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A Glue That Binds – Strengthening Men’s Relationships in Midlife

By | Brothers, Masculinity, Relationships | No Comments

It was a powerful weekend, the third retreat for my men’s group this year. With each retreat it feels like I reach into new layers of understanding and push through more of my self-inflicted fears and shame.

In my circle of men I witness the real power of the masculine. The power that comes from doing the life-affirming, gut wrenching work of wrestling with our own humanity. We share the scars and battle wounds of our childhoods, the re-enactment of these wounds in the challenges we face, and the subtle seduction of our internal saboteurs that keep us stuck in smaller versions of ourselves.

These men that I call my brothers continue to amaze me with their wisdom, their trust, their authenticity, and vulnerability. They are courageous and strong, doing battle with the real demons of hubris, self-deceit, shame, and isolation. They are also loving, supportive, and a hell of a lot of fun to be around.

Doing this work with them I ask, “Damn it! will there always be more layers to peel back? Will this work never be done?”
My Wise Self assures me, “No, even with the last breath there will be yet another layer waiting for you to release into, to push through.”

And so we show up again, committed to doing the work, consistently pushing forward one step and one day at a time,

~ with love
~ with reverence
~ with humility.

And part of what makes these weekend retreats so powerful is the time we give each other.

The time to drop out of the warp speed of our daily lives and slow the hell down.
The time we create to dig deep, and deeper still.
The time we give to really see each other, and also to really be seen.

It’s about the space we create, which allows us all to drop our masks and allow others to see us for who we are … there … hiding behind the mask. It’s the more complete picture of who we are, the one we don’t really allow others out there to see.

I’m still processing much of what was revealed in me this weekend, and imagine that I will be for some time. The richness of the work has given me such great gifts and things to contemplate as we head into winter, the season of going inward, of releasing and letting go.

And thanks to my brothers I am much better prepared for the death of those parts of me that are no longer in service to the man that I AM continually becoming.

How Wounds From a Fatherless Childhood Became My Gifts of Manhood

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fatherless boy midlifeAs a man there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed to share my story because of the lifetime of shame behind it. But we can only heal our wounds when we stop being defined by them.

It’s ultimately a story of defining masculinity on my own terms, based on my own unique experiences, rather than conforming to our culture’s rigid definition of what it means to be a man. And if sharing my experience allows other men to come out from their childhood shadows and stand confidently in their place within the broad spectrum of what’s truly masculine, what is there to lose?

So here goes … growing up, I was the quintessential momma’s boy.

I was a quite and gentle kid, friendly and warm with adults but painfully shy and withdrawn from my peers. I was taunted by other boys as being a girl (I had long hair like my father who was a Vietnam vet), ridiculed as being a sissy (I preferred to hang out with girls because the topics of conversation went deeper than sports and cars), and my masculinity was sometimes questioned because I would refuse to fight (the stories of a long-haired pacifist from Israel taught me to turn the other cheek).

While my tender heart was originally the product of nature, being nurtured for most of my childhood without a father around clearly accentuated my gentle temperament. At the age of four I was abruptly immersed in the realm of the feminine as the result of my parent’s divorce. I became the center of my mother’s orbit, receiving essentially unlimited attention, adoration, and priority … and I ate it up. My experience of the feminine universe was that it was loving, filled with affirmative messages, and a strong sense of safety.

I was raised by my mother to be aware of and accepting of my emotions. I was told emotions were natural and okay, within reason. I was given access to the emotional language of women but no tools to navigate with them in the world as a man. My fluency with the feminine intelligence didn’t prepare me for the journey of masculinity within the rigid confines of our culture. It was like learning to speak Spanish in preparation for a trip to China. I couldn’t speak the native language of men, I couldn’t read the signs, and I often felt like a tourist traveling through unknown and potentially hostile lands.

This was tested a couple of years later with the arrival of a stepfather. While he cared for me in his own way, his love was not always gentle. He attempted to make a man out of me and did his best by passing on what he had learned about being a man. He meted out tough love because the world was harsh and real men had to be hard and intolerant of wusses or pussies in order to survive. Rather than growing tough from his love, I grew distant and retreated further from a connection to our culture’s definition of masculinity.

