The Transformational Power of She, a Choreoplay about Violence Against Women

Just two nights ago I saw the production of She in New York City. Written and choreographed by dancer Jinah Parker and directed by Phaedra Michelle Scott, She is a life-changing theatrical experience. You can not watch this play and not be shocked into a reappraisal of your world, compelled by the clarity and passion embodied by She’s actors and dancers.

I’ll say at the outset. Purely from a frame of theater craft, this is a powerfully conceived and staged production; on par with any I have seen over the last twenty years in New York, and I have seen some universally acclaimed theater. She never falters, never strays from the central power of its stories, never fails to take turns and make choices that resonate as human.

She’s choreographer and author Jinah Parker

Termed a choreoplay, choreographer and writer Jinah Parker incorporates dance in service of a range of crucial storytelling functions. Dance is the release valve for the tension in the room. Dance is the central metaphor for our collective humanness. Dance offers in combination with words, music, projections and staging a crucial form of expression for darkness and dying, for living and resiliency, for our universal connection and for our resolve to truly live regardless of what has come before. Dance in She is not in service to the stories, it is the parts of these stories that can never be done justice simply by words.

This is a play about rape and many other forms of unspeakable violence suffered by millions of women worldwide, portrayed in deeply human terms through the stories of women both known and unknown to us. These stories, which plum the depths of human suffering, carry a central message about human beings and trauma. That wherever there is brutality, the murder of the human spirit and the savagery of the our darkest human failings, there is also the possibility of a journey to resilience, joy and celebration.

Be prepared to be surprised by She. Not only by the intensity of what violence means to the human beings who experience it, but by the tiny details that shock us into the eerie familiarity of their stories. There are moments in the play, words really, just words, that trigger memories for each individual audience member. My mother, my grandmother, my father, myself, we all rose unbidden with some small detail shared. I will not confess my family’s scars or my own failings here, except to say that She is a mirror held up to each of us. It ties together the smallest passing comments, sometimes decades apart, which point to catastrophic suffering in the lives of the people seated around our own dining tables.

Witnessing She, there is not a person who will not say, on some level, in some way, now I understand. Now I see the patterns. Now I see what I have willfully hidden from myself because its too harsh a reality to hold. But hold the reality of rape and abuse in our own families, our own histories, either as abused or abusers, we do, in one way or another.

And so, we come to the central power of She. As Micheal Kasdan wrote recently, “Using art to tell these difficult stories, stories that are are so raw and difficult that mere words often can’t convey them, is one of the most impactful ways to change our culture.”

This is not a play that lectures or pontificates. Its not a play that seeks our compliance or our allegiance. It is a play that does what needs to be done. It is a play that tells stories.

Stories we all already know.

I only hope more of us will see it.

3 Secrets to Dating the Single Co-Parenting Dad

Single dads are fiercely committed to their little ones saying, by action and by word, “you are loved.”

Dads who choose to co-parent are a growing subset of divorced parents with kids. As more and more married fathers take on a major role in day to day parenting, they remain committed to full time engaged parenting following divorce.

Co-parenting dads are focused on regularly caring for their kids in partnership with their former spouses. Usually this means all the mechanics of raising a little one duplicated in a two separate homes. It is a precarious place to be initially, and newly single dads often see caring for their children as the clear and present through-line amidst the chaos of divorce and change.

The end of a marriage can seem like a catastrophic failure to create continuity, but when there are children involved, divorced parents can find real and lasting redemption in creating the civilized and loving structures of co-parenting. And that co-parenting space is often where single co-parenting dads focus the bulk of their energies. They are fiercely committed to their little ones saying, by action and by word, “you are loved.”

I was once one of them. I am now happily married.  What I was seeking (and found) in a spouse was informed by what I experienced in part, in the co-parenting world.

 ♦◊♦

Any co-parenting dad who is taking care of his kids, is going to have the days when they are “on duty” and the days when they are “off duty.” And if you are considering a relationship with a co-parenting dad, you should know that these two modes of being are very different.

Here are three secrets to how the divorced co-parenting dad (or mom) operates and why:

1) The on-duty co-parenting dad can be a “all business” kind of fellow. Especially if his child is young. For any of us, being around a single dad when they are with their little ones, can feel like being on the outside looking in. But this is out of necessity, as parenting after divorce is about creating regular predictable rituals and rhythms for children. After creating these new, safe, predictable spaces in which their kids can navigate the changes of divorce, dads may be very hesitant to meet their own needs socially or sexually. For months or even years. This is because they fear disrupting these safe spaces and rhythms in any way.

2) Remember, these dads are already carrying the burden of their choice to divorce, a decision which many may have already told him is a “selfish” act. The shaming around divorce in our culture is epidemic. To go yet another step forward and even consider a new relationship seems like a risk too great  and too self absorbed to indulge in. These fears are difficult to overcome for some single dads. But that’s the journey anyone who is divorced must go through. Its just that single parents have extra passengers.

3) But a co-parenting dad is also in a powerful learning mode. He has come to the understanding that in order to help his children live fulfilling lives, he has to put aside his bullshit and get down to the business of partnering with his former spouse for the betterment of all. This means letting perceived slights go, finding energy to be kind, choosing paths that are collectively helpful and making service to his little ones a central part of his life. Sounds like a recipe for a good marriage doesn’t it? Yeah. Welcome to one of the great ironies of co-parenting. It can create the illusion that what we do as co-parents could have fixed a broken marriage. It can’t. Because things done in service to little ones will not alone sustain a marriage.  Sometimes good people aren’t so good as couples. Meanwhile, the co-parenting work teaches us things that marriage simply couldn’t. And we move on.

