“I Can Only Be Naked When I’m Naked:” Sex, Friendship, and Male Vulnerability

From 2009.

I’ve been thinking lately about some friends of mine, getting a divorce after more than a decade of marriage. Children are involved, but the two spouses are as amicable as one could hope to expect. What is clear, however, is that the husband and the wife each have very different support networks — or more accurately, that the wife has a fairly strong support network of family and friends, and the husband has virtually no one. And looking at the two of them is a reminder of one of the particularly unfortunate ways in which we structure white American middle-class masculinity; too often, not only is a wife a man’s best friend, she is his only friend.

We live, after all, in a culture which shames displays of male vulnerability. Though some sociologists detect signs of a shift among younger men, millions of boys in this country still grow up with the “guy code” and its rules about toughness, competitiveness, and a steadfast refusal to cry. Even those young men who do everything they can to avoid playing by the “guy rules” — the sensitive, bookish lads, let’s say — find it difficult to find other men with whom they can be open, vulnerable, and safe.

A great many young women have had this experience: they’ve been dating a fellow for a while, things have started to get serious. A fight happens, or perhaps the dude has a setback of some sort or another. One night, he breaks down in front of her, surprising them both with his sudden vulnerability. He may say something like “This is the first time I’ve cried in years” or “I’ve never cried like this in front of someone before, not since I was a kid.” Now, it’s possible that he’s just being manipulative, seeing how far this kind of emotional flattery will take him. But dollars to doughnuts, there’s a good chance that he’s being honest — it’s only in romantically and sexually intimate relationships that many men find the chance to be vulnerable.

One rather flippant but generally sound piece of advice I gave (and still do give) in youth group about sex: “Don’t get naked until you’re ready to get naked”, meaning that in relationships, it’s often wise to have some degree of congruence between emotional and sexual intimacy. Generally speaking, emotional intimacy is a good precondition for sex; the danger lies in the attempt to reverse cause and effect, and using sex as a way of generating enduring intimacy. But of course, for many men, sexual intimacy is a kind of trailhead into some deeper and more concealed parts of themselves. This doesn’t mean that heterosexual men can only trust those women with whom they are sleeping, but it does mean that sex gives a kind of permission for a man to be vulnerable. (If I had a dollar for every woman who has ever asked me if it was “normal” for men to cry after sex, I’d have enough to take my family out for a nice vegan dinner. Many women are floored by these sudden post-coital displays of strong emotion; though not universal, it’s more common than many think.)

The problem with connecting sexual intimacy with emotional vulnerability is that it breeds a particular kind of dependency. Once married or in a long-term monogamous relationship, the man becomes increasingly dependent upon his partner for emotional release. While she may also feel connected to him (one hopes that she does), women in our culture are generally given permission to separate emotional and sexual availability. Women are more likely to have friends of either sex with whom they can “get naked without getting naked”; women are also more likely to have strong family support systems. And because both partners figure out that there is some sort of connection between sexual and emotional intimacy for the guy, it becomes all the more difficult for him to find others besides his wife or girlfriend with whom he can be vulnerable. One of the factors that works to prevent married men and women from having close opposite-sex platonic friendships is this suspicion that at least for men, sexual and emotional closeness are easy to confuse.

Many men, particularly in long-term heterosexual relationships, end up with very few close friends other than their wives. They have their colleagues, buddies, and rivals — men and women with whom pleasantries are regularly exchanged and business is done, but with whom really close conversations rarely happen. When they break down at all, when they open up, it’s with their wives. And when the divorce or separation happens, these guys often go into tailspins of rage and depression as their emotional source of support is withdrawn. And while divorce or separation is of course devastating for women as well, most women (by no means all) are more likely to have stronger support systems in place. They are more likely to have friends and family to whom they can talk and with whom they can process through their feelings. And as a consequence, their emotional recovery will often be far more rapid. (It doesn’t seem that way, of course. Men are much more likely to remarry, or at least start dating, very soon after a divorce. But don’t confuse the seach for a new anesthetic with signs of genuine growth.)

We all pay the price for the Guy Code. Wives and girlfriends pay the price by being the sole source of emotional support for husbands and boyfriends. It’s often thankless work, mind you — many men, recognizing how dependent they become on their wives, become resentful of that dependence. The toxic mother-son dynamic, so common in heterosexual marriages, often grows up as a result of this dependence; that dynamic stunts the growth and warps the soul of each person trapped within it. Husbands and boyfriends pay the price, particularly when the relationship ends or is in trouble. Of course, this aspect of the Code is one classic contributing factor to infidelity (though not, surely, the only one). We all know the tired old line about the cheating husband looking for the “other woman”, the “one who understands him”; his search for extramarital intimacy may be as much about “rebelling” against his wife (whom he has turned into his mother, and whom he resents for his own dependency) as it is about seeking out new skin.

The solution, of course, is as simple as it is challenging: teach relationship skills to both sexes, from childhood on. And bring male mentors into the lives of boys, not to teach them how to be men but to teach them how not to be. Male role models who display emotional fluency and depth as well as responsibility and the capacity to self-regulate — these men are out there, and their numbers are growing. But the insidious Guy Code is by no means gone, and if we tolerate it, our sons and daughters will invariably be the next to suffer from it.

10 thoughts on ““I Can Only Be Naked When I’m Naked:” Sex, Friendship, and Male Vulnerability

  1. Interesting musings, Hugo. I love that you’re addressing this, gender-roles, and more deeply, masculine/feminine polarity, interplay, and creativity are topics I’m super-thrilled about.

