Examining How Masculinity Can Damage Relationships & How Men Can Change That

Experts on gender-based violence share how men can redefine societal gender norms and hold themselves accountable.

Words by Christina Lee. Photo illustration by Sam Liacos.

What does it mean to “act like a man”? In countries around the world, those ideas seem clearly defined: Always be in control, and never show weakness. But these agreed-upon gender norms lend themselves to damaging behavior. The rigidity has been “suffocating” for male-identifying people; as comedian Michael Ian Black wrote in 2018, “The man who feels lost but wishes to preserve his fully masculine self only has two choices: withdrawal and rage.” And those choices bear severe consequences to female-identifying people in particular: Nearly one in three women and girls—who are expected to be more submissive and punished if they aren’t—will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. Worldwide, gender norms can turn violent. 

Toxic masculinity is “a culture that we live in, and it lives inside us too. So it’s not something where you’re able to flip a switch overnight and be done with,” says Devon Pinkus, men’s engagement coordinator at the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. However, men can still take steps to hold themselves accountable—redefine what it means to “act like a man” and feel secure in your relationships, without causing harm to others. Here’s how: 

(Keep in mind that these are preventative measures. For more severe cases of abuse, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or seek out a domestic violence agency or family violence intervention program near you.)

Reflect on your upbringing. 

Consider all the ways you learned what being a “real man” entailed. People learn and reinforce these social norms amongst each other, often to the point of coercing or harassing each other, from an early age. 

The organization Futures Without Violence recognizes this with its Coaching Boys into Men program, where high school coaches teach their student athletes how to build healthy relationships. Otherwise, says senior program specialist Jesse Mahler, “If I don’t hear from anyone until I’m 16 that it’s not OK to joke about rape, catcall someone, pressure someone into having sex or call someone a gay slur or pussy, how can I expect anything but for me to see that behavior as acceptable?”

Such self-reflection can even start by revisiting your relationship with the first male role model you meet: your father. “What were some times that you felt really cared for and loved by your father? What were some times that you didn’t?” says Cody Ragonese, senior program officer at Equimundo: Centers for Masculinities and Social Justice. 

Tracing the origins of your harmful behavior will be illuminating: “If you can’t identify your feelings, you can’t empathize with people you’ve done harm to,” says Mark Bracey, director of community and youth programs at Men Stopping Violence. This step also isn’t to be taken lightly. Men who witness intimate partner violence growing up, for example, are highly likely to replicate those behaviors as adults. At the heart of this behavior is unresolved trauma, amid a reluctance among men to discuss their mental health, no less.

Reevaluate your relationships. 

Now, with this clearer understanding of how these societal pressures affected your life, it’s time to consider how women-identifying people suffer from rigid gender norms as well. 

Intimate partner violence is an important example, though it’s just one of many. To wit, 80% of young people in Latin America and the Caribbean say their male friends monitor their partner’s phone. This tendency to monitor a partner’s phone—or dictate places your partner can go, or determine who they’re allowed to see, or make decisions on their behalf—may stem from your own insecurities over the relationship. It could be justified as “discipline” for women’s “incorrect” behavior. It may even be out of genuine, well-intentioned concern for your partner’s safety and wellbeing. But none of these reasons make this behavior OK. 

“Love is not controlled,” Pinkus, with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says. “In a truly equitable partnership, both people are able to consent. Both people are able to come and go. It’s not an equitable partnership if there is coercion or control happening.”

With that in mind, there is a real opportunity to reconsider what your role in such a relationship may look like. That could include relinquishing control in areas where men might otherwise feel pressured to exert it. It could also mean attending to tasks that traditionally fall to women: “Are you supporting your partner with domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning? Are you taking on some of the responsibility for childcare or pet-care?” Pinkus asks. The point is to figure out how to show mutual respect to one another.

“I think what we’re all striving for is pretty similar,” Ragonese says. “We want to be caring. We want to be empathetic. We want to be successful, whether that’s as a provider or as a protector. … Why are we seeing these two binary genders as different people?” 

Learn to have more thoughtful conversations. 

Changing your behavior for the sake of better, healthier relationships can start one (tough) conversation at a time. This means that men should learn to be vulnerable where they might be avoidant and be open to points of view they might instinctively dismiss. This could be with your partner, or it could be with folks who’ve agreed to hold you accountable.

“When a woman shares something with you, do you believe what they have to say? Or do you default to minimizing, denying, or blaming?” Pinkus asks. “Is your intuition to create space and be curious, or is it to push that away?” 

Instead, the key to more thoughtful, productive conversations is active listening. What does that entail? Patrick Harrison, director of outreach programs at Men Stopping Violence, breaks down the science into three steps: 

  • Mirror: When your partner expresses how they feel, try your best to “mirror,” repeat back what they said, “You may have to paraphrase it, but try to give back as best as you can what you heard them say.”
  • Confirm: Allow your partner to respond. “Then they can confirm. ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.’ Or, ‘No, that’s not quite what I meant.’ Go through that part of the exchange.”
  • Invite: Then, only once both of you are on the same page, “invite,” or let the conversation continue.

Whether it’s with your partner, friends, or a therapist, Mahler suggests “being open to learning and growth, being open to being wrong.”

“Being a good partner means being able to admit when one’s done something wrong,” he adds. But that doesn’t mean that one is broken, damaged or unrecoverable. It’s actually a way towards having a more meaningful and connected life.” 

Have patience.

Any sort of change in behavior takes time. But the sort of self-reflection and improvement required to keep toxic masculinity in check should become a daily practice—what Harrison calls “emotional hygiene.” Just as we remember to regularly keep their body clean (“We look in the mirror, we make sure we don’t have nothing hanging out our nose”), we should also learn to be more mindful and ask ourselves questions as Harrison suggests: “Why am I feeling a certain way? What is this feeling that I’m feeling?”

Emotional hygiene, Harrison says, “requires a whole ‘nother level of work and a whole ‘nother level of introspection.” 

“It’s really a lifelong practice,” Pinkus says, “and it’s something that over time, we can hope to grow into and get better. It’s not something like once you do one thing, then you get to take the rest of the week off. We need to continue to engage, challenge ourselves to step up, and in addition, challenge others around us to step up.”

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