteristic of living beings, United Nations).
Brown, B. (2010) The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden.
Brown, B. (2018) Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery.
Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity: Youth and crisis (No. 7). WW Norton & Company.
Erikson, E. H. (1993). Childhood and society. WW Norton & Company.