Tired of being bombarded by all that women’s magazine relationship advice? Then why not take a break and let the man in your life make the self-improvement resolutions for a change?
I grew up with three sisters. And among all the other tidbits I picked up as an outnumbered male—knowing what a dollop is, for example, or how to give great compliments—I also had access to scores of women’s magazines. Magazines that no male, however tempted (and we are), would dare peruse in drugstore aisles or at the public library. Because my sisters ranged in age, their glossies also let me study the psychologies of women across a spectrum of experiences and, let it be said, across a galaxy of neuroses.
Of course, these magazines offered unusual information (the importance of the little black dress), and useful insights (hair-tossing is a sign a woman is being flirtatious), but what struck me most about each periodical was how universal a certain headline was. I’ll paraphrase to encompass its infinite incarnations: Why You, Woman, Must Improve Yourself Constantly in Order to Have a Relationship With a Man, Any Man, No Matter How Unworthy He Is!
Many of these articles were reinforced with numbers (“The 12 Secrets of the Male Brain”) or accompanied by urgent warnings (“What You Don’t Know About Him Will Shock You!”). As I grew older and the subscriptions belonged to women who were not relatives (my reading now taking place in their bathrooms), I found that the dilemmas pertaining to men in these mags remained the same. Their answers did too. And rarely were either helpful.
After all this surreptitious study, I am tired of shaking my head at the Annual Guy Survey or shouting “Come on!” at The Relationship Issue. Just once I’d like the guys to be the ones encouraged to modify their behavior.
So here, in familiar format—but in succinct guy style—are some ways for your man to self-improve. Feel free to clip out the advice, leave it near the remote control or his favorite beer, and show you’re serious about him getting serious.
1. Lose the Guy Alibi
Did you forget her birthday again because, well, “you’re just a guy”? Are you selfish in bed? I know, I know, “you’re just a guy.” And do you have trouble expressing emotion? Say it with me now: “You’re just a guy.”
Guess what? I am too, and that’s why I know we men love The Guy Alibi. There’s no overestimating how much we get away with because of it. And the kicker is that the words he’s just a guy are ones we don’t have to say; women say them for us.
Men love The Guy Alibi. There’s no overestimating how much we get away with because of it.
The Guy Alibi is a big problem. Not only because it releases us from responsibility but also because relationships are like ships: they are aright only when they’re balanced. The “just a guy” defense invariably shifts the burden of thoughtfulness, introspection, and conscience—the very acts of love—to the woman. So it’s no wonder it’s invoked by ladies with a sinking feeling. Whether women endorse The Guy Alibi so they can feel superior in the realm of romance, explain away the lack of value shown to them by men, or to receive our culture’s affirmation of the feminine caretaker, it doesn’t much matter. In order for us to have a fulfilling bond with a woman, it’s got to go.
The good news is that losing the alibi releases both genders from self-defeating patterns. For women, no longer excusing men from reciprocating love prevents a much more punishing state: the loneliness of loving for two. For men, surrendering the alibi by becoming more conscientious opens us to authentic connections. Whenever I have not been “just a guy,” a surprising intimacy emerges. It is not the scary version of intimacy we men are accused of fearing—one whose agenda is to enslave us to need or damn us to failure—but rather one that initiates true alliance with another.
Of course, rejecting the alibi is not without initial discomforts. We may have to make efforts not normally required of us. For example, instead of the wife or girlfriend writing that Christmas thank-you note, we might have to. But men should dislike poor opinions of themselves just as much as women do, and if women keep exempting us from expressing gratitude, all we learn is how to take much of life for granted. That is no victory.
Things may also get tense when a marital disagreement endures for days because the woman in your life has stopped communicating for two. But the silence will break, and break better for both parties, when we man up and fill the vacuum by expressing ourselves. Men may be more skilled at emotional withholding, but women’s restraint in this area can provoke the male conscience like nothing else. And what’s more manly than being conscientious, accountable, and forthright?
At its worst, revoking The Guy Alibi could reveal that your gal’s exhaustive efforts on your behalf haven’t been out of love but self-deception. That she’s been holding up the relationship all by herself simply to have, or believe in, your connection. And you, deep down, don’t care to reciprocate. Deciding to end something and be alone is no one’s favorite conclusion, but the only thing worse is being alone inside a relationship. In this case, it’s time for you to be more than “just a guy” and to be a just guy by telling her the truth.
