Longtime Writer and Speaker on relationships - J.J. Gertler
Going through a global pandemic, we got used to wearing masks. The right kind can save your life and other people’s lives. But wearing another kind of mask, while it may seem promising in the short term, can lead to difficulty and heartbreak in relationships.
Whether you’re a fan of Scooby-Doo or Mission Impossible, we all know that moment when the mask gets peeled off of a person, and you find out that they are somebody completely different inside. That’s what it can often be like when you wear the mask of traditional masculinity. It’s a competitive, aggressive front designed to look impressive and intimidating – while hiding the wearer’s true identity.
The positively masculine person tries not to wear masks and recognizes that it’s possible to be competitive, aggressive, and successful without making that the basis of one’s image. As Mac McGregor says, “People need to have the freedom to define masculinity for themselves.” Positive masculinity doesn't mean you're not competitive; it means you're not projecting that competitiveness. It doesn’t mean you’re not aggressive, but you’re not advertising that aggressiveness out into the world.
Aggressive masculinity is like those cars with loud resonator mufflers, designed to seem impressive even though they don’t add one lick of performance. Or pro wrestlers who spend most of their time talking smack to intimidate opponents. Or spray tans. They all project an image designed to intimidate, but none is actually about doing the thing better.
Ninjas don’t talk a big game. They don’t drive up with sirens and flashing lights on their Ninjamobile while wearing fluorescent orange windbreakers blaring “NINJA” in big letters. Ninjas wear black and stay quiet to get to their goals undetected. They don’t have to awe or intimidate; they just get the job done. You can be a relationship ninja in the personal or private world.
In the business world, the quiet approach is a clever tactic because it is easier to achieve your goals if your rivals don't see you as threatening. Like a ninja, you’ll have accomplished your goal before they knew you were going for it. Being loud and intimidating tells the whole world you’re coming and precisely what you want. Intimidation is about trying to win without fighting. But positively masculine people recognize they can win without requiring others to lose. Building a positive relationship in business or personal life is not about conquest. At least it isn’t if you want to build something that endures. Those who are the object of conquest tend not to take it well— just ask the Ukrainians.
If you want to know how that translates to your personal life, just ask a simple question: How many people want to date someone they see as aggressive or threatening? Do you?
We may not know much about the social life of ninjas. And we won’t claim that being positively masculine means getting dates easier. But it does mean that the people with you are more eager to be there and have more interest in you because you started by showing them more of who you are. You didn’t try to fit some image of what a man is supposed to be like. You were quietly, confidently, yourself.
Society tries to teach us the people we seek will respond to our claimed virility or projected testosterone. Some may like that kind of image; some may not. But if you’re not trying to project an image but just be an authentic man, not only will people respond more positively, but those relationships are more likely to last. Why? Because they are seeing who you are from the start. They’re not being attracted to some image that may fall away someday. They don’t have to fear that Act Three reveals that the hero quarterback is a tentacled alien.
At the same time, you will be more secure, because you know that you’re not pretending to be something or someone you’re not just to attract people. You’ll know they are with you because they want to be with you, not with some “he-man” image you projected. As a female acquaintance recently said, “You’re a real person to me, not a persona.”
Or look at it the way another female acquaintance recently expressed it: Imagine you're on an island full of beautiful, majestic birds, and everyone else is chasing them around with fistfuls of birdseed, begging them to perch (or even worse, expecting the birds to clamor to take the seed, doing anything to get it). If you instead sit down calmly, arrange some birdseed around you in an appealing pattern, and wait at the center, still, palms open and overflowing with birdseed... you can have the exact same birdseed as everyone else. Indeed, everyone else can have better birdseed, but you're creating an environment where it feels safe and appealing to come down and peck at it if they want to will make you stand out.
And here’s the thing: showing the world who you really are and not trying to project an image is a strong expression of confidence. Embracing positive masculinity rather than an artificial construct of what a man is “supposed to be” shows an understanding of and belief in who you are and that confidence can be powerfully attractive. Radiating an image of pre-fabricated manliness is the mark of an insecure person. They don’t know who they are and/or don’t trust that people will like who they are. So they try to be somebody else, often somebody we are told people are supposed to find attractive.
How does positive masculinity express itself once the relationship gets going? Treating the other person not as a prize or a territory to be conquered but centering the relationship on them, their needs, interests, and desires is a great way to navigate healthy masculinity. Often, traditional masculinity tells us that the man is in charge of the relationship and should decide how it’s going to go. The relationship exists to give him what he wants. Of course, any relationship should give us what we want – but not at the other person's expense. It’s a cooperative effort, not an aggressive one. How often have you seen two people in a relationship, each trying to “win”? And how often has that worked out well, particularly when compared to people who work together to shape a common future?
Positive masculinity rejects gender roles in a relationship. It doesn’t mean that certain things become duties or responsibilities because one party identifies a certain way. It acknowledges that there are times and places when masculine attributes are helpful but reserve them for those situations and doesn’t try to make every event, discussion, or difference in a relationship a referendum on one’s manliness. And that masculinity isn’t threatened if the other partner occasionally takes on roles traditionally associated with maleness.
Look, competitiveness has a place in life. Aggression has a place. Even masks and costumes have a place (we call that Halloween.) However, approaching relationships with positive masculinity makes things easier and can help attract the kind of people you want to be with. Those who are attracted to masks and false fronts can look elsewhere. Being the authentic, confident, real you is its own kind of cool, and aren’t you really most interested in the kind of people who are attracted to that?