I spent most of my twenties in New York chasing women. With my shy, sensitive demeanor, they thought I was safe: a “nice guy.” “Boyfriend material.” But I see now that I was less interested in a relationship than the validation of a woman’s desire. Once I had it, I lost interest. I’d run off looking for the next person to give me that rush of being wanted and needed, then the next. Each time, I became deeply depressed.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had become a straight white male cliché. On Reddit, for example, there’s a thriving page devoted to screenshots of self-proclaimed “nice guys” who think their docility should entitle them to getting their emotional and sexual needs met by women — or, alternately, who meet women’s rebukes with righteous indignity or threats. The posts range from comically un-self-aware to alarmingly hateful, bursting with misogynistic rage. I’m not proud to admit that, sometimes, they hit a little close to home.
The idea of the nice guy isn’t new. In his 2003 book No More Mr. Nice Guy, the psychotherapist Robert A. Glover identifies the “nice guy” as a real-life archetype he’s noticed among some of his male patients. The “nice guy,” according to Glover, appears pleasant, agreeable, seemingly generous, and peaceful, but is full of repressed anger. He’s also desperate for approval — particularly from women — which he feels both undeserving of and, contradictorily, entitled to. “Nice guys believe that if they are ‘good’ they will be loved, get their needs met and live a problem-free life,” wrote Glover.
But being “good” isn’t a free pass; in fact, it can be a passive and even manipulative way of avoiding real communication and honesty with the people in our lives (including ourselves). And expecting women to swoop in and solve our emotional problems for us is just another form of misogyny. It’s dickish, and it’s dangerous. (At the extreme end of this spectrum is the incel community — men who blame women for their inability to find a sexual partner — but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)
Some guys saw the error of their ways in #MeToo and #TimesUp. For them, there was no more hiding their true feelings or behavior. But for many, it just drove our pain deeper. We scrolled through news headlines watching our fellow men take the fall, thinking: “Well, I won’t be that guy.” We silenced ourselves, afraid of saying anything wrong or “toxic,” anything that could brand us as insensitive, misogynistic, or ignorant to the women we loved. We became even more afraid of our own feelings.
The journalist Peggy Orenstein, whose recent book Boys & Sex outlines the shifting cultural consensus about gender roles in society, recently pointed out in The Atlantic that the poor coping skills so many men are raised with often become literally hazardous to our health. She cites research that has become, by now, almost common knowledge: that men who stuff away their pain are more prone to binge-drinking, risky sexual behavior, and car accidents. They are also less happy than other guys, with higher suicide rates, and fewer friends in whom they can confide.
Dig into any Nice Guy’s history and you’ll find his story framed by growing up in a society where boys and men are encouraged to bottle up their feelings. This was certainly true for me, as a sensitive kid who was never given a safe space to talk about my parents’ divorce, my father’s addictions or, later, my difficult relationship with my stepmom.
“Boys are born knowing how to express a full range of emotions, but they’re socialized away from that by male culture,” says Judy Y. Chu, an Affiliated Faculty member of the Program in Human Biology at Stanford, and author of When Boys Become Boys. “They learn that anger and violence and stoicism are what ‘boys do,’ and vulnerability is what ‘girls do. They’re taught to renounce parts of their humanity.”
As boys grow up, this pressure to conform to the norms of male culture means that many men learn to reserve their most vulnerable moments and sides of themselves for women. “Women allow them that space,” says Chu. “The space to be more than just ‘tough’.”
And this is where the work comes in. As men, we have to do the uncomfortable work of getting in touch with the parts of ourselves that we’ve discarded. We’ll never be able to behave with real decency and self-respect until we see women as more than our emotional caregivers. Women are people too, and they have their own baggage to deal with; it’s not fair to expect them to also carry ours.
For me, the work began in 2015 when I read The Flying Boy: Healing the Wounded Man, by John Lee. Half-memoir, half-self-help book, The Flying Boy outlines Lee’s process of healing the same afflictions that are burying countless men today, and likely for generations before us: depression, anxiety, addiction, and toxic relationships.
The way Lee characterizes his former self fits the Nice Guy archetype pretty neatly and, in general, a lot of what he’d experienced hit pretty close to home for me. That book was also the first place I ever encountered concepts like “codependency” and “sex and love addiction.” Reading it, I understood that I’d been approaching relationships the wrong way for years — and that it was my responsibility to change that.