My experiences in early childhood taught me to be emotionally withdrawn from men. From my perspective they were either emotionally absent like my father or were aggressive and domineering, like my stepfather. They were generally not to be trusted. As a result I grew up avoiding male relationships and saw my fellow men through my childhood’s lense as either self-serving egoists focused on sports or cars or other shallow pursuits and pastimes. Or they were bullies only out to put their interests ahead of others by vying for alpha dominance within careers, athletics, or sexual pursuits.

As a boy I sought the refuge of my mother’s love, then in my teen’s and 20s I became a serial monogamist always seeking the sanctuary of a woman’s affection. What I succeeded to do as a man was trade up my status as momma’s boy to that of a pussy-whipped male (to use the shaming vernacular). The pleaser force was strong in me. I continued to sell out my masculine nature, whether to have a triste of the heart or access to a regular source of carnal connection, for fear of losing a reliable bond to Eros.

The reality was that fulfilling my needs for feminine attention and unconditional love came at a steep price, with many conditions and expectations. These were sometimes as emotionally harmful as the abandonment or harshness of the masculine from which I spent much of my life running. I didn’t come to understand the paradox I was in until the crucible of my own marriage forced me to find my voice and create healthy boundaries.

In my late 30’s I had finally begun the process of differentiation. Until then I had been afraid to release the wild man and connect with the masculine out of fear that I’d become one of “those” men from my childhood. Not having gone through any ritual to extract me from the women’s hut, I was bound to the life of being only half a man, never fully stepping into the power of a mature masculine. And I didn’t really see the need to find the balance until the birth of my first son awoke some latent masculine responsibilities. It was then I saw clearly the legacy I was potentially passing on to him if I did not do the work of becoming a whole man, on my terms.

Now in my 40s I claim my masculinity holding both the fierceness of the wild man and the gentleness of the lover’s heart. I’m finding balance in my natural masculinity that allows me to understand how the men I was shunning were themselves wounded and stuck in the “act like a man box,” something that is part of our cultural fabric and which is unwittingly maintained by its men as well as its women.

And now we’ve arrived at the gifts of the fatherless boy:

Gift #1. Creating my own version of masculinity that is grounded in emotional intelligence, the fierceness of the heart-based warrior, and an outsider’s perspective that can call bullsh*t on both the masculine and feminine stereotypes that keep both men and women small and unable to live up to their full potential.

Gift #2: Being the father that I never had, on my own terms. Sometimes it’s a major struggle mapping the wilderness that is fatherhood in the 21st century. What are masculinity, sexuality, and relationship and how do we give our kids the tools (rather than rules that will quickly become outdated) by which to navigate the dynamics of our times? (Hint: stay curious and compassionate.)

Gift #3: I’m more at peace with the internal conflict of trusting men in order to be in brotherhood with them, without having to subvert my own sense of integrity or values. I can hold to my own vision and definition of masculinity and create meaningful relationships with women and with men, along with the healthy boundaries necessary to maintain them.

Gift #4: A deep appreciation for the male mentors in my life who successfully escaped and lived outside of the man box and reflected the innumerable possibilities for other men. Because of them I am now a resource for men who want to connect with their own sense of the power and freedom of a mature masculine outside the confines of our culture’s narrow definition of what it means to be a man.

There’s work to be done here, and it’s not about being more feminine or masculine. Rather, we need only awaken to, accept, and cultivate the unique masculine-feminine balance that already exists within us. Not necessarily easy work, but the results will enrich a lifetime and make a priceless gift for generations to come.

How losing track of your values can screw up midlife, and how reclaiming them will give you control

By | Masculinity, Mission, Relationships, Work | No Comments

midlife manBefore I became a coach for men in midlife I never gave much thought to my values. Don’t worry, my internal conscience, Jiminy Cricket, has kept me morally on the straight and narrow. By values I don’t mean morals or virtues. I’m speaking here about the deep-seated motivators that make us unique and who we are at our core as men.