What this means is that a divorced dad is:

  • Protective of his little ones
  • Doubtful about his capacity to take on all the complexities of a new relationship
  • Worried that his own social and sexual needs are “selfish” and may negatively impact his children.
  • Wary of the empty dynamics of casual relationships
  • Concerned that those people close to him love his children as much as they love him (which, the divorced dad knows, is a lot to ask.)

That being said, I can tell you what the single dad does need, because its what we all need:

  • Conversation.
  • Acceptance for who he is.
  • Space for the central demands in his life.
  • Respect for his role in the world.

But mostly he needs space to work through his own interpersonal challenges, challenges that are often placed on hold as he works to insure the safety and emotional security of his children.

A friend of mine, a full time single dad and I were talking just yesterday. He said to me that what he really needs is friends. Not lovers. Friends. Ask any single mom, the process of raising two kids full time is not only challenging, its isolating. Many single dads don’t have the bandwidth to date. Romantic dating involves being mindful of the needs of another. He may simply not be able to take that on.

I don’t mean that he is weak, or lazy, or unable to operate like a grownup, I mean he is at capacity meeting the needs of those he is already committed to. And the number of people he is committed to, can include a lot more people then just his children. It can include his former spouse, the network of parents he’s embedded in, along with the pressures full time parenting places on his work relationships.

At this very moment, I know three single co-parenting dads. I hold these men in very high esteem. I see their fierce loyalty and love for their children. They are wounded and wary but also warm and wise. They are not easy to sum up, having come though a baptism of change and growth. If you want to have a cup of coffee with a single dad like these, bring an open heart and get ready to meet a complex and deeply interesting human being.

For those who are interested in dating in a divorced Dad who is raising his kids, I wish I had good news for you. He may simply not be in dating mode. But if you have it in you to be his friend instead of his lover, that might be a place to start.

A Simple Guide for Looking at Women on the Street: Glancing Vs. Staring

I don’t hold eye contact, I don’t look for more than a second and I don’t let my gaze linger. I do all these things out of respect for one simple fact.

 

I live in New York City where, when I walk down the street, I see literally thousands of women a month walking towards and past me. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes. The range of interactions has some variability, but 95% of the time, it works like this:

Many of the women I glance at are intentionally not looking at men. They are avoiding all eye contact, seemingly staring into some specific spot on the street that does not contain a man’s eyes. If they glance and notice I’m looking at them, they look away very quickly. What I see in that moment is someone being careful. Very very careful.

I glance at women. I don’t look at them for more than a second or two. I never stare at them. I glance at them because they are lovely, or interesting, or fashionable, or simply in my path. I glance at them for the same reasons I glance at men: to judge their intention as they approach me, to see if they’re texting or looking, or to insure I don’t get run over.

Because I have a solid sense of who I am and what my intention is, I glance at women without the feeling of guilt or nervousness I carried as a teenager. There is nothing wrong with a glance. But to look longer at a woman you do not know? Or worse, to stare? That is a different thing. For the very same reason I do not make and hold eye contact with men (or for that matter, dogs I don’t know) I do not look overly long at women, because it suggests an intrusion. Something for which I do not have permission.

When I see any women walking down the street, avoiding all eye contact, I feel a deep sense of empathy.

Accordingly, I don’t look for more than a second and I don’t let my gaze linger. I do all these things out of respect for a simple fact—women don’t feel safe.

No matter how “civilized” we insist western society has become, there is still a high degree of real and present danger for women from aggressive male strangers. And if a woman is from another part of the world, the likelihood that she has faced violent and aggressive male strangers is dramatically higher.

What’s more, many males understand how this fear of aggressive men feels.

As a child, I feared and avoided eye contact with bullying teenage boys. Junior high school was an exercise in avoiding being assaulted. My issue has never been with women. My issue is with men, who, to this day, are far more likely to be aggressive with me.  I track men much more carefully than I do women. And for exactly the same set of reasons that women do. Because men like to project power. And some men, a very few, but enough, like to project power by verbally or physically abusing strangers.

And before you take that deep breath and launch into a list of the ways that men are victims of rape and physical violence from their female partners, don’t bother. I have written about that fact numerous times. I’ll write about it again right here. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey | 2010 Summary Report. page 2 states that:

“More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

Yes, men face a range of risks and threats in the world. But as a man, I have never had to live in fear that if I hold eye contact for too long with a women I do not know, she will approach me and start an unwelcome conversation that could lead to abusive behavior. Why? Because on some level, I always felt I could stand my ground physically. If I had to, I could fight a woman and get away.

But being able to fend off an unwelcome advance is not a certainty for many women. The percentage of men who are abusive in their behavior on the street, in bars, at schools, or in other public places may be limited, but there are enough men out there who behave like this that there is a very real corresponding fear for women. Namely, a stranger who won’t take no for an answer. For women, it is as follows: Acknowledge a strange man in even the slightest way, get approached. Say “no thank you” and get shamed, verbally abused, or possibly physically assaulted.

As human beings, we all face a basic challenge. We have to go out into the world and communicate our availability as a potential partner, attract the attention of individuals we view as viable and not attract the attention of individuals we don’t find appealing. Doing this in the world is no easy task. It’s like trying to garden prize orchids in the middle of a rugby match. And the more you signal your assets as a potential partner, the more attention you attract from persons who’s attention you are not seeking.

