In Western cultures, men are often socialized to equate masculinity with self-confidence, put up a good front, and present as self-assured, even when they don’t feel that way: “Never let them see you sweat.” Men are frequently trained to think of life as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, so they often attack any indication of insecurity in another man as a sign of a weakness that can be exploited. As a result, men’s fears of being inadequate go underground, hidden from themselves and from other men.
One of the inadequacies men often worry about is not being able to hold up their end of their intimate relationships. As Carol Gilligan pointed out in her groundbreaking work on female development, in early childhood, boys and girls typically play together. They only later separate by gender, with the girls most often playing with other girls and boys generally playing with boys. Girls focus primarily on relationships, playing house or school, and with dolls, forms of play that help develop relationship skills. Boys, in contrast, often play sports and other games that focus on individual achievement and competition, practicing the skills related to competition.
The transition to same-sex peer groups is generally part of a larger transition for boys, which involves relinquishing the warm, tender world of intimate relationships represented by their mother (and/or father) to pursue access to the power and privilege in the world outside of the family often represented by their father. Attractive as this world is, this transition generally means giving up the intimate friendships of their youth to enter the hypercompetitive non-relational world of men. Research substantiates that boys' early friendships are generally as intimate and as important to them as the friendships that girls have, and giving them up to pursue external success has a tremendous cost that endures throughout their lives.
I have only been arrested once in my life. When I was 16 years old, my best friend and I went out for the evening. When I drove him home, I parked in the middle of the dead-end street next to his house, thinking I would only be there for a minute. We started talking in the emotionally intense way that young men can talk with each other as they explore the kind of relationship depth possible between two people making their way through the challenging life transition of coming of age. Lost in our conversation, I eventually shut off the engine to save gas. Several hours later, a police car pulled up behind us, lights flashing, and took us into the station, despite the fact that we were parked directly in front of my friend’s house. To this day, I have no idea what the charges were, but I’ve always thought that there was something about the appearance of shared intimacy that was unsettling to that cop.
As puberty arrives, heterosexual boys and girls become interested in each other again. This often creates a conflict for both boys and girls; how to approach the other gender to get these newly emerging sexual and relational needs met without giving up the values of their same-sex peer groups. Boys are generally at a disadvantage in this coming back together of the sexes, and they know it. While the girls may have been practicing for this moment for years, the boys often have not been giving it much thought, much less preparing. One woman told me that she spent hours practicing kissing the back of her hand as a little girl, teaching herself how to kiss her imagined future partner. This new game is played on the girls’ well-practiced relational turf, where the boys often feel unprepared and inadequate.
I learned a lot about gender roles in relationships from our male rabbit named Fez. Rabbits are happiest as pair-bonded animals, so after five years as a bachelor, we decided to get Fez a female partner. After trying Fez with several available ladies, he and a younger rabbit named Mila seemed to hit it off. Mila had been raised in the shelter with other rabbits, so she had more experience in relationships than Fez. Mila immediately began approaching Fez and initiating courting behaviors, which essentially meant that she pushed her head under Fez’s chin and waited for him to groom her. Poor Fez was clueless. He had no idea what was expected of him, and he just froze. Mila didn’t waste much time expressing her desires. As soon as it was clear that Fez wouldn’t respond, she bit him, and little bits of fur flew in the air. It went on like this for a few days. Fez gradually got the message and began grooming Mila whenever she approached him, eventually even initiating the grooming himself and receiving grooming from her. Once Mila taught Fez how to be her partner, everything was fine. They lay together, cuddling in the sunlight for hours on end, happily mated.
Some women reading this may be identifying with Mila, thinking about the work they’ve had to do to teach their partners how to be in a relationship. At the same time, some men may be identifying with Fez, remembering the times their partner “bit” them for not knowing what the hell they were supposed to be doing. Like Fez, men sometimes feel clueless and terrified that their interpersonal inadequacies will be exposed. Things tend to go well in these new relationships when men take a clue from Fez and turn to their new partner to help them get up to speed. Things generally don’t go nearly as well when men, out of fear, are not open to new learning and default to the aggressive and competitive skills that got them there.