2. Keep the Bromance Alive
If your lady reads a lot of women’s magazines or even just goes to the movies, she may be worried that when you say you’re going out with the guys, it’s merely an excuse for you to go out and ogle women. But what she doesn’t realize—and you might not, either—is that your male-bonding time is good for both of you. In fact, it just may be the secret to your relationship’s success and a surefire path to male self-improvement.
From an early age, many men are trained to go without loving gestures from our first models of guyness: our dads. And there is a simple reason for this. Openly expressing love toward another man still contradicts our modern definition of masculinity by coming across as effeminate or gay. This embeds a strange ratio in our psyche: the more capable we are living without love, the tougher and more male we seem. By the time a man’s object of connection shifts to women, this ratio is long established within him, and being a man has become a perverse endurance test of depriving oneself of intimacy.
What’s even less understood is how, when presented with loving gestures by women, guys feel split. We long to correct this lifelong absence by embracing those gestures, and, at the same time, we fear exhibiting such need exposes us as lesser men. This creates a vicious cycle by which the antidote to the masculine condition—feminine love—can appear as its poison.
Naturally, this generates confusion and pain for women too. Their open affection reminds us of all the ways we’ve gone without, and rather than confronting our dads (or any other guy), we resent them instead. What ensues is what’s often referred to as shutting down, detaching, or practicing avoidance. In layman’s terms, we run for the lonely but familiar man-cave of our minds.
But this is why men need to be firmer about their time with other dudes. When one guy can freely create a real and—dare I say it—loving bond with another, that internal definition of manhood gets corrected. We no longer believe our ability to go without love makes us real men. We also overcome the pattern of desire/denial that bedevils us and anyone who sends love our way. Once love is no longer seen by men as compromising masculinity, intimacy becomes less of an exercise in persuasion and more an offering we can embrace wholly and reciprocally.
So, yes, even if a night in the basement with a friend’s joystick sounds dubious, insist on it. You’ll return a better man.
3. An Open-Door Policy
The most dispiriting thing I’ve observed about modern male/female relationships is the profound lack of faith women have in our ability to love them, lighten their loads, and be true partners. What’s worse: I understand why.
As women have become breadwinners, started families solo, and grown to expect their best connections to come from other women, modern masculinity has responded by narrowing itself. We men now more extremely and crudely embody masculinity’s negative traits as a way to distinguish ourselves as men. Macho overcompensation can be seen everywhere, including in our economy (self-interest on steroids), our politics (talk radio), and our sexuality (American men spend more on pornography every year than they do on movie tickets and the performing arts combined). As for being husbands and fathers, which should be noble callings, sitcoms have made buffoonery and cluelessness their hallmarks. Indeed, judging by the many (many) surveys in women’s magazines, today’s men come across as medieval. Which is why we should return to those times for a modern lesson.
Chivalry may no longer be a word that folks of our era, male or female, use. That it has become a loaded term, tarnished as chauvinistic and demeaning, is tragic. Not merely because women often lament the ways men no longer show them courtesy but because chivalry was never about women needing assistance from men; it was about men needing the awareness chivalry demands.
Chivalry was never about women needing assistance from men; it was about men needing the awareness chivalry demands.
Chivalry emerged in medieval times because the period was coarse and the first knights were rapacious thugs. Originally a code meant to guide men on spiritual matters, one of which detailed how to honor women, chivalry aimed to change male behavior by inspiring a fraternity around a higher calling, the central principle being service. Chivalry’s authors knew that the virtue of service plays a nifty trick on men: raised to believe our fulfillment is front and center, service tempers our egocentrism by actually fulfilling it. A man committing to a cause greater than himself elevates the cause and the man (this is true whether you’re a Big Brother volunteer or Nelson Mandela).
So, my fellow men, I ask you: what better cause is there for us than women? While holding a door or standing up when being introduced may not make for epic poetry, as symbols these gestures are manifestations of a solicitude men are accused of no longer possessing. Because it is a system based on serving others, what chivalry would return to men is a discipline of conscientiousness. In his study of chivalry, The Broad Stone of Honour, Kenelm Henry Digby said it best when he wrote, “Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic actions and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world.”
By unloading chivalry of its baggage, rejecting The Guy Alibi, and encouraging our bonds with other guys, we men can finally take back the burden that has long been placed at women’s doorsteps and truly embrace this more enlightened state of mind. In so doing, we can rekindle in ourselves the noble spirit of chivalry Digby describes. And by taking on these challenges, we’re pointing ourselves toward a new quest with no less of a holy grail than women’s restored faith in us.
By Brendan Tapley
Photographed by Alex Baker
Second Photo Model: Will Sansom
This article originally appeared in the print version of our December/January 2011 issue. Subscribe here.