A women’s personal choice for how to present herself, be that through style of dress or public behavior is not, and should never be, an invitation for unwanted attention.

If you are man in the market for a relationship, take note. The signals and the cues are simple. The rules are even simpler. Glance, do not stare. If you get a glance back. Look a bit more. If a women, says “no thanks” in any way, (and yes, that can be as simple as glancing away) move on with courtesy and respect.

The vast percentage of men are decent hearted and would never intentionally harm a soul. But some men (and women) are not. Any man who continues to approach a women (or woman who continues to approach a man) who is indicating “no thank you” in stronger and stronger terms, is being abusive. And as long as there is widespread abusive behavior by a limited number of people in the world, the rest of us will all be forced to limit our social interactions with others in order to try and make the world feel a little safer. Which is a shame.

So, thanks to the jerks of the world for that. In the case of men who are violent and abusive, you’ve made the rest of your brothers have to prove on a daily basis that we are not you. (Like I wanted to spend my life trying to undo your work.)

But that’s the way it is. And men need to acknowledge that fact, both in their interactions and their political dialogues. Work for change, but acknowledge the ongoing facts of the world. The violence and abuse dished out to women worldwide is nothing short of murder.

As a person who supports a robust and honest discussion of men’s issues, I acknowledge that men face many cultural inequities and challenges. I believe that we need to insure that men enjoy equal rights in the realms of family law, victim services and other areas. I fully realize that men fall victim to rape and abuse by women. But that does not change the simple math of upper body strength and social conditioning. It is not white knight behavior to advocate for a culture of civility and non-violence toward women. It is simple common decency.

Equally, in the public dance of finding a partner, women may have to become more assertive in indicating interest. Making the first move and communicating clearly when they would like to have a conversation would go a long way to alleviate the concern that man are expected to approach women who give only the slightest nod of interest. This subtle signaling sets men up to face an endless string of rejections, unable to differentiate between the lingering glance that signals interest and the passing glance that does not.

But ultimately, it is the inequity of physical strength that is at the root of our cultures’ relationship challenges. Most men can simply overpower women. And a small percentage of men often do with terrible consequences. It is what drives some women’s anger and fuels the distorted and angry battle between the sexes. Until all of us men, every single one of us, take responsibility for our public and private behavior, all the inequities we face will remain as secondary issues, held hostage by the men among us who behave like animals instead of human beings.

Guess What? Women Also Struggle with Emotional Expression

There is a commonly held cultural narrative which goes something like this: Men who share their emotions make better husbands and fathers. Women value this in a prospective partner because women are already naturally able to share their emotions. In a nutshell, women are the emotionally able ones, men can learn to be.

Growing more empowered relational capacities for men and women is crucial to making a better world. But the first step to getting there is to set aside these kinds of simplistic ideas about how we all operate emotionally and relationally.

So, for the record, women do not automatically navigate emotional expression better than men. It would be nice if they did, but given how our culture operates, it is simply not possible.

We need to acknowledge that gaining relational intelligence, the ability to navigate our shared emotional landscapes, is equally challenging for all of us. Exploring our own emotional histories can well can be the equivalent of opening an internal Pandora’s Box, which, once opened can unleash wide ranging and challenging consequences.

Men’s Hidden Emotions
One aspect of our simplistic cultural narrative is certainly accurate. Boys and men are not prone to sharing their emotions. But it is not because men are born without these capacities. It is because they are taught from childhood to hide their emotions; that “real men” are emotionally stoic, that real men “man up” and tough it out. Boys and men who express a wider range of emotions, especially those that present as vulnerability or sensitivity (behaviors wrongly labeled as feminine), are typically bullied and policed. They are called sissies and wimps. They are considered to be failed men.

To get a sense of what boys face in our culture, take a minute and view the trailer for “The Mask You Live In.” This is a powerful documentary about the messages that are hammered into boys on a daily basis.

When we are forced to be emotionally tough, boys and men are cut off from learning how to process our more complex emotions. Why? Because learning to process our emotions is not a private act. It is a social act. It happens in relationship to other people, in what we call relational spaces. For boys growing up in a culture of emotional toughness, the relational doorway is shut, the way forward, barred.

Men, Women and Emotional Fluency
Meanwhile, although women may be a bit freer to express their feelings, relational intelligence, the capacity to engage the shared landscapes of our emotions, is far more than simply being free to express ourselves. Relational intelligence is the result of learning via the trial and error of emotional expression within relationships over time. Learning to do this well can take years, even decades. Like learning a language, it is a skill set most easily acquired when we are young, engaging emotional expression in our homes.

But in America’s culture of emotional toughness, boys and girls alike aren’t typically given an opportunity to learn these complex skills in their families of origin. A crisis later in life, such as the potential collapse of a marriage or a challenging illness, can launch them on a journey to awaken these relational capacities.

But it is in these moments that men, doing this work with a spouse or partner, can unwittingly allow their spouses to become emotional gatekeepers for them by virtue of our myths about women and emotions. In doing so, men can get shut down again.

For example, a man learning to more openly express sentiments of love toward his partner or affection toward his children is likely to be encouraged. These “pleasing” expressions of emotion represent little or nothing in the way of a challenge for his partner.

But many men may stop there and proceed no further, because of the negative reaction they face when expressing less appealing emotions like loss, grief, and sadness. Not surprisingly, the expression of these emotions can create huge anxiety for women who have been given little opportunity to process these kinds of emotions in their own lives.

