Too Close for Comfort: The Male Struggle to Connect

I almost got punched out at the gym the other day.

Not surprisingly, I feel better after I exercise. In addition to all those mysterious health benefits, my most immediate reward is that vague sense of accomplishment that stays with me for the rest of the day. I guess exercise also alleviates my guilt about having a sedentary career as a psychologist (too bad crossing and un-crossing your legs a few dozen times each day doesn’t count as aerobic activity).

So I headed over to the health club on what I thought was an ordinary day recently. 

And as is the case with most of my time spent exercising, I didn’t expect anything remarkable to happen. And I certainly didn’t expect to agitate two guys and almost get punched.

I just completed my cardio routine and I was going to finish my workout with some strength training. When I was a teenager, I’d load up the barbells with way too much weight and I’d grunt and contort while my close friend Steve would yell, “Come on you *&%%**&, one more! You can do it!” And then he’d get on the bench and it was my turn to verbally assault Steve, shouting and challenging his manhood so that he could push himself beyond any self-imposed limits. Our support and encouragement for one another was often drenched in the testosterone that shapes so many young male friendships.

Decades later, my workouts are much more civilized. Rather than push and pull weights I can barely move, I sit on comfortable, ergonomic machines that allow me to simply turn a dial whenever I need more resistance. Long gone are the days of releasing guttural, primal grunts while taking on Steve’s physical challenges. Today, if I break a sweat, it’s considered a good workout.

***

This particular day I felt wistful and was thinking about the many hours Steve and I spent at the gym—it was our home away from home. In retrospect (and with some emotional maturity), I’m able to see that this time together was vital to our friendship and actually, quite intimate: workout partners connect on a deep level. After all, you’re literally placing your life in your partner’s hands. When your muscles fail, despite your best efforts, it’s your partner who comes to the rescue. Whenever Steve yelled, “You can do it! Come on!” I wanted to succeed more for him than for myself. I wanted to impress him, and when my muscles failed to go the extra mile, he took over, stopping the barbell from crushing my neck.

As I scanned my current health club to find today’s version of Steve and I, I was struck by how many people exercise in isolation. Most seemed contained in their own orbit: listening to iPods, playing with cell phones between sets or eyes affixed to plasma screens as they jogged in place. While I was surrounded by a dozen or so gym neighbors, we were all secluded in our own emotional backyards. In the good old days people helped each other at the gym. Today, it would go something like this:

Me: Hi, do you know what this machine does?

In-shape-confident-gym-member: [not aware of those around him, no response]

Me [feeling a little embarrassed]: Hi, I was just wondering, never mind.

In-shape-confident-gym-member [startled, he notices that a middle-aged guy is speaking to him; he reluctantly removes one of his earbuds]: Are you talking to me?

Me: Yeah, sorry to bother you, I was just wondering if you knew… [starts searching for a rock to crawl under]

So I mostly keep to myself. I’m not looking for a new workout buddy or anything like that, but I can’t help feeling that the gym should be a place for some interaction with your health-conscious peers. But I realize that’s the hangup of a gym relic who’s having a difficult time adjusting to the new world order of disconnection.

So I lumber over to the back of the gym to finish up and get on with my day. To my surprise, while doing sit-ups, I overhear a conversation that reminded me of an earlier time:

Dude, have you measured your arms, they’re looking enormous?

Thanks! No, I should measure. I bet they’re almost sixteen inches.

Are you kidding me? At least sixteen, probably seventeen! Last week I measured my arms and chest…

(Body self-consciousness isn’t the sole province of women.)

Yes, it’s superficial and it clearly isn’t the path to a Buddha-mind, but young men workout because power and size matters to them. And if the Buddha had twenty-inch biceps, his shirtless poster would be hanging in every gym. That whole cardiovascular health and wellness obsession enters the picture somewhere in your thirties. Usually when you know someone or know someone who knows someone who is still walking around because of a successful triple bypass.

