As a parent, I often find myself in the position of having to explain boys to my daughter.
She wants to know, “Why are boys so WEIRD??”
Why were the boys who were so nice last year—really good friends, really fun to play with—now suddenly such jerks? What happened to them? Why do they argue all the time now? Why do they have to get into fights?
One of the curses of doing what I do is that I can’t give her the easy answer.
I can’t say, “Well, boys will be boys.”
Instead, my inner educator kicks in. 😉
I tell her that boys this age are in masculinity training.
They’re being trained to be men by their parents and peers, their local culture, and the media.
And that training is serious stuff. The Man Code is very strict on which behaviors are acceptable for men-in-training and which behaviors aren’t.
All those qualities that my daughter loved in these boys—the way they were sweet and kind and caring and artistic and sensitive—are being recoded as “girly.”
Some boys are strong enough and supported enough to retain their love of performance and art and talking about how they feel.
But for some boys that’s no longer safe, because they get teased or humiliated.
As women, we don’t always realize the process boys go through to become men.
But we need to, if we’re going to love the men in our lives fully and well.
And there’s a question you can ask him that will teach you things about him you never imagined, if you have the courage to start the conversation.
What Does It Take to Become a Man?
There was only ONE time in my life when I was waiting to be a woman, and it was during those years leading up to puberty. Then I got my period, and my body changed, and there was no going back. I was a woman.
Biology makes us into women whether we want to be or not.
But men don’t get that clear biological demarcation between boyhood and manhood.
Sure, they get taller, they fill out, their voices deepen, and they grow body hair. But looking like a man is not sufficient to BE a man. Manhood is more of a concept than a biological state.
This is where the Man Code comes in.
The Man Code determines what is manly and what isn’t.
The Man Code creates a hierarchy, where some men are “more of a man” than other men.
And that status is constantly shifting. Just because a guy is “the man” one day doesn’t mean he can’t lose that status the next. Being the man is a competitive sport.
Many men feel pressured to fit their lives into the constraints of the Man Code, which is why it’s also sometimes called the Man Cage. It keeps them from being free.
It is my hope that future generations of men will walk out the doors of the Man Cage and never look back. I see the fabulous English singer and style icon Harry Styles leading the way, just as the Beatles did 60 years ago.
The Iron Bars of the Man Cage
But if you are dating or in a relationship with a man who grew up indoctrinated in the Man Code…
You might find that his loyalty to the Man Code is stronger than his loyalty to you.
The Man Code tells him, for example, that men aren’t bothered with trivial things like feelings.
So when you come to him wanting him to share his feelings and listen to yours, he feels incredibly uncomfortable. This isn’t “what men do.” Men focus on solutions to problems, not soft sticky illogical things like feelings.
Some dating coaches will tell you that this is just how men are. Men are built this way. They’re built to prefer logic over feelings.
Men have been TRAINED to do this.
They’ve been TRAINED to set aside and discount and not value their own emotions.
In reality, men are every bit as emotional as women. Little boys have just as much empathy and concern for others as little girls.
But something happens to boys around the age of 5 or 6. They start to notice that some behaviors get them social approval while others get them teased. And guess which behaviors get them social approval?
You got it—the ones laid down by the Man Code.
The Man Inside His Head
Boys begin to internalize the Man Code into a schema, which I call “The Man Inside Their Head.”
They no longer need other people to police their behavior. They do it to themselves.
They have an Ideal Man inside their head that’s always looking down on them, judging their behavior as to whether it’s sufficiently manly or not.
For some, that Man Inside Their Head tells them to always be striving for greatness, always give 110%, be responsible, be a leader. It helps them be the best they can be.
But for others, the Man says things like, “Don’t ever let yourself be in thrall to a woman,” “Emotions are for weaklings,” “Never allow disrespect,” “Never depend on anyone.”
Those commandments are harmful. They don’t help him become his best self.
You need to know what the Man Inside His Head is telling him.
The Third Party in Your Relationship
One of the most important things you can do for the man you love is to learn about the Man Inside His Head.
What is that Man telling him to do? Where is that Man telling him he falls short?
Not so you can criticize him or challenge his beliefs, but so that you can understand him and why he sometimes chooses being a man over being loving.
For some couples, the Man Inside His Head is like the third party in the relationship. He listens to the Man instead of to his heart or to you.
For him, it feels like a matter of life and death. He can’t turn his back on the Man. If he loses his manhood, what does he have left?
Some women even lose the man in their lives to the Man. The Man tells him that he can’t do what she asks, he’ll be emasculated if he goes to therapy, a real man doesn’t change himself for his wife.
It’s tragic, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Ask Him This Question
If you have a man in your life that you love very much, I have a challenge for you.
The next time you’re feeling close and connected and sharing from the heart, ask him this:
What does being a man mean to you?”
If he asks you why you ask, tell him that you have no clue what it feels like to be a man. (TRUTH!)
And if he’s open to talking about it, draw him out further with questions like:
- Who is the kind of man you look up to?
- How did you learn to be a man?
- What’s the best part about being a man? What’s the worst?
- What do you wish I understood better about men?
What I have found in my own life is that many men appreciate the opportunity to think about these questions.
They understand intuitively that the Man Inside their Head doesn’t always give them good advice. They can hear what the Man tells them to do AND they can choose to do something different.
Those men make wonderful partners. They embody the very best of what a man can be.
So if you have the courage, start a conversation with your man tonight!
P.S. After learning about the Man Code, I naturally started to wonder…
Is there a Woman Code?
Is there an equivalent group of rules that determine acceptable behavior for women?