During a recent session a man we’ll call Phillip recounted a difficult conversation he’d had with his wife Janie. The discussion had soon descended into yelling, name-calling and, finally, tears on her part. Phillip felt himself disappearing into a near catatonic state of helplessness and confusion. This routine wasn’t new to him. Most of the difficult issues they deal with end in this scene.
In frustration he asked, “How do I take the lead with someone who is that out of control? I try to reason and comfort, but, finally, I just get pissed off and either yell back or freeze. I can’t even breathe in the face of her tirades.”
Phillip asks a good question. It goes to the heart of how to be masculine in a way that leads a relationship through difficult times. The feminine energy we males are so drawn to has many facets, and when the feminine is unconscious (afraid), it can result in a primal display of chaos and fury.
There are no scripts, truisms, or definitive answers to Phillip’s question that would resolve the cycle of conflict that he and his wife have created. The truth is that the roots of the problem are as old as their first date, and even older for Phillip.
Phillip was a sensitive kid, as most “Nice Guys” were. As he grew older, to cope with the pain conflict caused him, he developed what he thought was his best quality, his ability to get along with others. His father and mother fought a lot, and he was great at not making waves, playing peacekeeper, and just getting out of the way.
He was gifted at reading others, sensing their mood, and adjusting himself to the proper demeanor that kept things civil, polite, and safe.
Most people admired Phillip’s ability to get along with folks, and this likeability was what first attracted Janie to him. He seemed to be a wizard at knowing just what to say to make her feel good, and he was always eager to take action once she made it clear what she wanted. For Janie’s part, she liked the feeling of control she had with compliant Phillip.
However, over the years, problems began to arise as Janie began to feel the burden of defining the purpose of life for both of them. She realized she had to make the real decisions and difficult choices. The emotions this brought up for her were sadness, anger, and unconscious fear. She didn’t realize what had her feeling so anxious.
Being in charge and getting her way in the beginning had been fun and freeing, but now it was a trap. She wanted a man who could handle things, a man who would hold boundaries, provide vision, stay present in the face of uncertainty, and offer a consistency of purpose. Still, although this is what she needed, giving up years of control was not easy. Being in control had created a sense of safety, and she wasn’t sure Phillip could handle the job.
She wasn’t able to trust Phillip as leader because he had no core self. He existed only for her and lacked the experience of leading from his center.
Healthy and whole masculine leadership starts with a man in touch with an integrated set of values and behaviors that don’t depend on the approval of others.
Phillip and Janie’s problems aren’t about the details of a particular situation; they are about trust, engagement, and purpose.
The deeper issues (and gifts) of life can only be revealed by daring to show up exactly as you are, asking for what you want, admitting when you don’t know, risking life without a script, and making choices and taking action without a guaranteed outcome.
True masculine leaders are in a dynamic and honest relationship with themselves and can then show up in a relationship as authentic men. They aren’t perfect and don’t have all the answers. They practice the skill of being present in the face of the beauty, uncertainty, and chaos of the feminine.
Dr. David Schnarch, in his book Intimacy and Desire, outlines four areas in which people need to develop to create relationships with deep emotional connection while still leaving room to be true to themselves. He calls this development differentiation.
Here are his four steps of differentiation:
Learn to regulate your anxiety
Be non-attached to others’ reactions to your truth
Tolerate pain and discomfort in the service of growth