The “dude” with sixteen inch arms started yelling to his friend, “Come on, push!” while he helped his workout buddy bench press an obscene amount of weight. I was transformed back in time. It was a supportive, loving, tender, aggressive and competitive moment all wrapped together. Just for old time’s sake, I wanted to jump on the bench so they could scream at me as I struggled for one more rep. But of course, I didn’t.

But in retrospect, what I did was probably worse:

Me: You guys are really bonding.

Guy-with-sixteen-inch-arms [appearing confused]: What?

Me: [OK, in my defense, I don’t think I had control over my mouth. I couldn’t believe what I said next] Sorry, it’s just that you guys remind me of when I used to workout with my old gym partner. You know when you help each other like that, it’s great. It’s a powerful way some guys bond. You can even say it’s how some guys show their fondness for each other. [Oh my God, did I just say that?]

Guy-with-smaller-arms [clearly agitated]: What the hell are you talking about?

Me: [just say never mind and shut up] Think about it, you’re placing so much trust in each other. [Someone help me, I can’t stop!] Each workout you’re making a commitment to keep each other safe, to challenge and support one another. And while you’re yelling for him to succeed, you’re gently helping him lift the weight, just enough so that he’ll feel like he did it. So you’re making him feel like he really succeeded on his own. That’s a very kind, loving gesture.

Guy-with-sixteen-inch-arms: [walking toward me] What are you saying? Do yourself a favor and shut the hell up.

Me: Sorry… I’m a psychologist and I’m interested in male behavior and intimacy…Never mind. [Legs finally taking me to safety]

OK, it wasn’t my most astute moment.

My mistake? (Besides being socially inappropriate…)

I looked male intimacy directly in the eye and named it. Guys have a hard enough time acknowledging their need for emotional closeness–they certainly don’t want some stranger telling them that they’re inadvertently nurturing an emotional bond. Especially in a gym around other guys working out. And back in the day, if some guy told Steve and I that we were being aggressively competitive, yet kind, supportive and gentle and, as a result, we were bonding with each other, we’d probably have to stop working out together. But first, we’d tell the guy to “shut the hell up.”

For some guys (not all guys, but some) naming emotional intimacy is too threatening/unsettling; naming it changes the experience and may even taint it. It goes against the man code.

As teenagers, Steve and I wanted to look and feel powerful, to be the toughest of the tough. And most importantly, we wanted women to fawn over us. We were raised to believe that women were always and only attracted to “rugged.”

In addition to the lofty and misguided goal of finding love and acceptance through physical prowess, most importantly, we were connecting and nurturing our friendship. We found a way to be men, to channel and contain the aggressive parts of ourselves without being destructive or hurtful. We co-created unspoken rules that acted as a guide for how to relate to each other. There were boundaries to this type of relating—through trial and error we learned about each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities, discovered the places that were off limits, places that would have evoked humiliation and shame rather than connection.

The Importance of Male Connection (without Talking about It)

Men often bond with one another through some adult version of rough and tumble, paternal play. When engaged in this way, the maternal trait of tenderness is kept well-hidden. Considering the ways in which many men are socialized, the quiet love of friendship is best left unnamed where it can exist unthreatened behind the curtain of our masculinity. It would have knocked our male identities off their axes if tenderness was somehow brought into the open. The foreground of our relationship needed to be cloaked in some form of stoic toughness.

Many men relate and discover connection through their own unique version of competitive play, an “I push and then you push back” two-step. An element of play, a “good naturedness” makes this form of relating safe and effective. If this play starts to tilt toward competitive-hostility or competitive-shaming, then connection is lost. Under these circumstances, mutuality gives way to power over another.

This is one way men hold onto the most familiar and cherished parts of our maleness (the parts of ourselves that empower and emotionally ground us), while also fostering the emotional connection so many of us yearn for but cannot name directly.

Of course, this isn’t the only way men relate. As increasing numbers of men challenge their inherited versions of masculinity, hopefully the value of a more direct, self-aware path to emotional relating will become a viable option. Steve and I never got to this place; clearly we weren’t ready for that, perhaps because of our age or because of the era. We negotiated a type of emotional connection that did not threaten the societally-sanctioned masculine “mandates” of young adulthood.

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