From there, I needed to pick up some tools. My next stop was the Psychodrama Institute of New York, where, for three years, I acted out the terror and rage I’d felt since I was a kid — live, onstage, and in front of total strangers. It’s hard to describe the freedom and relief that comes from crying or screaming openly in front of others, in a safe place, for the first time. I felt naked and raw, and it was thrilling and deeply satisfying to come out of hiding about my pain.
The next step in my journey was inspired by the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement of the 1980s and early 1990s, led by the poet Robert Bly. Bly was responsible for introducing American men to the idea that most, if not all, modern men were holding onto grief and unresolved childhood issues that stemmed from the absence of the father in the nuclear family household. Because they lacked healthy male connection in their formative years, Bly wrote, boys clung to women for safety and sanity.
Bly and his colleagues hosted large gatherings of men who came together to express the feelings they’d learned weren’t “male” enough as boys, and redefine, for themselves, what it meant to be masculine. At the time, they were mocked for it. But now, we might look at the Men’s Movement as pioneers.
Dan Doty, co-founder of EVRYMAN, a sleekly designed, Brooklyn organization inspired by the work of Bly and other Men’s Movement forefathers, says that they’ve found that their men’s groups provide a safe place for guys to process the feelings they’ve repressed that traditional talk therapy can’t always reach. “It’s energetics,” Doty says. “We store pain in our bodies, and only by allowing ourselves to really tap into that pain in a safe environment can we begin to heal.”
Chu echoes the sentiment. “Every guy should be in a men’s group,” she says. “Because we don’t encourage boys to talk about their experience, each boy feels isolated. He feels he’s the only one struggling with [it], which means men feel that too: that they’re the only ones feeling these things. When you start to talk to other men, you are literally shifting the social norms in a healthier direction.”
And I agree, too. These days, I get together with several groups of men regularly: a Monday-night circle led by my therapist, a more casual hang with grad school friends on the weekends, and a weekly 12-step meeting that focuses on healing the kinds of core childhood wounds that Chu talks about. In each of these groups, we talk about our feelings, our struggles, our hopes, and our fears. We discuss what’s worked for us in relationships, and what hasn’t, we laugh and joke, occasionally we pass around food. We talk about the pain we’ve experienced and how to heal it so we can be better men.
So how do we do the work?
With social distancing in place, joining a men’s group has never been easier. You can log into one from anywhere in the world via Zoom. EVRYMAN now offers a bi-weekly call. In Canada, there’s a popular group called The Samurai Brotherhood that offers remote gatherings, and 12-step “Stag” groups in every state have gone completely online. You can even learn about and join a Thursday-night men’s group I started along with a buddy from New York aimed at creative men in quarantine, here.
If a group seems like a stretch, organize a one-on-one FaceTime hang with someone in your circle you trust. My friend Elliot and I have a running tagline in our men’s group that goes: Call your least messed up friend! Sometimes that’s all it takes to find some relief for what you’re going through.
You can use affordable services like BetterHelp, which offer access to therapists for as low as $40/week. (It helps to choose a male therapist, at least initially, for this kind of work.) Many life coaches are also offering free sessions during Covid-19.
Or try a text thread: Throw several of your friends in a group chat. Choose the group based on some activity you’re all into — basketball, guitar, poker, whatever — and talk about that activity but also use it to open up about what’s really going on. A friend of mine in New York wrote an essay a few years ago about how a text thread with his buddies in Los Angeles helped him find his feet after his divorce, and I know from my own experience that just checking in with male friends via text throughout the day is enough to steer me out of my own brain for a few minutes. (Which can be the difference between finding a healthy outlet for my feelings — like going for a walk or run, or doing some push-ups or yoga — and reaching for my former fixes: the refrigerator, dating apps, porn, and Instagram.)
Over the past decade, I’ve come a long way with healing my emotional dependency on women. I worked up the courage to have real conversations with both my mother and stepmother about how much they’d hurt me. I did postmortems with old girlfriends. I interviewed my father’s friends to understand how deep my “Nice Guy” lineage went. I even flew to Austin, Texas to sit in John Lee’s living room and ask him what to do. And I’ve become a person with the skills to be a real partner.
This work can’t be completed in a single weekend workshop or with a few days in the desert with ayahuasca. It can’t be found in a self-help book, or worked out in the gym. But I’m positive that, day by day, it can heal us. And it begins with us: Men together with other men. Feeling, talking, and living to tell about it.