The notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ is being widely discussed in the mainstream media again. This is because the American Psychological Association (APA), for the first time in its 127-year history, has published guidelines on how psychologists should treat boys and men. Authors discuss “traditional masculine ideology” and how it harms the mental health of boys and men. The APA notes that “constricted notions of masculinity”, such as stoicism, competitiveness, aggression, violence, eschewal of weakness, misogyny, and homophobia impact men’s relationships and their overall well-being.
The APA’s 36-page guidelines have been stirring up controversy for its criticisms of traditional masculinity, although many important points are made. Men are facing high rates of problems such as substance abuse and suicide, so psychologists need to understand how masculinity is contributing to the issues experienced by their male patients.
There is one aspect of toxic masculinity, though, that wasn’t really touched on by the APA. And that’s the way in which men’s attitude towards love gets in the way of their relationships and mental health. This does, however, tie into many of the issues raised by the APA.
Men’s Difficulty in Expressing Love
A lot of men seem to have difficulty expressing love towards people who they do undeniably love. Expressions of love may be seen as effeminate or a sign of ‘being gay’, which relates to the fact that masculine norms include traits such as anti-femininity and homophobia. This means that men will go to great lengths to avoid any behavior that may be perceived as soft or womanly. Unfortunately, many men believe that to express love for someone, especially a male friend, would be emasculating. Traditional masculinity has encouraged men to shy away from deep, loving bonds with other men for fear of being perceived as gay.
Men, therefore, can really struggle to just say the words “I love you”, even if they truly love someone else and would, deep down, like to express that sentiment, to show how much they care about them. A lot of men find it difficult to tell even their partner or parents that they love them.
The Importance of Love in Mental Health
Men today feel expected to live up to certain standards of masculinity that restrict their emotional expression. Anger has become the only acceptable emotion for men to express, as this one emotion is seen as strong and powerful, whereas expressing other emotions – men fear – would make them appear weak. But this repression of emotions is highly damaging for men. It should be emphasized that expressions of love are vital in protecting our mental health, for a number of reasons.
Friendships deepen when they involve genuine expressions of love, care, and appreciation. If men avoid showing these more tender types of emotions, then their male friendships may remain shallow. And when friendships are shallow, they lack a certain degree of trust and openness. If men could learn to see that expressing love for other men is healthy, then they would realize the immense benefits this involves.
When you express love for someone else, you can create a mutual relationship in which you both feel comfortable reaching out for help and support. When men go through times of emotional hardship, what they need and crave is loving support. But if men constantly resist love as an emotion, then they shut themselves off from support. They avoid getting stuff off their chest and their most important relationships suffer.
If you’re a man, it can feel extremely awkward to express your love to another man, be they your father, brother, or best friend. Maybe you have expressed these feelings to a friend one drunken night when your inhibitions were lowered, yet woken up the next day feeling embarrassed. However, there’s no reason to feel embarrassed about that. It’s likely you were just trying to say something you thought was worth saying but have always remained hesitant about doing so.
Breaking the barriers of masculinity is hard work. It always begins, though, with biting the bullet and doing something slightly uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean you have to randomly call your friend and tell them you love them. But you could always express these feelings when it seems appropriate, with a simple “I miss you, dude” or “I love you, man”. The film I Love You, Man (2009) starring Jason Segal and Paul Rudd really does a great job of crushing stereotypes about male same-sex friendships. The main takeaway of this film for men should be: when you allow yourself to genuinely express yourself, your relationships and life will massively improve as a result.