Relationship is as essential to life as oxygen, water, and food.

For the last couple of years, in conversations with men, I have found occasion to say, “I think men are in trouble today.” To my amazement, every man I have trotted out this statement to has immediately agreed. No one has looked quizzical or puzzled or asked what I meant.

What is going on here? What is happening with men today?

My purpose in asking this question is to start a conversation about the emotional lives of men.  I hope that you as readers—both men and women—will join in this exchange and bring to it your own perspectives and experiences.

There are all kinds of men, just as there are all kinds of boys. Like women, they display a huge range of interests and predilections that cannot be easily categorized. I do not subscribe to the view that there is an “essence” or “norm” of maleness or femaleness. I stand against patriarchy in all of its forms. In my psychotherapy and social work practice, I have worked extensively with survivors of male violence, including women, men, and children, and with perpetrators. 

So why then am I writing about men? Because I do believe that many men today are in trouble. 

Here is a deeply alarming statistic that gnaws at me: men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide, and the group at the highest risk of suicide is white men over the age of 65. Their suicide rate is eight times higher than women in that age bracket. 

How do we understand the deep, profound despair underlying such tragic numbers?

Men and Vulnerability

I believe that there are constructive, positive ways forward for men. But before we explore them, let’s survey something of the landscape of men’s interior lives.

So much about male and female experience is common. After all, all of us are human beings with the same need to attach to parent figures and to significant others. We are all fundamentally relational creatures. We are wired by God our Creator to connect, to belong.  Neurobiologists are clear that relationship is as essential to life as oxygen, water, and food.  This is equally true for men and women throughout the trajectories of our lives.

Some of where male and female experience differs has to do with culture, especially with the culturally defined gender roles, norms, and expectations in which boys and girls are raised.  These role expectations can prove to be obstacles to our development.    

When it comes to boys and men, we live in a culture that tends to not want men to be vulnerable. We seem to work hard to separate boys and men from their feelings. The message is that “being a man” involves standing up to discomfort and pain. “Giving in” to internal distress or “being emotional” is perceived as weakness—certainly not “manly.”

Psychiatrist and family therapist Frank Pittman has argued that our culture promotes a heroic “male mystique” which, to be attained, requires that men deny and reject the “weakness” of their vulnerability. In his book Man Enough: Fathers, Sons and the Search for Masculinity, Pittman claims that to be “man enough,” to achieve this mystique, men tend to fall into one of four patterns, three of which are negative. He describes controlling men, who must dominate and control their spouses, children, and environments in order to be what they understand to be “man enough”; competitive men, who must compete with and come out on top of all other men to be “man enough”; and philandering men, who, to be “man enough” must conquer any number of women.

But then he describes a fourth pattern: partnering men. These men have learned to partner with their spouses, their children, their co-workers, their community. They have learned to love and genuinely serve others, to stand up for justice, and to bless life. But for men to learn how to be partners, they require the active involvement and blessing of other men, especially men older than them, to help model the way.

The Missing Community of Men

And there, for me, is the rub. It’s why many men experience themselves to be in trouble today. The degree to which we as men are emotionally isolated from each other is extraordinary.  There are very few spaces, venues, or platforms where it is acceptable for men to meet and share their vulnerabilities together. As a culture we even seem to be frightened by such a prospect; it is almost a cultural taboo. But never, in my view, has it been more important for men to find opportunities to come together in emotionally meaningful ways.  

I often talk about the “missing community of men.” Men are intensely hungry for the company of healthy men. They have a need to attach to other men. In this they are not unique; I believe the same need manifests itself in the desire of women to attach to other women—a desire that so many women fulfill admirably. Mark Twain once said that at the age of 12 a boy starts to imitate any older man who pays attention to him, and then he simply continues to do so for the rest of his life. I think he’s right, except that it starts much earlier. But in the absence of living communities of men where men share their hidden shame and joys with each other, they tend to turn to women to get certain needs met that only other men can adequately meet.

What Can the Church Do?

The large majority of men, in my experience, want to be real partners. But in today’s world there are very few opportunities for men to gather together and have real conversations about their emotional lives and their struggles to be healthy, life-affirming, life-giving men. 

What an opportunity for churches! Surely churches can serve as venues for real, authentic conversations where men of all ages can, in safe ways, share their experiences of vulnerability and shame, in the context of God’s acceptance, redemption, and grace.

Consider just one practical suggestion. As a man in your church, gather together a small group of men who may be open to exploring these themes. In a circle, invite each man to speak to the following questions (drawn from Shalem Mental Health Network’s “restorative practice” work in churches):

  • Which men have had the greatest impact on your life (positive or negative)?
  • How have they impacted you? What would you want to pass on to younger men or boys, and what would you not want to pass on?
  • What is the hardest thing for you about being a man today?
  • What do you think are the main issues?
  • What will be your next step(s) in moving forward positively as a man?

May God bless you as together all of us, both men and women, seek to explore the meaning of being wholehearted human beings in this world. Thank God for the gift of women and men. And thank God for the many men who know the meaning of sacrifice and who serve as remarkable partners with all of God’s creatures on the journey of life.

 

Questions for Discussion

  1. What surprises you (or does not surprise you) in reading about the trouble with men today?
  2. Can you think of any biblical examples of powerful figures embracing vulnerability--unlike our culture’s tendency against men being vulnerable?
  3. Our culture tends to elevate the patterns of controlling men and competitive men as models of success and leadership. How do we ensure that we do not succumb to these patterns in our church leadership?
  4. What are some ways your local church can help fill the gap of the “missing community of men”? How can your church foster the growth of partnering men in your congregation?

 

About the Author

Mark Vander Vennen is the executive director of Shalem Mental Health Network based in Hamilton, Ontario. He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Cobourg, Ont.