Our Culture and Women’s Emotions
When we assume women to be more adept at managing emotional communication, we are keying on the fact that women are granted permission to publicly express a somewhat wider range of emotions. But women have long been relegated to the greeting card school of emotional expression. Love or condolences with a nice filigree. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark. You won’t find a Hallmark card for despair or rage. You won’t find a Hallmark card for panic or insecurity.

When women express darker emotions like rage or despair, they are told to calm down, that their emotions are simply the result of “their time of the month”, or that the emotional frustration they feel is not based in a rational (i.e.: masculine) world view. While men’s emotional expression is marginalized as feminine, women’s emotional expression is infantilized. It is in this repressed emotional space that the alarming sense of being gaslighted can emerge for women.

The end result? Women’s path to growing their relational intelligence is also closed off.

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Men and women growing their relational capacities is crucial to creating a healthier more humane society.  I have seen the power of stronger emotional connection play out in my own life and in the lives of my family and friends. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that learning to connect in relationships is the key to a better life.

Unfortunately, our culture’s Disney-esque views on the benefits of male emotional expression are a dangerous combination of simplistic and idealistic. To trivialize the process in these ways is to miss the fundamental levels on which emotional expression operates.

The source of our collective challenges is generational. Having grown up themselves in our emotionally averse culture, parents coach their sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and their daughters to admire that facade in men.

So, even as women might seek emotionally expressive men, they, like men, carry deeply retrograde conditioning that causes them to want confidence and emotional toughness in their partners. It is a double bind for both women and men, who, when under stress, are tempted to fall back on retrogressive gender stereotypes in an overly complex world.

The Damage Done
As a young boy, I remember distinctly the sensation of “feeling like I should be having a feeling.” I was seven when my father divorced my mother. He then went to work overseas. My father was the source of emotional warmth in our family. When he left, I spent years grieving his loss. Then, at some point, those emotions fell silent, creating a blank numb space. And below that? Something very bad was hiding. I call that place the basement.

Whatever emotions I was feeling, I was left to process in isolation. The end result was, I simply could not identify any of the emotions I was feeling; with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self loathing.

I recall sitting in the pew at my grandmother’s funeral, witnessing myself attempting to cry. As if I was standing next to my own loss, detached, two steps removed. What should I feel? How should I feel it? Why can’t I feel anything? I stood there watching myself doing a vague performance of grief, feeling nothing. But there was something there. Just out of my line of sight. A place I had worked so hard not to see that I couldn’t look towards it now if I wanted to. A place of loss and loneliness that I simply walled off, reducing it to a dull ache. For decades I simply didn’t look.

To this day, I still don’t want to look.

The result? Years of binge drinking as a young adult; struggling to figure out how to present myself in relationships. Ten more years after that of lurching through emotional chaos, struggling day by day to make my way back up into some kind of emotional self awareness. Decades more of seeking a foothold and then beginning to sort out my past. To this day, its terrifying to “go down to the basement.” There’s a seven year old down there in the dark and he’s not happy. He’s full of rage and despair and he holds me responsible.

“Why didn’t you do something?” he screams at me. “Why didn’t you fight?” “Why didn’t you fight them back, hurt them back?”

Hurt who? I don’t guess I know. Ghosts, phantoms, bullies…family. The people who should have helped a young boy but did nothing. The violent bullies who ringed me around, smelling the damage and fear on me. I have yet to untangle all the anger and grief that I suppressed. I may never fully succeed in doing so.

But I know this. I would have talked. I always wanted to talk. It would have spilled out what I was feeling day after day, but we don’t do that with our sons. We assume they’re okay. We demand they be okay. We don’t want to see their fears, their sadness. It reminds us too much of our own. So, we don’t ask.

We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t engage their emotions. Our sons cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, given no external confirmation or support, falls silent, blocking them off from the innate resiliency that can help them navigate life’s challenges. We subject them to decades of lost connections.

And those of us who love them have to deal with the fall out.

The Missing Piece of the Relational Puzzle
So what about the men and women who are committed to achieving more emotional intimacy in their lives? For those of us who have grown up in the culture of male emotional toughness, what capacities are central to success if we want to grow our relational life?

Surprisingly, expressing our emotions is not the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge couple’s or parents face are the emotions that can arise in us when we hear our partners or children express theirs. Witnessing in others, the darker emotions of fear, sadness and grief, or even more challenging, witnessing emotions we cannot even name, is terrifying. How do we listen when our partners share emotions like these without collapsing into them?

For example, if my spouse tells me her life “feels empty,” that’s going to be very hard to hear. For many, this emotional expression would lead to a defensive posture. “But we’ve been working so hard to make a good life!” It’s understandable. Its also not helpful.

Why? Because the challenge of living a life of emotional suppression is that the emotions we hide can become monolithic and distorted. Only by expressing these feelings can we hope of move past them. When first spoken, they can be difficult to say and even more difficult to hear. Additionally, our emotions emerge in relationship to others, in the relational spaces between people. When we attempt to hide the emotions that emerge there, or those that have emerged in the past, we self edit to the point of not being fully present in those spaces. We hide our authentic selves in our own relationships. This is why many men are described as being emotionally out of touch. They are not, as one might assume, unable to feel emotions, they are intentionally suppressing them.

But it is the expression of emotions, including our darker feelings, that are central to moving them out; to releasing them and moving on. On one side we have the need to express, to be heard.