For me, the simple process of clarifying and understanding core values has given a greater sense of freedom, personal well-being, and deeper relationships. I would also argue that a closer connection to one’s values can give men in midlife greater choice and freedom than options sometimes sought through the stereotypically poor decisions associated with the midlife crisis.

Values vs. virtues

Looking back on my life I always thought of values as understanding the difference between right and wrong. You know, the basic moral compass stuff that most parents try to pass along like don’t lie, cheat, or steal; always keep your word; treat others as you’d like to be treated. Or perhaps values were those moral and intellectual virtues like courage, temperance, liberality, understanding, and wisdom received as part of one’s spiritual or philosophical upbringing.

So if we’re not talking about values as morals or virtues, what are we talking about?

I refer to values as the personal drivers, the core motivators, and deeply held beliefs that make us uniquely who we are. They are the words or terms we would use (as opposed to the external expectations or projections of others) to answer the question:

“Who am I and what’s most important to me?”

For many men in midlife this is THE question that heralds the primary midlife transitions: in our careers, in our marriage or significant relations, in our public personae, in our over commitment to pursuits that no longer bring contentment or a sense of satisfaction.

Our values inform all of our decisions. They are often working at a subconscious level, especially when we haven’t taken the time to identify and clarify what they are. These values, or intrinsic motivators, have been a core part of who we are since our teenage years.

I’m kind of needing an illustration of what the heck you’re talking about here …

Okay, here’s a quick example … early in my midlife quest I identified my top five values as Integrity, Community, Adventure, Impact, and Compassion. Actually, I identified over 40 and narrowed them down to a solid dozen. But these five were the primary values that motivated me and informed the decisions I made and significantly impacted my sense of who I was and how I showed up in the world.

The importance of clarifying values – especially in midlife

When aspects of our lives are out of alignment with our values, things just don’t feel right. We can experience a deep sense of dis-ease and internal or external conflict can show up. When we are living in alignment with our values we have a greater sense of contentment, engagement, and life satisfaction.

Why is understanding our personal values important? It’s important because if we don’t know what our personal values are we can feel adrift on the sea of unmet expectations, lost in midlife meanderings, and experience a hollowness inside suggesting that something is amiss.

Hmm, kind of sounds like my midlife malaise …

More importantly, when we don’t know what our personal values are we are unable to articulate, let alone begin to effectively address, those aspects of our lives that are out of alignment and keeping us from being content at a most basic level.

Once I articulated my values I began to examine aspects of my life through the lense of these values. For example when I looked at my then-career through the lenses of Integrity and Community, I found that the people I worked with and the company I worked for also had a strong commitment to Integrity (in part defined by doing the right things for the right reason) and Community (a robust network of outstanding professionals). The alignment with these values were strong reasons to stay in that career.

However, I was not able to fully realize my internal sense of Integrity (as I define it through my ability to express my full self) and also was not able to live into my value of Impact/Change (as I define it by the ability to push boundaries and unleash greater consciousness in the world). It was these two unexpressed values that were really at the heart of my growing discontent with that career.

My inability to live in alignment with my values of Integrity and Impact/Change began to shake the foundations of my previously enviable career path. Choosing to live through them more fully supported my conscious transition to leadership coaching. This career transition allowed me to live my primary values more fully and ultimately brought me greater professional freedom, engagement in a more fulfilling career, and significantly more life satisfaction.

Hey that’s great, but my midlife crisis isn’t about my career …

I then began to use my values to examine my marriage, my relationships with my two sons, my sense of being over committed in other areas of my life, sibling relations, you name it. While many are still a work in progress, being in alignment with my core values has consistently resulted in deeper connections and greater contentment.

So that’s a simple example of how unconsciously denied values, when explored and identified, led to a successful career transition. Had I not clarified and articulated my values I likely would have continued in my previous career, feeling okay but not truly satisfied … and that unanswered gnawing could have resulted in a serious midlife meltdown and ruined my life.

Are you interested in better understanding how your values may be unconsciously impacting you and how to shift to greater choice in midlife? Grab a spot on my calendar for a Midlife Meetup and let’s see what’s possible!

 

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