When I was a boy, my heroes were the strong, silent types portrayed in the movies. I thought they were the real men. It took me a while to figure out that these guys were frequently troubled and isolated men in their real lives, and even longer -- decades longer -- to figure out what acting like a man really means.
Growing up with the belief that real men suck it up, don't cry and, ideally, don't express any feelings at all was probably the worst game plan I could've been handed. My father was an angry brute who used violence to make himself feel better about his failed life and, well into my forties, I trusted no one and had no men friends and nothing but failed relationships with women. I was a young, healthy, successful entrepreneur with homes, motorcycles and women -- but miserable. I had so much pain to suck up and so many unshed tears that I felt choked by them.
When I finally realized that I had no choice but to do something to change my life, I didn't know where to turn. I'd always taken care of my body and had no hesitation to see a physical therapist when I had a muscle tear or sprain. But I suffered alone and in silence -- as I'd been taught to do -- when my heart ached from being dumped by a woman or from being alone or from just feeling that my life wasn't working out the way I'd hoped it would.
It became clear that there was nothing heroic about being all alone in the world and that, if I ever was going to figure out what acting like a man really meant, I was going to need the help of other like-minded men. Since I'd always avoided dialogue with men about anything emotional, this was a terrifying prospect. But I got together with seven other guys who were just as lost, in just as much pain, more or less as dysfunctional and every bit as afraid of opening up and trusting other men as I was.
It takes enormous courage for a man to sit down with other men and share what's wrong in his life and work to change it. The idea that men can't change is insulting. It's a myth meant to diminish and discourage men. I've seen miraculous changes in men's behavior -- including my own -- with the support of other guys. It's this dependable male peer support that few men enjoy, but all can benefit from.
I've never met a guy who didn't have relationship issues, including me. Men who express disdain at becoming more emotionally conscious prefer to believe women are the problem. Blaming women instead of paying attention to our own behavior goes nowhere, because no one has the power to change anyone else. We can only work to become the best men possible.
So a guy can either continue to play the unmanly role of victim in relationships or become a man whom a woman -- and other guys -- can respect. And, contrary to what the disenfranchised and holdouts contend, that doesn't mean becoming a wimp. It means exactly the opposite -- becoming more aware of your emotions and learning to have some amount of control over them, the skills necessary to succeed in relationships.
I've watched men in my group who'd never been in good relationships with women become amazingly adept at them. But I've also seen guys who just couldn't move beyond self-pity, the status quo or the need to blame others, guys who refuse to acknowledge that sharing how they feel with women is the best path, even though they admit that their shut-down emotional behavior wasn't working. Those guys who refused to take responsibility for their behavior continue to fail in relationships and left the group, voluntarily or not. Their much vaunted chairs were filled by men who're willing to face the unresolved adversity in their lives and get serious about taking responsibility for change.
Over the years, as the guys who stayed in the group and those who joined us faced our fears together and shared our deepest feelings, we came to trust each other implicitly and cherish each other as intimate, authentic friends -- guys we could call at 2:00 AM who'd show up at each other's doors if we needed help.
An ideal group consists of six to eight men whose shared intention is to learn to understand and constructively express their feelings and to create healthier relationships with the people in their lives. Everybody's equal in the group, so it doesn't need a facilitator or leader, and can be up and running once you agree on a few guidelines -- listen respectfully without interrupting; share what you learned from personal experience rather than giving advice or an opinion and maintain confidentiality. Each group is different, but all have years of combined life experience to draw on -- over 300 years' worth for eight forty-year-old men!
So how does being in a men's group differ from psychotherapy? A therapist listens to a patient's experiences and helps him get in touch with his feelings but never shares his own experiences or feelings. Having been there, I feel that a man in the midst of divorce doesn't need a therapist to help him feel his pain, since he's in pain every waking hour. What he does need is to hear from other men who've experienced the same pain and are willing to share how they dealt with it on an emotional level. And when was the last time you called your therapist to get together for a bike ride or a Saturday morning ball game?
Does this make men's groups the universal panacea for men? Not necessarily. Like anything worthwhile in life, behavioral change requires a concerted effort. Only guys who're willing to be open and honest about their lives and consciously -- and conscientiously -- work at change will succeed. Digging into your life and doing battle with your demons with support from other men is virgin territory for most guys and it takes courage, stamina, and trust. It also takes getting out of your head and into your heart. And that's what it means to act like a man.