The Powerful Magic of Holding
Dr. Saliha Bava, a New York City based couple and family therapist, specializes in helping couples and families navigate the complexity of emotional intimacy. Dr. Bava talks about the idea of holding the emotions of others. She views emotional expression as a relational activity that is, the back and forth by which we create what she describes as “meaning, understanding and coordination within our relationships.”

Dr. Bava explains:

Holding the emotions of others is a skill set that we already have in the form of listening.

The next steps in growing this capacity include listening without attempting to fix things. For example, instead of being a witness to our partner’s feelings, we might try to fix things by saying ‘It will all be okay, its not your fault, etc.’

We also need to set aside judgement. For example, we might judge by saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t feel like this.’

And finally we need to set aside the urge to categorize, name or explain. For example, we might try and assign a reason for our partner’s feelings by saying, ‘Oh, you’re feeling this way because you didn’t get the raise you wanted.’

We listen for how they are making sense and we accept that they may not have an explanation or an understanding yet, only the expression. They may not even be able to name it. By not naming their emotions for them, we let their truth emerge over time.

When we try to fix, judge or name the emotions of others, we are seeking to resolve the uncertainty our partner’s emotions create in us. Learning to set these urges aside takes practice.

One way to cultivate the practice of holding the emotions of others is to visualize that your partner is on the stage and you are in the audience. Your time will come to be on the stage, but for the moment, you sit and witness. When your partner is expressing emotions, let their story finish resonating for them. Let their story be complete. Let the room fall silent for a moment.

Remember, silence is not a lack of response, it is the response. And it comes with signals of connection though our eyes, our hearts, our presence. It is mix of intuition and calmness.

Imagine yourself as a container. Not ‘you lost your job and so you are feeling this’. Simply ‘you are feeling this and I am a container for it’. Nothing more.

What we are talking about for couples is ultimately a three act play.

  • Act one, your partner is on the stage, and you are their witness, holding their emotions.
  • Act two: you are on the stage and your partner is your witness, holding your emotions.
  • Act three: you both take the stage on behalf of the relationship. From there, the process of how to go forward together emerges. This co-creating emerges out of holding and compassionate listening.

The dance of holding between couples grows their emotional capacities because of the passing back and forth of witnessing and sharing. It creates greater intimacy and vulnerability, a stronger sense of connection and support. In the process, we learn to park the uncertainty such witnessing generates.

Our darker emotions, long suppressed, do not, like the contents of the mythical Pandora’s box, represent the evils of the world. What we view as dark emotions can be powerful and generative forces for creating growth in our lives, but only if we engage them.

We can, as partners and parents, sons and daughters, learn how to liberate our voices and grow our relational capacities in the relational spaces that exist between us and others. Sharing our feelings while holding the emotions of others is a transformational experience. It grants us more and better relationships in the world.

Which is the key to a wonderful life.

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A Manifesto: Relational Intelligence For Our Children

A manifesto:

We must commit to granting our children their birthright, which is their inherent capacity to form authentic, emotionally vibrant relationships. All we need do is stop training them out of these capacities, either by action or inaction. Through helping them grow their relational intelligence, we can insure they become what they are born to be, emotionally connected, joyful and thriving human beings.

***

We Need to Redefine What Strength Is

For many American men, being a “real man” is defined as being tough and strong and confident and sexually dominant and a wage earner and heterosexual. But above all, these “real men” do not share their emotions. These ideas of manhood are generational. They are ingrained in our media, our stories our families and ourselves.

They are part of a wider narrative that not only defines men but also women in relationships to men. Central to this narrative is a kind of overarching complementarianism, which posits that whatever women are, men are not, and vice versa.  As part of this binary view of gender, men have been trained to believe that relational capacities like emotional expression, empathy, nurturing or caretaking, often dismissively called “soft skills” are feminine capacities and as such, are a sign of weakness for men. This belief is the source of America’s epidemic of loneliness, right here.

In the moment we gender emotional expressional and relational capacities as feminine and shame our sons for expressing their emotions, we cut our young sons off from the trial and error process of learning how to express and connect in relationship to others. We cut them off from expressing what is distinctive about themselves in relationship to others. When our young sons’ core relational capacities are suppressed, these capacities whither away.

And so, we banish our sons (and daughters) to an emotional wasteland of angry isolation. We strip them of the vibrancy and resiliency of relational communities.

When we encourage capacities like strength and self-reliance in addition to emotional expression and relational intelligence, these capacities dovetail to create powerful and resilient human beings. The result is men and women who are better resourced to deal with life’s challenges, both individually and collectively.

Let me be clear: traits such as toughness and self reliance are not in and of themselves negative. But boys and men are taught that toughness requires they hide their emotions. In order to be “real men” they are expected to be emotionally stoic, competitive, sexually aggressive, confident and immune to insecurities, fears or doubts. The result is they hide their authentic selves behind what documentary director Jennifer Seibel Newsom calls The Mask You Live In. This the cultural of male emotional toughness. And often, the enforcement of this culture of toughness can be brutal and unforgiving.

In privileging only the toughness aspects of masculinity to the exclusion of powerful emotional and relational capacities, we have effectively suppressed empathy, emotional self regulation, the capacity to hold difference, community building and collaboration in generations of boys and men. The result is a deadly epidemic of isolation for American adults.

