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The Challenges and Rewards of Being an Ally to Men

The combination of liking men easily, having close connections with men (including with my two sons), and working at a twenty-plus-year marriage has kept me thinking as an ally to men.

I've experienced some not unusual barriers in the way of being a good ally. As a child I couldn't make things right for the grown-ups in my life. In my adulthood this sense of powerlessness got transferred to men. Then, as a liberated woman, I felt I shouldn't have to take on men's distresses. However, there is a difference between being a "caretaker" to men and contradicting hopelessness about my ability to make a difference to someone who happens to be male.

It has been challenging to look at men's oppression. I don't like to. Partly, I have a hard time making sense of it. I often don't understand why men do some of the things they do. I've found an insight from parenting to be helpful: When my reaction to a child's behavior is "I can't believe he's doing that," my response is ineffective. I have to start by believing. He is doing that. He's doing it within some context, for some reason. If I want to be of use, I have to start with belief. If what's happening doesn't make sense to me, I either lack information or one of us is in the grip of distress. I can get information, and I can pinpoint distress and start unraveling it.

It's also hard to look at men's oppression because of the role men have played in society. We've counted on men to be in charge and to make things go well. When they don't live up to that expectation, we may feel disappointed, mad, or scared. Some of us panic, close our eyes to their difficulties, and pretend. Some of us stay chronically angry or disappointed with men. Some of us separate ourselves from them to wall off the feelings. I've found that looking straight at how hurt men have been and how victimized they feel, and then deciding to stay, brings up feelings about something big (the safety of the world? survival? the reality that I am in charge?).

It reminds me of my reluctance to face the horrifying things that happen in the world. I've wanted to keep them at arm's length because I've feared I might not "survive" if I saw and took in the truth of what is happening to people. Am I big enough to take in great suffering and injustice and not be overwhelmed or rocked from my center?

The interlocking of men's and women's patterns is confusing. I finally realized that when my husband sounded more confident than I felt it didn't automatically make sense to defer to him. He was trained to sound confident at all times. I was trained to defer, but that's not where I want to stay. It's good for both of us when I can keep thinking for myself, put out that thinking without apology, take leadership, learn about his distress, and not get confused by it.

It can be hard if it seems like a man doesn't even want to do the human, rational thing. I went to a counseling session in despair over a situation like that, but my Co-Counselor didn't join me in despair. "If it's human and rational," she said, "of course he wants to do it." He may not be able to notice that he wants to. He may not be able to communicate to me that he wants to. But the only tenable, non-victim position for me is to remember, for both of us, that he does want to. I get to stay confident in my picture of what is human in relationships (and with discharge, gain even more clarity). I get to discharge old feelings about not getting what I needed in the past. I get to reflect back to the man a clearer picture of his own humanity than either of us had been able to see before.

Another challenge is my fear of violence. If I push too hard, will I put myself in physical danger? Women are often intimidated and hold back. When I listen carefully, I hear men saying, "I'm scared I'll hurt someone." Women, in turn, are scared of being hurt. The first issue then is not violence, but fear. Can we discharge our own fears of violence enough to be relaxed counselors to men about theirs?

For many of us, the men to whom we would most like to be allies are the ones we are expecting the most from for ourselves. They are likely to be magnets for our biggest hopes and greatest disappointments -- as we are for them. If we are living closely together, there is raw restimulation and less-then-elegant behavior as we both struggle.

In such close relationships we get to take full advantage of the counseling process. We get to keep our own needs and re-emergence central so we don't get side-swiped(*) by caretaking patterns. We can bring our littlest upsets to sessions and find their roots in early powerlessness. We can require our counselors to be allies to our men, as well as to us. We can invite the men we are close to to talk about their inner lives, and we can listen deeply, taking any feelings that come up from that listening to our sessions and then come back to listen more. We can share counseling time with these men -- sometimes doing "one-way" time with each other. (If I listen this week and he listens next week, the roles are likely to be cleaner.) We can keep thinking as counselors outside of formal sessions -- initiating contact, going for laughter, offering contradictions -- and then go back to sessions, hold directions for ourselves, and refuse to settle for less than absolutely everything. What a workout! It takes time and commitment and can leave us sore and exhausted, but I don't know of a better way to tone those muscles or shed that old weight.

I'm surrounded by men and the goodness of men every day. In being an effective ally to men, I get to be loving, relaxed, confident, close, in charge, receptive, and clear -- all ways I would choose to be anyway.

  1. Pamela Haines
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

(*) To get side-swiped is to be forced from one's path unexpectedly.


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00