    I’ve been called “a most passionate, vulnerable man” (many posts on my blog reflect this vulnerability, and many of my testimonials are thrilled by my ‘real talk’ and brutal honesty :P), by more than one person, and the result so far is that I’ve become magnetically more attractive and successful in my interactions & connections with others.

    In my experience, vulnerability is an expression of power, just like money, and accessing one generally summons the other ;)

  2. You’ve hit the nail on the head here. No matter who I talk to that’s married or in a long term relationship, I find that the common comment amongst my women friends and those I know is that their husbands appear to have no support. And as a result, many women start to loose a sense of respect for their spouse because they become too “needy”. That doesn’t mean women don’t want their husbands and significant others to confide in them, but when you feel that you are the only support holding up the person, it’s overwhelming and diminishes their role.
    I had one guy friend recently divorced ask me WHY he’s striking out left and right. The truth, he’s using his dates as therapy sesssions.
    I know women jest about men not liking to ask for directions when lost, but the truth is I think the same applies in life. Many men won’t seek therapy, won’t open up to friends, etc. Although we as women often get mocked for “talking” and sharing every last detail with our support system, I think we have learned how to have friends and be friends. Men tend to only “do things” with the guys, but when things are eating them up, the don’t talk to one another.
    Thanks for the post. I will be sharing. Great insight!

  3. No matter who I talk to that’s married or in a long term relationship, I find that the common comment amongst my women friends and those I know is that their husbands appear to have no support. And as a result, many women start to loose a sense of respect for their spouse because they become too “needy”. That doesn’t mean women don’t want their husbands and significant others to confide in them, but when you feel that you are the only support holding up the person, it’s overwhelming and diminishes their role.
    I had one guy friend recently divorced ask me WHY he’s striking out left and right. The truth, he’s using his dates as therapy sesssions.
    I know women jest about men not liking to ask for directions when lost, but the truth is I think the same applies in life. Many men won’t seek therapy, won’t open up to friends, etc. Although we as women often get mocked for “talking” and sharing every last detail with our support system, I think we have learned how to have friends and be friends. Men tend to only “do things” with the guys, but when things are eating them up, the don’t talk to one another.
    Thanks for the post. I will be sharing. Great insight!

  4. Another brilliant essay, Hugo! I had a lover many years ago who broke down crying after we were intimate and revealed that his teenage sister died in a car accident (later, his mom tried to put the blame from the accident on him which really messed him up the rest of his life!)….he said he had never cried at her funeral….he was finally opening up about it and crying after holding in the tears for 2 decades!

    So true what you say about men’s intimate relationships….he did not have close friends he could really talk to…which is probably why he sought attention from me (except that I was just way too young and naive at the time)….

  5. This piece is priceless. Men and women alike take heed; our culture is ripe for nakedness. SLIPPING only back to ancient Greece do we find men connected to the emotional body through other men, through culture, art, and music abundantly.
    Further, what a world if more nakedness between men and women existed.

    Clothed in honesty, compassion, vulnerability

  6. This is so true, particularly for men of my parents’ generation. When the wife of a couple dies before her husband, the husband is so lost. Of course, it ‘s very hard for anyone to lose their spouse, but it is doubly so when the spouse was their sole emotional support.

  7. Of course no mention is made of the rather contrary fact that most men arrive to their first serious relationship with a full panoply of friends, family and acquaintances who provide them with emotional support. However, as soon as the woman is safely sconced in a marriage or committed LTR, she engages, with rare exceptions, into an all-out, no-holds-barred campaign to strip the man from all acquaintances of his previous. Female friends, whether married or not, are totally unacceptable because they are female and therefore must go post haste. Unmarried males are unacceptable because they are bad influences and contribute to his spending time and money on things she disapproves of, so they must go. Married friends are only acceptable if the two women are compatible with each other but, even then, the male friendship must be superseded by a “couples friendship” and must become become subordinate to it. Even family must be driven away as much as possible, as the needs and wants of her family come first and she will strive to make sure that “family” means mostly hers.

    If men arrive at a point 10 or 20 years after marriage where their social circle is mostly hers, and they no longer have the skills or opportunity to acquire friends and intimate acquaintances, one can mostly thank the wife, who has spent most of their time together laboring to make sure that this is so.

  8. Maybe this is why most men in the world seem like such emotionally stunted dolts– I only have to deal with men in public situations… colleagues at work, the delivery man, the car salesman… my greatest emotional intimacy is almost always with women, whom I love and adore.
    Talking to men just became more and more of a chore.
    So I challenge men to actually go out and make close friends. Hey if I can deal with all your sexist garbage in order to make a living, surely you can learn actual real life emotional skills, and make close real friends with other men. I emphasize that, because men need to be real friends to each other. They are emotional idiots to the world, have very low communication skills, unless of course if they are going to make money on the deal, then they learn to “talk to” women, but its fake and commerce driven.
    It’s why it’s so weird to watch heterosexual relationships with these shut down dead men, hollow men, because why would any woman be married to a public emotional incompetant. What a pathetic commentary on male emotional laziness. Give me my women friends, give me my female partner, and give me a world where I really don’t have to deal with the emotionally dead and childlike.
    Men just get out of our way, and go learn something real for once. And no, you will not be my friend because I suspect you are a rapist, a porn viewer or an emotional vampire. You get no benefit of the doubt from me ever.

  9. You can always find friends. You can’t always find love. The capacity of a good friend or even a network of friends to support you emotionally is limited, much more so than that of a committed life partner. If you rely too much on your friends for emotional support, they’re not going to want to be around you. Express your vulnerability too hard and you’ll scare them away.

    Since more men remarry than women, to me it seems that being alone and adrift for a bit is the way to go.

  10. Pingback: The Critic, the Arena & Hugo Schwyzer | c2sees2

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