A 2010 AARP study revealed that 1 in 3 American adults age 45+ are chronically lonely up from 1 in 5 just tens years before. Thats 44 million Americans who have no one  to talk with about the serious issues of life and living. It also means they are facing catastrophic health risks.

In an article published by the New Republic titled, “The Lethality of Loneliness.” we find these chilling facts:

Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. Diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.

While male suicides outnumber female by a factor of three to one and are climbing, a whole additional population of men and women are dying too early in their lives. And they’re dying of loneliness.

Meanwhile, corporate cultures globally are awakening to the dynamic and productive power of relationally intelligent employees. Working in collaborative groups, hosting different points of view, allowing for improvisation, and being inclusive are now being seen as the key to productivity, job satisfaction, talent retention and customer satisfaction.

Clearly, if our children are to lead healthy successful lives, they need to grow their relational capacities.

All of this should raise alarms for parents, business leaders, and educators, because the dominant discourse which governs how we raise boys, the “strong and silent” model of American manhood, results in the suppression of relational capacities. And rest assured, we have a parallel version of emotional suppression for girls that results in similar outcomes. Collectively, we owe each of our children the gift of a lifetime of vibrant authentic relationships.

How Emotional Suppression Happens
Judy Chu’s When Boys Become Boys as well as Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets, detail studies that clearly show how we train our sons away from emotionally vibrant friendships, beginning at age four and on throughout their adolescence. The result? Many men rely on their spouses social networks and their workplaces to provide friendships; friendships that are shallow by products of proximity instead of more meaningful authentic connections. When these men’s jobs change or their marriages fail, these friendships of proximity evaporate. This is why the death of a spouse can be a killing blow for men, leaving them to confront unrelenting social isolation.

Everything we know about human beings tells us that we are widely diverse and varied creatures. But we have one thing in common. We are all born highly attuned to the nuances of interpersonal signals and non verbal human communication. It is a powerful gift. Yet, as young people, we are often shamed and policed into using those very tools to suppress our own connection in the world.

This is how boys are able to learn as early as age four which parts of themselves to hide away. And if we do nothing, effectively leaving the teaching of emotional expression to our culture, our sons and daughters will be taught to hide their authentic internal selves so completely that eventually, they will no longer be able to locate them.

Over the years, the rigid performance of masculine emotional toughness has caused many men to loose this sense of connection to our internal voice, our moral and emotional true north. It is in this space that we become isolated, angry and reactive. Relying ever more heavily on the narrow definition of manhood we are performing, and growing every more angry when it fails to satisfy our basic human need for connection.

And the worse part? We angrily police others who fail to make the manhood bargain that we made. Shaming and attacking men and women who perform versions of manhood or womanhood that don’t follow the narrow rules of our culture of male emotional toughness.

The Good News
Our sons and daughters need only a few primary relationships in their lives in which they are free to explore emotional expression through a trial and error process over the long term. Regardless of what damaging narratives the world would teach our children, we can encourage them to grow their relational capacities in the safety of our family relationships. If we do this joyful relationship building work, our children will reach a tipping point of relational connection and never look back.

Humans are born with incredible skills for tracking and responding to the most nuanced interpersonal cues and signals. But the culture of male emotional toughness takes hold early. By age four, boys start self policing. So, we too must begin early.

The good news is, we can. All we have to do is start the conversation.

To learn more about relational intelligence, come see us at Remaking Manhood.

Photo by: geir tønnessen

 

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How We Help Children Create Relationships is Crucial

When we help our kids grow their relational capacities; namely how they create and care for relationships, it insures a better life for them.

Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) is commonly understood to mean emotional self-awareness, the ability to name, understand and manage our emotions. You may also be aquainted with the term Social Emotional Learning, commonly used in educational settings. These are all good terms.

But we want to make the following distinction: it is in relationships that we discover, learn about and grow our emotional capacities. For better or worse, relationships represent the central mechanism by which human beings operate in the world. From the moment we are born, engaging the emotional universe is not an internal experience. It takes place in relationship with others.

We are born out of a relationship into relationships. We are never without a relationship; in fact, hundreds of them.

As it is with us, so it also is with our children. They, too, are social animals. In isolation they wither, in connection they thrive. This is the core truth of being human. Yet, in many ways, our culture actively suppresses our children’s relationship building capacities.

Often children are shamed and punished for emotional expression; especially our sons, leaving them little choice but to hide their emotions in order to fit in. This suppression of their natural ability to connect emotionally, puts at risk their personal and professional futures. It can limit their social success and hurt their educational performance. It can lead to behavioral challenges. It can severely impact their emotional and physical health over the course of their lives.

So whatever terminology you prefer, we, as parents, can help our children grow their emotional capacities. We can guide our sons and daughters toward richer more joyful, more fulfilling emotional lives. All we need to do is protect and grow their natural relational capacities. But we must begin now.

“Don’t be a crybaby” is the single most consistent message American boys get. Whether you grew up in the relative security of the suburbs or on the streets of the inner city, ask any American man and they’ll tell you the same thing.

“Boys and men don’t cry.” If you do, you’re a wimp, or a sissy… or a target.

And make no mistake, “Don’t be a crybaby” is code for a larger, more overarching cultural message; a message which is reinforced over and over again in every professional, social and interpersonal context men encounter. Don’t show your emotions. This is our culture of male emotional toughness. This is the Man Box.

This rule of American manhood begins to make itself known the day our little sons enter the larger world, gently at first, but with ever increasing degrees of severity.

