Has it ever felt to you like you were following some set of unwritten rules on how to be a man? Men can do this but can’t do that. These are the Man Rules I refer to throughout my new book, A Man’s Way through Relationships: Learning to Love and Be Loved and discuss at length in Chapter 1. They are unwritten yet very real, and they guide our lives from an early age, telling us how to be boys and men. We follow these Rules to let the world know that we are “real” boys and “real” men. When we don’t follow them we run the risk of being viewed by others and viewing ourselves as being less than real boys or men. Where did the Rules come from? The answer is that they come from many different sources, some personal and some societal. The Rules come from both of our parents and other caregivers, from other family members, from coaches and teachers, from the kids on the playground, and from the media based on the images of “real” men presented on television, in movies, and in print and broadcast advertising. Adolescence can be a particularly brutal period of indoctrination to the Man Rules.
There is a story of two fish swimming in the ocean when a third fish swims up to them and says, “Hello, gents. How’s the water?” and he swims away. The two fish look at each other and say, “What the hell is water?” In this way, the Water becomes a metaphor for those built-in aspects of our experience we take for granted to such an extent that we don’t even notice them. That is how the Man Rules show up in so many of our lives. We have no awareness of them; we do not see them because we are so used to them being there as a natural part of our experience. We react to them as if they are the only version of reality—the one truth. However, they have been created by other men and women and passed on for years, decades, and centuries – even millenia.
It starts as soon as we are born – research shows that we hold baby boys less, sooth them less, and give them less space to express their emotions. That can be likened to putting a baby in a dixie-cup and pouring water over his head. As the process continues we don’t stop pouring water – we simply change the receptacle – from the little cup to a small fish bowl and then a large aquarium. By the time we are adolescents we have been thrown into a local pond. And then a lake. Until we are adults and are basically fish swimming in the ocean without any idea of the water.
The truth is most of us were never given a choice about the Rules or what kind of men we wanted to be. Nobody sat us down, reviewed the Rules with us, and asked us which ones we wanted to follow and which ones didn’t fit for us. Our fathers didn’t tell us about how the way they were living by the Rules was killing them – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Many men simply don’t realize that they have a choice. In all likelihood we became immersed in The Man Rules early in our lives when we were incapable of thinking about them critically. We never had the opportunity to consider whether the Rules made sense for who we were and who we wanted to become.
But the truth is we do have a choice – we always have. We get to decide how we want the Rules to fit into our lives. The Rules are not bad – they simply limit us and our lives when we do not wear them as a loose garment. Which are the ones that fit for me? Which don’t fit for me? That is what my work – both professional and personal – has been: figuring out how to not let the Rules, rule me. That is why I wrote A Man’s Way through Relationships: Learning to Love and Be Loved. I hope you find what fits for you and live into that to be the best man that you can be.