See comments (6)

Comments

I'm not a big fan of the fascination with being "vulnerable".  The dictionary defines vulnerable as "capable of being physically or emotionally wounded."  I don't see that as modeled or required in Scripture.  What I do see in scripture is that we are called to be honest, truthful, and loving.  But biblical love is much different than the love that society seems to often expect, which is more like some bland notion of niceness or complete affirmation. 

I'm not one to say whether or not "men today are in trouble," but to the extent that they are, I think the author touches on a likely large contributor.  The author says "Mark Twain once said that at the age of 12 a boy starts to imitate any older man who pays attention to him, and then he simply continues to do so for the rest of his life. I think he’s right, except that it starts much earlier. "  With that idea in mind, one need look no further than the precipitous breakdown of the family unit to see why many men are not growing up and acting in a mature manner - many have never had it modeled for them, either because there was no father at all in the home or the father that was present had no idea how to be a loving husband and father.  Such is the state of the U.S., where greater than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce and untold numbers of kids are born out of wedlock.  

Surely men can benefit from opportunities to speak openly with each other, but I submit that there is not a shortage of opportunities, but rather a lack of will and maturity.  Fathers that are not present cannot model the type of honesty and love that is unafraid to openly repent of sin and seek forgiveness.  Men don't just arrive on the scene as immature men - they are too often left to their own devices when growing up to become men.  And the devil is only to happy to fill the void that should be filled with a loving, caring, firm yet tender father with the fake manliness illustrated to boys and young men in porn, movies, video games, sports, and social media.  

I don't see a lot of discussion in the church of this problem.  Societally, many of our ills can be traced back to the blight of fatherlessness.  Lack of educational performance and school dropout?  Yep.  Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of women and children? Yep.  Crime, mass incarceration?  Yep.  Racial/cultural outcome disparities?  Yep.  

Making disciples begins at home with our children. No amount of male support groups or male vulnerability encouragement will take the place of intact families for encouraging and developing men who act in ways that are God-honoring.  The church can speak propheticaly and counter-culturally against the do-anything sexual ethic and the autonomous self-exalting worldview which surrounds us, with the life-giving gospel at the center of all we do and proclaim.  

 

This type of Oprah Winfrey spirituality has no place in a Christian Reformed Church publication. While men and women certainly are different and there are unhealthy and unbiblical extremes of both, the last thing we need in our society, much less the evangelical church is for more men to talk about their "vulnerabilities". There has been a strong correlation between the effeminization of CRC men and the decline of our denomination. 

I think I disagree with the author when he declines to subscribe to the suggestion that there is an "essence" or "norm" of maleness and femaleness.  Certainly, there is deviation within all humans, and within all males and all females, but I have to assume God intended the Genesis account, wherein he declares that he made us "male" and "female", to be more than throw away dicta.

And general revelation confirms the Genesis account.  Jordan Peterson, the becoming popular and certainly an expert authority on such matters even if not a Christian, thinks that male/female differences are clear and undeniable except perhaps to those who want simply to change reality into something it is not.

But in a way, I agree with the author when he says "men are in trouble."  My own conclusion is that this trouble stems in no small part from the current North American inclination to erase gender differences and/or to depreciate some aspects of that which is male (by creation, or as Peterson would say, by biology).

Today's North American society favors the female in many ways.  I've practiced law for 38 years and that reality is pretty clear.  Boys and men are being told, again in some ways, that they should not be leaders, that they should not be strong, that they should behave and be more like, well, the way girls and women behave and are.  Even TV commercials have shifted in their portrayal of males and females (males are disproportionately the dull, confused dufuses, and females the clever ones who figure it out).

This is a difficult subject to say the least, in part because of the politics involved and in part because people are so wonderfully complicated.  But yes, I think there is a sense in which men are in trouble in the broader society, even if less perhaps in those parts of society where certain "old fashioned" ideas are still dominant.  And I think the problem is going to get worse for the indefinite future.

Thanks for posting this article. Others have also reached the same conclusion that men are in trouble, that honest healthy relationships are lacking, especially later in life. Part of the problem is that men are socialized to disconnect from their feelings. It's not that they don't have feelings, but expressing their feelings is socially unacceptable - from an early age they are taught to "man up" and repress what they are feeling. The feelings don't go away, instead, they are likely to come out in other unhealthy ways - leading to addictions, depression, violence, etc. The book Mascupathy, describes this phenomenon. I think we need to pay attention! We are to treat one another as fellow image bearers of God, not denying any part of who we are, but allowing full expression. Treating people as whole people, individuals, not bound by the stereotpyes of our culture that we may not even be able to see, because we are so immersed in them; this will help us to have healthy relationships, famiilies, and communities. What are we teaching our children about what it means to be men and women of God? This is important! Thanks for the post!

An interesting, well-argued article. I understand why the author has has written it. However, he writes about "..... culturally defined gender roles, norms, and expectations in which boys and girls are raised.  These role expectations can prove to be obstacles to our development."

Henry Higgins' song in My Fair Lady comes to mind: "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Amusing answers, but containing an element of truth. Modern culture seems to posit a different question, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?" The creation/fall narrative clearly establishes the God-defined distinctions between the sexes and their intended relationship to one another. Such teaching, of course, is anathema to many, possibly the majority, in today's society.

While I don't agree with 100% of the points made by the author (and we all know 100% agreement is virtually impossible), I am grateful for the a place to begin this conversation. It is vital. The question now is, "What are we going to do about it?" This isn't something we for which we need to create a committee for further study. We need to take action. We are excellent as a denomination at studying and learning and discussing different ideas. Time for study is over. Let's step forward act. I will. Today. Will you?