Whether we are fathers or sons, brothers or husbands, we can learn to explore and express our emotions. The question is, will we teach the next generation of men to pursue lives of emotional literacy and connection or will our sons be left with little choice but to suppress their emotions, as dictated by a range of traditional cultural influences?

Living emotionally guarded lives is robbing men and women of their hope, their aspirations and for many, their very lives.

Think I’m overstating the problem? Read on.

Our sons, like our daughters, are hardwired with vast capacities for relational connection, but to activate these capacities, boys must overcome almost every message our culture gives them about how to be a man. And these damaging messages are coming fast and furious by the time our sons are in kindergarten.

For boys and girls alike, the capacity to access and engage the complex landscape of relationships all around us is the result of learning via:

trial and error  —> over time —> with people they trust.

Learning to do this well can take years, even decades. Like learning a language, it is a skill set most easily acquired when we are young, by exploring emotional expression in safe relational spaces intentionally created within our families.

Think of it this way. As we learn a language, the broadest and most obvious rules, the simplest and most useful words quickly become second nature. Then, we spend years drilling down to the nuances and subtleties of language. We learn what to accentuate in order to be better understood. We learn how to hear the nuances of meaning based on a speaker’s age or circumstances. We learn what to take to heart and what to question. As part of the journey to literacy, we are encouraged to ask people, “what does that word mean?” Without shame or fear. All of this learning of language serves one major purpose, to help us connect with others.

What would happen if our toddlers were bullied, shamed or laughed at every time they mispronounced their first words?

— How quickly would they stop trying to talk? Our young children, especially our sons, are at risk for this very outcome when they attempt to connect emotionally.

In America’s culture of emotional toughness, we block our sons from learning complex emotional skills. We shame and bully them into hiding their emotions. But if we live life never expressing our emotions, we’ll never learn to fully engage in relationships. Its that simple.

Our culture teaches us a set of false assumptions about men and toughness. Toughness does not come from being stoic, manning up or suppressing our emotions. Resiliency, the ability to confront and overcome challenges, and yes, the ability to fight on if needed, depends on how well we are resourced by the relationships in our lives.

Furthermore, unlike a person who can be goaded into a fight against his or her better judgement, we can help our children learn to keep from collapsing into the emotions of others. Relational intelligence brings us a vast range of choices and options. It is the conduit by which our greatest human capacities are found and accessed in relationship to others.

Girls Have it No Easier
One of the primary myths in our culture is that girls are allowed to express emotions more openly, or even more illogically, that they are just naturally better at it. But here’s a little secret about girls. Their emotional expression is also curtailed. While boys are policed and bullied to not express emotions at all, girls are relegated to the “Hallmark Card” school of emotional expression.

Women are allowed to publicly express a somewhat wider range of emotions, typically, love or condolences with a nice filigree, but a vast range of other emotions are not approved of. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark. You won’t find a Hallmark card for despair or rage. You won’t find a Hallmark card for panic or grief.

If women express darker emotions like rage or despair, they are told to calm down, that their emotions are likely the result of “their time of the month”, or that the emotional frustration they feel is not based in a rational (i.e.: masculine) world view.

While men’s emotional expression is marginalized as feminine, women’s emotional expression is infantilized.

It is in this repressed emotional space that the alarming sense of being gaslighted can emerge for women.

The end result? Girl’s and women’s path to learning relational intelligence is also closed off. In part, because they are also blocked from doing this work when young, and in part, because eventually those who are in heterosexual relationships, will be with men who have been trained by our culture of male emotional toughness to not connect emotionally.

Sadly, not only do we teach our sons to display emotional toughness, we train our daughters to admire emotional toughness in men.

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The High Costs of Emotional Withdrawal
As a young boy, I remember distinctly the sensation of “feeling like I should be having a feeling.” I was seven when my parents divorced. My father went to work overseas. When he left, I spent years grieving his loss. Then, at some point, those emotions fell silent, creating an emotional blank space. And below that? Something very bad was hiding. I called that place the basement.

Whatever emotions I was feeling, I was left to process in isolation. The end result was, I simply could not identify any of them; with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self-loathing.

We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t acknowledge their emotions.

Without relational engagement, our sons can cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, given no external confirmation or support, falls silent, blocking them off from the innate resiliency that can help them navigate life’s challenges. We subject them to decades of lost connections.

Our capacity to express emotions in nuanced and empowered ways is born and developed in relationships. It is this capacity to express that sustains vibrant relationships in both our personal and professional lives. If instead, we teach our sons to “man up” and tough it out, we’re setting them up for an ugly fall somewhere down the road. Especially when tragedy strikes.

In The Expanded Family Life Cycle, McGoldrick, Carter and Preto write:

“Men who are raised to deny their emotional interdependence face a terrible awakening during divorce, illness, job loss, or other adversities of life. Indeed the traditional norms of male development have emphasized many of the characteristics including keeping emotional distance, striving for hierarchical dominance in family relationships; toughness; competition; avoidance of dependence on others; aggression as a means of conflict resolution; avoidance of closeness and affection with other males; suppression of feelings except anger; and avoidance of “feminine” behaviors such as nurturing, tenderness and expressions of vulnerability. Such norms make it almost impossible for boys to achieve the sense of interdependence required for mature relationships through life.” [p22-23].

Without what McGoldrick, Carter and Preto call mature relationships, men are subject to ever increasing degrees of emotional isolation and the catastrophic risks this presents.  In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older are chronically lonely. That’s over 44 million Americans.

In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:

“Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.”

“Diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”

We are confronting an epidemic of loneliness in America. We lock ourselves inside gated communities, fearful of our neighbors and our society. We drink ourselves to sleep or fling ourselves compulsively into sex, work or consumption, as if the next sexual conquest or technical gadget will make up for the lack of connection we feel in our lives.

Our collective emotional isolation is at the heart of our society’s inability to correct injustices around race, class, and economics. We are not caring for each other. We are lashing out. For millions of us, our collective lack of authentic emotional community has stripped our lives of meaning. Is it any wonder when we look at our bright eyed loving little children, we feel the prickling of fear?

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And Now for the Good News
Dr. Saliha Bava and I believe there is a powerful solution, for us as individuals, and for our children. The solution is to grow our childrens’ relational intelligence. We can do this by listening with curiosity to what our children have to say while talking and playing with them. Through this simple mindful practice, we can help them grow their emotional literacy and change the world for the better.

Our upcoming book titled “The Forever Book” is about this process. It does not seek to present a one size fits all steps or techniques. The Forever Book is instead designed to spark a lifelong conversation between parent and child. Each family’s conversation will be distinct and like no other. And the best part? This process of being in conversation with our children will give us the rich and rewarding relationships that we long for as parents, because our children will feel seen and heard and held, and so will we.

Growing our children’s relational intelligence is a gift that will last them a lifetime.

What’s more, it will echo down generations to come. When we help our children grow their relational intelligence, they are better able to manage conflict, grow self-confidence, and engage others’ points of view. And as they grow up, they will have the skills needed to build lasting and satisfying relationships and communities both in their professional and personal lives.

Most of us are already doing this work on different levels with our children, creating change and growth in little and big ways every day. But, if you feel you would like to be more mindful about how you encourage the growth of relational intelligence; if you’re feeling stuck and would like new ideas about how to go forward with your kids, join us for our online workshop! To stay in touch, join our mailing list below.

Our children need simple consistant play and encouragement to develop their powerful relational capacities. We have a range of theoretical frameworks, strategies and games from which parents can design and grow the practices that fit best for their families.

Its up to us to walk with our children through the world’s emotional landscapes, a place which exists in the powerful relational spaces between them and others. Like any complex skill set, our kids can acquire relational intelligence in layered and nuanced ways over time. There is no single end goal here. It is a lifelong process but it is one that will provide vast rewards.

On Male Emotional Isolation and What We Can Do

This tweet stream on male emotional isolation was born out of an article published by the Boston Globe titled The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness. Feel free to join us on Twitter at

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The Idiot, Horrible, Stupid Game

 

It can break our hearts when our kids say, “I’m an idiot.” The Idiot, Horrible, Stupid Game is a fun game designed to turn that situation upside down! Its one of the many games that can be found in our upcoming The Forever Book, a guide for growing our kids relational intelligence. 

Idiot. Horrible. Stupid. Ah, the joys of kid talk. All of these words are tumbling out of our children’s mouths, and it can be difficult to hear. When our kids call someone stupid, we quickly tell them that its not right to use those words. “Apologize,” we say. “We don’t use those words in our house,” we say.

But what gets to us most is when our child says, “I’m horrible at this” or “I’m stupid”. On one level, they may be feeling frustrated with themselves, but on another, they also know how to push our buttons. I’ve seen the same frustrated echoes in myself, and they can make me very reactive. Telling my son he’s not horrible isn’t enough. It never feels satisfying for either of us.

Its a stuck moment.  And what do we try to remember to do in stuck moments? Play.

Our playful solution?  We took those loaded words and made them into abbreviations for very long compliments.

HORRIBLE becomes…

Honestly – Out of this world – Remarkably – Right – In – Being – Lovely and – Enjoyable

The fact is, we parents take ourselves too seriously.

Always setting ourselves up in opposition to things that we disapprove of can be a trap. It can give those things power over us. Instead, let’s be playful with them.

The next time my son says he’s horrible and I start up on the “Honestly-Out of this world-Remarkably-Right in-Being-Lovely and-Enjoyable” and I’m tripping over the words and getting them out of order and doing it wrong and so on, and nine times out of ten, things shift to laughter.

My son starts picking other terrible words, stupid, idiot, and so on, and trying to create sentences from their letters. See what your son or daughter can do with POOPYHEAD. You’d be surprised.

Words are what we make of them.

The power of words and how we choose to re-purpose and reinterpret them is a huge lesson. Its the beginning of learning how to re-frame events or ideas. It ties in with a central story we can tell about ourselves. “We play with things!”

More than once, since we started playing this game, our six year old son, days later, used a word like “idiot” with a very serious expression. And then he would get that glint in his eye, go to the fridge where we pasted up the reconstructed meaning of the word, and read it out, laughing. He would say, “Remember? Remember, we did this?”

Whether or not to employ these kinds of games depends heavily on context. If the mood just isn’t right, if something more serious has just occurred, if there isn’t time or the location won’t allow for it, that’s okay. As parents, we continually have to do a 360 degree check in and see if our plan for the moment is a good fit. We are already doing this dozens of times every hour of every single day.

But when we choose to play instead of instruct, it is part of the relationship building process that grows connection, conversation and self reflection for our children.

Photo by: cheriejoyful

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The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer

Since its original publication, this article has been shared over 100,000 times on Facebook.

Mark Greene explores how in American culture, men avoid all contact rather than risk even the hint of causing unwanted sexual touch. Read more